Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The importance of stupidity

with 5 comments

Martin A. Schwartz

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.

Martin A. Schwartz, “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

5 Responses

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  1. Fabulous! “Beginner’s mind” is a necessity in every part of life, some of the time.

    Best to you, Alec, and thanks for posting this!


    Sally Ember, Ed.D.

    October 29, 2016 at 10:01 am

  2. The best questions are always asked by those who do not have the answers.


    October 29, 2016 at 1:50 pm

  3. Great post. I spend a lot of my time pushing my students into trying to work at their Maths in areas where they feel ‘stupid’, rather than just sticking where they feel safe. Nothing grows on the comfort zone.


    October 30, 2016 at 3:57 am

  4. @Sally Ember: Glad you liked it!


    November 6, 2016 at 9:23 am

  5. @Martin: Exactly! As I pointed out in a later post, it’s often the ones who try harder who end up doing the most interesting work.


    November 6, 2016 at 9:25 am

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