The importance of stupidity in scientific research

I recently read an interesting article about why doing scientific research makes a person feel stupid and why this may actually be a good thing.

The article is written by Martin A. Schwartz, a professor at the University of Virginia and is published in the April 2008 edition of Journal of Cell Science.

Schwartz writes:

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.

Schwartz soon realized that he agreed with his colleague: science made him feel stupid too!

He goes on to explain how Ph.D. programs factor into this culture of stupidity and suggests ways to teach science graduate students how to be "productively stupid".

Read other takes on the article from fellow ScienceBlogger Bora, FemaleScienceProfessor or Counterminds.


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I'm only an undergrad, but I have to agree about the feeling stupid part. It seems like the more I learn the more I realize I don't know.

I agree with the idea behind the article, and the blog. I just wish "ignorant" and "stupid" weren't treated as synonyms. That really is stupid.

Yeah, ignorance can, at least in principle, be cured, whereas the stupid, it burns!

By Valhar2000 (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Agreed. Just beginning the endeavor of graduate school has made me feel not only stupid, but very small. When you walk through the halls and pass brain after brain in the form of an accomplished PI, it can be a bit disenchanting! But, one must remind themselves that they all started someplace, nothing beats experience, and you must keep on truckin'! Thanks for the post!

At the very competitive Stuyvesant High School in New York City (today they'd call it a "magnet school") I competed to be the top Physics student. Two of my exact classmates and I all got into Caltech, starting in 1968. One, Steve Koonin, went on to be Provost/Vice President there, before being lured away as Chief Scientist at British Petroleum (now just BP).

Rather than the Science making me feel stupid, it made look for other ways to excel. So I switched majors, and earned a double B.S. in Math and English Literature. Then a M.S. at UMass/Amherst in Computer Science. Then the first PhD dissertation in what's now called Nanotechnology. At caltech, I was of essentially average intelligence. But creativity and breadth of learning can compensate for raw IQ.

Yes, I sometimes felt stupid -- relatively speaking -- when in conversation with Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, or with Stphen Hawking when he came for a year or so. But the cure for feeling stupid is to do things that make you feel smart.

My wife would not let herself be intimidated by a teacher who declared that "Calculus is for boys."

She replied: "One, I am taking Calculus. Two, I will do better than all the boys. So that, three, you will never say that to a woman again."

She is now a Physics professor.

Our son never felt stupid while around older people at university, where he started at age thirteen. He just took more time, and graduated at age eighteen with a double B.S. in Math and Computer Science, then started at USC Law School.

Common thread? The best response to feeling stupid in college or university is to switch majors, if necessary, to something that makes you feel smart. But that does not mean abandoning the Math/Science/Engineering/Technology world view.

Allowing someone to make you feel stupid is to be complicit in their discrimination against you. This must not be done.

I felt stupid in grad school sometimes. I also felt smart from time to time - but it's ok. I needed an ego check anyway!

Besides I don't go around on a daily basis wondering if I am feeling smart or stupid! I think that's how you get through science, when you realize that wondering whys and hows is just part of the job and it doesn't mean you are really stupid.

could you please tell me what are the importances of biochemistry in life??

see, this is our homework in chemistry, wherein we are asked to make a comic strip regarding this topic...please, i need help...

i hope to see answers as soon as possible... thanx!!

Thanks, Jonathan, for being the perfect illustration of the importance of megalomania in being a successful academic.

A graduate student knows that ignorance can be 'fixed' -- its when
the problem feels more like 'stupidity' then doubt sets in.

(former graduate student in physics)