For those who are not familiar with the details, here is the link to the site. I am proud to be acknowledged in the book as one of the people Jeff talked to at length about his ideas in the early years of their gestation.


On Tue, May 26, 2009 at 9:24 AM, Charles Schwartz <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
With the last few comments (from Michael, Herb and Dave) this thread has finally gotten interesting, and relevant to SftP.  For those who would like to help graduate students understand their situation better, I recommend Jeff Schmidt's book, "Disciplined Minds"(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).  I assume that many on this list are familiar with this unique book (and the recent adventures of its author - see his web site); and for those who are not, I strongly recommend reading it.


David Westman wrote:
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.


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?


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
#yiv2068052402 {

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



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:



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


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  The importance of stupidity in scientific


*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

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

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Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

Email:           [log in to unmask]

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