Flutterby™! : Importance of stupidity

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Importance of stupidity

2011-09-29 18:54:57.561164+00 by Dan Lyke 2 comments

Martin A. Schwartz in The Journal of Cell Science: The importance of stupidity in scientific research is making the rounds today, and I think it's worth a read:

...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.

Yes! This is not only what's wrong with the way we structure education generally, where we're teaching "the one true way" and assuming that the teachers have the best answers, this is especially what's wrong with the gamification of everything: This notion that there will always be incremental steps which are within reach, that the really hard problems will have a blinking red target area that will be open for some small period and the way to beat it is to dodge the missiles until that moment when you can fire precisely and defeat the boss...

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comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2011-09-29 19:30:20.09804+00 by: ebradway

I complained to my PhD advisor a few years back that I felt the department didn't do a good job preparing me for my research because they didn't offer any coursework that expanded my knowledge in my field. The department, it seemed, did offer more graduate seminars in other specialties. I was annoyed because I was facing problems that I assumed someone should have answered already.

Later, I realized that I was lucky. I got weaned early off the structured classroom teat and thrust into the void of the unknown. There are no courses to prepare me for my PhD research because, if there were such courses, the research would not be worthy of a PhD.

I do have an amazing PhD committee made up of the best minds I could track down (coupled with egos that are possible fit into the same room). Even in my research proposal, I spent a significant amount of time explaining, for instance, that metadata in GIScience is a highly formalized concept (complete with ISO standards) compared to the abstract notion in Computer Science.

A big part of earning a PhD is being comfortable standing in front of a room of very smart people in complete understanding that you know more than they do (about this one subject). But it's not because you are inherently smarter than they are, it's that you are willing to stand in the void of stupidity long enough to allow that space to become part of knowledge.

But as the author points out:

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.

What is ironic about this statement is that this is exactly where many software developers dwell. My entire career in the 90s was built around pushing the envelope of what is possible - being immersed in the unknown. It's familiar territory for me. The one thing I dislike about scientific research is that the feedback loop is very slow compared to software. Instead of working against release schedules that are measured in months, I am on a schedule from initial grant proposal to final publication of results that is measured in years (sometimes decades).

#Comment Re: made: 2011-09-30 05:41:46.357342+00 by: John Anderson

That slow feedback loop was the reason I left science for IT. I could stand the void of stupidity; I couldn't stand it taking months to write things up and get them through the publication process.