A Natural Talent for the Natural Sciences

One day, during the first semester of my freshman year at Indiana University, I was sitting among a group of other students as part of a meeting for an organization. As we went around introducing ourselves, a blonde female student told us that she was majoring in Mathematics. This was met with shock from the other students, complete with audible gasps and double takes. And there’s no doubt that the initial reaction from our group was at least, in part, motivated by the fact that we realized there was a girl who wanted to study mathematics.

What is really keeping minorities and women from entering certain STEM fields? For the past few months, there has been a lot of buzz around a study by Science that showed how our perception of whether or not success in certain academic disciplines is due to hard work or due to natural talent dictates how easily we can diversify the people in those fields. Women and minorities more readily enter academic fields that in which you can succeed, supposedly, due to working as hard as you can, as opposed to having some sort of innate characteristic. Regardless of how true it is that one can become successful in certain academic fields due to natural talent, the study really only shows what we perceive to be true, rather than anything that is actually true about how to become a successful researcher/scientist.

But the variable of “hard work vs. natural talent” skews the actual way that human beings become good at a certain disciplines in a way that represents a bigger problem among our society. We’ve clung to the idea of “Nature vs. Nurture” without realizing its shortcomings. Instead of trying to divide different abilities into “hard work” and “natural talent” implies that we are not dynamic, growing, and ever-shifting beings. When students become good at mathematics, it may often seem “natural” because mathematics is something that can come naturally to students, but this “natural” ability is only attained through years and years of deliberate practice. The other issue that the article ignores is that “hard work” and “natural talent” do not undermine one another. A person with a greater natural aptitude does not have less of a capacity to perform hard work, and vice versa. In addition, the sole existence of external forces (those that are not in our control) that affect students (whether or not that student was born to the right family, the color of that person’s skin, etc.) do not reduce how much control has over his or her actions. Granted there might be factors that have an affect that we can’t control (e.g, being African American would cause people to perceive you as unintelligent in a classroom), but at the end of the day, we’re still the same rational human beings.

To more accurately explain the way human beings work, it is better to use the variable “factors out of an individual’s control vs. factor’s in one’s control.” This is, probably, what the researchers at Science implicitly meant to propose by exploring whether or not success was due to hard work or natural talent. However, seen this way, then we would have to take an ethical stance on the skills and characteristics of human beings (dubbing certain characteristics as worthy of individualistic autonomy while claiming others are simply the result of the uncontrollable forces.) The decisions here are tricky, because, with the poorly-defined and unexplored assumptions about the self (and how much control we have over our actions and lives), we could run into bioethical questions of eugenics, gene manipulation, and totalitarianism that are similar to those of any dystopian future novel.

Perhaps the article that explores our perceptions of success in disciplines says less about whether or not one can be truly successful in a field and more about our rationalist ethics philosophies. in Science And, thus, western civilization finds itself at ends with its own autonomy. The more we give to the free will or control of the individual, the more we distrust the bigger picture.

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