Are Personality Types In Science Cut Out For Contemporary Discourse?

My observations, though anecdotal, have been that many scientists tend to be rather introspective and uncomfortable engaging beyond the confines of the classroom, lab, or traditional academic spaces like conferences. I said “many” not all because there are certainly many that do go beyond the “ivory tower.” Some colleagues even use that “new innovation” called social media. I am being a bit sarcastic there because I still hear some colleagues lament that they are uncomfortable using new stuff like Twitter.

I tweeted my thoughts on this topic, and my colleague Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a noted climate scientist and professor at Texas Tech, responded that the peer review literature actually offers some support for my observations. Professor Hayhoe engages well beyond the ivory tower on climate change and is quite effective. The 2012 article that she referenced was published in the journal Climatic Change. The paper discusses something called the Jungian personality type, which is one of multiple ways that people process or take in information. If the Jungian personality type is “science jargon” to you just think about personality testing such as the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI). MBTI is all of that Extravort, Introvert, Sensing, Intuition, Thinking, Feeling, Judging, and Perceiving “stuff.”

I know, I know… are not of fan of these canned personality tests. I have probably even eye-rolled at them myself (even though it does capture me fairly well for the most part). Many psychologists and scientists sneer at it too. I will forgo that debate because my colleague Professor John Knox at the University of Georgia makes a key point in a message to me,

whatever it is that MBTI measures, there sure is a BIG difference between climate types and the public….it’s detecting some kind of statistically highly significant difference.

The aforementioned paper by Weiler and colleagues is no exception. It finds that Ph.D climate researchers were more associated with “Intuition,” the “big picture,” and focus on theories whereas the broader U.S. population was more likely to focus on “Sensing,” concrete examples and experience. This is certainly something that I have observed and have troves of observations of people using incorrect examples or experiences to draw conclusions about climate change. For example, a woman recently told me that climate change was fake because she camped out the previous night, and it was cold. The study surprisingly did not find much difference between extroversion and introversion between the two groups. This finding suggests communication styles of the two groups may be a barrier to exchange of science information.

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