I was just pointed to this wonderful essay about the importance of stupidity in scientific research (Martin Schwartz, Journal of Cell Science). It’s a short and wonderful little essay, and points out what it is that is so satisfying about scientific research — and what makes it so hard. And how so many students are somewhat misled as to this fact — they’re used to feeling smart, and so may leave the sciences because they feel dumb. As an interesting side note, the story the author starts out with is that of a woman leaving the field because she feels stupid all the time. I, myself, am a woman who left physics because it seemed like the men knew more than me, it just wasn’t “easy” enough for me. I wonder, is the stupidity problem perhaps more damaging to women than to men?
Here’s a pertinent paragraph from the essay, which gave me a little “a-hah” moment right now, years after my PhD!
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.
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.
A commenter (John Clement, Houston TX) commented on the listserv where this was posted:
One problem with science is that it may seem to be very simple, because it is generally taught early on in a very didactive fashion. But later on it is only accessible when you are willing to acknowledge the confusion, and work through it. This is expecially true in physics. Other subjects may be more attractive because this may not be as evident early on. History is
often acknowledged to be confusing, and students expect this. Math on the other hand is so rigidly taught that students who can not tolerate confusion will choose it over science. Students tend to think that science is rigid, and that is part of the problem with our educational system.
I suspect that many students leave science when they begin to encounter significant confusion. Often they have had success, and did not experience confusion in previous courses.
Of course, there is the flip side of the coin — if it’s too easy, you get bored, and don’t learn either. Below is a graph of optimum “flow” (by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) illustrating this concept: