When I was in graduate school, Mathew Leibold, a fellow graduate student and one of my best friends (and now Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Texas, Austin), asked me one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. I don’t remember his exact wording, but the question was to explain to him why my research was not trivial.
Most people would – these days – take such a question as an affront and an insult. But this was one of the most important questions anyone’s ever asked me.
We were sitting in our office at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in Hickory Corners, Michigan one snowy winter afternoon discussing our research. My Ph.D. research was on why two assemblages of Enallagma damselflies (Odonata) segregate between lakes that have fish versus dragonflies as the top predators. My basic question was why is one group of Enallagma species found only with fish and not in fishless lakes where big dragonflies are the top predator, but another group of Enallagma species is found only in dragonfly lakes but not in fish lakes.
At some point in the conversation, Mathew looked at me and said something to the effect of the following: “So polar bears only live in the arctic, and if you transplant them to the tropics, they’d die. Jaguars live in the tropics, and if you transplant them to the arctic, they’d die. Why is your research not simply as trivial as that?”
In graduate school at KBS, we prided ourselves on taking no prisoners in our scientific discussions. Everyone gave as good as they got. If you were wrong or off base, people would tell you about it. Nothing went unscrutinized. We were proud of this intellectual environment, and we expected no less from everyone.
Most people have two low points in graduate school. The first is when they are faced with the problem of defining a dissertation topic. The second is usually when they realize they really don’t understand the dissertation project they’ve been working on for the last few years. Mathew’s question set off the second for me. It seems harsh and cruel to imply that someone’s work is trivial. However, if you want to become better in your own work, those are exactly the kinds of questions that you should want people to ask you. I thought I was working on an important problem (and I still do). What this question did for me was send me on an odyssey of self-examination, self-reflection and deep thought about exactly what I was doing and why. It also motivated me to develop a succinct and compelling statement of the problem and its significance. When I came out the other end – about two years later – I knew exactly what I was doing and why, and I had a fluent exposition for explaining my work to other people. Thank you Mathew!!
Most people shy away from asking their colleagues the fundamentally hard questions. They don’t want to be rude. You don’t have to be rude in the demeanor of asking a question. However, the only way you will help make your colleagues better in whatever they do is to ask them the most difficult questions you can at every turn about their work. And you should demand that your friends treat you the same way! Better your friends identify the flaws in your thinking, than to spend three years doing something only to have an anonymous reviewer of the resulting paper identify the fatal flaw in your work.
Moreover, thinking and reasoning is just like any other human endeavor – you get better with practice. And the more you practice and the harder you practice, the better you’ll be. One of my favorite quotes on the subject is from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:
“Listen, Easy now,” said the old man gently. “I know, I know. You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was younger I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”
You want to hone your reasoning powers to a fine cutting point? Make people force you to reason in the most strenuous ways possible, and do the same for your friends.