Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Like Feeling Stupid

Earlier this summer I read the excellent essay by Martin A. Schwartz in The Journal of Cell Science (May 20, 2008, doi: 10.1242/10.1242/jcs.033340) on "The importance of stupidity in scientific research." He describes how even very smart people might not enjoy research because they don't like feeling "stupid" all the time. Some of us who love research and the academic life, however, are used to feeling stupid and may even enjoy it in a weird way.

In this case, feeling stupid means that you are placed in situations in which you don't know something (or anything). That's what research is all about. There are things we don't know but want to know, so we try to figure them out. It is rare that the path to the solution, if there even is a solution, is a simple one of following obvious step A and then obvious step B. It is easy to feel stupid when you spend a lot of your time working on difficult problems that you might not ever be able to solve. Some people hate that feeling of being lost and confused (= stupid) and others find it interesting and accept the frustrations as a natural part of doing research.

I like the way Schwartz puts stupidity in the context of the discovery aspect of scientific research. His last paragraph is particularly good:

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.

I was also struck by his point that we as advisors (and the academic system in general) don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to view this type of "stupidity" in a positive and constructive way. I think he's right, but it is challenging to teach someone this.

When I read the essay, I immediately thought of several people I thought might be interested in reading it, including some students who might benefit from this perspective. For example, I know one hard-working and talented student who says he feels stupid much of the time. He is working on a very difficult problem that has no real end to it in the sense of a simple elegant solution that explains everything. Even so, his research is very important in its own right and has made some significant advances in our understanding of the problem. Just as Schwartz describes in his essay, this student also asked a more senior researcher how she would solve the problem he is working on, assuming that someone else must know the answer. The answer: I don't know.

I was reasonably confident that he wouldn't interpret my sending the essay as a backhand way of telling him that I think he is stupid, so I sent him the article. He liked the essay, thought it was interesting, and understood that I sent it to him as encouragement, not disparagement.

I have not yet sent the article to some of the other people I think should read it. If someone is profoundly lacking in confidence and has shown irrational tendencies to interpret neutral comments or interactions as devastating criticism, how would such a person react to being sent an essay on stupidity? Even if I sent the essay as part of an email to a group and not to targeted individuals, I think it would still be taken the wrong way by some. That would be stupid, but perhaps there are other ways to get the same point across without actually using the s-word.


ScientistMother said...

I loved the article, as well as your earlier post about when to switch supervisors vs when to leave research. I often feel stupid, previously because one mentor made me feel stupid for not knowing the answer and now for not making a good judgment call. Either way, not learning from my mistakes and / or being upset at an article that very clearly explains not knowing is the beauty of research is stupid :)

Anonymous said...

I read this article and really liked it. I printed it off and stuck it on the door of a prominent 'fridge in my lab - although I was a little concerned how this would be perceived (was I calling everybody stupid?). Denizens of my lab have now read it and others who come in to get ice etc. have stopped and looked at it too. He makes some very nice points in the article and I think it's a must-read for students (particularly new starters).

Anonymous said...

One idea: You could print it out and post it on the door to your office.

Anonymous said...

Is there not a difference between stupidity and ignorance?

Alice said...

I liked the article too. Even though idea of getting used to feeling stupid is not so very appealing.
Somehow, in this work people are good at hiding their "stupidity".
I feel pretty lonely when it comes to feeling stupid. I do not know if it is a question of prestige to not reveal this feeling to others or something else... Anyhow, it is nice to read that other people doing research feel stupid too.

Anonymous said...

My thought process while reading your post, paralleled your post nicely. I'm a postdoc at a Highly Prestigious Place, and I'm supervising an undergrad. Undergrad, typical of those here at HPU, is quite smart, talented, curious, and over-driven, and a bit delicate. It's a careful balance, I find, to communicate to Undergrad that sometimes answers just lead to more questions.

Reading your post, I first thought oh! must email to Undergrad! but then thought better of it, for your same reasons.

I frankly love feeling stupid, because once you've hit bottom, it's all up from there ?!

Anonymous said...

This post was particularrly timely for me. I had not seen the article, but I am glad now that I have read it.
I am a postdoc, 6 months into my postdoc research program, and I just had a formal review today with all 5 of my bosses, even the big big in-charge-of-the-lab-bosses. The conclusions and criticisms of today's meeting left me feeling stupid and very unconfident (although all of the discussions were constructive and very helpful). I came away with an understanding that I don't actually know any answers yet, and that in some cases I don't even understand the questions. I was also encouraged to be more of an agressive leader on my projects (which I inherited from others and am working with a team of people to pursue). I think this transition is something that is very difficult for a postdoc to learn how to do, and is also one of the valuable reasons for even being a postdoc. How do you transition from a student who is following the lead of a professor to an independent researcher developing a new research area? This is something that I think many of us out here need some guidance in.

Arlenna said...

I also loved that article (and I love feeling stupid), and I have introduced it to a younger female scientist I have been working with--she appreciated it for what it is really about and didn't take it as an insult, although I made sure to introduce the attachment by an email saying how it might make her feel better to know that everyone feels this way.

Beth said...

Ah, thanks for linking this one. This article is an excellent summary of why I enjoy science so much. I have just started my PhD so this article has come at a good time for me. I never got exceptional grades in science. - indeed, I always did far better in art than in science - but it was something I have _always_ passionate about. There is always something new to learn, to think about and solve. I love the struggle of it. I've sent it to my mother - hopefully this will help her understand more clearly why I have embarked upon a PhD.

Professor in Training said...

Loved the article ... glad to see I'm not the only one that feels stupid!

Marcusesses said...

Very good post. I just started a summer research job (that will lead into graduate studies in the fall), and this post couldn't be more relevant to my situation.

Upon arriving, my supervisor explain the ins and outs of my research area for about two hours.

I then left to work on my own, and realized I knew absolutely NOTHING about what I was supposed to be doing. Should I do a literature review? Should I design an experiment?

I asked my supervisor for advice, and she told me that no one really knows what they're doing in academia, you just figure stuff out as you go along. She just gave me a nudge in the right direction, and then left me to brainstorm.

That really changed my perspective, because it's not like undergrad where (like you said) there are definite right and wrong answers. You CAN be wrong, as long as you're learning, and well...doing science.

Again, great post.

butterflywings said...

Yeah, I had the same thought as anonymous...being lost, confused, not knowing stuff is not the same as being stupid. If you are intelligent (as all researchers are :-)) then you may start lost but you learn quickly.
I was reading something on learning styles and you go from "unknown unknowns" to "known unknowns", to paraphrase Colin Powell!
I guess working on research questions that are complex and may never have a clear answer is frustrating if you like things black and white, which I do have a tendency to.

I didn't encounter people (obviously) brighter than me until grad school, I don't think, (yes, I'm modest too but hey ho) and that can be hard to adjust to. I learned to learn from others though.

Also if you went through school finding everything comes easily and then get to college or grad school or wherever and realise that OMG! I have to work at this! is very...disorienting.

Anonymous said...

I have a somewhat related question: I've heard the word "talented" used frequently to describe scientists. When it comes to research, what is talent? It seems to imply something different than when applied to other disciplines (the arts, for example). What do professors mean when they say a student is talented, and is it a trait that can be developed, or is it (as in other disciplines) innate?

Anonymous said...

Just a short comment on "stupid" and reactions to this word from a fellow professor...

During my postdoc work, I switched into a very different area of biomed research (completely different techniques, literature... all of it). So I have been feeling "behind the curve" for years now and almost like a fraud sometimes (how did I get a good faculty position?)
I'm pretty sure that I have some good ideas (people have said so, I got a grant recently, and I've been scooped on some ideas recently - so other people like them too). And I find that I don't believe (with reasons) a lot of dogma in the field...
Maybe my point is just that it is one thing to feel *stupid*, it is another thing to lack *confidence*.
When I feel stupid as a scientist, things are ok. When I lose my confidence in my ability to contribute, I stop getting stuff done.

Doctor Pion said...

Excellent observation about this being missing from the grad education process. I remember when I realized that the answers were not in the back of some book; only nature knew the answer. It quickly followed that I needed to know more than my major prof by the time I was done.

The selection process for grad school emphasizes answering problems where there is an answer somewhere, not how a person reacts when the problem is really hard to solve even after six months of work. I knew a grad student who spent months looking for the book that had the answer to his dissertation project in the back. He was still thinking of it as "homework" rather than a problem no one else had ever solved.

Brian said...

The snippet you posted was perhaps the most profound statement I have read in a long time. Too many people, in academia, politics and religion live under this delusion that they have to have all the answers right now. Too many people are afraid to say, "You know what, I just don't know."

Wayfarer Scientista said...

very interesting and though provoking! Thanks for sharing. I need to find the full article now.

Ms.PhD said...

I like to say 'confused' rather than stupid, or that it 'makes my brain hurt.' Like going to the gym and being sore.

I really like this comment by anonymous:

Maybe my point is just that it is one thing to feel *stupid*, it is another thing to lack *confidence*.

When I feel stupid as a scientist, things are ok. When I lose my confidence in my ability to contribute, I stop getting stuff done.

Right now my advisor seems to think that I am not confident enough, and that this is a major shortcoming.

I think it's true that this is my biggest problem right now. I realize that it's like a phobia, not logical.

But I'm not sure my advisor understands the distinction. I have no problem being stupid or even feeling stupid.

What I hate is when my advisor implies that I'm not worthy because my confidence level is not high enough to ensure success in this business.

That just makes me feel even less confident in my self, even if I know I have plenty of scientific ability.

Mel said...

"Realizing that one knows nothing is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge" (Socrates).

My favorite part is the way Dr. Scwartz realized it, it sounded painful, Aouichch!!! "That’s when it hit me: nobody did. -----
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.)" Sorry, this made me laugh :-) Sure, stupidity hurts when it hits you!

I am getting serious now"Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice." This is really a good teaching and I completely adhere to this idea.
But to reach this stage and be able to take that choice you need to have some form of intelligence because: to realize how stupid one can be, one has to be intelligent first, for a stupid is too stupid to realize he is indead stupid!

Although I don't think Dr. Schwartz rediscovered America in here, it was pleasant to read. It is good to remind people about what the essence of science and Academia really is. This has been extensively describes in these 2 master pieces of sciences and methodology. For those interested.
(I read them when I was 14-15 years old. I always wanted to study sciences but this was a revelation for me).

"Discourse on method" by Rene Descartes.
"Dialogues" from Plato, where Socrates exposes his maieutic method of teaching and knowledge.

Good books to read before or after grad school, or the best, as soon as one knows he or she wants to do science, this way stupidity won't hurt when it hits:-)
It was very courageous from Dr. Schwartz to try to share his thought on how to approach a scientific problem and how to acquire a high level of knowledge, he is not offering any easy solution. It will be hard to teach a graduate student on how to embrace stupidity, when actually this is perceived as a lack of self confidence by most of their peers and PI.
For example the worst answer you can give to a question in a seminar is :"I don't know", instead you always have to find something you think you know to talk about: "Very interesting question, we didn't perform the experiment yet, but what I can tell you....."

So here is my question, why can't one acknowledge his ignorance and just say: I don't know, I need to do more search.
It is a big paradox.

Locks said...

I think first year's comment was an important one. Does anyone have an answer?

I dislike the word talent because I feel like it describes some kind of innate ability which, regardless of what I do, I either have or don't have. If it exists, how do I tell if I have it? What if I don"t and I am working in an area in which I don't?!

This kind of thinking has gotten me into a lot of trouble so I don't like the word and try to focus on something I can work on rather than something I can't help.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article for all the reasons people have discussed already. However, I suggest that there is also an undercurrent that's more disturbing. I would suggest that what the writer's friend meant by "feeling stupid" may have been pretty different than the interpretation he eventually came up with. There's no way to know, really, but it seems like one possibility is not that she couldn't see how "feeling stupid" (as described by the writer) is how she was supposed to feel. Rather, what she may actually have meant by "feeling stupid" was feeling like she wasn't getting any positive reinforcement or encouragement. Often those who are not in that situation can't see how that makes such a difference. The writer of this article seems to have interpreted his friend's situation entirely through his own worldview -- and if you think about it, he essentially says "I was right, I did it the right way, and she didn't make it because she had the wrong attitude."

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm a PhD student currently writing up my thesis. Heading into academia is a bit daunting for this very reason of feeling stupid! I have begun to publish with my very supportive supervisor, but it is because the supervisor is such a good teacher that I am concerned.

Will I be able to carry out independent research?? I have ideas, but I don't know how to make them scientifically/mathematically sound. During writing up, I realise just how little I actually know! And I will be called Doctor!

Do senior members of faculty generally help new reseachers find who they are? My worst nightmare would be "congrats on the job, go away and publish at least 3 good papers a year".

Cerebral said...

As one poster said, this is a timely article (though I see you blogged this in 2008) it's the first time I'm seeing it, and it's something I'm struggling with on a daily basis as a student of nanotechnology. I've decided as of today, that I too am okay with feeling stupid. It's all about attitude and perspective. What I know today is way less than what I know tomorrow and that in itself is part of an incredible journey unto itself. Thank you.