The importance of feeling stupid

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 14, 2009

photo by swanskalot - flickr

photo by swanskalot - flickr

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:


Rhett May 15, 2009 at 1:07 am

Replace learn with exercise and “feel stupid” with get sweaty and sore.

Same thing – right?

I hear students “I don’t like science because it’s confusing”. Confusion is just a way point on the journey to understanding.

What if someone said they stopped working out because they were always so sweaty?

I like the graph of challenges vs. skills.

sciencegeekgirl May 15, 2009 at 1:23 am

Replace learn with exercise and “feel stupid” with get sweaty and sore.

Our geographic disparity is showing. We don’t sweat here in Colorado — kids’ tears evaporate before they hit the ground. Louisiana? Not so much.

Anyway. The discussion on PHYSLRNR continued on about just what you say — that confusion (and disequilibration, to be jargony) are necessary parts of the path to learning.

Still, we don’t want our students to feel *stupid*. “Productively confused,” is one thing. But so often if students feel dumb, they figure it’s because they’re not getting it, and can’t do it.

Captain Skellett May 19, 2009 at 3:06 am

I really liked your post, it explains a lot of how I’ve felt after studying science at University – it really is like a change in focus from learning about what works to trying lots of things that don’t work. It’s a big jump.

I’m heading more down the road of science communication now, but I still think about how much fun scientific research could be, despite the frustrations that come with it!

Jarrod Hart May 24, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Great post, thanks.
I have been away from university for some time and see a similar confusion at the interface between technology and business:- the business managers (finance, sales, etc) want the R&D department to present black-and-white certainty and don’t realize that successful research requires people to work in a vacuum of certainty without becoming discouraged (or ‘thrive on chaos’ as I like to say).
These managers may well have been the students who were scared off science…
Anyway the result is that business rarely funds fundamental breakthrough research unless the management break through this misconception. Can you imagine telling your boss (possibly in the height of a recession), that you are mostly in the dark but have some interesting theories?

Ramya September 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm

I really liked this post. It’s refreshing to see that someone who actually really likes science once felt like the men knew more than her. I think the stupidity problem can be more damaging to women simply because they’re traditionally not expected to excel in this arena, but, then again, things are changing rapidly, and that pretty much makes the stupidity problem generic.
I’ve been through it, I’m still going through it and it’s nice to see that stupidity can, in fact, lead to you learn more. Here’s to getting comfortable with that!

Harish September 20, 2009 at 4:04 am

Feeling stupid, or feeling important, both are voices in the head. Nothing has relation to reality. The magic, however, is that the human mind is so powerful that what ever it dwells upon, it makes real..

I have been a student of science, and learning somewhat loses its meaning, when other lacks start dominating, like for example, making money, selling, hyping, and pleasing important people.

Perhaps one value that remains is Health, proper nutrition, and what ever is required to sustain health.

A lasting knowledge inmy view, is about God, and Goodness. Science, technology are trasient, and may not give peace.

Harish September 20, 2009 at 4:12 am

I am surprised there is a generalization that occurs to me now about what I posted a few minutes back.

Take care of the hardware you got- your body, (Thats all you got interfacing you with the physical world) and the dynamics that sustain it. All others may perhaps be changed at will.

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