Apparently this essay came out in the Journal of Cell Science last year, and I guess Sci just didn’t hear about it. I finally DID hear about it, however, when I discovered The Faculty of 100 Biology. It’s freakin’ BRILLIANT. It basically gathers together over 2000 well-respected scientists from around the world, and asks for their comments on papers, as well as their rankings of the papers. Unfortunately, Sci’s library sux, and does not have a subscription to this. I think I might have to beg. I signed up for a three-week trial, but I’m still unable to get to the best part: the comments. Comments by renowned scientists on what is important and why. I would kill for this insight, and reading the comments can do a lot to hone your own critical reading skills. So check it out, and if your library has access, join!
So even though Sci doesn’t have access, there are still links to the papers in Pubmed, and Sci DOES have pubmed. And in the section of the Faculty 1000 known as “hidden jewels”, I found this:
Martin A. Scwartz “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”. Journal of Cell Science, 2008.
For anyone going into grad school, it’s a must-read. Hell, it’s a must-read for anyone IN grad school, mentoring grad students, or being a research scientist in general.
The major gist of the one page editorial was about feeling stupid in science. A professor spoke of a colleague he worked with in grad school who had dropped out, gone to law school, and was now a successful lawyer. When she was asked about why she had left, she said she was tired of feeling stupid. Her final degree was from Harvard Law.
I think anyone who has gone through grad school knows how that person felt. I know I feel more stupid with every passing day. I’ve been told that the day when you feel that you are the stupidist creature on the planet is the day they hand you a PhD. I cannot help but think that day must be coming soon, as my stupidity must soon reach critical mass. Stick a fork in her, Sci’s done.
The author points out that, for most people in science, their first love of science came…because they were good at it. Scientists tend to be pretty competitive people at one level or another, and there’s a big ego boost to be had in knowing you’re good at something that most people think is HARD. You master the math, you stomp the science! Not only that, most people who go to grad school, in any field, know they are pretty smart, and some have been told they were the brightest bulb in the box from the time their chubby fingers could learn the Suzuki method.
So it’s a nasty shock when you get to grad school. You’ve been smart, and now…you’re not. It’s not just a matter of classes, though you take plenty of those in grad school. You’ve made it through undergrad, classes are something you’re good at, book learning is something you can do. It’s when you get into the lab for the first time. This stuff…is hard. It’s complicated techniques developed over years, adapted to the lab in a precise and often somewhat gerry-rigged form. The learning curve for using a particular piece of analysis equipment can be on the order of YEARS. When you do get data, what on earth is it that you have?
Not only that, the person teaching you the stuff seems to know it on an almost intuitive level, and, if they are another grad student or recently out of grad school, will often fail to understand that you DON’T grasp super-amazing-hard-technique. Perhaps crazy-expensive-thing is broken. The person training you goes about the steps to fix it, eliminating one problem at a time. Desperately wanting to be seen as bright, and really trying to prove you were listening (which you were), you offer a suggestion. If you’re very, very lucky, it’s met with “no, that’s probably not a good idea, and here’s why”. But more often, your suggestion is met with an eyeroll and a “yeah…no”, or even a “how could you possibly suggest that?! What is wrong with you?!”
When you first get data, it’s a moment of pure elation, you did it! But then comes the analysis, and maybe you find out you just had an anomaly. Or the data was no good because of some factor that you overlooked, which was apparently completely obvious to everyone else. Even if the data is good, what on earth is it that you have? How do you explain it? How do you put it in the context of the literature?
Putting something in the context of all the work done before is almost as daunting as doing the work. No matter how much reading you do (in your copious free time) someone always seems to have a better understanding than you. The methods people use of informing you of your mistakes are not always constructive. Because of the often competitive nature of some departments, the correction may take the form of another grad student trying to tear you down, though usually it’s a PI being much more gentle.
The end result? You spend every day feeling more stupid than you have felt the day before. For every concept that you grasp, it seems that more elude you. The thing is, stupidity is a PART of science. But it shouldn’t be a part of it in this manner.
The fact is, we are all stupid. When you look at all there is to know in the universe, all there is to comprehend, we just CAN’T know it all. We can maybe find a key, tiny little piece, but the whole will forever be beyond our grasp. And that’s ok. That’s science, wanting to know the unknown, the desire to find out how and why. In science, we are ALL stupid, and we are all meant to be.
Perhaps we should put more emphasis on this collective stupidity. The fact that formulating your own research plan, coming up with your own questions and the best way to answer them, is hard, and will never be easy no matter how high you get on the ladder. In the words of the author “if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying”. The point of science is to ask questions that no one has answered yet, to find things where you don’t know what the result will be, and to discover more about the world in the process.
So in a way, it’s good that we learn how to feel stupid. It does keep you humble, even in those mad scientist moments. It’s a well known idea in the preliminary exam, you keep asking a student questions until they answer “I don’t know”. That “I don’t know” is an important thing, if you knew everything, what would there be left to do? But I don’t know that we need the added feelings of stupid that I have described above. The stupidity of science is constructive, productive stupidity. The kind you get every day in grad school…perhaps not.
The more time I spend in grad school (and it will probably be a long time yet), the more I am convinced that the competitive nature of most modern grad programs often works against their goal: to train and motivate young scientists. There will of course be a level of competition, it’s in our nature. But there should NEVER be encouraged to tear down others when you point out their flaws. A mentor should never roll their eyes and dismiss a question without explaining why. Grad students should not be backstabbing each other and tearing each other down, to bring themselves up. We do enough of that in the grant application process, we can at least keep it out of the hallways.
Now don’t get me wrong, to use the phrase of Physioprof (or perhaps ScienceBear, I don’t know who used it first), science isn’t a Carebear’s fucking tea party. It IS hard, and in many ways, it will remain competitive. There are lots of things that grad students need to learn, and some of those things need to be learned the hard way. And there shouldn’t be any lenience toward issues of scientific ethics or intentional violations.
But I think there should be more effort within a lab group and within a department to keep the criticism constructive. No tearing down of others to soothe your own ego (no matter how much you want to). And when you’re training a grad student yourself, remember that you were once clueless, and that what you now get on an intuitive level may not be so obvious to a n00b. If we emphasize the scientific community, and, more importantly, the collective stupidity that it takes to do science, rather than personal stupidity, we might have a little more luck fixing some of the leaks in our pipeline. And maybe they can give me a PhD when I realize collective stupidity, rather than my own.
Schwartz, M. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research Journal of Cell Science, 121 (11), 1771-1771 DOI: 10.1242/jcs.033340
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