“The importance of stupidity in scientific research”

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, February 24, 2009; edited to fix linkrot.

With a hat tip to Miz Richardson (who I’d link if she had web space to link to, apart from a Facebook page), an essay by Martin Schwarz in the Journal of Cell Science with one of the most impressive titles ever in academia.

And the article’s just as good, too. In fact, Nicole forwarded it along to me because we’d had so many conversations that plowed exactly the same ground. To wit:

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) 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.

I may be projecting, but I think one of the things that occurred to Nicole as she read that was an exchange I frequently have with students even now:

Student: Oh, my word, I completely should have known that. I feel so stupid.
Me: I had that feeling all time as a student. It was better when I figured out what that feeling really was.
Student: What was it?
Me: Learning.

I don’t know if it came from this, but there were also several times as I was yammering with Nicole that she was asking questions that I didn’t have good answers to. At a certain point when you do science, you recognize that there’s just ALL THOSE PAPERS IN THE UNIVERSE and there’s no way on God’s green earth that you are going to be able to read them all. So you get pretty comfortable shrugging your shoulders and saying “I don’t know, why don’t you read some stuff and get back to me?” I don’t do that to be a jerk; I do that because I’d really like to know myownself, and I don’t have time to read the relevant papers on my own.

(I’d like to, but professors get a bit more on their plate than just reading all day – even the guys who do research full time have to write the big-money grant proposals to earn their keep.)

Ultimately, when you do science, you hit that realization that, to paraphrase what David Suzuki once said, you are contributing little bits of knowledge to a vast well of science information. You are an expert on those little bits; nobody knows as much about those little bits as you. But others are going to use those little bits (interpreting what you supply in their own way, which may or may not have had anything to do with what you were thinking) to generate their own bits of knowledge, which they’ll contribute to that well. Everybody is building their explanations of how this world really works in their own way, and self-doubt can overwhelm you when you see how vast and intricate the world is; but you can get through that self-doubt by realizing that, in that small realm of knowledge, you really are an expert if you’ve read it and studied it deeply enough.

Partly, reading this was a affirmation that I’m telling my charges the right things about science.

Partly, this was a reminder of the excitement I have for a large fleet of my students, preparing to go off and start developing their own knowledge and taking part of this wonderful journey.

And then there’s the realization that I’m still at the front side of one of these back-and-forths with a new colleague in science…who just so happened to be one of my first students at Shorter. We’ve got a couple of decades of these back and forths ahead of us.

And then there are all the new colleagues to come.

I’m still starting what’s going to be an amazing career.

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