Friday, September 19, 2014

Something Stupid About Being Stupid

Here in the 21st century social media culture, where everyone has their own personal sounding board (you know, like this blog), where empathy has given way to self-absorption, where conscience has given way to trendiness, where the fervent desperation for immediate and constant attention is worn on our cyber sleeves (i.e., "status updates"), leading to an overabundance of pixelated crazy (and occasionally useful and interesting -- you know, like this blog) shit floating all around us, it is nice to know that it is OK to be stupid ... as long as we are productively stupid. That's the essence of a 2008 essay by Martin Schwartz in the Journal of Cell Science.

"Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice," writes Schwartz (a former University of Virginia professor who is now at Yale) in his essay, entitled The importance of stupidity in scientific research, which I found hanging on the office door of the eminently cool Tom Barker (and here:, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech.

"In science," Barker told me, "if you know all of the answers already then you're in the wrong place." But his contention and Schwartz's welcome message apply to almost any field involving research and researchers, like writing, and especially journalism.

I've always loved research, so I've got lots of experience with stupidity, as Schwartz defines it. And since I don't embarrass easily, I've not been particularly shy about letting the countless sources I've bothered know just how stupid I am (a trait that I share with many journalists). A question I've gotten a million times from sources is, "what's your story about?" My typical stock answer: "I don't know. Haven't written it yet." Usually followed by: "I'll know more after talking with you. That's why I'm talking with you."

I might have some ideas, an angle I'd like to pursue, and specific questions that need answers. But if I'm just seeking answers to support my preconceived notions, then I'm not really doing research -- I'm looking to justify my point of view, which is limited by my preconceived notions. I'm not talking about being objective (a bullshit unattainable dream, considering we're humans). I'm talking about honest discovery. Self-gratifying justification is not the same as discovery, which is a place I can't arrive at unless I begin with stupidity (a condition which comes surprisingly easy to me).

But for some researchers with untamed egos -- scientists, journalists, whoever -- this place of ignorance is repugnant, hellish, embarrassing proof that their shit does not, in fact, smell like blueberry muffins. To them I say, get over it. You were born stupid. We all were, even Einstein. Of course, this truth can be really difficult for smart people who can't remember ever being stupid, who are accustomed to knowing a lot of stuff, and getting a lot of answers right.

"No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help," writes Schwartz, who believes that education (science education in particular, but to my mind, any education, institutional or otherwise), can do more to ease the transition from learning the obvious, or knowing the known, to making our 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."

Now that's something that I can wrap my stupid head around.

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