Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The importance of being stupid

Ben Powell brought to my attention a nice article in the Journal of Cell Science, entitled The importance of stupidity in scientific research. It is worth a read, especially for Ph.D students. A major point is that "feeling stupid" is the norm when it comes to grappling with unsolved problems in research. Furthermore, it suggests most Ph.D programs don't help students see this and overprotect them from frustrations.
I found it interesting that the content of the article was not what I expected, based on the title and introductory paragraph. A relevant point that could be made in a complementary article is:

*Students should not be so reluctant to ask "stupid" questions, particularly of clarification, either in seminars or of their advisor or peers. All too often, most other students (and many experts) are wondering the same basic things like:

What is the horizontal scale on that graph?
What is the goal of this research?
What is LDA, muSR, CAS-SCF, DLA, .....?
Can one really see that "feature" in the data?
Why should I believe this calculation?

But, everyone is too scared to ask the question, thinking everyone else in the room knows the answer.

One sentence in the article particularly got my attention and I want to write about:
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.

1 comment:

  1. An inaccurate quote from Bukowski leaps to mind: "X wrote like he knew what he was doing... which means he didn't know what he was doing." Where X is whoever he was referring to.