Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's the stupidity, stupid

Something else that I read on our long road trip from Frankfurt to Stockholm is this nice essay by Martin Schwarz on
Martin Schwarz is Professor of Microbiology and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia.

“Science makes me feel stupid,” he writes. But instead of avoiding it, he “actively seek[s] out new opportunities to feel stupid.” In a nutshell, his essay says that if you're doing research and you don't feel stupid every now and then, you're doing something wrong. You have to keep asking till you ask what nobody has asked before and then you're on you're own. Feeling stupid. If you stick to questions whose answers are known, you might feel smart, but you won't contribute to knowledge discovery.

I basically agree with Schwarz and I welcome that he is getting his point across so well. It is perfectly okay if science makes you feel stupid, whether you're a professional scientist or not. Just don't stop there. I however find it somewhat misleading that Schwarz calls it stupidity if one doesn't know an answer since it mixes up knowledge with intelligence. But it makes for a more catchy title.

Unfortunately, it is badly communicated in school what actual research is like. School science is still mostly a presentation of knowledge that's at least a century old. The answers are all known and your task is to pipe them into your head. But that's a bad preparation for research, and it doesn't get across the wonder and fascination of going where nobody has gone before and thinking what nobody has thought before. I vividly recall that in my first semesters at the university the most exciting moments were when a professor or a tutor (usually a postdoc) mentioned an unsolved problem, an open questions. There it was, the frontier of knowledge, and I wanted to go and poke around in the dark.

Martin Schwarz recalls his experience with his first own research project:
“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.”

Of course one never really knows whether there isn't somebody who knows an answer to your question. And if you've spent weeks only to figure out that indeed for other people on the planet the answer had been well-known, you feel really stupid. But then it also happens occasionally that the answer that everybody thought was well-known actually was wrong... As my teacher used to say: the only stupid question is the question not asked.

Partly related, Eric-Wubbo Lameijer over at Nature Network has an excellent series of posts on the IQ, what it measures and what not, Should you be smart to become a scientist? I, II and III. See also my earlier post How important is talent?.


  1. Bee:The answers are all known and your task is to pipe them into your head. But that's a bad preparation for research, and it doesn't get across the wonder and fascination of going where nobody has gone before and thinking what nobody has thought before.

    This sounded like a Star Trek scenario?:)

    This is an interesting point for myself as well. How do you go about formulating the right/next question given the consensus in science? All that we know?

    So again, as I mentioned to Steven sometime back, or, as Phil posted some posts back, where is a scientist to go next given the parameters of their research? Do we regard stupidity as "irresponsibility?" Or a position from which to move?

    For me, it is just that one must formulate the right question given the position of that has become self evident. Where is that?

    The mold has to be broken somehow?:)


  2. Nice, as always! Schwartz makes careful distinctions about different kinds of stupid. I like 'relative stupidity', when you don't do the coursework and get lower grades than everyone else.

    A crucial aspect is learning how to explain to others why you want to pursue your stupid idea. In ways that they understand and respect. Then it's not stupid. I suspect that smart people find good explanations for why their ideas aren't stupid faster. But there's definitely a time when a new idea seems stupid to most people, and perhaps there's a correlation between how big the idea-quake is and how long it takes to explain why the devastation will be worth the pain.

  3. Man, to ask stupid questions marijuana is matchless, it is really working. Man, I am not joking, it really makes you creative or at least you think you are.

  4. US IQs through the 1970s: 110 college entry (1100 SAT), 120 hard sciences PhD, 130 physics PhD, 150+ math PhD. Technical intellect can have low verbal scores. Feynman prided himself on it. Average CAPI-tested IQ of an LAUSD high school student (the 40% who do not drop out), is hard by 80. Take the hint.

    Lamproite and kimberlite do not guarantee diamonds, but dig there. South Wales has mammoth coal deposits but no diamonds. Tighten a nut with a wrench no matter how diversity whines about using hammers.

    Disovery is individual pique not group metrics. Do opposite shoes violate the Equivalence Principle? The congenitally inconsequential possess weapons-grade stupidity. An idiot is not half way to being an idiot-savant.

  5. Hi Peter,

    Yes, and the really smart people find reasons why their ideas aren't stupid even though they are, and then start believing themselves. One can probably outsmart oneself ;-) Best,


  6. Hi Bee,

    Well at least Schwarz has had me to feel better about all my stupid question’s :-) However in the end what counts is being able to find “ happy thoughts” to address them as Einstein would have them called. So in the end it turns out more it’s important how much you enjoy your work as opposed to any particular attribute either mental or physical.



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