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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  May 2009

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE May 2009

Subject:

Re: Stupidity as a virtuein sicience

From:

David Westman <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 26 May 2009 07:51:09 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (587 lines)

I find Herb's remarks very thought-provoking, and I respect his point of 
view here.  My take on the quandry of scientists and engineers is 
somewhat different.   It became apparent to me early on that the great 
benefits brought by scientific research were merely a by-product of a 
system that is brutal and viciously exploitative, motivated 
fundamentally by the pursuit of profit and power for the rich.  
Capitalism distorts scientific research in numerous ways, weapons 
production being just one of them.  The true calling of science is to 
serve the real interests of the working class, since they are more and 
more becoming the vast majority of society, whereas the capitalists are 
a small minority, growing ever smaller as they concentrate and 
consolidate the wealth of society in their hands.   From a class 
perspective, it is not enough to proclaim our dedication to the "good of 
humanity" in an abstract, non-class fashion, but rather we must 
recognize that since the vast majority of humanity are workers, and 
since the capitalist system has made them into nothing but 
flesh-and-blood machines, adjuncts of capital in its pursuit of 
accumulation of wealth, we can only liberate ourselves if we take sides 
with the liberation of our class brothers and sisters, using our 
scientific work to their benefit.   This for me was the original reason 
why I thought the slogan "Science for the People" was (and is) such a 
radical and revolutionary idea.  The shortcoming of SftP as an 
organization was that it lost sight of this goal and drifted towards 
reformism and "realpolitik" rather than really realizing the necessity 
of socialist revolution as the basic implication of this slogan.

Dave Westman

herb fox wrote:
>    There is little if anything that is truly one-sided.  Martin 
> Schwartz' thought provoking, arrogant, occasionally elegant, 
> frequently nauseating, insightful, dishonest essay is no exception.  
> Most persons probably would take from it what satisfies a particular 
> need or viewpoint of one's ongoing life.  But then none of us is 
> one-sided either and would do so with some ambivalence.
>    Experiencing that horrible feeling that comes with being compelled 
> to pass judgment on the performance of a grad student who didn't make 
> the grade, a human being, a nice guy, an intelligent and generally 
> capable person, who just didn't manage to get it together enough to 
> pass one of those numerous gauntlets that the medieval institution, 
> GRADUATE SCHOOL, sets up at the gateway to the elite, sensitized me to 
> M. Schwartz' clearly laid out description of the evolution of a 
> student's conception of her own state of knowledge as she passes 
> through the system.  I wanted to comfort the grad students to whom i 
> passed on the essay with the fact that, feeling stupid doesn't mean 
> that one is stupid; it is just a reaction to learning that the more 
> one learns, the more one realizes the vastness of the unknown.  I 
> certainly feel stupid frequently, not just because i am aware of the 
> great unknown; but simply because i don't know a lot about many areas 
> of my own field.
>    Michael's point is very important.  The pursuit of creative work in 
> science and technology is exciting.  In a world of mostly alienated 
> labor it is gratifying.  Always learning new things, solving problems, 
> building elegant and intricate apparati--these make us want to go to 
> work and make us feel that we are valuable persons.  In addition, in 
> the process of our education we learn how important we scientists and 
> engineers are.  We learn, in fact, that our science is our church in 
> that we come to believe that the ultimate positive is the opportunity 
> to do science, to solve problems, to increase knowledge.  Any act that 
> enhances our ability to do our wonderful work is acceptable.  How many 
> times have i heard remarks from a colleague to the effect that he is 
> manipulating the DoD into supporting fundamental research.
>    From the beginning there was tension in SftP about how to approach 
> this behavior.  One approach is a moral one.  I believe i am being 
> fair to both Charlie and Michael that that is their main approach.  
> Simply stated: "Everyone has to take responsibility for one's 
> actions."  From this follows that an individual scientist or engineer 
> should and can make a choice not to participate in -------.  This 
> approach certainly made a lot of practitioners feel guilty.  Many grad 
> students and young scientists quit science and some scientists tried 
> and were able to find less offensive ways to pursue science.  Quite a 
> few got really pissed off at SftP, since being made to feel guilty by 
> being called a war criminal can easily generate such a defense.
>    I hold a different view, not necessarily opposed to theirs.  Simply 
> stated it is that scientists and engineers are victims of a system.  
> This system does not value science and technology.  Everything and 
> every person is this system is an instrumentality from capitalist to 
> scientist to factory worker to . . . They only have value insofar as 
> they follow the dictates of capital--not dictates of capitalists, but 
> dictates of capital.  Our species has managed to bring to hegemony 
> over the last 500 years a system of total alienation--a system that 
> makes us, human beings, the instruments of the non-human things that 
> we ourselves created.  Only when our species is able to free itself of 
> the bonds with which it has bound itself will it be able to do things 
> such as pursue science for the betterment of humanity.  It is a long, 
> tough struggle.  Certainly, however, enslaved persons cannot struggle 
> for their freedom until they know they are slaves and that the system 
> itself is their enslaver.  That is why i believe that addressing our 
> sisters and brothers as victims is essential and fundamentally moral. 
> herb
>
>
> Michael H Goldhaber wrote:
>> I put in this essay because I found it thought provoking, but also 
>> worrisome for a reason so far not mentioned. I think many scientists 
>> hide behind the claim of stupidity (  or some similar concept) to 
>> justify lack of concern for the possible uses of their work. That 
>> helps at times in accepting the lucrative grants. The balance between 
>> a proper sense of awe at the complexity of the world and what is not 
>> understood —on the one hand— and not being (falsely ?) naive on the 
>> other must be constantly considered and adjusted.
>>
>> Best,
>> Michael
>>
>> On May 25, 2009, at 5:54 PM, Charles Schwartz wrote:
>>
>>> I can concede that Herb and Eric had reasonable alternative views.
>>>
>>> Is that what you are asking for, mart?
>>>
>>> Charlie
>>>
>>> mart wrote:
>>>> time for consensus (or 'nonviolent communication').  stupid or 
>>>> s/(uper)/mart?
>>>>
>>>> --- On Mon, 5/25/09, Eric Entemann <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
>>>>
>>>>
>>>>> From: Eric Entemann <[log in to unmask]>
>>>>> Subject: Re: Stupidity as a virtuein sicience
>>>>> To: [log in to unmask]
>>>>> Date: Monday, May 25, 2009, 12:35 PM
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>> #yiv2068052402 .hmmessage P
>>>>> {
>>>>> margin:0px;padding:0px;}
>>>>> #yiv2068052402 {
>>>>> font-size:10pt;font-family:Verdana;}
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>> I had the same reaction as Herb...
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>> Date: Sun, 24 May 2009 11:55:41 -0400
>>>>>> From: [log in to unmask]
>>>>>> Subject: Re: Stupidity as a virtuein sicience
>>>>>> To: [log in to unmask]
>>>>>>
>>>>>> Gee Charlie, i had a different reaction and sent it
>>>>>>
>>>>> out to a number of
>>>>>> demoralized grad students.  I assumed that the value
>>>>>>
>>>>> of their grasping
>>>>>> that what makes them feel pretty clever as they earn
>>>>>>
>>>>> the privilege of
>>>>>> grad school is their ignorance of how vast is the
>>>>>>
>>>>> amount that they don't
>>>>>> know and probably never will, while what makes them
>>>>>>
>>>>> feel stupid in grad
>>>>>> school is simply coming to grips with reality--that
>>>>>>
>>>>> value is greater
>>>>>> than one more example of how arrogant many scientists
>>>>>>
>>>>> are.
>>>>>
>>>>>> herb
>>>>>>
>>>>>> Charles Schwartz wrote:
>>>>>>
>>>>>>> This is awful. I couldn't read the whole
>>>>>>>
>>>>> thing without retching.
>>>>>
>>>>>>> Such exuberant expressions of superiority!
>>>>>>>
>>>>>>> Charlie (one Schwartz to another)
>>>>>>>
>>>>>>> Michael H Goldhaber wrote:
>>>>>>>
>>>>> http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Best,
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Michael
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>> First published online May 20, 2008
>>>>>>>> doi: 10.1242/10.1242/jcs.033340
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> /Journal of Cell Science/ 121, 1771 (2008)
>>>>>>>> Published by The Company of Biologists
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://www.biologists.com/web/cob_copyright.html>
>>>>> 2008
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> This Article
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     **Full Text* (PDF)
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/reprint/121/11/1771>*
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Alert me when this article
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> is cited     
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/alerts/ctalert?alertType=citedby&addAlert=cited_by&saveAlert=no&cited_by_criteria_resid=joces;121/11/1771&return_type=article&return_url=http%3A%2F%2Fjcs.biologists.org%2Fcgi%2Fcontent%2Ffull%2F121%2F11%2F1771>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Alert me if a correction is
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> posted     
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/alerts/ctalert?alertType=correction&addAlert=correction&saveAlert=no&correction_criteria_value=121/11/1771&return_type=article&return_url=http%3A%2F%2Fjcs.biologists.org%2Fcgi%2Fcontent%2Ffull%2F121%2F11%2F1771>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Services
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Email this article to a
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> friend     
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/mailafriend?url=http%3A%2F%2Fjcs.biologists.org%2Fcgi%2Fcontent%2Ffull%2F121%2F11%2F1771&title=The+importance+of+stupidity+in+scientific+research>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Similar articles in this
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> journal     
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/search?qbe=joces;121/11/1771&journalcode=joces&minscore=5000>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Similar articles in PubMed
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/external_ref?access_num=18492790&link_type=MED_NBRS>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Alert me to new issues of
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> the journal     <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/alerts/etoc>*
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Download to citation manager
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/citmgr?gca=joces;121/11/1771>*
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *reprints & permissions
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/external_ref?&link_type=PERMISSIONDIRECT>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Citing Articles
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Citing Articles via Google
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> Scholar     
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/external_ref?access_num=http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771&link_type=GOOGLESCHOLAR>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Google Scholar
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Articles by Schwartz, M. A.
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22author%3AM.%20A.+author%3ASchwartz%22>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Search for Related Content
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/external_ref?access_num=http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771&link_type=GOOGLESCHOLARRELATED>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> PubMed
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *PubMed Citation
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/external_ref?access_num=18492790&link_type=PUBMED>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Right arrow     *Articles by Schwartz, M. A.
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/external_ref?access_num=Schwartz+MA&link_type=AUTHORSEARCH>* 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 
>>>>>
>>>>>
>>>>>>>>      Essay
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>    The importance of stupidity in scientific
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> research
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> *Martin A. Schwartz*
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>> Department of Microbiology, UVA Health
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> System, University of
>>>>>>>> Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>> /e-mail: [log in to unmask]
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> <mailto:[log in to unmask]>/
>>>>>
>>>>>>>> /Accepted 9 April 2008/
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>> 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
>>>>>>>> conversationturned 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 ofconfidence
>>>>>>>> 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.
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>>>>>
>>>>> Insert movie times and more without leaving
>>>>> Hotmail®. See
>>>>> how.
>>>>>
>>>>
>>>>
>>>>
>>>>
>>>
>>
>

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