"Stupid" vs. "Ignorant"

Some dude on some website (how’s that for specifics) posted an interesting article about feeling stupid in research. I know that feeling quite well, being a former scientist myself (and perhaps again in the future if I pursue my PhD). However, there was something at the end that bothered me a little.

“Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant.”

My issue with this comment is rather semantic, but I felt it worth pointing out. Although, I might have misunderstood his meaning. In any case…

I consider ignorance as a situation where a person does not know something due to lack of exposure or deliberately ignoring evidence/knowledge. In the case he is describing (research), people feel stupid because they don’t know the answer to the question they’re asking, don’t know the best way to ask it (or fear asking it wrong), and/or don’t know the best way to get the answer to it.

However, these people are educated in the necessary background and have the proper training to eventually overcome these obstacles and ask/research/answer their question. So they are not “ignorant” and certainly not “by choice”. They feel stupid, but they are not actually stupid or ignorant. It’s just a problem to be solved and it causes an emotional reaction and sometimes a dip in confidence or feelings of self-worth.

Scientists are well-trained in asking and answering questions. Some people are better at it than others, but a trained scientist is still better than Joe Schmo in the average population with no science training (for example, Jenny “vaccines cause autism, and I have the cure” McCarthy). So I don’t think we should be giving the wrong idea that scientists en masse are incompetent or ignorant.

Sometimes kinda crappy? Maybe. Sometimes fraudulent? Sure. But the “system” of science and the rest of us catch those people eventually. Scientists are people like everyone else, but with a particular training. So, like anyone else, they can make mistakes or be huge dicks. But in general they are just people doing their job and they are the best trained to do it. All of science isn’t invalidated because of a few less than ethical douches.

Well that got tangential. The point is: Scientists are generally not ignorant about science. Some people suck at it — like anyone at any job could — and they sometimes lack confidence, but in the end the scientific method (observe, idea, test, report, replicate, review) sorts out the bull and leaves us the truth. So cut them some slack for the most part — they’re just people — but reserve no energy in giving evil deliberate frauds what they deserve and incompetent accidental frauds a thorough and public rundown of research ethics.

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One response to “"Stupid" vs. "Ignorant"

  1. I love that article b/c it reminded me that I’m not alone when I feel stupid and helpless in the face of a big problem!

    I guess “ignorant by choice” means to me that the scientist is deliberately putting him/herself in the situation where they don’t know the answer to a question so that they can find the answer. Ignorant is quite a strong word, though, because they are seeking the answer, not limiting their exposure of knowledge.

    Not to mention, that can so be quote-mined for nefarious, anti-scientific purposes!