Finally had a chance to read a very interesting essay in the Journal of Cell Science titled “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research.” In the wondrous ways of the web, this little gem from 2008 found its way into my life by way of a blog post by Matthew Cornell in January of this year. Here’s the key notion, but the whole thing is worth the time to read and to consider:
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.
This willingness to move forward without knowing has made for much of the progress we’ve seen and benefitted from in the science and technology real. I wish I saw more of that same willingness manifest in business, education, and elsewhere. Maybe we’d learn to be more comfortable listening to people with provocative and productive questions and less willing to pay attention to people peddling the illusion of right answers.