“The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by Martin A. Schwartz

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.


Why philosophy matters to your research project

This Slavoj Zizek video illustrates very well why and for what we need philosophy in our research design. Simply because philosophy helps us to formulate the right research question. Because there are not only wrong answers but also wrong questions.

PhD workshop on social ontology

Some time ago I published a post on ontology in order to explain why it is important for any research project. There I emphasized the difference between adopting a objectivist and subjectivist ontological position. The former focuses on the formal structure of the organization under study, usually via quantitative methods, while the latter do it on the informal structure (i.e. one assumes the condition of social actors of the organizational member). Hence qualitative methods are usually more connected.
This is actually a dilemma that I have dealt with in my PhD project. As I mentioned in the past, the topic of my dissertation was the social impact of a large scale mining industry in a rural area. The research question was What social changes in the community around are associated with such development? Adopting a subjectivist approach I would have taken into priority the discourse of social actors involved, i.e. neighbors, politicians, associations representatives etc. The point here would be studying how social actors have experienced the phenomena under study. On the contrary, under a objectivist approach, I would have avoid this and focus on statistics in order to analyze, for instance, evolution of employment or social disruption indicators such as divorce or suicide rate. The point here is to come up with objective indicators of the social change. The truth is that I did a kind of combination of both, since I consider that both could enrich the research process. Social actors perception provided me with good insights that later on would give way to hypothesis to be tested via qualitative methods. But the truth is that it took me a while to distinguish between both perspectives, as well as realized which one better fit for my research.
This dilemma came to my mind this morning when reading this interesting announcement about a workshop on ontology. I would just like to paste here the content and provide you with a further details link.

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has on ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less). The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

The Centre for Social Ontology



Why the qualitative approach is essential for every research project?

“Recently, it was conducted a global survey which sought to answer the following question: Please answer honestly. How in your opinion could be solved the problem of lack of food in many countries in the world?”

The survey was a failure because in Africa nobody knew what food means. In France nobody knew what honesty means. Nobody knew in Western Europe what having lack of something means. In China no one knew what is having your own opinion. In Arabs countries none knew what is solving a problem. In South America, nobody knew what the word “please” means. In North America, no one knew that other countries exist.”

The above parody is just that, a parody. However, it illustrates very well how the ambiguity of such terms as happiness, leadership or being modern are constantly challenging social researchers. “The more ambiguous and elastic our concepts, the less possible is to quantify our data in a meaningful way” (Dey, 1993) Can we measure happiness all over the world if the meaning of it may strongly vary from one country to another? It may be not possible assuming right away a quantitative approach. And it is precisely here where the qualitative one finds its place. Qualitative techniques may bring the not measurable concepts into the “realm” of the measurable. Indeed it is “an opportunity to explore a subject in as real manner as is possible” (Robson, 2002).

For instance, what is a great place to work? We can quantify work by the unemployment rate in every country, as well as places where people work just collecting information on the number of companies. But great place to work? We could actually build another funny story as above, or just try to understand what people think what a “great place to work” is. And this is precisely what Great Place to Work did to measure a prior ambiguous concept.

This company on a year basis publishes a best workplace ranking both nationwide and worldwide. To do so they built up a model formed by categories of analysis like trust, enjoy or pride, among others. In turn each of them is divided into indicators. These indicators give way to a questionnaire that is used in a survey among a set of companies in every country. As they report in their website, “this model has been confirmed through over 25 years´ worth of analysis of employees´ own opinions“.

Therefore, the quantification of a priori ambiguous concepts is preceded (or even accompanied) by a qualitative analysis. This analysis consists of doing a categorization of what people think it is a great place to work. If the result of a quantitative study is usually a graphic or a statistic table, the result of a qualitative study is based on categorizations.

Finally, although the categorization process is frequently used as way to identify measurable units referred to ambiguous concepts, as in the above example, it may be used independently, i.e. doing a categorization of happiness, for instance, may have as the only aim to obtain an accurate understanding of this concept, regardless it is going to be or not measured later.



BBC Radio 4. Interview to Manuel Castells “Alternative ecomomic cultures”. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n9yg1
Dey, I. (1993). Qualitative data analysis: A user-friendly guide. Routledge. Seen in Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Marketing directo. C. Chaguaceda (Coca-Cola): “No se mide igual la felicidad que la venta de botellas de Coca-Cola” Retrieved from http://www.marketingdirecto.com/actualidad/gente/c-chaguaceda-coca-cola-no-se-mide-igual-la-felicidad-que-la-venta-de-botellas-de-coca-cola/
Robson, C. (2002). Real world research: a resource for social scientists and practitioner-researchers (Vol. 2). Oxford: Blackwell. Seen in Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

Ethnomethodology: how people make sense of their life

Introduced by the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel, ethnomethodology is, together with symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical, one of the most garfinkelrelevant perspective in the field of qualitative research. This tradition concerned with studying routines of everyday life and their production. How people make sense of their lives? The order and harmony of our lives depends on simple but very rooted behaviors. Watch this video before providing further details. The first scene is enough (you´d better omit the rest of the video)

What happens when girls cheer on the waiter? Is their behavior part of our routine? Is the social order or harmony interrupted in this situation? Read now this passage on an experiment developed by the founder of this tradition, Garfinkel:

Garfinkel asked some of his students to act like guests when they return home, in front of their families. From fifteen minutes up to one hour, students maintained a polite distance, talked about general issues rather than personal topics, requesting permission to use the bathroom or to take a glass of water, expressing his gratitude to the “host” for their kind hospitality. Two of the forty-nine families thought the students were joking and ignored the behavior; the others were upset or teased. Family members requested explanations: what happens? What is it? You’re sick? What kind of creature are you? Why are you angry? Are you getting crazy or stupid?

Both in the video and in the passage, people involved behave unconventionally. What does it mean? Everyone share a number of conventional assumptions with the member of one´s social group, community, town or city, country or culture. These assumptions are part of our everyday life. Saying hello when arriving home, shaking hands or being grateful. When it happens that one behaves against such assumptions, one social disorder takes somehow place.

What does it mean in terms of market research? Do you buy products that are against your conventional assumptions? Many marketing campaigns have actually failed because of lack of sensitivity with some conventional assumptions. Like the suggested in this post. Do you know any other case? What do you think about this campaign launched by Polish tourism organization in 2005 in France? Do you think it goes against French conventional assumptions?

against conventional assumptions


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology (p. 1). NJ: Englewood Cliffs.

Dramaturgical perspective: understanding everyday life

Erving GoffmanThe term dramaturgical perspective was first adapted into sociology from the theatre by Erving Goffman, who developed most of the related terminology and ideas in his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Together with ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, is one of the most relevant perspectives in the field of qualitative research.

Before providing further explanations, read the following passage wrote by Orwell (1961) about his experiences when washing dishes in a Paris restaurant:

As soon crosses the door, a sudden change ensues. The set of his shoulders is modified, all dirt, desire and irritation are gone in an instant. It glides smoothly over the carpet with a solemn, almost priestly. Remember our maitre d’hotel assistant, a fiery Italian, pausing at the door of the room to address an apprentice who had broken a bottle of wine, shaking his fist above his head, screamed loudly (happily the door was more or less soundproof):

“Tu fais me – you are called waiter, you, a young bastard? Thou waiter! You are not up to standard to scrub the floors in the burdel where your mother comes from. Marquereau!

Then he entered the dining room and sailed crossing with plate in hand, graceful as a swan. Ten seconds later bowed reverentially to a client. And I could not help but think, as soon as she saw him bend over and smile, smile with that blessed trained waiter, that the customer was about to be embarrassed to have such aristocrat to serve him. (Orwell, 1961, p. 68-69)

Which are the theoretical assumptions of dramaturgical perspective? Life is like a theatrical performance. We humans adapt to the roles we play. But also, we try to convince others that we are the people we represent, like maitre d’hotel assistant in Orwell´s passage. And that´s why Clinton denies a couple times his sexual relationship with a scholar or, more related to our everyday life behavior, why many of us quickly get ready when having an unforeseen visit at home in the very morning, why we wear our best dress in a job interview, or why we try to make the best impression on our CEO when he/she drops by the office.

What does this perspective imply for a market researcher? A businessman buys good suits to make a good impression on customers. People buy the latest iPhone model to show that they are up to date with new technologies or acquire certain brands to show their commitment to the values ​​they represent. An environmentalist likely refrains from acquire a brand which does not show any sensitivity with global warm. In short, we buy things to play certain roles, as well as to convince others we are the people we want to be. Can your company help people on this venture? So by mean qualitative research you may know what roles your target wants to play in life. This information may be crucial for a successful marketing strategy.


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life.
Orwell, G. (1961). The Orwell reader: fiction, essays, and reportage. Mariner Books.

Symbolic interactionism: understanding consumer behavior


Originated with one key theorist, George Herbert Mead, symbolic interactionism is, together with dramaturgical and ethnomethodology, one of the most relevant perspectives in the field of qualitative research. Which are its theoretical assumptions? Everyone behave symbolically. What does it mean? It means that many of our behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, are the symbol of something. For instance, shaking hands are a symbol of agreement in many countries. But does it have the same meaning all over the world? What is more, does it have the same meaning for a teenager than for an adult?.

Secondly, watch this video. It is an experiment leaded by Washington post. See what happens when Joshua Bell, one of the nation’s greatest musicians played in the DC Metro during rush hour.

Many passer-by in the video, with high cultural and economic capital judging by the context, would have paid good money out for attending one Joshua´s concert. However, just a few people seemed to notice his presence. What does it mean? Apart from differences according to countries and cultures, our behavior may be explained by the context in which people is in. In other terms, people give a particular meaning to particular context. What do you think is the meaning of DC Metro during rush hour.

What does it mean in terms of market research? People give symbolic meaning not only to such gestures as shaking hands or contexts but also to products. What does consuming wine mean in western cultures? What about eastern European countries? What does it mean for younger people? Perhaps, this product is seen as an older-for drink in comparison with beer. But we can be more specific. Which meaning people give to brand A and which one to brand B. In other words, what people think when see your product, the package, the colors or logo? Try to understand the meaning given to your brand by mean the different qualitative research techniques. The success of your marketing strategy may depend on it.


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Blunter, H. (1994). Society as symbolic interaction. Symbolic Interaction: An Introduction to Social Psychology, 263.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited