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Make Ignorance your Friend

by Dean Radin

Pasted below is an excellent article describing why, in science, it is important to feel comfortable with one’s stupidity (more like ignorance than stupidity). Non-scientists may not realize that most of the time in scientific research – especially research at the edge of the known, where all the excitement is – we really don’t know what we’re doing. Those few things we think we do understand are taught in elementary college textbooks.

Students who do well in school, meaning those who get all the right answers on tests based on those textbooks, come to believe that they fully grok the nature of reality. But what they are grokking is what we thought we knew 10 or 20 years ago, and oftentimes textbooks are behind the curve of knowledge the moment they are published. Professors can’t admit this, of course, because then students can argue that the tests aren’t fair. So academia glosses over the fact that getting comfortable with stupidity is an extremely important lesson to learn, especially for smart people who intend to devote their lives to studying the unknown.

When smart people forget that ultimately we’re all rather ignorant, that’s when debates about controversial topics turn into emotional turf wars, and that’s when real stupidity rears its ugly head.

Thanks to Damien Broderick for bringing this article to my attention.

Martin A. Schwartz
“The importance of stupidity in scientific research”
Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771 (2008)
First published online May 20, 2008
Accepted 9 April 2008

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been PhD students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

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 PhD, 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 PhD 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’d like to suggest that our PhD programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

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. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. 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.

  • 1 Comment
  • KYRANI Feb 20, 2012

    I wouldn’t have said that “productive stupidity means being ignorant” because stupidity implies lacking intelligence and common sense. I liked your words of being comfortable with ignorance. Ignorance is a word that is often used in a derogatory fashion but really it only means lacking in knowledge or awareness or both about some things, many things in fact if we are to be pioneering scientists. I agree that it is best to acknowledge that we are ignorant about many matters and that is why we are investigating them. And furthermore that “nobody knows that is why it is a research problem”. However asking the right questions is critical to arriving at the right answer because our questions guide our investigation or at least point us in a particular direction. I have found that admitting ignorance and using intelligence and common sense is not enough. I have gained a great deal of insight from meditating on an issue, allowing my mind to be receptive of what is behind a particular matter. Aspects of creation are not coincidental. They have a foundation in the mind, the non-physical realm. I also have had a practice for years now of “asking the universe for guidance and even an answer”. The results that I have seen have astounded me. You gain insight into something unexpectedly or an instinct to look up something or go talk to someone etc. And through those activities is one follows them up on gains some direction or knowledge that can lead to asking the right questions etc.

    Also we need to accept ignorance while having confidence in finding an answer. This is difficult sometimes but once you realize that the one does not affect the other then you can move forward without hindrance. Studying the unknown can be a hard road but very rewarding and even empowering at times when we gain a breakthrough and realize something significant.

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