When I mention Dumb Scientist, a common reaction is “Wait… you called your website WHAT?” I usually deflect this question by joking that irony is all the rage these days, but the truth is that I chose this pseudonym because I think many people accidentally imply that intelligence is fixed at birth. For instance, many parents praise their children by saying they’re smart, but this tactic backfires:
Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. … as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two- things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t. [The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids]
My early education was similar to Thomas’s, and it seems we’re not alone:
Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent- and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed- leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.
Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine. [The Secret to Raising Smart Kids]
In other words, the brain requires training just like a muscle. Using the brain to solve hard problems makes it more capable. Failing to recognize this essential fact even held back the education of a famous physicist:
The attitude among most Oxford students in those days, as Hawking describes it, was “very antiwork.” “You were supposed either to be brilliant without effort or to accept your limitations and get a fourth class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a gray man, the worst epithet in Oxford vocabulary.” … “I’m not proud of this lack of work,” he says. “I’m just describing my attitude at the time, which I shared with most of my fellow students: an attitude of complete boredom and feeling that nothing was worth making an effort for. One result of my illness has been to change all that: When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realize that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.” [Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything; The story of his life and work, page 36]
It took a debilitating illness for Professor Hawking to realize that trying to appear brilliant without effort is counter-productive. Hopefully we can learn from his experience.
The research described in these articles shows that praising students for their intelligence results in a diverse set of negative effects. For example, students praised in such a manner tend to choose easier problems than students praised for effort. If education is a process of exhibiting innate intelligence, easier problems are better choices. If education is a process of working hard to understand the universe, harder problems are better learning opportunities. Disturbingly, figure 4 of Mueller and Dweck 1998 shows that students praised for intelligence misrepresent their scores much more often than those praised for effort. This emphasis on innate intelligence is probably related to the Dunning-Kruger effect and the modified salem hypothesis.
Many pseudoscientists exhibit traits observed in students praised for intelligence. Most of them left college without taking the courses which introduce the scientific evidence that they’re rejecting in favor of conspiracy theories and self-contradictory misinformation. They left academia and (presumably) were successful at careers that didn’t involve critically evaluating science. Then, having repeatedly performed well on problems not involving science, they attack scientists using arguments that are sometimes fractally wrongFractal wrongness: The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person’s worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person’s worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview. [BMO]. When these inconsistencies are pointed out to them, their incurious evasions- and tendency to later repeat the same debunked misinformation- suggest a focus on the appearance of intelligence rather than the laborious pursuit of knowledge.
A friend recently observed that one should only praise effort that’s productive, a point I’ve made“When you say ‘research’ do you mean enrolling in graduate physics courses at an accredited university to learn about the radiative physics of the atmosphere? (This would involve some kind of objective measure of your ability to construct and solve equations.) … a staggering number of crackpots stress the amount of time they’ve spent independently studying an idea, missing the fact that they have no objective way to determine if this ‘study’ has actually enabled them to solve serious graduate physics problems because no one’s ever graded their homework or exams. It’s important to stress that this kind of independent verification is a critical part of the educational process.” too. Teachers should avoid praising a student who- though diligent- is repeatedly confusing fundamental concepts despite several attempted corrections. Practice only tends toward perfection if it’s guided by honest, informed feedback. Otherwise, practicing incorrectly simply ingrains bad habits.
This mistaken emphasis on the appearance of success rather than the actual development of skills through effort is especially pronounced in role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Farmville, etc. These “games” remove the need for the player to develop skills. It’s probably not coincidence that many people become addicted to the fake sense of achievement that comes from repetitively pressing the same key to develop their character’s dexterity and intelligence skill points. I’ve previously recommended playing video games as a childhood alternative to watching television, but this only applies to games which require the player to develop skills, such as Super Mario Galaxy, Half Life, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, Far Cry, Braid, Crayon Physics, etc. In contrast, after wasting years of my life trapped in role playing games, I’m convinced that they’re the digital equivalent of crack cocaine- addictive and pointless.
Female Science Professor brought to my attention this article in Journal of Cell Science:
… if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying … Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. … 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 importance of stupidity in scientific research]
I completely agree. My version is usually phrased: “If you don’t feel stupid, you’re probably not asking interesting questions.” Others say “The person who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.”
If someone is profoundly lacking in confidence and has shown irrational tendencies to interpret neutral comments or interactions as devastating criticism, how would such a person react to being sent an essay on stupidity? Even if I sent the essay as part of an email to a group and not to targeted individuals, I think it would still be taken the wrong way by some. [Female Science Professor]
That’s a good point. I decided that it might be safest to introduce this topic by aiming it at myself… by emphasizing the intellectual benefits I expect to gain by acknowledging my own stupidity and ignorance.Last modified January 11th, 2012