I have come across very few articles in scientific journals that have made me laugh out loud, and even fewer I’ve felt inclined to share outside of work, but this one was an exception. The piece carries the attention-grabbing title “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”. In it, the author (a scientist himself) audaciously calls highly-trained individuals on the cutting edge of medical research “stupid”. What’s more, he says their stupidity is inherent (gasp!) but also entirely appropriate (fall on the floor in shock…..). These delicate geniuses don’t take kindly to such bold insults.
The beauty of this pithy opinion piece is that the author is exactly right. Scientists engaged in original research are pursuing the unknown, tiptoeing gingerly down every avenue until they find solid ground: support for a hypothesis pulled from thin air, conceived over morning coffee. How might these cells work? What does this protein do? Hmmm…….we have NO IDEA. Let’s imagine some possibilities and put them to the test!! If you think it sounds like shooting in the dark, you would be right, but that’s the nature of original research. It’s also the foundation of some of the biggest discoveries in medical research. The easier option would be to play-it-safe and try to duplicate research that someone else has done or tweak a system that someone else has already established. There’s less risk of failure (feeling stupid) but also less risk of making any significant impact.
So what was the author’s purpose in pointing out this elephant in the room, (or maybe the lab)? I don’t think it was to embarrass all of his colleagues and produce a deep depression across the scientific community. Instead he says it’s the scientist’s level of comfort with his “stupidity” or ignorance that is the key to his success. If he can accept this necessary fact of research life it will continue to drive him to test more of his theories, take more risks and keep going when the failure rate is high and the temptation is to give up is strong.
I think this philosophy can be applied to many areas of life, especially for those who live their lives with faith in an all-knowing Creator. See if these statements from the article ring true with you:
“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.”
“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.”
Compared to a sovereign God, we are all ignorant and stupid. (If we think anything other than this then we have made ourselves god). But, I don’t think God intends for his realisation to be discouraging or paralysing. I think, as the author states, it’s intended to be “liberating”. We do not need to strive to prove or maintain an appearance of superiority to sustain our egos. Instead, we are free to explore, to pose questions, to devise tests and discover the truth about our world and it’s creator. So, I might expand the authors conclusion and say that feeling stupid is important, not just for science but for a full life of any kind.
So go ahead, embrace your ignorance! Make friends with it and let it motivate you to explore all the avenues there are to explore.