Friday, August 30, 2013

The importance of stupidity in scientific research

El Greco (1541-1614) - 1590-95 St, Francis Receiving the StigmataI was thinking where to go with the series of posts on "chastened activism" and spiritual warfare, when I was reminded of this marvelous article:
Schwartz, Martin A. 2008. “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” Journal of Cell Science 121(11):1771–1771. 

Schwartz talks about a fellow student who left a PhD program because of discouragement at the feeling of "stupidity" that it produced.  He writes:
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling. I even think it's supposed to be this way. Let me explain.
Though Schwartz does not use this language, what he is talking about is a species of spiritual discipline: that personal and intellectual growth results from deliberately embracing our ignorance, our powerlessness: not from doing energetically, over and over, what we already know we can do.  "When I am weak, then I am strong" says Paul.

And if science offers excellent opportunities for such "productive stupidity", that is partly because it can be so ruthless in exposing our misunderstandings, our ignorance, our incompetence.

Part of the spiritual battle is to really hear that judgment, God's No, against all our competence and activism in his service; so that we may also hear his Yes in Christ.

Picture: St Francis Receiving The Stigmata, El Greco; photo by Flickr user RasMarley, licensed under Creative Commons

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