The importance of stupidity in scientific research (and in writing)

Just heard of a neat article about why feeling stupid on a regular basis is actually a good sign if you’re doing serious scientific research.

The article is by a fellow named Martin Schwartz, a professor of microbiology and biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, and it was published in April of 2008 in The Journal of Cell Science. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

What I like about this excerpt – and about the entire article – is that with a very few changes, it could be speaking of writing. Writing seriously, regularly, searchingly, means feeling stupid on a regular basis. For that matter the same applies for writing even reasonably well, at least for me. I’ve had writing students come up to me anxiously after class and say, “There must be something wrong; I find writing is terribly hard work. It takes me hours.” And I tell them, “You can relax – that’s normal.”

Among well-known writers, E.B. White and Kurt Vonnegut are known to have commented on feeling stupid at times. Joan Didion often wrote of being a trifle thick about certain things, if quick in other ways. Not bad company.

You can find the full article by Martin Schwartz here.

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