Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fear, trembling and productive stupidity

There are many hurdles to becoming a researcher, but IMO the highest is getting comfortable with the idea that you never really know enough (aha! He finally comes clean! But what does he mean by “enough.” He knows nothing!!!!) and that no matter how hard you work, there is no guarantee of success. In fact, the things you don’t know but it would help to know is virtually without limit, and the muses that govern the realm of ideas seem entirely oblivious to your efforts. Furthermore, doing original work is unlike any of the things you did well that got you into grad school in the first place: exam taking being at the top of the list.  Research is different in (at least) a couple of ways.

First, there is no back of the book. The problems that are worth doing, or at least those that will get you a PhD, are not ones for which all you need do is flip to the end of the text to find out “the truth.” Indeed, for really good projects, it’s somewhat up in the air what the marks of “truth” are, or even what would count as data for or against what you are considering. The sheer messiness of original research is not something that one generally encounters in classes as an undergrad. In fact, doing cutting edge work (and that’s what a thesis aims for, and occasionally achieves) is more like managing an undergrad love life than successfully negotiating a course load. Nonetheless, we get to grad school because we are good at playing the undergrad game. We know the rules and know how to work within them to get the right answers. In contrast, doing novel research requires learning how to invent new games, games with no rules till you get there and invent/discover them and show that such games are productive, fun and, if very lucky, somewhat truish. Not surprisingly, for most (e.g. moi) the first real original paper you write is an entirely new and not at all a pleasant experience. For most of the time you have no idea what you are doing, why you are doing it or, even, when you’ve done it. Thank god for advisors, the best ones being those that can tell you where to look, why it’s worth looking there and when to stop!

The second problem is a natural consequence of the first: doing research is tough on the psyche. As noted, there is no guarantee of success. There is no recipe. And, additionally, it’s very unfair.  You can work unbelievably hard and come up with nothing interesting. You can be a terrific human being and never come up with a decent original idea that even meagerly pans out and you can be a s**thead and be so intellectually fecund that all your “friends” are green with envy. Sadly, the moral order and the intellectual order do not march in sync.

It’s actually worse than this. You never really know if the headway you are making is progress. Apparently productive ideas can fizzle out. You can spend hours just stuck. It’s at moments like this that re-cleaning the house can seem like a very good expenditure of time. But, heh, it’s not obviously worse than Einstein’s big three activities that he pursued when stuck: bed, bath, bus. I personally find flying a great way to generate research and I have no idea why. Lots of time doing nothing? Staring out at clouds? Bad food? All three? At any rate, the lack of a guarantee and the general disconnect between efforts and results is very very trying. The universe would be a better place if hard work was rewarded and only the good prospered (as it does in grade school where one can get an A for effort). But that’s just not the way it is. Sadly.

I suspect that these two facts are what make many academics so prickly about their ideas/research. They seem like such miracles when viewed honestly. Phenomenologically, at least to me, thinking feels less like you getting an idea than an idea getting you. Getting an idea has the feel of an accident, something that happens to you rather than something you do. It’s more like being ambushed than hunting. At any rate, the unpredictability and serendipity of basic research (i.e. the fact that being productive is out of your hands) can easily make you very jealous of the ideas you get. And so upset when others attack them. After all, it’s not like you can just go out and get more! Every idea you have might be your last, or that’s the way it often feels, so the obvious reaction is to feel annoyed (hate?) anyone that wants to take any of them away.

I suspect that this feeling is tougher for “theorists” than it is for lab scientists. Why? Because, the latter are lucky enough to have what appear to be productive ways of wasting time until the muse hits again.  You can always run another 30 subjects (N-inflating is always good), or run another stats analysis on earlier stuff. Or clean the lab! These are not tasks those without labs can do (hence the house cleaning above). However, I know that my experimental friends share similar frustrations and fears, though they are lucky to have more socially acceptable ways of looking like they are doing something useful.  At least from where I sit, what they do looks more productive than taking another walk to Starbuck’s for another coffee.

So research comes with an existential challenge. Bob Berwick sent me the following note that is apparently quite well known in the bio community that offers another, maybe more hopeful, take on the existential void that is basic research. But at the end of the day, the problem with it is that it is just you against the unknown. It may sound heroic, but it definitely has its down sides.  Here’s the note that Bob sent me. Enjoy.


Martin A. Schwartz
Department of Microbiology, UVA Health System, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA
Journal of Cell Science, 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 a sufficiently 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.


  1. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of Chomsky's constant rejoinder that you have to allow yourself to feel puzzled in order to make significant progress in science. Seems like the most useful thing in science is not finding answers to questions, but figuring out the right questions and getting everyone else to understand why you are so puzzled.

    P.S. - as a semi-laboratory scientist, I definitely scramble for ways to feel productive. In fact, I think that being TOO productive might actually hinder good ideas from arriving, although this may be me self-justifying my own laziness...

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  3. Feeling stupid isn't the same as feeling ignorant. The latter can be a spur to inquiry whereas the former is usually just depressing.

    1. I see it this way: feeling stupid is the feeling of not knowing what one ought to know ("something is wrong with me"), while feeling ignorant is the feeling of not knowing what one needs to know ("I have much to learn"). Sometimes, the two might be difficult to disentangle.

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