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The Importance of Stupidity in (Operations) Research

A colleague of mine (thanks Laurie, I think!) sent me a copy of the paper “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research” by Martin Schwartz, published in the Journal of Cell Science in 2008. My colleague swears I should not take offense, and no offense was taken. I think the article is brilliant.

One of the most difficult transitions to make is to change from being a student to a researcher, a transition that practically defines the doctoral program. Most researchers were good students (at least) in their field: without success as a student, it is hard to get the enthusiasm necessary to get to the researcher transition. But many excellent students don’t make the leap to researcher, and many of the best researchers were no better than good students.

In the article, Schwartz describes facing a problem as a doctoral student. He sought help from the finest minds around him, and found that no one knew the solution to his problem.

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.

In short, research happens when we are stupid, but productively so.

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.

So, today, when my wife asks what I did today, I will say “I was being stupid”, and I’ll feel very good about it.