The Value of Stupidity: are we doing it right?

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:
ResearchBlogging.org 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

20 Responses

  1. We mentioned this paper before, bit you did the best job discussing it so far.

  2. Yeah, Schwartz’s essay on stupidity in research is great. I have it posted on the wall of my lab to remind me about it every day.

  3. Thanks for linking to this paper! I think I really needed to read that right about now.

  4. This is very true. But to be honest, I have never really seen this kind of “stabbing” rather than “constructive” criticism, except in a few isolated situations where the “stabber” is obviously a dumbfuck trying to cover up their own intellectual deficiencies.

  5. This ‘Faculty of 1000 Biology’ site is very, very cool. Thanks for the heads up!

  6. And all this time I thought I was uncommonly stupid. Now I know there’s nothing special or unique about my stupidity… *sobs*

  7. Darn – I put two links so my comment is now in the spam folder…

  8. Coturnix: it is? It’s not showing up…hold on…

  9. Found it, sorry about that.

  10. This is cool on 2 levels:
    1. I’m not the only one who feels stupid. Phew!
    2. My university’s library has access to Faculty of 1000 – sweet! More nerd time!

  11. oh man. my first 2 years in grad school were filled with negative data. i felt like a total dumbass. then, i took my qual exam where they told i needed to learn how to swim with the sharks, because that’s how things worked in our locality. (wtf!) i felt progressively more stupid until i hit on the right way to ask my research question. now, i feel like i might be worth something after all. but that’s only after several major experiments showing significant results… and nearing the end of this mess of grad school.
    CPP, there are definitely greater attempts at tearing-down by people who feel more threatened. it’s a quick way to identify who has the weak ego, certainly. (i used that as a weapon, but i needed it.) but it comes from all sources in my department. i came very near to ripping the chair and another faculty member a new one at a department talk once, that’s a long story but it was petty and stupid and it made me furious.
    sci, i do not register the descriptor “gentle” for the noun “PI”! please explain in terms that make sense to me.🙂 at least with your fellow grad students, you can get snarky. i’d so get smacked down for getting snarky with my boss.

  12. I think I first heard about that article through FSP last year and it quickly became everyone’s favorite in my postdoc lab. We ended up discussing it informally during our weekly journal club and the students in particular found it fascinating to hear our PI admit that stupidity drives his passion for discovery.

  13. I loved this paper. But I can’t think of anything smart to say about it.

  14. Leigh: I hear you. I think our fields lend themselves to more “sharks” than possibly others might. And by “gentle”, I mean usually coupling it with something like “that was a good talk you gave”, and maybe not making the criticism in public…though that’s usually too much to ask.

  15. So the converse of this is that the long-winded grad students and post-docs are deluded about their stupidity and are spewing intellectual garbage to cover up their own insecure ego? I have thus far found that the long-winded rarely have much to say.

  16. This is quite a bit of pain to go through in order to compete for a small number of jobs with long hours and low pay. If one isn’t going to be compensated (dollars or otherwise) in proportion to the work required to start a career in science then perhaps it’s better as a hobby.

  17. Having spent the last week and a half running samples on an ESI mass spec fruitlessly, and cursing under my breath constantly during the process, I can definitely agree with this paper.
    My boss isn’t a mass spec guy, the guys that maintain the mass spec aren’t supramolecular chemists, so while they try to help I’m mostly on my own. Just the other day I was talking to one of the mass spec guys and lamenting the fact I didn’t know what the **** I was doing, and he responded with, “Have you tried calling up any places that do this kind of mass spec stuff and seen about visiting them about it?”
    …No, I didn’t know I could do that! So then I felt doubly stupid for not knowing what to do, and not realizing I could just ask for help outside the university I work at! (Which I need to do now.)
    But as it was said in Sci’s post, it’s hard work. And there’s not always an obvious solution to problems in the research that make us feel stupid. I mean, if it was a cake walk and there were no head-bangingly annoying issues you encountered, why would the work be worth a PhD? I’ve been altering variables and tweaking the procedure I found to something I can use and am making headway (I saw a peak today! An honest to God confirmed peak that wasn’t just crud on the machine!), and hopefully will be able to figure out all the nuances of doing this in the coming months.
    Of course, this would be a **** lot easier if the only published authors who have done this sort of thing didn’t use nitric acid on the $50,000 machine. Apparently the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental laboratory has money out the wazoo, as they afford to tear apart and clean every single part of their machine thoroughly after each run they do….

  18. OK, so today I am out having lunch with several professors. We are at a restaurant where they have these pads that vibrate and light up when your order is ready. On one pad is the notation 24 with 4 as an exponent. Teasingly, we ask each other, what is that value? One professor says,”Oh, that’s easy–264,316.” Of course, when he says that, his pad lights up, and he goes to pick up his order, thus demonstrating his brilliance.
    By the time he gets back, we have calculated the correct value using somebody’s cell phone, which is 331,776. He says, “I just made that up, but I knew it ended in a six.” His value is wrong, of course, but he is correct within an order of magnitude. Stupid, or not stupid?

  19. I also REALLY needed to read this right now.

  20. same here!

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