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UVA Microbiologist Martin A. Schwartz has a wonderful article in the Journal of Cell Science about the importance of what he calls “productive stupidity:”

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

The importance of stupidity in scientific research [Thanks, Arwen!]

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor for Boing Boing and WINK Books. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.


  • Anonymous

    How about a link to the article?

  • Anonymous

    Amen to this article. This should be required reading for new Ph.D. students.

    Link is here:

    Text:

    http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771

    PDF:

    http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/reprint/121/11/1771

  • Chris Connors

    Gareth is in transit to Maker Faire. Here is the link to the article:

    http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771

  • Gareth Branwyn

    Sorry. Was rushing to catch a plane. Fixed now.

  • Volkemon

    Now to type this for the SECOND time…

    My disagreement is in the misuse of the word ‘stupid’.

    In Brief:

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/stupid
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ignorant

    Stupid is unable to understand. Ignorant means unaware. This is greatlt shortened from my original post, but due to the fact I entered some ‘text wrong’ it is lost. I do have other things to do before work tomorrow.

    Here is hoping I entered the text with the proper reverence and it is accepted.

  • Volkemon

    Well, I was correct..after two ‘text entered wrong’ messages, the post with links was held for approval… Means it will never be seen.

    Anyhoo…. I think the word ‘stupidity’ is the WRONG word. means unable to be taught. (My def…google yer own!)

    Ignorance is the best word…unaware, but looking.

    Here’s hoping I dont enter text wrong…

  • amasci.com

    Ah yes, the negative effects of focusing on student testing rather than learning. This creates the belief-system that rules most of science: “The Cult of the Single Right Answer.”

    And I agree with Volkemon: it’s ignorance that we need, not stupidity. “Stupidity” isn’t about not knowing, stupidity is willful stubborn ignorance. I’d go further, and say that what we really need isn’t exactly ignorance.

    Instead we need *tolerance* of our *own* ignorance. Students with high grades tend to hate not knowing the right answer. They also despise being wrong, especially if it’s in public. Schools are set up to cultivate this attitude. It interferes terribly with any natural curiosity or love of investigation. And if a person can’t stand making errors, then they’ll have great trouble in a career based upon the trial-and-error process. (Remember “Panic of error is the death of progress.” – Whitehead) (And here’s that famous TED lecture: Sir Ken, on making mistakes: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html)

    I think this problem of hating the unknown and of worshipping “the right answer” has grown so enormous, and become so widespread, that it’s essentially invisible. Nobody thinks of solving it because nobody even talks about it. Here’s one small symptom. For learning how to do science, one of the best books I’ve ever encountered is “The Art of Scientific Investigation” by W.I.B. Beveridge of the UK. Only trouble is, science teachers don’t use it. The scientific community doesn’t know that it exists. And it’s been out of print since 1964, so if you want your own copy, you’ll have to buy a falling-apart used paperback.

    Contrast this with the number of books available on how to get high grades in physics/chem/whatever. Or how to take tests. It shows where our priorities lie.

    On the other hand, for anyone who somehow avoids being warped by the testing-centric educational system, and manages to emerge with their “inner scientist” undamaged, they can easily rise high any research community. After all, they’re competing with a population who are good at achieving high grades in school, and who’ve probably never actually done any science before.

  • Ha Ha

    The fact you make generalizations about science shows you must have never graduated if the instructors did their job.

    There is bad science, and bad scientists.

    Typically, the real secret is in the statistics of discovery – larger universities have more students and improve their probability of successful experiments.

    I think some aspects of Make offer a unique taste of community driven problem solving.

    Please keep it clean of rhetoric.

  • myshkin

    Definitions aside, I still love it… “if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying”. I’m not a researcher, but I frequently take on new types of projects. As a result, I feel stupid almost daily. Thanks for the shot in the arm!