On Productive Stupidity

This essay by UVA cell biologist, Martin Schwartz, pretty much encapsulates the way I feel about the practice of science.  If I perfectly understand everything I’m doing at any given moment, something is wrong.  I want to be uncomfortable in my understanding of any given question I am asking or method that I am employing.  Otherwise, I don’t think that I would be growing as either a scientist and humanist.

Scientific perspectives in Anthropology are increasingly rare. This past year, I sat on our department’s graduate admissions committee and I was struck by a theme that emerged in the personal statements prospective students made.  They really had it all figured out.  A typical essay would have the form “At Stanford I will expand on topic X and show Y.”  Sure, they’d learn probably some rhetorical tricks and gather some social capital along the way, but what more did they really need to know about the world around them? My perspective on this was how can you know what you will show if you haven’t even designed your study or collected data?  It would be so refreshing to read a personal statement that took the form “Isn’t it funny the way X does Y?  I wonder why that is.” The Jerry Seinfeld approach to science, I suppose. Quoting Schwartz’s essay,

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.

Perhaps we can foster a future generation of productively stupid anthropologists here in the Ecology and Environment program within the Anthropology department.  Fostering stupidity in a world too full or arrogant certitude may be one of the greatest challenges facing the academy of the twenty-first century.  Here’s to bumbling…

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