Monday, June 22, 2009

Constructive Stupidity

Here are some definitions of stupid I found on the web:

  • annoying or irritating; troublesome: Turn off that stupid radio.
  • lacking ordinary quickness and keenness of mind; dull.
It's quite likely that many of this blog's readers have found something, at some time to be "stupid" -- it doesn't make sense, or it is inappropriate, suggesting that the mind that came up with the idea must be somehow inferior. The thing is, a lot of things that once seemed 'stupid' to someone are deemed perfectly reasonable today, like: flying to the moon (or even flying, at all); women attending college (or even voting); trying to achieve 100% literacy in a society; traveling long distances in a single day; curing many diseases once considered fatal ... the list of stupid once upon a time things is long and will continue to grow longer, as many of today's prejudices become tomorrows accepted practice.

Nevertheless, the stigma associated with the term 'stupid' is so strong, that most people would dare not even attempt anything considered by the majority to be stupid. It therefore requires a certain kind of person, impervious to skepticism, criticism, ridicule, censure, or even ostracism, to go against the grain and willingly undertake stupid initiatives. Some of these people might be true cranks, but a whole lot of them are intelligent, persistent, strong-willed souls, seekers of the unknown, who tilt at windmills to make the stupid commonplace and accepted. Some go even further and wear the mantle of stupidity which then on gives them permission to pursue their 'stupid' obsessions.

Which brings me to this fine essay called The importance of stupidity in scientific research by Martin Schwartz of the University of Virginia. Schwartz writes about meeting an former graduate student colleague of his who, although he considered her to be very, very smart, dropped out of the PhD program and became a very successful lawyer instead. Her explanation for dropping out was that the program made her 'feel stupid'. He writes,
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.
He explains that scientific research is hard, since it involves explorations into uncharted terrain and is therefore expected to make one feel stupid. In order to make discoveries, one stays with the feeling of stupidity until insights begin to emerge.
... 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.
I like his coining of the expression productive stupidity:
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.
There is practically no essential difference between this part of the process in science or in any creative endeavor. Creativity and innovation are excursions into the unknown; there is often no map to guide one's efforts, and there needs to be much speculation, guessing, and trial and error. This is how discoveries happen, this is the road that leads to that supremely satisfying aha! that makes the entire enterprise worthwhile, providing intrinsic rewards for one's efforts.

Those who are consistently creative and also the best of scientists are never afraid to feel or appear stupid. Being stupid is often the first step to challenging the status quo and constructing entirely new paradigms.

So let's come up with a new ritual for ourselves: every morning, let's look at ourselves in the mirror and say out loud: I am going to think or do something really stupid today, and that makes me feel so good!

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