The importance of stupidity in scientific research

Dan passed along this article and I think it is something that every educator and every student ought to be required to read. This is why it is important to be allowed to fail and important to encourage people to continue trying when they do fail.

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.

via The importance of stupidity in scientific research.

When I was taking programming classes in college I would write programs watch them fail, figure out why they failed and after a dozen attempt succeed. There was a young lady in my introductory class who would spend a little more time up front fully understanding the problem than I did, write her program, watch it run and turn it in. She did this for half of the class and it use to really irritate me.

The programs we were assigned continued to get more complex each week until one day she did all her prep work, wrote her program and ….. it failed. At first  I smiled because mine had run properly on the second iteration but then I realized she was in a real pickle because her successes had never prepared her for this failure and she had not developed the skills she needed to debug the program and understand why it broke.

I do think that education looks too hard at success on a test as being a good measure of learning. Personally, I think maybe failure on a test with a subsequent success might be the better path. How can one learn if one doesn’t first know what one doesn’t know?

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