A Blog Around The Clock

Now this is a title of a paper in a scientific journal that will make one’s eyebrows go up: The importance of stupidity in scientific research (by Schwartz J Cell Sci.2008; 121: 1771) :

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We
had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science,
although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school,
went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major
environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned
to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she
said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years
of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and
her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered
me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science
makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So
used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel
stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even
think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

I am not sure what he wrote is really what she meant, but anyway, this was a nice way for him to start the article. What he is talking about is not really stupidity. I’d call it ignorance. And grad school teaches you to cherish and relish in your ignorance, as that is the main motivator in working every day to diminish it a little bit at a time by discovering something new, a little bit of information about the way the world works that in some reduces your own and everyone else’s ignorance. If you are successful in acquiring this mindset – enjoying the ambiguity of science, having ease with saying “I don’t know….and, by the way, nobody does” – you feel good. If you are a different kind of person, you may as well feel stupid:

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing
on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being
ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows
us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel
perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt,
this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the
answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and
emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do
more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other
people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more
comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade
into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big
discoveries.

Comments

  1. #1 Wobbler
    July 25, 2008

    Time for one of my favorite quotes:

    Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
    - Will Durant US historian (1885 – 1981)

    These kind of insights rank up there along with the value of being wrong (so you know how to not do it wrong again and are one step closer to being right).

  2. #2 Rhea Miller
    July 25, 2008

    Whew…I think that was one of the hardest adjustments for me in graduate school…wait a tick, i’m still adjusting. The caliber of people, the level of expectation, the amount of work, and intellectual progress you make certainly humble you into feeling pretty stupid and uncomfortable. I find learning to defend my stupidity is also a toughy…during every talk, or meeting, my palms get all sweaty and my voice quivers due to my personal insecurity of my ignorance. There has to be a balance…a way to embrace it…not only day to day, when i am bumbling along in lab, but also when I am exposed and asking others to critique…

  3. #3 James
    July 25, 2008

    Thank you, Coturnix. A great post!

    I thought I was alone (or nearly so) in questioning my ongoing confrontation with personal ignorance. Even after my doctoral training, and decades of high level scientific endeavor, I consistently defined myself through iterative attempts to ameliorate ‘ignorance’.

    Oh, well! Back to pushing that same rock up that same hill.

  4. #4 John McKay
    July 25, 2008

    What a great title.

  5. #5 Toaster Sunshine
    July 25, 2008

    That’s what’s great about science though: whereas non-scientists generally answer for their ignorance by trying to find pre-existing knowledge, scientists get to design a test of a situation that creates new knowledge! That being said, however, I’m not even in grad school yet, and I’m still trying to figure out how to keep which research paper I read last week has what I need this week in it in order. The cartoons I find myself drawing in the margins don’t help as much as they seem like they should…

  6. #6 Ian Tindale
    July 26, 2008

    I think that there’s an immense cultural impetus to ‘be right’, in our age of reason, which originally had great value for the average progressive person in differentiating our modern correct thinking from the superstition and supernatural-based thinking of the average person of only a handful of centuries ago. This ‘being right’ involves a strict, provable almost taxonomic rigidity in the arrangement and disposition of our linguistic parasite that controls each of us, reaping economic reward in modern society. For a person to continually not have a performance record in ‘being right’ devalues them (especially in such fields as, perhaps, law).

    But it is frequently of great value to not be right (but also not be wrong too) and simply be able to say “I don’t know”, or even in the case of certain phenomena or belief systems, going so far as to say “don’t know, don’t care”. This isn’t to dismiss it, but simply to defer analysis until such a time as we can do justice to processing it.

    We – as residents of the age of reason – often feel compelled to rush magnetically into explaining everything (even if only to ourselves) and things without immediate explanation get shunted into such categories as ‘nonsense’, ‘superstition’, ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘religion’ (oh wait, I already said superstition). I think it would be of benefit both to people of the scientific inclination and also of the religious bent to be able to say “don’t know, don’t care” instead of assigning things to ‘fact’ or ‘miracle’ – just defer the decision to process this until later, maybe never.

    Anyway, there’s a fairly direct link between this particular blog post, and a previous one by the same author: http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2008/07/obligatory_reading_of_the_day_32.php in which a reference is made to this other blog post: http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=448 – scroll down to the crosshead: “A failure of science online: online comment sites”.

    In my opinion, if you present scientists with a fresh and novel means of publishing (ie, online, unrestricted) and also a means of commenting/annotating or otherwise sticking their oar in, they’ll start to weigh it up in terms of a] benefit, and b] risk. In other words, the old thing about “better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and prove it beyond all doubt” applies here.

    I think that each scientist probably regards themselves as ‘winging it’ – as somehow landing up in their current career path via a series of fortuitous fluke occurrences that weren’t part of any plan, and that one day they’ll get found out and have to give it all back. Correspondingly, I also think that all scientists regard other scientists as fine upstanding human beings with immensely more capability, drive and ability to process knowledge (knols?) than oneself possibly could, but of course, they’re legitimate – I’m just winging it, remember?

    So to hook it all up, I’d say that the irresistible drive to never appear stupid in modern life also prevents open science publishing mechanisms from achieving fluidity.

  7. #7 Karen Ventii
    July 29, 2008

    I think the great thing about this article is that SO MANY researchers (particularly science graduate students) feel the same way and it’s nice for someone (a professor) to validate those feelings and basically say “it’s OK to not know everything.”

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