The Importance of Stupidity in Research: Today, on that other social network, my grad student Brandie Cross tagged…

The Importance of Stupidity in Research: Today, on that other social network, my grad student Brandie Cross tagged me on this GIF  with the title, “My PI when I try to explain why my experiment failed”. I laughed. I was reminded of a wonderful essay by microbiologist Martin Schwartz that made the case for productive stupidity in science. It’s great to feel smart, but it’s more useful to feel stupid. If you don’t feel stupid, are you really pushing the envelope, stretching for that tantalizing little nugget of knowledge seemingly just beyond your reach?

• Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”, which has been loosely parsed as the first law of scientific research: E = Herp Derp^2. The beauty of science is that it is perfectly okay to bumble along , mostly getting things wrong, but being insanely elated when we learn something. 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. Hey, it’s not that bad being scorned by the divine Meryl Streep 🙂


GIF: “My PI when I try to explain why my experiment failed”,

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68 Responses to The Importance of Stupidity in Research: Today, on that other social network, my grad student Brandie Cross tagged…

  1. Rajini Rao says:

    Hehe. Everything is clear now.

  2. Mark Negie says:

    I’m amazed everyday on what I don’t know.

  3. Rajini Rao says:

    Yeah. Especially on Google+ 😛

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Wisdom is knowing that you are stupid 🙂

  5. Mark Negie says:

    No, wisdom is knowing you are ignorant. You can’t do a damn thing for stupid.

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Mark Negie , stupidity in this context is ignorance. The author does a nice job of clarifying what kind of stupidity he is referring to in the link.

    Aida Hazlan , Dr. Seuss’ nonsense always made a lot of sense, didn’t it? 🙂

  7. Mark Negie says:

    Feisal Kamil which makes us human.

  8. As Socrates discovered, he was the wisest man in Athens because he alone knew the limits of his knowledge. 😉

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Feisal Kamil , you raise’s an interesting point. I think one has to have the right balance of self confidence and insecurity to survive and do well in research.

  10. Alex Law says:

    That may be true of Wisdom, Mark Negie but in computer programming you must accept your own stupidity or debugging is impossible.

    It is the balancing act between having the monumental ego to believe you can write the code and being egoless enough to not go insane wrestling with your own stupidity that allows programs more complex than a single page of code to be written.

  11. Rajini Rao I think that applies to the arts as well.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Alex Law , that is exactly the point I’m trying to make, thank you.

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    Very true, Michael R . This applies any time we venture into the unknown.

  14. Mark Negie says:

    Rajini Rao Okay. in the context of the this thread I’ll accept this definition of stupidity. Otherwise stupidity = American politics. 

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Feisal Kamil , I think we have a high tolerance for arrogance if we perceive that it is earned.

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Haha, that is a different kind of stupidity altogether, Mark Negie !

  17. Mark Negie says:

    Please remember as we gain knowledge, we need to gain understanding. (Proverbs 4:7).

  18. Mark Negie says:

    Alex Law I don’t see that as acceptance of one’s stupidity, but understanding one’s fallibility.

  19. Jean Lotz says:

    Thanks for sharing Rajini Rao 

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    You’re welcome, Jean Lotz 🙂

  21. Mark Negie says:

    Ditto Jean Lotz  thanks, I enjoy seeing your posts, Rajini Rao ; they set off a wonderful flurry of great comments.

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Well, once in a while we do get it right and understand what we are doing. That’s a good thing, Roman Scherbakov . Don’t be too tough on yourself 🙂

  23.  Rajini Rao  “The more we learn, the greater we find is our ignorance.”

    There is no progress without mistakes.

    Eloquent humor there, nice share

  24. “… Some speak of the future,

    My love she speaks softly

    She knows there’s no success like failure

    And failure’s no success at all.”

    Love Minus Zero/No Limit

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    +100 for that bringing Bob Dylan to this stream, William McGarvey !

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Then you’re in good company, Mike Clancy 🙂

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    One of these days, Mike Clancy , one of these days! %@*$

  28. Beth Johnson says:

    This reminds me of something my mother keeps reminding me about university — “When you get there, you think you know everything. When you leave there, you realize you hardly know anything. And that is what you go to school to learn.”

  29. Norman M. says:

    Beth Johnson I would add, for graduate study, “When you leave there, you realize you hardly know anything and you have learned an approach towards discovering and creating new knowledge.” This is especially true for engineering and science studies. 

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    Beth Johnson , you will enjoy the graph in the link a few comments up 🙂

    Norman Ma , I agree. The point of grad school is to learn how to learn. The actual knowledge gets obsolete so quickly.

  31. Beth Johnson says:

    Rajini Rao Oh, that graph is perfect! Yes, that’s it exactly.

  32. Norman M. says:

    Charlie Alpha Foxtrot While researching, documentation is important.

  33. Rajini Rao says:

    Norman Ma , relating what you said before about learning, this quote of Carl Sagan comes to mind (I used it in yesterday’s reshare of Science databases): Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. 

  34. Increase the area of a circle, and you increase the circumference too. So the more we add to our knowledge, the more we see of the boundary between what we know and what we do not know. Stupidity is perhaps like having a much larger circumference for a given area. Don’t we talk of well rounded knowledge?

  35. i dont understand what is this 

  36. Dr. Cross says:

    Great essay! I think this is a new excuse for my painting and dancing on weekends. I feel like if you obsess about something too long it never changes while if you assume you are beat and think about something else for a while- the problem has new dimension when you come back to it. Something has to be said about the careful balance of mind, body and soul in the assumption of ignorance and adaptation to humility.

  37. I don’t think it’s stupidity – it’s more like a feeling after a trial test or a series of omissions. You need the sense of being lost, and be in the “what am i doing here?” mode to strengthen your abilities of working without supervision. A sense of direction, while welcome, can lead someone off a discovery. Being crazy, doing things in a wrong way, running experiments over 20 times and encountering mistakes can be a good thing.

  38. From Martin Schwartz’s article:

    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.

    Note that this is true not only about science but all forms of learning.

  39. Norman M. says:

    Sowmyan Tirumurti Using the circle as an analogy to deacribe what we know is useful… as we grow and learn from a point in the center of the circle, it becomes more difficult to fill the circle as we learn along each axes of topics from the center.

  40. “what we know is useful.” – but we don’t know what’s useful by default. Hence, the need to wander, do unconventional things, adopt “weird” methods, produce “wrong” data prompting new investigations.

  41. Rajini Rao says:

    The circle of knowledge is an excellent analogy. Sowmyan Tirumurti , Shah Auckburaully , Norman Ma , I use this “illustrated guide to a PhD” to explain to first year students what their research will look like 🙂

  42. Deeksha Tare says:

    One of the scientists of NIV (National Institute of Virology, where I study) who works in the field areas, in the places of outbreaks and who is totally a self made man always says to us while teaching (which is once in every 6 months!) that there are 3 types of questions-

    A good  question,

    A bad question,

    and A stupid question!!

    One should never be scared of asking any of those! You have nothing to lose! 🙂

    And Rajini Rao there could have been no better time to post about this! Today I stand at at a point where my so called student life is about to end and I’m going to slowly foray into science! Much needed views! Thanks everyone on this thread, you all are awesome!! 🙂

  43. Deeksha Tare says:

    Feisal Kamil , stupid question not exactly in the sense of the word…

    Somewhat like hesitating to ask anything which comes to your mind, anything which bothers you, nags you in the back of your head!

    I never think twice, if there’s any doubt I shoot!

    Without the fear of being labelled stupid by my classmates and the speaker!! Hehe!

  44. Being an opportunist, I regard states of ignorance as being one of the best opportunities ever.

    The British have a nice word for being comfortable with being uncertain:  muddling along.  One keeps going even though one has no idea where one is going. 

    Also I am reminded of John Cleese’s focus on achieving creativity which is that we need two different kinds of focus:  playfulness (some would say sloth, lol) and seriousness.  In addition, a recent study shows that when we are just messing about, solutions often follow.

  45. Rajini Rao says:

    A good question may be surprisingly difficult to frame, so I agree with Feisal Kamil : a toast to wiser tests and do we get to toast you too, Drew Sowersby ? How did your special test go? I hope you fought off the snakes 🙂

  46. Rajini Rao says:

    Watching now, Feisal Kamil , because NBC delayed the broadcast to keep it to “primetime”. Chuckled through Mr. Bond’s escorting of the Queen (lovely Corgis) on to a helicopter and her subsequent “jump”. Of course, G+ is having great fun with a new meme 😉

    I did catch the Saudi team!

    Good visit with the family, I hope?

  47. Ability to ask good questions is important to be efficient in our quest for knowledge. The question may considered stupid if many people know the right answer. If I shed my inhibitions about appearing stupid before I ask a question, I may remain stupid for a shorter time. Details of a student’s ‘incompetence’ should interest a teacher :). It is the ones who hide their incompetence we should be worried about. 

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Well said, Sowmyan Tirumurti , thanks!

  49. Deeksha Tare says:

    Oh! That’s so very true Sowmyan Tirumurti  🙂

    The fact that you’re going to gain some knowledge is worth a lot more than taking the risk of looking stupid in front of people!

    I don’t care what others think of me! My quest should be satisfied, that is all I am concerned about!

    That is why I always prefer sitting in the front row, it should feel like it’s just the teacher and me, and no one else can stop me from taking all that is required from the speaker, learning every little detailed thing he/she has come to give!!

  50. Rajini Rao says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Sowersby! I often ask for an autographed copy of a thesis if I am an official “reader”. At my institute, the advisor and one reader signs off on the dissertation letter. Glad you handled the snakes well.

  51. Rajini Rao says:

    That rates a 🙂 too, Drew Sowersby . It’s a graduate degree! Congrats.

  52. Rajini Rao says:

    MS programs are rare in medical schools (most are straight PhD programs), but we do accept many candidates with an MS  because they are better prepared than undergrads right out of college.

    0.1% agarose? Wow, that must be a very, very soft gel! Do you run it slow and cool to get good separation? That’s really interesting that you can resolve bands of that ought to write it up as a techniques paper.

  53. Deeksha Tare says:

    <Takes down notes, ready to shoot a stupid question at Drew Sowersby whenever in doubt>

  54. Rajini Rao says:

    Deeksha Tare , I used to be the annoying student sitting in the middle front row 😛

  55. Deeksha Tare says:

    That was quite expected from you Rajini Rao !! 🙂

  56. Jim Clancy says:

    At Times, It’s a lot more practical and quite satisfying to feel like the stupid one, because you would not want any of the character traits of the smart one in the first place.

  57. Rajini Rao says:

    I agree with her, great answer Rashid Moore 😀

    I hope you forgave her for all the mental abuse challenges she subjected you to!

  58. Anil Sood says:

    How careless you are? 

  59. Roger Adkins says:

    Is stupidity not, subjective to the question?

  60. Deeksha Tare says:

    Rajini Rao , I love going back to that article! Thanks again for sharing it with us! 🙂

  61. Rajini Rao says:

    We’re fortunate to live in an age of awe and escalating possibilities..I saw this video in my stream and thought you may enjoy it Deeksha Tare :

    The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck by Jason Silva.

  62. A magical morning: just this morning I discovered this amazing Senior Project essay by Jenna Ruggiero at Bard College, “Fled is that Magic: The Uses of Enchantment in John Keats and Led Zeppelin”: It is the perfect accompaniment to Jason Silva’s video linked to by Rajini Rao above.

  63. Rajini Rao says:

    Do you have a link to the essay, Leland LeCuyer ? What a neat topic …I love both Keats and Led Zepp 🙂

    I’m guessing her title is from the last line of Ode to a Nightingale: “Fled is that Music,—do I wake or sleep?”

  64. Oops. See what happens when you’re awestruck! — I just added the link to my comment above. 

  65. Rajini Rao says:

    Great, thanks! A perfect read for a rainy holiday like today.

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