Comment: Forum Physics World  June 2021

Imposter intuition

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein explains that intuition in physics can be a social construct, one that is culturally embedded about who is normal and what is intuitive 

Fitting in The pressure to conform to cultural norms in science can hinder not help marginalized groups. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Cleak idea)

As a PhD student and teaching assistant at the University of Waterloo in the late 2000s, I was asked to proctor a final exam in first-year mechanics that was being taken by a diverse student group. During the test, nearly every question from the students was about a problem that required knowledge of “football”. We were in Canada, and the exam did not specify whether it was referring to American football or what we Americans call soccer.

The problem with this question was not just that students wasted valuable time by not knowing the cultural vocabulary, but that it signalled to them that they were cultural outsiders. At Waterloo – a comprehensive university with a strong reputation in science, mathematics and engineering – I was part of a large international student population that was primarily from Asia and the Caribbean, but the exam was clearly written with North Americans in mind.

I often think of this experience during conversations about “imposter syndrome”, a phenomenon wherein people believe that they have only succeeded due to chance or luck, rather than competence and hard work. I have noticed in the last 10 years that it has become increasingly popular in the US to lecture to students and other junior researchers from under-represented groups – particularly white women and people of colour – about their imposter syndrome and what to do about it. 

Imposter syndrome has entered the popular imagination as one of the reasons “we” have an equity, diversity and inclusion problem in science. Marginalized students are now coached by their instructors and universities to believe that how they feel is an individual psychological problem tied to a low sense of self-confidence. This is a troubling, though not surprising, turn toward individualizing what is a structural problem. If the students have developed a sense that they don’t belong, it might be because they have excellent observational skills: they have noticed that the world of physics was not built for them.

Of course, I do not mean that we are outsiders to the universe itself. Those of us from communities that have been marginalized in physics are a naturally occurring phenomenon, just like the stars and supernovae whose by-products make us possible. Where we are outsiders is in the community that has been set up to systematically study the universe through the language of mathematics and the scientific method. Traditionally, physics has been almost exclusively the purview of men who fit what Imani Perry, in her book Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, calls “the ideal patriarch”. This is a person who is traditionally not a woman and not a “savage” person from the global non-white majority. 

In her poem A Litany for Survival, Audre Lorde wrote that “We were never meant to survive.” I think this is the line that captures what many of us feel when we are in a room with someone telling us “It’s imposter syndrome.” We know that we are not ideal patriarchs. We know that the set-up of white supremacy is that we were not supposed to survive slavery, colonialism and patriarchy with our sense of humanity intact. We are certainly not supposed to feel just as entitled as white men to see ourselves as intellectuals who can solve the universe’s mysteries. If you are feeling locked out or like you don’t belong, there may be nothing wrong with your perspective: it might be true.

Culturally bound

The original definition of imposter syndrome defines those who suffer from it as people who believe they have got where they are simply through luck, and that they are constantly at risk of people finding out that they have not earned their success. Of course, if we are constantly told that people like us are less likely to be competent, it is completely natural to wonder how we happened to get through the door. The resulting individual crisis of confidence is a structural imposition. Our intuition about ourselves and the world around us is contextualized by culture.

In other words, culturally embedded assumptions about who is normal and what is intuitive can affect our scientific pathways. It is impossible to count the number of times my undergraduate instructors in physics appealed to my sense of intuition, either to highlight concepts that should be “easy” for students to grasp or to explain why a concept is difficult to grasp. Typically, this breakdown was along the lines of classical mechanics versus quantum mechanics. Blocks sliding down inclines were intuitive; wave–particle duality is definitively not. 

The fundamental problem with this assertion was highlighted by British–Iraqi Muslim drag queen and memoirist Amrou Al-Kadhi in a recent Channel 4 (UK) interview. Referring specifically to the fact of wave–particle duality in quantum mechanics and explaining the double-slit experiment, Al-Kadhi quipped that “Particles themselves are non-binary.” The comment was a revelation because I realized that scientists who rely on quantum mechanics but object to respecting trans identities are particularly hypocritical, and also that wave–particle duality is potentially fairly intuitive for non-binary people. 

I understood the potential in being more open about how intuition is social and culturally bound. It may be that our different perspectives on what seems natural can play a key role not just in teaching and learning physics but also pushing the boundary of what we do and do not know about the universe. The so-called “outsider” perspective that makes us feel like imposters and question whether we fit may in fact be the thing that makes us fit – according to a different, better set of standards.