Everyone is Talented

László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who joined the Bauhaus as a professor in 1923, was known for his philosophy that “everyone is talented.”

By this, he meant that, “every human being is open to sense impressions, tone, color, touch,spatial experience, etc. The structure of a life is predetermined in these sensibilities. But only art – creation through the senses – can develop the these dormant, native faculties towards creative action.”

Moholy-Nagy further argued that “any health man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks he is a ‘speaker’.”

As Éva Forgács describes in her book, Hungarian Art, this philosophy was similar to the post-expressionist view of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In his Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius argued, that “art cannot be taught.” That’s not to say that art is an intrinsic skill relegated to a select few, but rather that “the world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

As Forgács argues, both artists’ philosophies replaced the classic concept of “the artist who expresses individual concerns” with “the vision of a new type of creative man who was more of an engineer and designer of the world.”

If art cannot be taught, it not because some people are unable to learn, but rather art should be more accurately seen as a way of living and existing in the world.

This vision is strikingly similar to that of deliberative democrats; of John Dewey’s claim that “democracy is a way of living.” A philosopher and educator, Dewey was an American contemporary of the Bauhaus, which perhaps points more generally to the egalitarian optimism of the interwar period.

After the ruinous war to end all wars, our world needed to be rebuilt – a task that could not be left to the same aristocratic interests which had led us down the path to global conflict. We needed to rebuild the world. And we – each and every one of us – had the ability to do it.

Forgács concludes that “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.”


Summer Days

I love how summer days roll by.

I love long summer days and warm summer nights. I love the feeling of possibility, as if everything will be sunny and relaxing forever.

I love sitting outside and reading a good book.


I hate how summer days drag on.

I hate how hard it is to focus, to really tackle a task. I hate how much longer everything takes, how everyone’s vacations are at different times.

I hate that it gets so hot I’d rather sit in air conditioning to read a book.


In the end I’m not sure, I suppose, whether I love or hate summer days after all. But I do know this –

They do go on.


Knowledge Structures

I’ve been reading educational psychology literature on knowledge structures – a “representation of a person’s knowledge that includes both the definitions of a set of domain-specific concepts and the relations among those concepts,” as Dorsey defines it.

The basic premise here is that people not only store various concepts they’re familiar with, they store an entire network structure detailing the inter-relations between those concepts. Storing information in this way provides valuable heuristic short-cuts when it comes time to retrieve that information.

This claim has direct implications for education and what it means to “learn.”

As Dorsey argues:

…Human knowledge embodies more than just declarative facts…the organization of knowledge stored in memory is of equal or greater significance than the amount or type of knowledge. The construct of knowledge structures implies that the relation between knowledge acquisition and performance in many domains requires not just a set of declarative facts, but a framework or a set of connections that leads to an understanding of when and how a set of facts applies in a given situation.

Having knowledge stored in network form not only allows for easy retrieval, it lays the foundation for problem-solving in the face of new challenges.

As Collins and Quillian argue, “it is by using inference that people can know much more than they learn.”

Interestingly, a core element of these systems is that they are self defining: “Many words acquire most of their meaning through their use in sentences,” Preece argues, “In this respect, word meanings, or concepts, are like mathematical points: They have few qualities other than their relationships with other concepts.”

Shavelson similarly insists on a somewhat tautological definition, writing, “a concept, then, is a set of relations among other concepts.”

And Collins and Quillian argue:

An interesting aspect of such a network is that within the system there are no primitive or undefined terms in the mathematical sense; everything is defined by everything else so that the usual logistical (axiomatic) structure of mathematical systems does not hold. In this respect, it is like a dictionary.

In many of the papers I’ve been reading, these networks are elicited through word association: researchers provide subjects with a word and subjects provide as many associated words as possible.

Shavelson does this experiment with physics terms and compares the development of physics students and non-physics students. Over the course of the semester, the students in a physics class increased the number of words they could associate with a root physics term.

Shavelson also finds a sharp increase in the number of “constrained responses” – e.g., “if the term used in the response was an element in the defining equation for the special stimulus word. For example, the response term ‘mass,’ was scored as a constrained response to the special stimulus ‘force,’ since force equals mass times acceleration.”

Validation of these networks is, of course, a non-trivial process. But scholars have been chipping away at this question for decades. It’s still not clear how to best way to capture or model these knowledge structures, but the body of literature that exists in this space so far indicates that this is a meaningful way to approach human learning and understanding.


Language and Communication

Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?

This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.

So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.

Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.

I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.

But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.

And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.

Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.


Hungarian Art and Weltanschauung

Inspired in part by my recent trip to the Hungarian National Gallery, I’ve been reading Éva Forgács excellent book, “Hungarian Art.” Forgács frames the arc of Hungarian art through the lens of an ongoing tension between “European” art and culture and distinctively “Hungarian” art and culture.

In the late 19th century, for example, artists and scholars such as Károly Kernstock, György Lukács, and Béla Balázs sought to “integrate Hungarian painting into contemporary European art.” As Forgács argues, they “thought that the time had come to present an argument for synchronicity between new Hungarian achievements and those of Western culture, and thus validate their work in the eyes of a rather reluctant Hungarian audience. They were apparently unaware that the segments of the Hungarian audience that hesitated to accept them did so exactly because of the painters’ European orientation.”

On the other hand, “cultivation of the ‘national genius’ was, through the greater part of the twentieth century, a sub-current in Hungarian art and culture, addressing deeply ingrained, suppressed reservoirs of what was perceived as genuinely Hungarian…However, ‘genuine Hungarian’ artworks had failed to constitute a mythical meta-narrative; they lacked the potential to be come official or mainstream art, or even a decisive trend in counterculture.”

Of particularly interest to me in this debate is the frequent use of the German word Weltanschauung, roughly translated as “worldview.” Lukács wrote that through the work of European-oriented Hungarian artists, “a new Weltanschauung appeared, which aspired to a higher truth than the ephemeral world of appearances of impressionist painting.” Forgács further argues that following the second world war, the European School saw themselves as “constructing a new, post-war, post-holocaust Weltanschauung.” Work that had “an almost revolutionary aura.”

While “worldview” is a passable translation of Weltanschauung, the word itself is much richer than its translation allows. It means not only “worldview,” but implies a shared worldview – a sort of cultural unity without deviation.

The very idea of a “Western” culture or an “Eastern” culture rests upon the concept of Weltanschauung; upon the argument there is something distinctive which binds members of these cultures together.

Wittgenstein, who was particularly interested in how people communicate and share ideas, often refers to Weltanschauung, perhaps most notably asking in Philosophical Investigations: “The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a ‘Weltanschauung‘?)”

Though he never answers the question he raises parenthetically, Konstantin Kolenda points to the similarity in a Wittgenstein passage from his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Everything that can be said can be said clearly.”

If, indeed, everything can be said clearly, that is arguably because of Weltanschauung – because words and symbols have a shared meaning which can successfully be conveyed from me to you.

I think also of the computational models of “cultural systems” undertaken by Spicer, Axelrod, and others. In these models, individuals with distinctive characteristics gradually take on the characteristics of their neighbors – eventually leading to balkanization between communities of identical individuals.


And this is what I find so interesting about the struggle in Hungarian art; about the constant tension artists feel between a European and a Hungarian Weltanschauung; about the sense of building a new Weltanschauung.

Weltanschauung is problematic in its unity; in its insistence that all of a culture’s people must share characteristics – or, perhaps, conversely, that a person who does not share certain cultural aspects can be naturally derided as an outsider.

In studying Hungarian artists’ search for Weltanschauung, Forgács engages the divergent approaches as not entirely contradictory, but as trying to seeking out a shared path; to transcend the tension and to build something new. To move beyond the confines of existing Weltanschauung and to truly create.



The ego of public life, part II

Almost exactly four years ago I began writing publicly every day.

In recent months, I’ve allowed myself a great deal of leniency in the “every day” portion of that commitment. But, in the broadest possible sense, I have developed and maintained public writing as a habit.

It has never been easy.

People often ask me what my greatest challenge is: How do I find the time? Where do I get ideas?

Those are challenges, to be sure, but they are the mere details; the logistical flourishes that transform theory into action. The greatest challenge, I think, is one which I outlined in my first post:

…my struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” 

…I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute. There’s something fundamentally egotistical about that belief.

This is not to say that egoism is bad – but it should be acknowledged as a capacity required for engagement in public life; a capacity which is spread heterogeneously throughout the population. Some people, you may have noticed, have far too much ego; while others, I’m afraid, have internalized from consistent silencing the perspective that their voices do not matter.

I once was one of those people. I suspect I still am in many respects.

But a lot has changed for me over the last four years.

When I started this experiment in public writing, I had built a career out of shadow writing; using my words and my efforts to make other people look good. I was reasonably satisfied with this path: I enjoyed the art of word craft and the strategy of presentation, but I preferred to hide behind those who were eager to take the credit. Acknowledging my contributions just ruined the magic; and I was a nobody anyway.

Four years ago I was just beginning to emerge from the year-long stupor that followed my father’s death. I was just beginning to think about graduate school; just beginning to realize that, yes, I just might be a human person capable of pursuing a Ph.D.

A lot has changed since then.

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

So public writing seems more egotistical, but also less necessary – I declare every day that my voice has value.

And then, of course, there are the practical concerns. Writing does take time, and it requires a sort of mental energy I now need more for my daily work. Many days, I just don’t have it in me.

For now, I plan to continue public writing. Perhaps not with the daily fervor I committed to when I was four years younger; but with a similar sense of rebelliousness for choosing to share my voice with the world.

And that, of course, is the thing; why I choose to share my private journey with my public voice. Because too many people are convinced that their voices and perspectives don’t matter; too many people are taught to believe that through slights and silencing faced every day.

I consider myself a deliberative democrat: I believe that we – every single one of us – has a role to play in collectively and collaboratively building our shared world. You may find something annoyingly optimistic in that vision; but I see something radical and rebellious – a bold truth-claim regarding who has the right to govern and the capacity to participate.

That is to say, I choose to share my public voice because, ultimately, it is not at all about me. I am still just a nobody; a particle picked at random. I share my voice not because it is my voice that matters, but rather because all our voices matter.


Networking and Community Building

I have a strong distaste for networking.

And yes, yes, feel free to insert a joke here about “networking” and “network science.” It’s all very clever.

Nevertheless, having attended five conferences in the last six weeks, this is a topic fresh on my mind: I have a strong distaste for networking.

The word itself conjures utilitarian interest of the most basic kind: inserting yourself into someone’s life for the primary purpose of personal benefit and advancement. Selecting who you meet and engage with motivated by the question, what can you do for me?

To be fair, not all networking has to be like this, but the word has been so sullied by visions of frat-boy bros boasting of instrumental interactions, that I find I have a hard time relating to it.

In it’s stereotypical incarnation “networking” seems to go against everything a deliberative democrat stands for – human interaction should be rich and mutually engaging; it should be creative and generative. To “network” in the hopes of self-elevation just seems crass and tawdry in comparison.

Every once and awhile I run across an article in a business magazine insisting that networking in this sense is acceptable because everyone uses it for instrumental purposes: it’s not just about what you can get out of them, but about what they can get out of you.

However, dressing instrumentality up with nods to mutual benefits misses the point: instrumental interactions are shallow, hollow. They may achieve an immediate, narrow, goal, but they do little to advance the larger human enterprise of collaborative living.

It’s a shame, really. Collectively we could achieve so much more.

I don’t mean to pretend that I’m wholly absolved of participating in instrumental action – I initiate such interactions everyday at shops, stores, and other public settings. And, no doubt, I have engaged in networking for instrumental ends.

But the point remains that there is a better way –

One of the most exciting things about network science is how inherently interdisciplinary it is. We all have tremendous gaps in our knowledge – we all have to listen to, learn from, and make space for each other.

I have met so many amazing people in the last several weeks. Folks with fascinating stories and brilliant insights. Folks who are just as anxious, uncertain, and self-deprecating as I am. Folks who don’t seem to “network” for personal gain, but who rather actively work to make space for those around them.

The more I think about it, the more I think “networking” is the wrong frame all together.

At a good conference, people don’t come together as individuals looking to gain value by connecting with other individuals. Rather people come together as members of a nascent community, looking to engage together in the work of building that community.



Lightning Talk

I’m just returning from three back to back conferences: PolNet, hosted by Ohio State University; NetSci, hosted by Indiana University, and Frontiers of Democracy hosted by Tisch College at Tufts University. All three conferences were great, and they all brought together people from various slices of my work at the intersection of political science, network science, and civic studies.

I expect that in the coming week I’ll post more reflecting on each of these conferences, but for now I wanted to share a brief lightning talk I gave to introduce myself at the NetSci satellite session hosted by the Society for Young Network Scientists. We were each restricted to 3 minutes – which isn’t very much time when speaking to a cross-disciplinary group with divergent areas of focus.

But here’s what I came up with, as I tried to explain the motivation behind my (nascent) research:

Good morning everyone. My name is Sarah Shugars and I’m a doctoral student at Northeastern’s Network Science program where I just completed my 2nd year.

My work is driven by the central question: What should we do?

 Every word in this sentence is important:

  • What: What are the specific actions to be taken?
  • Should: What are the right actions and what are the right criteria for making that decision?
  • We: Literally you and I. Humans in this room. As citizens, we are each agents with a role to play in shaping the world around us. We may choose actions aimed at influencing others, but fundamentally we must decide how we will act – individually and together.
  • And of course Do: Once we figure out what actions should be done – we must actually do those actions.

What should we do?

This framework comes from civic studies, specifically Peter Levine at Tufts University.

The question is intended to give agency to individuals, but also to the communities they belong to. As members of a society we should neither act with blind individualism – doing whatever we want whenever we want it – nor should we completely withdraw from political life, abdicating our responsibility to add our unique ideas and perspectives to the collective challenge of tackling complicated problems.

We each have a responsibility to share our own voices – and to ensure that the voices of those around us are heard. We have a responsibility to build spaces were everyone can participate in addressing the fundamental challenge we face: 

What should we do?

You may be wondering what this question has to do with Network Science. Like all of you, my work is also driven by another question:

What are the nodes and what are the links?

On one level we could think of this as a social network problem: Who comes into contact with whom and how are ideas propagated and created throughout the network?

These are important questions, but the core of my work focuses on a different level of analysis: How do we collectively reason about our shared problems?

Under this conception, I take nodes to be ideas, beliefs or concepts. The edges between them represent the logical or conceptual connections between these ideas. I believe A, which is related to my belief B.

Importantly these networks may have seeming inconsistencies – ideas may be in tension with each other and may struggle to co-exist. When coming to a decision about an issue then, I weigh the different factors at stake – these are the nodes in my network – and I come to a conclusion appropriate to the context.

These individual networks of ideas then connect as we reason together. We each shape the networked thinking of those around us while simultaneously shifting our own beliefs. We may discard nodes or edges, or even collectively discover new nodes and edges we hadn’t considered before.

In reasoning together – in collectively searching the solution space – we can find and evaluate solutions, we can work together to answer the question:

What should we do?

Thank you.


Gendered Creative Teams: Confidence and Collaboration

I recently participated in an excellent workshop on Gendered Creative Teams, hosted by CEU in Budapest. It was an amazing conference, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to participate. I’ve included the text of my talk Confidence and Collaboration: A Gender-Based Look at Working Together in the Public Sphere below:


I wanted to start with a brief introduction of myself:

– My name is Sarah
– I know nothing.

Now, when I say, “I know nothing,” you might interpret this in a couple of different ways. For simplicity, let’s start by considering two scenarios:
– Either I actually know something.
– I really don’t know anything.

Most of you know very little about me, so you may feel as though you don’t have the capacity to accurately select between these two options.

But, I am here, and I traveled a long way to get here, so if you’re inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you may assume that I have done something worthwhile in my life to earn a place here.

Let’s assume, then, that I do know something.

If that is the case, then why might I begin this talk by saying that I know nothing?

Again, let us consider a few scenarios:
– Perhaps I am exceedingly humble or don’t want you to think me too immodest. Perhaps I feel as though the amount that any one person can know pales in comparison to the vast wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps in recognizing that none of us knows everything, I want to create space so that I may learn from others: learn from all of you.
– Perhaps I find myself stunned to be in a room with so many brilliant and thoughtful people – to be sharing a panel with such great scholars. Perhaps I simply feel as though I know nothing when compared against the outstandingly smart people around me. Perhaps I suffer from imposter syndrome – or, perhaps, I really am an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be here at all.

I don’t intend to answer this question for you.

But I do intend to draw attention to the natural tension between these narratives: to raise questions of confidence, courage, knowledge, and humility.

My broader research focuses on civil society, asking what we – literally you and I, along with all the citizens of the world – what we should do?

Implicit in this question is my focus in today’s talk: how should we act in the public sphere? How should we interact with one another? The exploration of this question is complicated along multiple dimensions of identity and power, but in line with the overarching theme of this conference, I focus today on a dimension that is particularly salient to me: gender.


Traditionally in the western world, women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere.

I use the term “public sphere” here broadly, and you may take it to mean any interactions which take place beyond an intimate circle of family and close friends: interactions at school, at work, at community gatherings, on social media, and in formal politics. Interactions which are “public” in their contrast to the “private” interactions of the home.

Dating back to Aristotle, a woman’s purpose was confined to the private side of this divide. As Arendt describes, the private life of the household was a place driven by the urgency of life: woman was tasked with creating life and man was tasked with providing for it.

The public sphere, the polis, on the other hand, was a place of freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense, but rather freedom from unequals. It was a place where – for lack of a better phrase – men could be men: surrounded only by their peers and without disruption from those who were lesser: from slaves, from barbarians, and from women.

Entry to the public sphere was only permitted to those who had risen beyond the necessities of life: only to the man who could devote himself fully to the political, unconcerned with the mundane labor of survival.

As Arendt (1958) describes:

To leave the household…to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival. Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life.

This hardly sounds like a place fit for the delicate sensibilities of a woman.

By the mid-renaissance aristocratic women were joining their male siblings in the study of humanist arts: astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek. These were vehicles for human flourishing, necessary for all sophisticates of a refined society. But amongst the many areas of humanist learning, one alone was deemed improper for women to study: rhetoric.

Women were barred from learning or practicing the arts of public speaking, political dialogue, and persuasion. Their voices were not wanted.

The sentiment of this prohibition dates back to the vision of the polis. A woman entering political discourse would disrupt the equity of the public sphere: no longer surrounded by peers, men would have to tip-toe around this out of place woman.

Furthermore, what kind of woman – scandalized minds might ask – would even want to enter the public world of men?

Rhetoric was far from the secluded privacy of the household. It was an engaged battle of verbal combat, a place for masculine sport and swagger. As Bizzell (1992) describes:

The adult woman who entered the arena of rhetorical combat …risked being treated like the only female player in a touch football game: and what chaste women would take such a risk?

This distaste for female rhetors can be seen in the story of Italian humanist and intellectual, Isotta Nogarola. After attempting to enter the scholarly realm of rhetoric, Nogarola was widely debased as a prostitute who indulged in other unseemly activities.
These attacks were justified primarily on the premise: an eloquent woman is never chaste.

As Dillion (2004) notes, in the 19th century, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similar concerns about women expressing themselves in print.

Writing that “the great body of American women are a domestic race” Hawthorne expressed concern about “ill-judged incitements” which turn women’s “hearts away from the fireside.” There is, he wrote, “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.”

Again, we see the gendered imagery of the polis. Women’s proper sphere is domestic; this is where she belongs. A woman entering the public world does so naked; her words expose her – “an irregularity which men do not commit in appearing there.”

Hawthorne’s imagery also invokes classical Greek notions of the public sphere as a place where men fully come into being. As Arendt (1990) describes, in the private sphere, “one is neither seen nor heard by others” – a man’s wife, children, slaves and servants not being recognized as fully human, of course.

Only in the public sphere may a man “appear and show who he himself is.”

Importantly, this process of appearing is also a process of becoming. Through the reasoned exchange of the public sphere, men learn the nature of others and learn the truth of themselves. It is only through participation in the public sphere – through being seen and heard by others, that a person can fully come to be

Thus women’s exclusion from the public sphere – while charitably intended to protect her delicate demeanor, has the consequence of preventing women from becoming fully human in this sense.

Our modern sensibilities consider equality much differently than the Greeks. In much of the western world, it is now generally expected that men and women should participate equally in public life.

Yet, we continue to see unequal participation.

One of the most measurable indicators of this participation is electoral politics – though public office is far from the only way a person can engage in the public sphere.

Across the world:

  • Only 17% of government ministers are women (UN Women Report, 2012).
    • And the majority of these women oversee social sectors, such as education and health – sectors traditionally tied to home life.
  • Just over 20% (20.9) of national parliamentarians are female (UN Women Report, 2013)

And, if you’re curious how this breaks down:

  • The U.S. is just shy of the global average at 19.4% (Center for American Women and Politics, 2017)
  • And Hungary, I’m afraid, is much lower, with women representing only 9% of Hungarian MPs. (Várnagy, 2013)

What’s notable here is that this disparity is often coupled with a stated openness to female candidates.

  • In the states, 75% of Americans say that women and men are equally good at being political leaders. (AP, 2016)
  • Here in Hungary, 84% of Hungarians express a similar sentiment (Integrity Lab, 2016)

Given the apparent support for female candidates, then, we may be left wondering why we don’t see more women participating in public life.

One potential reason is hesitancy among women themselves: perhaps they are too shy, too quiet. Perhaps they lack confidence or are otherwise too weak for the hearty, verbal combat of the public sphere.

There’s good reason to think there is truth to this concern. For example:

Hedges – verbal signals of uncertainty such as “sort of” and “maybe” – are used more frequently by women.  (see: Hancock & Rubin (2014); McMillan et al. (1977))

Women tend to apologize more than men, indicating, perhaps, that women feel more regretful for their words and behavior. (see: Holmes (1989))

And, furthermore, there is a rich literature documenting `imposter syndrome’ and the `confidence gap’ – findings that show over and over again that women disproportionally believe they are unqualified for the positions they hold or that they achieved their success through sheer luck: certainly not because they are smart or qualified.

As Clance and Imes write in their landmark 1978 paper:

Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.

As psychologists, Clance and Imes naturally study this phenomenon from an individual perspective, exploring the family histories and individual characteristics which lead women to mistake themselves for imposters. They automatically consider the trait as a psychopathy to be treated.

And to a great extent this is reasonable – imposter syndrome causes real anguish and can certainly elevate to the level of neurosis. It should rightly be a matter of concern.

There is some important work being done in this space, but too often, psychological and linguistic studies examining the failings of women – from hedging, to apologizing, to women’s lack of confidence and feelings of impostering – do little to touch on the broader social drivers of the behavior, losing sight of the larger question: how should one properly act in the public sphere?

I don’t mean to discount this narrative entirely. I am – and I’ll go on the record here – entirely in favor of empowering women.

But I find it disconcerting when studies like this are translated into to pop-sci advice like:
• Stop apologizing
• Be more confident
• Assert yourself

The problem I see here is that while researchers have accurately differentiated between the typical, socialized, behaviors of women and men, this advice is blithely translated to the public narrative without first deeply considering what is ideal.

In short, most of this advice amounts to little more than:
• Be more like a “man”

And not just any man, be like a manly man with all the masculine stereotypes of confidence and aggressiveness. Talk over people! Don’t apologize! Assert yourself and stand by your beliefs!

Such advice is problematic.

First of all, we may want to consider how much confidence is actually appropriate.

In perhaps the most relatably-titled academic article, “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Dunning et al. (2003) argue that people who are poor performers in a field regularly fail to recognize their own incompetence due to a double curse: “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.”

Those who are most incompetent, then, are also mostly likely to misjudge their own competence, and as a result tend to hold the greatest overconfidence in their skill.

By this account, we ought to be collectively weary of people who give themselves high marks: perhaps some of them are accurately able to assess their own ability, but many others are simply expressing the carefree confidence of incompetence.

…And some of those people may even hold elected office.

Here’s my new favorite statistic: in one study, 88% of drivers rated themselves as safer than the median driver. (see Svenson (1980))

That’s right: 88% thought they were above the median.

To be fair, that number comes from a study of United States drivers, but Svenson found only a slightly lower rate – 77% among Swedish drivers. So this tendency to overrate oneself is not purely an American phenomenon.

So, there’s good reason to think we shouldn’t trust people’s confidence in themselves at all. From this perspective, “be more confident” is pretty lousy advice.

Furthermore, we may want to examine whether typically “male” ways of acting actually achieve the outcomes a group is looking for.

Research on group intelligence has found that groups perform better at various cognitive tasks when:
• Group members have higher “social sensitivity” – which can be briefly described as an awareness of the mental states of those around them
And when:
• Discussion is more egalitarian. Groups dominated by a few people perform worse than those in which everyone participates in the discussion.  (see Woolley et al (2010); Engel, et al (2014))

Given these traits, then, we should perhaps not be surprised that these studies also find that groups with more women tend to perform better.

The traits which increase group intelligence – reading the needs of those around you and creating space for others to share their voice – go hand in hand with the sort of “feminine” habits which women are advised to drop in the work place in favor of more aggressive and stereotypically male performance.

Again, this seems like pretty lousy advice. Apologizing, hedging, and otherwise not asserting yourself may indeed hold women back in current masculinized environments, but they actually lead to better group outcomes.

Perhaps it is not the women who need to change.


Finally, I want to return to the Greek ideal of the public sphere.

Yes, the public sphere was a masculine battleground; an arena where men strutted their rhetorical skills.

But it was more than that.

It was fundamentally a place to learn. To learn from others and to learn about – and fully become – yourself. Under the classical ideal, the rhetorical combat of the polis was not conducted for personal glory, but rather in service to the greater goal of discovering truth.

Ideal citizens were tolerant gladiators, to borrow a metaphor from Huckfeldt et al (2004).
“Combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries.”

Given modern gender norms and women’s long-standing exclusion from public discourse, we seem to have lost sight of the ‘tolerant’ part of the vision; restricting our view to merely “gladiators.”

This narrowing – in boardrooms, classrooms, and elected office – is a mistake.

The “combat” of the public sphere may have value: if debate serves to sharpen understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs.

But this combat is meaningless without tolerance and mutual respect – without genuinely inviting our peers to similarly find the weaknesses in our own views.

The goal of rhetorical combat should not be to win, but rather “to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and be convinced when it is appropriate” as Mercier and Landemore (2012) write.

The goal should be learn – to learn correct things – and to make everyone wiser from the interaction.

I would further argue that mutual respect is more critical to the ideal than combat. Indeed, this process need not be combative, but can stem from non-judgmental questions of genuine interest: Can you tell me more about why you believe that?

Fundamentally, this process requires humility. It requires entering conversation with the belief that I don’t know everything and that the things I currently believe might be wrong. It requires all parties to enter the public sphere eager to learn.

This need not be a matter of confidence at all, but rather a matter of empirical fact: a single person cannot possibly know everything.

William James (1909) argues that a partial truth is essentially a falsehood, that tearing “the part out of its relations, leaves out some truth concerning it… falsifies it.”

For the network scientists in the room, I put this in more explicitly network terms: with our individually biased sample of nodes, we cannot possibly describe the topology of a full network accurately.

We all have something to learn; and every person we meet has something to teach us.

Given this vision, one of the most damaging things a person can do is to silence another. To do so not only hurts the person silenced, but does a disservice to yourself and to your communities. The process of learning is hindered when all voices and perspectives are not fully included.

And this, perhaps, is what’s most troubling about the current state of affairs.

While women on the whole may indeed be lacking from confidence; that in no doubt stems in part from the many mico-aggressions women experience while participating in public life; the constant, silencing messages that they are not wanted and that their views and voices are not valued.

Here is one of my favorite political cartoons:

It shows a solitary woman in a meeting of men. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,” the caption reads. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

I love this cartoon because it rings so true to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something in a meeting only for a man to take credit upon repeating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talked over, interrupted, or mansplained to. I cannot tell you how many times it has been made perfectly clear to me – explicitly and implicitly – that my voice is not welcome.

Of course, I tell you all this because it’s not just me.

In deliberative settings, male voices account for up to 75% of the speaking time in mixed gender groups. (see Karpowitz & Mendelberg (2012))

Numerous studies show that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. (see Hancock & Rubin (2014); Hirschman (1994); McMillan et al. (1977))

These constant interruptions serve to re-assert male dominance and reinforce the message that women are neither welcome nor needed in conversations. (see West & Zimmerman (1983); Anderson & Leaper (1998))

So it’s too simplistic to say there is a problem with women’s confidence.

The characteristics so often observed in women of hedging, apologizing, and experiencing self-doubt are better interpreted as the joint result of both public exclusion and private inclusion.

On the one hand, toxically silencing environments make it clear to women that they should be quiet, they should be uncertain, they should be apologizing for the very space they take up in a room.

On the other hand, women’s socialized place in the private sphere gives them skills of listening, nurturing, and genuinely caring about the state of those around them. These are valuable skills in the public sphere, and, as we see in the studies on group intelligence, should be encouraged broadly as critical for collaboration.

This is not to argue that women already have the ideal habits and do not need to change – perhaps they do. But, perhaps, men need to change, too.

My argument here is more general: we shouldn’t be asking how to fix women for the current world – we should rather be asking what kind of world we want and then drawing on our collective answer to inform the skills, values, and habits we would like to have practiced by the citizens of that world; practiced by each of us.

I started this talk by claiming that I know nothing.

I stand by that claim, and I invite you to interpret it however you will.

You may choose to believe that I have too little confidence in myself – that a lifetime of being silenced and marginalized has taken its toll. That I am too meek, uncertain, or quick to defer.

Or you may take it differently: as a bold claim that despite what I know and what I have accomplished I still know nothing in the sense that I still have so much more to learn. That I want, above all, to believe true things, and in pursuit of that quest I am open to the possibility that the things I think I know are wrong. That I recognize the fact that – despite my own, personal experiences with marginalization – I am still relatively privileged as a highly educated, white, cis-gender person. That even I have a responsibility to create space for others to speak.

It feels appropriate to end here with a quote from Erasmus’ satirical essay, The Praise of Folly. In this 16th century piece, Folly herself – a woman, often depicted in in a fool’s cap and academic gown – appears, delivering a rousing oratory and sharply critiquing the intuitions of the day. She concludes:

If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.

Thank you.


The Will of the People

From what I’ve seen, response to last night’s parliamentary elections in the UK has ranged from stunned, to distraught, to bemused. In a tremendous upset for Theresa May – who called the snap vote in the hopes of strengthening her political position – the election resulted in her party losing seats. May’s Conservative Party is still the largest, but it has lost its majority, resulting in what is apparently known as a “hung parliament.”

A looming question is what this result means for Brexit. The people voted in support of Brexit, but the Conservative loss seems to reflect a growing public distaste for the actual implementation of leaving the EU. A BBC correspondent bemoaned the situation – elected officials (ought to) want to enact the will of the people. But with such schizophrenic election results; “what even is the will of the people?”

This complaint reminds me of the vivid imagery of Walter Lippmann, who wrote sternly about how  “The public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.”

Such strong language of earn Lippmann the label of technocrat – he is generally taken to believe that the public should have a limited role in governance.

But his issue is not with people having a voice in their democracy, but rather with the very notion of “the Public.”

Lippmann writes, “we have been taught to think of society as a body, with a mind, a soul and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related.”

If “the Public” seems schizophrenic, if we find we cannot make sense of “the will of the people,” the problem may not be with the people themselves, but with the rude tools we have to engage them. The problem may be in the very concept of “the Public,” in the very idea that diverse communities of unique individuals can form, express, and synthesize their complex reactions through the sporadic, limited snapshots of elections.