On productive stupidity

I am feeling somewhat scared now.

I just walked out of this online workshop on Social Media and Social Network Analysis conducted by social media researcher, Dr Wasim Ahmed. It was brilliantly ran and I was very grateful for the online option offered, which is useful for someone 6000 miles away from where the workshop took place. Wasim took us through the basics of quantitative and qualitative social media and social network analysis, introduced us to a wide variety of tools, as well as talking about the ethical aspects of running social media research. It was a very invaluable experience and I was glad that I decided to join the workshop.

Now — I am scared because, after signing off from the workshop and as much as I had learned so much after over 2 years, every day I would discover that I still have so much to learn — and this is why I am awfully scared. Social network analysis is something entirely new that I have to learn by myself for my doctoral research (as well as it’s my research method of choice due to the nature of my research questions) and I am enjoying it. But I was somehow struck by the amount of work that would hit me, and that would mean more time, and that would also mean a longer time venturing into the unknown and finding out there’s more to know! I hope I am making sense, but if I don’t, do not worry — I don’t think I make sense myself.

Coincidentally, I came across this journal article on embracing stupidity (I would still add the caveat, “as long as we realise it and would want to improve ourselves) and working within some reasonable scope:

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.

Then I think about the vagueness and loneliness of Ph.D. programmes, and how most of the skills required to actually conduct a research (critical thinking, critical writing, structuring research, presentation, basic information architecture, etc.) are lumped into some hidden curriculums, where the students have to navigate around by themselves, which requires resilience and puzzle-piecing (Which workshop does what? How do I know which ones will benefit me? etc.), which is another skill by itself:

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.

In conclusion, we should also embrace productive stupidity:

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. 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.

Fear won’t solve anything. So I guess my job now, is to be productively stupid and work within some attainable scope, so I will not feel inundated by more new things I will find out along the way.

(P/s: A year ago today, I passed my proposal defense!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s