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It’s ok to be stupid

This essay “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by Martin A Schwartz was kindly brought to my attention recently and it highlights some of the difficulties an early career researcher (PhD) can experience BUT rather than being all doom and gloom it leaves you with a sense of “huh…. well look at that.. I am actually doing OK”.

For most of us the reason we chose to pursue a path in science was because we were good at it... we were able to understand the processes involved and regurgitate the findings of those who walked (or rather experimented) before us at critical times and under exam conditions. In turn, we were rewarded with good marks and the feelings of being a clever person. Whoop woo!! With all of this positive reinforcement, before we know it we find ourselves immersed in a PhD and on an inquisition into the unknown.

Martin continues with a personal reflection from his days as a PhD student, from the daunting task of formulating a question (trying for one which is destined to lead to significant discoveries), designing the study, and summarising the findings into conclusions and writing it all up. Right from the get-go the PhD research program presents as a tough and exponential learning curve – I’m sure you have asked yourself a million times something along the lines of: what am I doing, how do I do it, I don’t know what these results mean or how to interpret them. A PhD is not easy task and quite different from usual coursework subjects, it is also a transitional leap from learning the work of those that came before you to then making your own discoveries. A lesson I think we all learn at some point, which was nicely summed up in the article, is the moment we realise and embrace the infinite amount of information that we don’t know, the easier our life becomes. Rather than finding this discouraging, we should take a page out of Martin’s book and learn to find it a liberating experience. Take comfort in the fact that we are all in the same boat and if our lack of knowledge is matched with equal parts of ignorance the only result is to ‘muddle through the best we can’ (and sometime that is good enough).

The article also raises the concept of ‘productive stupidity’, an ignorant determination that keeps us going when time after time, track-change after track-change we keep getting things wrong whilst confronting the unknown. This process is absolutely fine and can be quite educational as long as we learn something from each experience. Never forget that there is something valuable to be gained from identifying one’s weakness and saying ‘I don’t know’. The final pertinent comment reads something along the lines of: the more comfortable we become in being stupid the deeper we can explore the unknown and the more likely we are to make a discoveries of our own.

FINALLY, someone has said what we have all longed to hear… “you don’t need to have all the answers and its ok to feel stupid”! Good luck our fellow researching friends … you are doing a great job!

Martin A. Schwartz. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science. 121; 1771