Public Policy Bits: The Importance of Being Stupid in Research

This year I supervise three Master students in their thesis work, and a few other written assignments of students. It’s the time when students come up with their proposals and try to work out a puzzle and a methodology around it. Now, research would not be called research if it was easy. It’s a lot of searching, and often, without knowing what one is really looking for. It’s a stupefying process. What is important to note, however, that it is a necessarily stupefying process, one that is supposed to be such. Unfortunately, our education system is just not designed to prepare students for that, one just confronts this emotional and intellectual challenge after the years of training in problem solving.

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.

“The importance of stupidity in scientific research” is the title of the article by Martin Schwartz in a 2008 issue of Journal of Cell Science. Here are some nice passages from that very short essay.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

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.

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.

If you want to read the article in full, here is the link to download it.

Good luck in your research, and in feeling stupid!

Farhad

A curious mind traveling the world and reflecting on everything.

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