The idea has been around for a while, which doesn’t make it any less gripping, quite the opposite, it is worthwhile to occasionally revisit it, if only for the sake of positive stimulus.
The first one to formulate the concept within the scientific field, though, was Martin Schwarz, a professor of microbiology and biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, who published an article  about the role of stupidity in scientific research, in the Journal of Cell Science in 2008.
Schwarz suggests that not only is it okay to feel stupid as a researcher, but that it is, indeed, necessary, because If you only address questions whose answers are already known, that might make you feel smart, but you won’t be contributing to significant breakthroughs.
Now, how does a researcher decide to write about the importance of stupidity in scientific research?
Schwarz was inspired after coming across an old friend he had not met for many years.
“We had been Ph.D. 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.”
And then he adds,
“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.”
So, Is Schwarz saying that feeling stupid is a prerequisite to conducting successful research?
“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”.
Feeling stupid isn’t directly related to being stupid, in this case.
The idea can be extrapolated to any other field, without distorting the basic concept.
It portrays a very common present feeling in scientific labs, if you ever felt like this, you are not the only one.
The only stupid question is the one not asked.
It is more difficult and worthy to ask good questions than to give good answers.
As Albert Einstein brightly puts it:
“The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science”.
What do you think?
- Martin A. Schwartz, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research“, 2008 J Cell Sci 121,1771 doi: 10.1242/jcs.033340