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The importance of stupidity in scientific research
September 29, 2011 9:12 AM   Subscribe

The importance of stupidity in scientific research
posted by Blasdelb (42 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, the conflation of stupidity and ignorance.
posted by bswinburn at 9:21 AM on September 29, 2011 [8 favorites]


They do get it right. In grad school you get used to the idea of feeling dumb every day. There's always someone more expert than you or something that you don't know, it seems. It's just something you get used to. It's that feeling that you're discovering something, something just beyond the edge of what you or anyone else knows, that's what you live for. It's rarely a leap, but a couple steps out to where nobody's been.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


The research facility that I work at has Einstein's classic quote on a big plaque in one of the conference rooms.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:28 AM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh and productive stupidity. I was teaching high school biology teachers lately and wanted to get away from canned experiments. Suggested that they have the students come up with a variety of experiments to answer a question. The idea being that one or two would come up with a successful approach.

Man, they shot that one down quick. High school students do not like to do experiments that don't work. Nevermind that I would be overjoyed if I got meaningful results for a third of what I do.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:33 AM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Oh, I'll never get it!"
posted by Sys Rq at 9:39 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


"If science teaches us anything it teaches us to accept our failures, as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace."
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 9:43 AM on September 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


High school students do not like to do experiments that don't work.

We had a great time failing to build a bomb calorimeter. But:

a) it has the word "bomb" in it
b) and it really did involve setting things on fire
c) with electricity
d) we were nerds
e) we didn't know it wasn't going to work when we started
posted by DU at 9:43 AM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


DU: Right? I remember building a calorimeter like that too. But the teachers shot that idea right down.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:47 AM on September 29, 2011


Mercaptan - is this part & parcel of this weirdness that's set in where "failure" is totally not okay? I'm freaked out by the kids I deal with (on a limited basis, admittedly) who are totally unable to view not getting it right as anything but abject failure from which you only learn YOU ARE STUPID, rather than learning . . .actual things from failing (or getting unexpected results, or whatever).
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:51 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Einstein's classic quote

E = HERP DERP2
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:54 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


This article really struck a chord in me: just yesterday, while writing the introduction to a paper, I came across a train of thought in the literature that left me gasping at the amount of stuff I don't know. Of course it didn't help that it's a new field of research for me, but I was totally deflated at the extent of my ignorance. It's worse because even to know what is not known is a lot of work, especially if you're a newcomer to the field. And then to come up with an interesting question and solve it is quite daunting. With a clearer head, and after reading this article, I think that this feeling is the default one for practising scientists, the feeling that there is so much to learn, whether it's concepts from the literature, or finding a new perspective on existing themes.
Thanks for the post!
posted by dhruva at 9:55 AM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Kids need to be taught to interrogate their failures. And I just linked that up with my 12 year old's complete inability to debug the programs he's writing. It doesn't work? Call in Dad to look at it!

I've inserted enough print statements by now that I think he's starting to do the same. It's exactly the same thing as failing to build a calorimeter and wondering why, then fixing that, then wondering why it's still not quite right, etc.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I asked Gii", said Takashi, "if living a hermit's life in the forest wasn't awkward now that man is making such relentless advances there. But he denied it quite strongly. On the contrary, he said, the forest was steadily extending its power. It was more natural, in fact, to see the village not as a presence in its own right, but as an absence of the massed trees that were elsewhere. As one grew used to the idea that the surrounding forest was the only unequivocal reality, on could almost see a vast lid of oblivion closing in"……

"If I'd been Gii the hermit", commented Natsu, "I would have avoided taking refuge in such a terrifying place and only been too glad to go into the army."

"You might come to feel the same way, Natsu", said Takashi, "One might think that someone so sensitive to the fear of the forest was the exact opposite of the type who would go mad and take refuge in it. But as I see it, psychologically speaking, the two are one and the same type".


The Silent Cry
Kenzaburo Oe
posted by lalochezia at 10:00 AM on September 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


In a somewhat related vein, what a scientist knows about science (or, the limits of expertise).
posted by ChuraChura at 10:09 AM on September 29, 2011


From the link:
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.

Maybe she felt stupid because she initially picked the wrong career:
Women in Science
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 10:12 AM on September 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's not the conflation of ignorance and stupidity - ignorance is not knowing the hows and whys of something. Stupidity is not having a good idea of how you can even figure out the hows and whys of something.

It's all well and good to say, "I'm going to do an experiment!" but what does that even mean? I mean, take a basic engine - you want to know how it works. There's really no simple experiment you can do that's going to reveal the interplay of compression and fuel and spark to you. You're going to have to tease that out of a bunch of different experiments. Now, compare that to something that isn't something some person came up with in a logical and understandable way. Where do you even begin?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:41 AM on September 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Supposedly, stupidity refers to a lack of mental power. So merely not knowing what to do isn't stupidity, just a different kind of ignorance.

On the other hand, what counts as mental power varies from situation to situation. Research only counts as research if you can't solve the problem by reasoning at it. So it kinda does make you stupid with respect to the problem you're researching.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:46 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe she felt stupid because she initially picked the wrong career...
posted by BuffaloChickenWing


Following that link, on average science grad students get stipends of $1800 per month? Motherfucker. I could really use that extra $400.

I really don't need more reasons to be heavily doubting my 'career' choices, but that link is chock full of them.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:55 AM on September 29, 2011


NCBI ROFL
posted by homunculus at 10:56 AM on September 29, 2011


That 'Women in Science' article is harsh. Almost an 'abandon all hope, ye who enter' for aspiring science students.

As to where do you even begin for experiments, I'd say that you just break it down and follow the method. I do this daily on troubleshooting network issues. What do I think is going on? How can I test it? Try the test. Nope, that's not it, repeat.
Along with 'has anyone else faced this' (publications research). Change one variable at a time. Document what you've tried. Science, it works...

I haven't yet reached the original article author's level of comfort with what he doesn't know, alas.
posted by bitmage at 10:58 AM on September 29, 2011


as a strong advocate of "failure-focused discovery", and "design thinking" in general, the sentiments in this article appeal to me. our society, especially our business culture, demands that we have everything under control at all times, and the world simply does not work like that. the idea is to get things wrong on purpose, as early as possible, when you're still talking about the broader notions of what it is you're trying to accomplish (build a little, evaluate a little - prototype and test). that way, when you get down to the fine-grained details, you've made the big mistakes, and know what works and what doesn't, and why. our short-sighted (human? u.s.? global corporate?) culture focuses too much on getting things right the first time, and ferociously diverting attention when we don't.

i feel like this author has done a good job of embracing a number of approaches to creative thinking.

oh, and this quote
posted by rude.boy at 10:59 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, "stupidity" — even in the "lack of mental power" sense of the word — seems completely relevant to my experience of research.

A lot of the important concepts in my field are just too big for me to fit the whole thing in my brain at once. Luckily, there are ways of working with a concept that's too big for your brain. You break it up into pieces, you work on the pieces one at a time, you take copious notes and reread the same papers constantly — and even still, it's just unbelievably slow and frustrating going, and you never quite feel sure that you've put it all together right.

Working with oversized ideas like that does make you feel stupid. Maybe not stupid relative to the rest of your species, but stupid relative to what the task demands.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:03 AM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ah, the conflation of stupidity and ignorance.

Maybe not. Ignorance implies an entrenched position. The stupidity advocated here is a willful disregard for the status quo, yet a willingness to explore and change. It's akin to the stupid roles you take on when playing silly games with your children. It's mostly nonsense, but every once in a while you'll find a gem of insight or truth.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:07 AM on September 29, 2011


Medieval Maven: I think it's a property of the learning they've done up to that point. For most of those things, especially when it comes to science, there's a right answer and a correct method. Then suddenly these rules change. There has to be a reward for really trying but failing, and some help towards a new direction.
posted by Mercaptan at 11:28 AM on September 29, 2011


Mercaptan: "High school students do not like to do experiments that don't work."

To be fair, this works both ways: my science teachers also graded me down when my experiments didn't work.
posted by pwnguin at 11:58 AM on September 29, 2011


"High school students do not like to do experiments that don't work."

Most high school, and even undergrad, "experiments" are really more of a hands on demonstration of the concepts being studied in lecture.

Even at that - you've got 1 maybe 2 hours to get something resembling a result and then you'll get graded on how well it worked. Point is - they aren't troubleshooting/diagnostic/science classes. They are classes to demonstrate "scientific" principles. It's a subtle difference, but important.

Now, I work in science - and the tools we use are state of the art. Let me tell you - the state of the art is shit. Utter and total shit. It's a world of half broken tools, fragile and difficult to use software - it's all hair pulling crap. I'm impressed anything gets discovered, actually.

And the tools we use today are AMAZING compared to what we had available last year.

I used to work in construction. I was impressed anything ever gets built, let alone stands for any period of time. I think it's impossible to pour a basement according to the plans, and the windows are always the wrong size, the plans call for a 6 foot staircase in a 4 foot hole, and so on. There are more fuckups in the building of a house than there are individual pieces.

The thing is - you get through it. It's hard, at times - so frustratingly hard - and I suppose some people aren't cut out for it. But, everything in life is like that.

I had a calc professor in college who like to say "Any problem worth attack proves its worth by fighting back." I try to keep that in mind.

Although if that stupid eye tracker quits working again, I'm going to put my foot through the goddamned monitor.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


Point is - they aren't troubleshooting/diagnostic/science classes. They are classes to demonstrate "scientific" principles.

Electron Band Structure In Germanium, My Ass
posted by bitmage at 1:10 PM on September 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Is this the right place to post the Elmo/Craig Ferguson Chicken Experiment?
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:18 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great article. It's another reason I'm glad, in the long run, that I went to Hampshire College for undergrad. Hampshire's inverted path for introducing students to a field -- do experiments and case studies first as introductions to a field, then go take the distribution classes, then do more project-based work with more immersion in theory -- is absolutely the #1 reason why I understand the on-the-ground process through which science is developed, and why I was able to make it through a master's thesis and a dissertation without succumbing to terror or self-doubt. Hampshire holds its project-based method up as a better model for education than the meaningless cramming demanded by most schools, but I often think the school doesn't do enough to advertise what it does.
posted by gusandrews at 3:06 PM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


This article rang very true to me. Wish I'd read it three years ago - probably would have helped.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:01 PM on September 29, 2011


That "Women in Science" article is very interesting, and it does portray very well what a crappy job academic science really is. But Philip's* hypothesis that there are fewer women in science because women are too smart to go into a crappy career like science does not explain why there are so many women in the humanities and social sciences, which are even crappier jobs, and it ignores the very real pressures that women in scientific communities face.

*who I assume identifies as male and thus has not experienced being a woman in science
posted by yeolcoatl at 4:29 PM on September 29, 2011


In all areas of life, actually. I see this every time a friend or colleague encounters a computer problem and stops and say "I don't understand computers". My ex-girlfriend was studying psychology and law and every time she hit an area she didn't understand she'd stop and wait in the hope that her next lecture would explain it.

The truth about most knowledge is we can get there on our own - just like the people that developed these fields did. Start at first principles: people are self interested; the internet is a series of tubes; a stitch in time saves nine; and develop and analogise from there. But you'll feel stupid for a while, and that's terrifying.
posted by doublehappy at 4:45 PM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Following that link, on average science grad students get stipends of $1800 per month? Motherfucker. I could really use that extra $400.

Our stipend here is a little over $15000 a year. Boy, would I love $1800 a month.
posted by pemberkins at 4:55 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now, I work in science - and the tools we use are state of the art. Let me tell you - the state of the art is shit. Utter and total shit. It's a world of half broken tools, fragile and difficult to use software - it's all hair pulling crap. I'm impressed anything gets discovered, actually.

Absolutely. And this is when you can afford the proper tools! I'm a grad student with minimal funding. So, I have little arts-and-crafts sessions to build some of the equipment I need. Happily, I managed to cobble together a lot of field equipment I needed out of bits and bobs from Home Depot. All the neat research toys from Forestry Suppliers are so expensive. But PVC, duct tape and twine are cheap! I've got a sampling quadrat in my trunk that's made of sticks tied together into a square. (We were desperate, and as it turns out, it works fine.)

Things I have not managed to cobble together out of PVC and twine: flowmeters, surveying equipment, HOBO water level loggers. Someday...
posted by pemberkins at 5:10 PM on September 29, 2011


"High school students do not like to do experiments that don't work."

Really, nobody does, but once your career depends on actually producing something meaningful, your tolerance for doing non-working experiments to get to the working ones goes way up.
posted by juliapangolin at 6:47 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also think this applies in most areas of life. Having learned a second language and music as an adult, I put this down to having had a good science education, where the despair about constantly being reminded how dumb and ignorant you are (my words) is balanced by the joy of learning new stuff every day. Science is fun!

I've spent the last few days reading climate change denial blogs* and trying to understand what's driving the people who hang out there. i think this post explains some of it: they are terrified of having to deal with science and scientists, because they're pretty sure they're going to look stupid along the way. Otherwise most people would be content to post "AGW is a fraud!" and get it over with (and some do). Most anti-science posters worth their salt usually hang around and make some personal attacks on the researcher, joke about the worthlessness of the work, or speculate on how much better the world will be when we stop spending money on foolish drivel like this. For whatever reason, by the time they're ready to post, they believe that All of Science has been discredited, and this is their chance to kick it while it's down!!

Heads off to WWSomething to explain that "it's ok, you just need to get used to looking stupid and everything will be fine!"


*Do not do this - it's depressing.
posted by sneebler at 7:30 PM on September 29, 2011


Great, great little piece - thanks -
posted by facetious at 8:35 PM on September 29, 2011


High school students do not like to do experiments that don't work.

Nobody
likes to do anything
that doesn't work...
posted by ovvl at 9:19 PM on September 29, 2011


This is an especially good post for the night of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
posted by moss at 9:20 PM on September 29, 2011


Dying boy: ‘What’s it like after you die?’
Stan Marsh: ‘Uh… I’m not sure… I’d think that it’s a lot like it was before you were born?’

stupid in science
posted by mattresses at 9:45 PM on September 29, 2011


six-or-six-thirty: "Following that link, on average science grad students get stipends of $1800 per month? Motherfucker. I could really use that extra $400."

That sounds about right. I was making roughly $800 every two weeks after tax as a GTA in CS. And that's in the middle of nowhere in a not so famous state school. If you really want to be depressed, start looking up the salary of your professors, and how people who graduated the year you started grad school are faring in the marketplace.

For a while, I used to think this implied something about the relative productivity of fields of endeavor, but when you look at the grants, a lot of this boils down to the fact that you can't kill enemy soldiers with fancy words. DARPA, DoD and DoHS account for a good chunk of engineering funding, and made some nuclear physicists famous. I'm a little surprised geologists don't have oil money running out their ears though.
posted by pwnguin at 10:33 PM on September 29, 2011


``When you are thinking about something that you don’t understand you have a terrible, uncomfortable feeling called ‘confusion’. It’s a very difficult and unhappy business. So, most of the time you are rather unhappy, actually, with this confusion. You can’t penetrate this thing. Now, is the confusion… is it because we are all some kind of apes that are kind of stupid working against this? Trying to figure out to put the two sticks together to reach the banana and we can’t quite make it? …the idea ? And I get that feeling all the time: that I am an ape trying to put two sticks together. So I always feel stupid. Once in a while, though, everything — the sticks — go together on me and I reach the banana.''
-Richard Feynman (video)

At a later age he discusses being comfortable with uncertainty.
posted by nealeyoung at 10:52 PM on September 29, 2011


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