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.
11 years ago