Stupid Research Paper

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.

  • © The Company of Biologists Limited 2008
Science & Technology

25 Most Ridiculous Research Papers Ever Published

Posted by David Pegg, Updated on January 15, 2014

While there is plenty of quality research out there, every basket has some bad apples. These are the 25 most ridiculous research papers ever published.

Several researchers at Shiseido Research Center in Yokohama came out with a study concluding that people who think they have foot odor do, and people who don't, don't.

The Oregon State Health Division and Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine pioneered a study about salmonella excretions in joy riding pigs

John Mack of Harvard Medical School and David Jacobs of Temple University performed a study which concluded that people who believe they were kidnapped by aliens from outer space probably were.

Several researchers recently performed a very official study of constipation among US military service members.

Although they officially denied it, the Japanese Meteorological Society allegedly performed a seven year study of whether earthquakes are cause by catfish wiggling their tails.

There was an extensive study published in the Journal of Periodontology in 1990 concerning patient preference for waxed vs unwaxed floss.

The International Journal of Neuroscience released a report title "The Effects of Unilateral Forced Nostril Breathing on Cognition". In other words, whether breathing through one nostril makes you smarter or not.

The Institute of Food Research in the UK performed a groundbreaking analysis of soggy breakfast cereal entitled "A Study on the Effects of Water Content on the Compaction Behaviour of Breakfast Cereal Flakes.

Sintef Unimed in Norway and the Technical University of Denmark published a study that conclusively proved wearing wet underwear in the cold was not a good idea. It's full title was "The Impact of Wet Underwear on Thermoregulatory Responses and Thermal Comfort in the Cold."

Several researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway released a report with the title "Effect of Ale, Garlic, and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches."

University of Buffalo researchers released a report in the Journal of Periodontology which concluded that financial strain is a risk indicator for destructive periodontal disease.

Aston University in England released a report proving that toast tends to fall on the buttered side. It was published in the European Journal of Physics

The University Hospital of Zurich, the Kansai Medical University in Osaka, and the Neuroscience Technology Research Center in Prague performed a massively overfunded study of people's brainwaves while chewing on different flavors of bubblegum

Wilkes University in conjunction with Muzak Holdings conducted a study showing that listening to elevator music stimulates immune system production and may help prevent the common cold.

The State University of New York at Albany released a report entitled "Chicken Plucking as Measure of Tornado Wind Speed.

The University of Surrey, England performed a study called "The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods." They concluded that in spite of the perception that most forms of capital punishment are relatively painless, with the exception of intravenous injection this view is almost certainly wrong.

In 1996 there was a research paper published in the Journal of Analytical Psychology with the title "Farting as a defence against unspeakable dread".

The University of Bristol performed a study that was published in Nature Magazine on the optimal way to dunk a biscuit

The University of East Anglia published a report calculating the best way to make a teapot spout that does not drip.

Dalhousie University released a research report entitle "The Comparative Palatability of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica"

The University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands and Bristol University in England performed an experiment that was published in the European Journal of Physics wherein they magnetically levitated frogs.

Cornell University and the University of Illinois published a modest report titled "Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

The Scottish Medical Journal released an alarming study with the title "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow"

McGill University in Canada made waves with their impactful medical report "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts"

The University of Massachusetts came out with a partial explanation of the shower-curtain effect, or why the shower curtain tends to billow inwards while a shower is being taken.

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