The importance of stupidity in scientific research

Martin A. Schwartz

Department of Microbiology, UVA Health System, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

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.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can't be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

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.

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.

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. I'm not talking about relative stupidity', in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don't. I'm also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don't match their talents. Science involves confronting our absolute stupidity'. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don't know'. The point of the exam isn't to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it's the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student's weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student's knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

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.

Geoengineering the Climate System

A Policy Statement of the American Meteorological Society
(Adopted by the AMS Council on 20 July 2009)

Human responsibility for most of the well-documented increase in global average temperatures over the last half century is well established. Further greenhouse gas emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, will almost certainly contribute to additional widespread climate changes that can be expected to cause major negative consequences for most nations1
Three proactive strategies could reduce the risks of climate change: 1) mitigation: reducing emissions; 2) adaptation: moderating climate impacts by increasing our capacity to cope with them; and 3) geoengineering: deliberately manipulating physical, chemical, or biological aspects of the Earth system2. This policy statement focuses on large-scale efforts to geoengineer the climate system to counteract the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Geoengineering could lower greenhouse gas concentrations, provide options for reducing specific climate impacts, or offer strategies of last resort if abrupt, catastrophic, or otherwise unacceptable climate-change impacts become unavoidable by other means. However, research to date has not determined whether there are large-scale geoengineering approaches that would produce significant benefits, or whether those benefits would substantially outweigh the detriments. Indeed, geoengineering must be viewed with caution because manipulating the Earth system has considerable potential to trigger adverse and unpredictable consequences.

Geoengineering proposals fall into at least three broad categories: 1) reducing the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases through large-scale manipulations (e.g., ocean fertilization or afforestation using non-native species); 2) exerting a cooling influence on Earth by reflecting sunlight (e.g., putting reflective particles into the atmosphere, putting mirrors in space, increasing surface reflectivity, or altering the amount or characteristics of clouds); and 3) other large-scale manipulations designed to diminish climate change or its impacts (e.g., constructing vertical pipes in the ocean that would increase downward heat transport).

Human responsibility for most of the well-documented increase in global average temperatures over the last half century is well established. Further greenhouse gas emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, will almost certainly contribute to additional widespread climate changes that can be expected to cause major negative consequences for most nations1
Three proactive strategies could reduce the risks of climate change: 1) mitigation: reducing emissions; 2) adaptation: moderating climate impacts by increasing our capacity to cope with them; and 3) geoengineering: deliberately manipulating physical, chemical, or biological aspects of the Earth system2. This policy statement focuses on large-scale efforts to geoengineer the climate system to counteract the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Geoengineering could lower greenhouse gas concentrations, provide options for reducing specific climate impacts, or offer strategies of last resort if abrupt, catastrophic, or otherwise unacceptable climate-change impacts become unavoidable by other means. However, research to date has not determined whether there are large-scale geoengineering approaches that would produce significant benefits, or whether those benefits would substantially outweigh the detriments. Indeed, geoengineering must be viewed with caution because manipulating the Earth system has considerable potential to trigger adverse and unpredictable consequences.

Geoengineering proposals fall into at least three broad categories: 1) reducing the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases through large-scale manipulations (e.g., ocean fertilization or afforestation using non-native species); 2) exerting a cooling influence on Earth by reflecting sunlight (e.g., putting reflective particles into the atmosphere, putting mirrors in space, increasing surface reflectivity, or altering the amount or characteristics of clouds); and 3) other large-scale manipulations designed to diminish climate change or its impacts (e.g., constructing vertical pipes in the ocean that would increase downward heat transport).

Geoengineering proposals differ widely in their potential to reduce impacts, create new risks, and redistribute risk among nations. Techniques that remove CO2 directly from the air would confer global benefits but could also create adverse local impacts. Reflecting sunlight would likely reduce Earth’s average temperature but could also change global circulation patterns with potentially serious consequences such as changing storm tracks and precipitation patterns. As with inadvertent human-induced climate change, the consequences of reflecting sunlight would almost certainly not be the same for all nations and peoples, thus raising legal, ethical, diplomatic, and national security concerns.
Exploration of geoengineering strategies also creates potential risks. The possibility of quick and seemingly inexpensive geoengineering fixes could distract the public and policy makers from critically needed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build society’s capacity to deal with unavoidable climate impacts. Developing any new capacity, including geoengineering, requires resources that will possibly be drawn from more productive uses. Geoengineering technologies, once developed, may enable short-sighted and unwise deployment decisions, with potentially serious unforeseen consequences.

Even if reasonably effective and beneficial overall, geoengineering is unlikely to alleviate all of the serious impacts from increasing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, enhancing solar reflection would not diminish the direct effects of elevated CO2 concentrations such as ocean acidification or changes to the structure and function of biological systems.

Still, the threat of climate change is serious. Mitigation efforts so far have been limited in magnitude, tentative in implementation, and insufficient for slowing climate change enough to avoid potentially serious impacts. Even aggressive mitigation of future emissions cannot avoid dangerous climate changes resulting from past emissions, because elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations persist in the atmosphere for a long time. Furthermore, it is unlikely that all of the expected climate-change impacts can be managed through adaptation. Thus, it is prudent to consider geoengineering’s potential benefits, to understand its limitations, and to avoid ill-considered deployment.

Therefore, the American Meteorological Society recommends:

1. Enhanced research on the scientific and technological potential for geoengineering the climate system, including research on intended and unintended environmental responses.

2. Coordinated study of historical, ethical, legal, and social implications of geoengineering that integrates international, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational issues and perspectives and includes lessons from past efforts to modify weather and climate.

3. Development and analysis of policy options to promote transparency and international cooperation in exploring geoengineering options along with restrictions on reckless efforts to manipulate the climate system.

Geoengineering will not substitute for either aggressive mitigation or proactive adaptation, but it could contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts. The potential to help society cope with climate change and the risks of adverse consequences imply a need for adequate research, appropriate regulation, and transparent deliberation.

[This statement is considered in force until July 2012 unless superseded by a new statement issued by the AMS Council before this date]

© American Meteorological Society, 45 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108-3693

1For example, impacts are expected to include further global warming, continued sea level rise, greater rainfall intensity, more serious and pervasive droughts, enhanced heat stress episodes, ocean acidification, and the disruption of many biological systems. These impacts will likely lead to the inundation of coastal areas, severe weather, and the loss of ecosystem services, among other major negative consequences.

2These risk management strategies sometimes overlap and some specific actions are difficult to classify uniquely. To the extent that a geoengineering approach improves society’s capacity to cope with changes in the climate system, it could reasonably be considered adaptation. Similarly, geological carbon sequestration is considered by many to be mitigation even though it requires manipulation of the Earth system.

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