Katie Bouman and Cognitive Dissonance

White Coats at Dawn by Dr Jenny Rohn

On Katie Bouman and cognitive dissonance: Just how old is a serious scientist? 

Photo credit: Katie Bouman

Many people have never met a scientist in real life, so in the absence of hard evidence, what you think about scientists is filtered through the narrative fabric of myth and popular culture. When anthropologist Margaret Mead did a study about scientist stereotypes back in 1958, she found that the consensus figure was a bearded, unkempt, bespectacled and socially-stunted older man. Things have moved on since then, but our ideas about scientists are still shaped by an idealized stereotype that bears little resemblance to real life.

Such is the culture backdrop against which we should view the spectacular furore around Dr Katie Bouman, one of the many researchers on the team that produced the first image of a black hole last week. Like those “eddies in the space-time continuum” that Douglas Adams enshrined in his Hitchhiker series, ripples are still spreading outward after a few tweets from her former graduate school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave her a healthy dollop of credit for the momentous discovery – a story that soon went viral.

Much has been written already about how this modest, well-deserved publicity awoke the men’s rights activist kraken, which apparently has nothing better to do than dispute that a great work of science could possibly be ascribed to a woman. Soon after its hasty creation, and despite hundreds of thousands of visits, her Wikipedia page was the subject of a fierce, behind-the-scenes battle: should she stay or should she go?

As much as the topic of sexism in STEM interests me, in this particular case I am intrigued by something less familiar. And that is the sheer bewilderment that Dr Bouman’s age (29) has engendered, even amongst scientists who should know better.

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I didn’t even realise this was a thing until I questioned on Twitter the oddity of various outlets mentioning Dr Bouman’s age in the headline.

Why was I surprised by responses like these? Because the vast majority of all scientific discoveries, both major and minor, are made by trainees between the ages of about 22 and 40 – in other words, the period spanning one’s PhD and subsequent postdoctoral positions. During this time, researchers are working full-time the lab or equivalent, under the umbrella of a lab head who writes the grants and supervises the research. While the lab head obviously contributes, the bulk of the hands-on work is performed by the trainee, who is usually listed as lead (first) author on the resulting paper. If you look at any major discovery, you will most likely find an early-career researcher in the lead author position.

Katie Bouman’s age, therefore, is pretty much smack-bang on average for a major author of a scientific finding. In fact, it’s so unusual for lab heads to lead-author a paper that it would actually be newsworthy if someone older than a typical postdoc had made the discovery with their own hands.

What’s newsworthy, it seems, is the popular idea that someone could make a seminal contribution at the age of 29. Why is this? I suspect the media is partially to blame. When a big science news item is mentioned by the press, it is common for the lab head to be contacted for the quotes, and to serve as the figurehead for the discovery. In a way this makes sense: the lab head has the birds-eye view, and has probably worked for many years on the ideas, conceptualization and funding that led up to the seminal discovery, during which time many trainees may have come and gone. He or she has earned the right to speak about the work in the larger context of the field. However, the media’s unfortunate tendency to highlight the senior scientist and ignore the lead author gives rise to the impression that the supervisor has actually, physically, done all the work. So great discoveries become linked with more advanced age in everyone’s minds.

The first ever image of a black hole, worked on by Katie Bouman, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope

For example, the BBC piece first covering the story got a quote from Prof Heino Falcke, a long-standing expert in the black hole field who first “proposed the experiment”. Notably, the piece didn’t mention his age –53. (And why should it? It isn’t relevant.)

And thus, the cognitive dissonance of Katie Bouman – already shattering stereotypes for being a rare female coder in a discipline – physics – where women are generally scarce on the ground – blew out even more circuits by being exactly the normal age when a scientist would be expected to make a contribution. And headlines underlining her age subtly reinforced the myth that her age is somehow unusual or noteworthy – thus perpetuating the cycle.

It’s difficult to guess the age of this scientist as we can only see their hands. Also they’re probably a model at a stock photoshoot, so not even a scientist, which makes it even trickier.

There is another myth at play here, which goes against the truth that modern science is almost always the result of collaborations between various teams, and sometimes (as was the case for the black hole photo) a massive team effort where it is difficult to ascribe the lead role to just one person. The media likes a good narrative, though, and the ‘lone hero’ myth of scientific discovery makes good fodder. Katie Bouman has made it clear that she played just one part in the discovery, but the inherent cognitive dissonance (which is highly sought after by the press, where canonically, “man bites dog” is a far better story than “dog bites man”) was too juicy a story not to exploit. And now they are having a second field day reporting on the sexist backlash that has resulted from her publicity.

I hope I live to see the day when anyone of any age, race, marital status, gender or sex can be applauded for their role in a scientific discovery without their personal status being seen as a newsworthy oddity in its own right. But that might be too much to expect from this side of the event horizon.

Dr Jenny Rohn is a practising cell biologist at University College London. She is also a writer, broadcaster and novelist. She has written three novels, the latest being Cat Zero, released in mid 2018. She was a regular contributor to the Occam’s Corner blog at The Guardian and was a co-founder of the Science is Vital group. She is on Twitter at @JennyRohn.

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