The Importance of Stupidity.

Martin A. Schwartz’s “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” (Journal of Cell Science 2008 121: 1771) begins:

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.

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.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

That resonated very strongly with me; I’ve been more and more aware of it since my own grad school days. All of us are almost completely ignorant of almost everything, and being aware of that is the only hope of lessening that ignorance even slightly. People to whom it is important that they always be right and that they be acknowledged as the smartest people in the room rarely learn much of importance, though they may accumulate lots of impressive information. (Via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti.)

Comments

  1. This reminds me of what Isidor Rabi (I think it was him) once said about Robert Oppenheimer. I can’t find the story right now, but the gist of it was that Oppenheimer, despite his brilliance, didn’t achieve as much in science as he might have done. Rabi’s explanation was that most scientists get used to finding themselves stumped but learn to push on regardless, as Schwartz says here. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, was so accustomed to thinking of himself as the cleverest boy in school that when he found himself up against a problem for which he couldn’t immediately see a line of attack, he had no idea how to proceed, and moved on to something else instead.

    The excellent bio of Oppenheimer by Bird and Sherwin makes the same point in a different way. Early on, in the 1930s, Oppenheimer was under suspicion of hanging around with lefties and commies, and denied to a government investigator that he knew or associated with certain people that in fact he knew very well. This came back to haunt him after the war, when Teller began to accuse him of disloyalty. Bird and Sherwin suggest that Oppenheimer lied initially and struggled to explain himself later because he just couldn’t imagine that mere government lawyers could catch him out.

  2. The essay mixes up (on purpose?) “being stupid” with “being ignorant” and “making mistakes”. Those are three reasonably different things and there is no need to blend them together in one unappetizing whole, thank you very much.

    Here’s much more convincing explanation of why doing research can make one feel stupid.

  3. The essay mixes up (on purpose?) “being stupid” with “being ignorant” and “making mistakes”. Those are three reasonably different things and there is no need to blend them together in one unappetizing whole, thank you very much.

    He’s not writing for logicians, he’s writing about the ordinary feelings of ordinary people, who feel stupid when they are confronted with their ignorance. I’m sorry you find it unappetizing; I myself find it appetizing.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wonder if (less philosophically) this simply has to do with the way undergraduate vs postgraduate teaching is organised. In the UK, first degrees tend to be pretty structured, with set teaching timetables and frequent exams; although it’s not like school, it’s not radically different in principle. UK postgrads experience a cultural dislocation on embarking on a PhD, where you need to be much more self-winding and everything is much more open-ended. You need to make the running yourself to a very much greater extent.

    I’ve been told it’s rather different in the US, but I imagine it’s not that different. And US law school, like medical school, works like UK first degrees: congenial environments for people (regardless of “cleverness”) who need structure.

    What I mean (I suppose) is that it’s at least as much to do with personality type as intelligence.

  5. That line of reasoning resonates strongly with me: you’re going into the unknown, and authority figures are not seeing what you are seeing, so maybe you don’t have a place there exactly. And people who just don’t care about the academical hierarchy just do it. I guess I was just not suited for breaking through the administrative minutia with my anxiety issues, although some people at Uni were helpful.

  6. Much of the drudgery in mathematical work is finding and then correcting your own errors. It’s just hard. And it’s unrewarding— one is merely expected to get simple things right.

  7. Probably a backlash to overcoming low self esteem of the students in general, and female students in particular. Too much belief in one’s superpowers can be quickly deflated in reality checks, and people move on to “really save the world” by some more accessible lines of work.

  8. SFReader says:

    A quote about why some people start feeling stupid at such stage:

    There is a state when “… some skill has not passed into the stage of unconscious professional use and therefore cannot be arbitrarily used by a person to solve problems that arise before him. This may happen even though the necessary algorithm is already known.”

    In other words, a person knows the letters. He knows how to write them. He can make words out of them. He can write a sentence. But this effort will require from him the strain of all his mental and even physical forces. Due to the fact that all brain resources are spent on the writing procedure, errors are inevitable. It is obvious that, despite formal literacy (there is a knowledge of the algorithm of reading and writing), such person cannot engage in any activity for which one of the basic or at least significant skills is the ability to write. This state is well known in modern pedagogy and it is called functional illiteracy.

    In the same way, we can talk about functional inability to use calculus (a very common reason for dropping out for 1st and 2nd year physics and math students).

    It is curious that at higher levels such mental leap does not occur so often that it is even considered normal.

    Common formula is: “He is an excellent student, but his choice of vocation was unfortunate. He doesn’t think like a physicist – nothing can be done about it” (the mental leap allowing to start automatically applying a certain – in this case physicist’s – way of thinking didn’t occur).

  9. My observation (which is mine, of me, etc.) is that all this “thinking like a physicist/lawyer/doctor” are a part of transition (or as the quote says, “leap”) between an algorithmic thinking (for each problem there is a series of steps how to get from question to answer, keep in your mind a ledger of all possible problems and associated steps) and a toolbox thinking (there are various tools and approaches how to analyze a problem, try one after another until something works, it’s also useful to have a mental map of how this usually plays out). This transition-leap should be made waaaaaaaay before one gets into the grad school. It should begin at least first year of college, but reality is a well-known mugger.

  10. This excerpt rings entirely true for me. The awareness and feeling of ignorance — or, more elegantly, if you like, Einstein’s sense of “wonder”– is at the heart of the real adventure, the challenge and the joy, in scholarship and science.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Computer programming takes part in both science/engineering and mathematics (as distinct from computer science, which is a branch of mathematics). We spend most of our time debugging, which is just the application of the scientific method: form a hypothesis about the bug, make a fix, test it, wash rinse repeat.

    Edsger Dijkstra realized early on that he would spend much of his life debugging, and so he went in for the formalization of programming so that given a specification of what a program should do, the program itself could be generated automatically. The trouble is that this only works if the spec is formal, and formal specs need debugging just as much. Indeed, the first fruit of “automatic programming” was an assembler, which made “programmers” (people who wrote out numerical instructions on sheets and then transferred them to punch cards) obsolete.

  12. “All of us are almost completely ignorant of almost everything, and being aware of that is the only hope of lessening that ignorance even slightly. People to whom it is important that they always be right and that they be acknowledged as the smartest people in the room rarely learn much of importance, though they may accumulate lots of impressive information.”

    “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

    – Richard Feynman

  13. I remember first facing a “functional inability” to deal with certain kinds of mathematics in my last year as an undergraduate and first year of graduate school. Measure theory and algebraic topology were subjects in which I could do the exercises, but only haltingly and never getting a more general idea of what was behind a given problem. Part of this was certainly that I was not thinking quite like a professional mathematician—or expressing myself like one. What convinced me to drop the second semester of algebraic topology was when I got a homework assignment back, and saw that I had gotten no points on one of the problems, because my (essentially correct) solution was so idiosyncratically expressed that the grader did not grasp what I was trying to explain at all.*

    Looking over my graded paper, I told my friend Alyssa that I was probably going to drop the course. She asked me how many classes I was taking, and I told her the number [five], she suggested I drop that class and two more besides. The fact was that when I really struggled with those math classes I was always taking a lot of other courses. Initially, I was not overly concerned with things like getting a B in Measure and Integration. (A brilliant friend of mine—with whom I have recently established a research collaboration—said, not entirely in jest, that regardless of how many classes he took, he always got exactly one B.) However, I realized that there was no point in going further in those subjects, since I had never gotten a feeling that I really understood what those courses had covered. I have never really gone back and tried to see whether I could learn the subjects properly either—in part because I am plenty busy with my own unrelated research, and in part because I do not really want to know whether I was just overworked when I took those troublesome classes or whether I really could not get the right way of thinking to internalize the subject matter properly.

    * I probably did not deserve full credit for that problem, even if my method of solution was correct. As a grader myself, I was known for not being sympathetic to poorly or erroneously explained solutions. I may have told this story before, but one time two friends whose papers I had graded to my office to complain. One had gotten full credit, but the other had not, and he said that he should get full points, since his friend and study partner had. I pointed out that they had (as they were supposed to) each written the solution out in their own words, and his explanation was not correct. He maintained that the two explanations were close enough, but I told him no, one was right, and the other was wrong. I tried to explain why the difference mattered, but they would not stay to hear it and stomped out of my office in a huff.

  14. Kristian says:

    It is insightful, but since he starts out discussing his friend who left graduate school, I am left doubting whether he is using the word “stupid” in the same sense as she is. It is one thing to feel some kind of romanticized stupidity in the face of Science, and another thing to feel stupid because (for example) one is harshly criticized by one’s principal investigator (which may not be fair) or because one’s article is rejected, etc. It would be interesting to read a response by the friend.

    He talks about how stupid he feels all the time, but then tells us how he solved a problem that a future Nobel laureate didn’t know how to solve (in his own area, no less). I doubt he felt stupid after that.

  15. PlasticPaddy says:

    @kristian, brett
    I did not comment on Brett’s story (he was there) but it is possible that the Nobel man (or woman) looked at the issue, saw it was not trivial /part of his/her toolkit and just felt, “let Brett do this. I have academic committees/my own postgrads/my own research to do…”

  16. @Kristian

    another thing to feel stupid because (for example) one is harshly criticized by one’s principal investigator (which may not be fair) or because one’s article is rejected, etc.

    Well, according to the writer, “After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.” [emphasis added] Which suggests it wasn’t necessarily a case of having an article rejected, or occasionally being chewed out by a jerk of an advisor.

    but then tells us how he solved a problem that a future Nobel laureate didn’t know how to solve (in his own area, no less). I doubt he felt stupid after that.

    It sounds more like a case of “future Nobel laureate hadn’t needed to figure out how to solve problem X, and so didn’t know the answer off the top of his head” than “future Nobel laureate was totally unable to solve problem X”. And of course the point of the anecdote is that Schwartz learned to be comfortable with his “stupidity”, because he realized that ignorance (“Huh, I need to do X, but I don’t know how to do that”) was part of science, even for people like Henry Taube.

  17. Yes, and I too felt stupid pretty much every day I was in grad school. That’s part of what it’s designed to do.

  18. Reminds me of a wonderful little passage in Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites, where two senior faculty members of the Unseen University are discussing the Einsteinian wunderkind who has recently joined them:

    ‘Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life. But now,’ he brightened up, ‘while I’m still confused and uncertain it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.’
    Treatle nodded. ‘I hadn’t looked at it like that,’ he said, ‘but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance. There’s so much about the universe we don’t know’.
    They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were ignorant of only ordinary things.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Here’s much more convincing explanation of why doing research can make one feel stupid.

    Hardly anything of that applies to scientific research, where proof is impossible.

    He talks about how stupid he feels all the time, but then tells us how he solved a problem that a future Nobel laureate didn’t know how to solve (in his own area, no less). I doubt he felt stupid after that.

    I’m sure that made him feel even st00pider two seconds later, when he found an embarrassing typo in his dataset…

  20. Hardly anything of that applies to scientific research, where proof is impossible.

    I disagree. I am not an expert on Real Scientific Research, but there was many a time when I was thinking very hard about a problem and finally got to some understanding only to see that there was a straightforward way to do it if only I’ve had a perfectly obvious idea from the beginning. And I never cared about proofs. And as I’ve heard, proof is not a problem in most mathematical problems. Only in most famous ones.

  21. Bathrobe says:

    I feel stupider every day I live, if that’s any consolation.

  22. The writer talks about the disconcerting feeling one gets staring into the empty void of one’s own ignorance, but I left the hard sciences because stupidity is relative, and I got tired of watching talented colleagues figure things out 10x as fast as I did.

  23. Today we encourage students to have a “growth mindset” and not to picture their own mental capacity as fixed, or to think of learning as a process that ever has a single finite set of facts to memorize or a tidy ending. You might criticize modern education for being wishy-washy, but I REALLY wish I had been confronted more with these concepts as a student. Could possibly have saved me a long and painful personal journey or two.

  24. PlasticPaddy says:

    @ag
    There are two things here with different goals.
    1. General education
    2. Professional education
    The general education has measurable goals which correspond to the fuzzy goals “adequacy to live in the real world” and “adequacy to understand professional education instruction, which assumes and does not teach basic knowledge and skills”.
    The professional education culminates with the production of a “masterpiece” and there are often no clear measurable subgoals (or the connection between the exams or written work and the “masterpiece” are very hard to see).

  25. Stu Clayton says:

    I feel stupider every day I live, if that’s any consolation.

    Well, maybe “living every day” (whatever that may be) is not such a good idea, if that’s how it cracks up.

    Myself, I feel I have reached a plateau of constant, well-balanced stupidity. Unfortunately, the stupidity of other people still grows by leaps and bounds. I don’t want to be left behind as some kind of Socratic Zen snowflake.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    there was many a time when I was thinking very hard about a problem and finally got to some understanding only to see that there was a straightforward way to do it if only I’ve had a perfectly obvious idea from the beginning.

    Oh yes, that happens.

    The professional education culminates with the production of a “masterpiece”

    I’m not sure what you mean. Doctoral theses and the like, if that’s what you mean, are beginnings, not ends.

  27. Bathrobe says:

    Doctoral theses and the like, if that’s what you mean, are beginnings, not ends.

    What do you mean? The beginning of a line of enquiry, or the beginning of a long career?

  28. Roberto Batisti says:
  29. David Marjanović says:

    The beginning of a line of enquiry, or the beginning of a long career?

    Generally both.

    the original meaning of masterpiece

    Yes, that’s what they are – but they’re not culminations. The career that sometimes follows them might be.

  30. John Cowan says:
  31. Lars Mathiesen says:

    People still do svendestykker here, though there is no formal title of journeyman — whether you even do one is up to the supervisor of the 6 month work experience term that is part of a ‘practical’ secondary education diploma.

    I’ve seen pictures of what electrical installers do, for instance, and while they are justifiably proud of their work it probably won’t end up in a museum.

    After 1862 the guilds had no right to demand membership, but they still exist as voluntary associations and make nice Master’s Letters that hang in butcher shops and the like. I don’t know if the manager of the meat counter/department in my local supermarket did a masterpiece to get his, but he has one. TIL that the masters and the journeymen could have separate guilds (if there were enough of them in a town), headed by the oldermand and oldgeselle respectively.

  32. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    You are right, only the education which leads to a professional qualification culminates with the “masterpiece”. The professional then may take opportunities to receive further education, either on the job or as formation courses, thus permitting him/her to continue feeling stupid throughout his/her entire career.

  33. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I think “professional qualification” (currently so called) is what made you a journeyman / Gesell / svend in the old system (i.e., the next step after apprenticeship). Then you could go on and build your professional network and submit a masterpiece to the Masters’ Guild when there was a vacancy — if it was accepted (i.e., you went to the right church and didn’t beat your wife in public too often or cheat at cards) you were then allowed to set up shop and hire journeymen instead of working for someone else.

    In certain trades in Denmark you would in fact make a svendestykke to prove your worth at the end of the apprentice years, but that was a simpler thing than a masterpiece — I can’t find if there’s a corresponding word in English (unless masterpiece is used for that as well now. *Shakes cane*).

    And TIL that journeyman means ‘working for daily wages’ — I thought it was connected to the Wanderjahre tradition (and contained journey = ‘travel’).

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