In an essay in the Journal of Cell Science, Martin Schwartz discusses the importance of stupidity in scientific research. It’s an intriguing concept that can apply to all aspects of human endeavour.
In high school, we judge our success by whether or not we get the right answers on the tests. Once we reach university, particularly at the graduate level, success is not so easily measured. As Schwartz discovered while working on his PhD, nobody has the answer to research problems; you have to work it out for yourself.
As Schwartz explains, “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. . . . 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.”
Schwartz goes on to recommend teaching students to be productively stupid: “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. . . . 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.”