Essay review: The importance of stupidity in scientific research

In light of recent depressing posts on the reproducibility crisis and the natural selection of bad science, I thought it worthwhile to revisit why we actually try to do good science, despite the pressures to compromise, and what qualities good scientists possess.

Some time ago, the cell biologist Martin Schwartz wrote an interesting and honest essay on why, for sincere scientists endeavouring to do their best, coming to terms with feeling stupid is not only important but necessary for good research. Most of us in science are here because we like it and we are good at it. More than that, we use science to explore the natural world because we hold a degree of fascination with the world and a longing for discovery.

We learned about science and scientific methods at school or university through coursework and lab or field experiences. But actually doing science, applying scientific methods to answer questions, is quite different from coursework or passing exams. Science gets applied to research problems. And research problems are research problems because nobody knows the answers to them, yet. We might not feel very competent, capable or gifted enough to solve our research problems, but our research problems are up to us to solve because no one else is better placed to solve them than we are. Schwartz writes, “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.”

It is hard to do good research, and it is very hard to do the kind of research that really matters. This is because research inherently requires moving into the unknown (eg. Is the question right? Are the methods rigorous? Does the experimental design really answer the question?).

It is also hard to be productively stupid. Schwartz writes that science involves confronting our “absolute stupidity” (interested readers may peruse his essay for a discussion on relative vs absolute stupidity), the kind of stupidity encountered by deliberately trying to push into the unknown and undiscovered.

Our ignorance is not really infinite (otherwise we would not know we are ignorant). But trying to ask important questions puts us in the uncomfortable position of confronting our ignorance. Science however is about exploring the unknown as rigorously as possible and being ok with getting it wrong, as long as we learn something each time.

Reference

Schwartz MA (2008) The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science 121: 1771.

 

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