Getting comfortable with stupidity

This is an excellent article describing why in science it is important to feel comfortable with one's stupidity (more like ignorance than stupidity). Non-scientists may not realize that most of the time in scientific research, especially research at the edge of the known -- which is where all the excitement is -- that we really don't know what we're doing. Those few things we think we do understand are taught in elementary college textbooks.

Students who do well in school, meaning those who get all the right answers on tests based on those textbooks, come to believe that they fully grok the nature of reality. But what they are grokking is what we thought we knew 10 or 20 years ago, and oftentimes textbooks are behind the curve of knowledge the moment they are published. Professors can't admit this, of course, because then students can argue that the tests aren't fair. So academia glosses over the fact that getting comfortable with stupidity is an extremely important lesson to learn, especially for smart people who intend to devote their lives to studying the unknown.

When smart people forget that ultimately we're all rather ignorant, that's when debates about controversial topics turn into emotional turf wars, and that's when real stupidity rears its ugly head.

Thanks to Damien Broderick for bringing this to my attention.

Martin A. Schwartz
The importance of stupidity in scientific research
Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771 (2008)
First published online May 20, 2008
Accepted 9 April 2008

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in 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.

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. Let me explain.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can't be the only reason - fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and
doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I
needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did.

That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn't really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn't know wasn't merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I'd like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don't think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It's a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don't know what we're doing. We can't be sure whether we're asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, 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 asufficiently 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.


muzuzuzus said…
When I talk with different types of people and groups of people online etc about diverse issues which nearly always dive into the meaning of reality, I always remind them and myself this: Science does not know what consciousness is, and science does not know what matter is.

I encourage to delve into what this means--not knowing consciousness and matter. It MEANS Mystery.
It is some deep pool!
Matt Campbell said…
Hi Dr. Radin,

Months after downloading it, I finally read your "Time-reversed human experience: Experimental
evidence and implications" paper of 7/31/2000. I liked it a lot. I have one observation though about it: It essentially calls into question the scientific method as a process of discovery due to effect-influenced causality by application of the scientific method (controlling for things like the filedrawer effect, etc.). This seems a little like the pot calling the kettle black.

Nonetheless, based on the points you made in it, I am still inclined to agree with your overall thesis, but just think it's hard to use a given methodology to in essence also discredit it. Or maybe that's part of the phenomenon. :) Just an observation. I am happy to read your response.
Dean Radin said…
It may seem like an epistemological paradox, but it's not quite that bad. What these experiments imply is that concepts like time symmetry and retrocausality, which are acceptable in microscopic physics, sometimes also reach into the macroscopic world. Exactly how this happens we don't yet know. But the beauty of science is that even radical ideas like retrocausation are empirically testable.
What a relief! I thought I was the only one who is stupid!

Seriously, it's good to see someone who admits he doesn't have all the answers. PhDs are often expected to try to pretend to know more than what they do. I recall a journalist asking Bill Gates at a press conference one day, a question like what he thought was the meaning of life. Mr Gates just said "I don't have enough information to answer that question." I was impressed that gates was humble enough to give that answer.

We might think we know a lot of stuff, and maybe we do in a relative sense. But there's a hell of a lot we don't know, and even more that we don't know that we don't know.

As for retrocausality, has anyone ever had the experience of dreaming backwards? This happens sometimes just before I wake up, and quite literally everything is going backwards, including (one time) the second hand on the clock in the dream. It really makes me questions the nature of time.

POV said…
Greets Dr. Radin

First of all, I totally agree with you Marcus T. Anthony, it's great to see someone who admits he doesn't have all the answers. To quote Confucius: "True knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."

Now, Dr. Radin. I've just found your blog - and consequently your site - and it resonates very much with my point of view. Since I haven't been able to find any contact information, I'm going to ask you right here. Hope you're fine with that - if not, you know what to do, you're the moderator ;)

I'm going to through a list of links up on my blog "Reality, Backstage" ( and your "Entangled Minds" will be there. So, I was wondering - not that it HAS to be a something-for-something kinda deal - if one could get a link up on yours? :)

It's pure home grown philosophy. Please feel free to take a look and see if it's something you'd want to be associated with.

Now. I have some reading to do!

@ Muzuzuzus
It's a deep pool indeed! :P

"[...]concepts like time symmetry and retrocausality, which are acceptable in microscopic physics, sometimes also reach into the macroscopic world." - Dr. Radin

Yes, and that's where STRUG comes to mind - my mind at least. You might want to give this site a look, just for the fun of it (suspension of judgement recommended!).

I'm not going to recommend one article in particular, there are many to choose from. They call it "Multicontexual coherence", enjoy.
Lawrence said…
Don't know why Dean hasn't mentioned this, but he gave a recent long audio podcast interview earlier this month at paratopia

check out as well the most recent paratopia interview with George Hansen.
Anonymous said…
I believe so strongly in the embrace of ignorance that I got "avidya" tattooed on my arm. It is the Sanskrit word for profound and fundamental ignorance. The literal English translation is "no knowledge", but it has deeper spiritual meaning in the context of Buddhism. Avidya is the basic state of unenlightened existence.

I have since gotten asabandha, prajna, sila and samadhi tattooed... But avidya serves as a constant reminder that the most important thing that I know about reality is that I know nothing.

Yep, embrace the ignorance! :D

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