#### TL;DR This is a very insightful essay about the importance ...
Martin A. Schwartz earned a PhD in physical chemistry from Stanford...
Henry Taube was an American Chemist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel...
Paul Graham has a great essay about this topic: [Paul Graham Essays...
> ***"The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper ...
1771
Essay
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.
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.
Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students
how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it
means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about ‘relative
stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read
the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t.
I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working
in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting
our ‘absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential
fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.
Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty
committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong
or gives up and says, ‘I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t
to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the
faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s
weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort
and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a
sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research
project.
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.
The importance of stupidity in scientific research
Martin A. Schwartz
Department of Microbiology, UVA Health System, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA
e-mail: maschwartz@virginia.edu
Accepted 9 April 2008
Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771 Published by The Company of Biologists 2008
doi:10.1242/jcs.033340
Journal of Cell Science

Discussion

Henry Taube was an American Chemist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ***"his work in the mechanisms of electron-transfer reactions, especially in metal complexes."*** Learn more here: [Nobel Prize - Henry Taube](https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1983/taube/facts/) > ***"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."*** #### TL;DR This is a very insightful essay about the importance of ***feeling stupid*** when doing scientific research. Research is intrinsically hard - you are immersed in the unknown, asking the questions, creating the experiments and seeking the answers. In the author's words: ***"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."*** The author argues that Ph.D. programs should be better at: 1. Helping students understand that research is really hard - much harder than solving problems presented in the most demanding courses. 2. How to be productively stupid - if you don't feel stupid you are not really pushing yourself and exploring the unknown. Feeling ignorant by choice means that are focusing on important questions and exploring the boundaries of your knowledge. ***"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."*** Martin A. Schwartz earned a PhD in physical chemistry from Stanford, where he worked in Harden McConnell’s lab on biophysics of phospholipid membranes.He then did postdoctoral research in biology at MIT in the laboratory of Richard Hynes where he studied interactions of fibronectin with cells and other proteins. He was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, Scripps Research Institute and the University of Virginia prior to moving to Yale in 2011. His current research program combines studies using biophysical, cellular and animal approaches to important questions about integrin signaling, mechanotransduction and disease in the vascular system. Learn more here: [Martin A. Schwartz](https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/martin_schwartz/) !["MAS"](https://i.imgur.com/QE8v0fi.jpg) Paul Graham has a great essay about this topic: [Paul Graham Essays - Being a Noob](http://www.paulgraham.com/noob.html). Here is a short excerpt: > [...] the feeling of being a noob is inversely correlated with actual ignorance. > But if the feeling of being a noob is good for us, why do we dislike it? What evolutionary purpose could such an aversion serve? > I think the answer is that there are two sources of feeling like a noob: being stupid, and doing something novel. Our dislike of feeling like a noob is our brain telling us "Come on, come on, figure this out." Which was the right thing to be thinking for most of human history. The life of hunter-gatherers was complex, but it didn't change as much as life does now. They didn't suddenly have to figure out what to do about cryptocurrency. So it made sense to be biased toward competence at existing problems over the discovery of new ones. It made sense for humans to dislike the feeling of being a noob, just as, in a world where food was scarce, it made sense for them to dislike the feeling of being hungry. [...]