The Value of Doubt and Uncertainty


If you already know all the answers, then you're unlikely to ask interesting questions or discover new things. I was reminded of this again by a blog post a few months ago. It was about an essay in the April 2008 edition of Journal of Cell Science by Martin Schwartz, a professor at the University of Virginia. His catchy title is "The importance of stupidity in scientific research." It's a very old idea actually, and a fundamental part of science.


Richard Feynman put it this way in 1963:



All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it...
 
[I]t is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test...
 
If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true.


I expect to use this blog to discuss some things that I think I know, or have discovered, which will focus on my work at Microsoft. However, I also expect to discuss some things that I don't know. So please don't hesitate to tell me if I confuse the two. And feel free to ask questions about anything that I post. The exchange might just create some new things to test!

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