Career and Personal Development

Nature of Scientific Inquiry and “Productive Stupidity”

Martin Schwartz wrote an interesting article in 2008 called “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research.” In this short essay, he argued that if we don’t feel stupid—then we aren’t pushing the boundary far enough. He argued that true scientific productivity cannot be reached without that feeling of stupidity—for innovation cannot be accomplished without pushing beyond the current boundary of knowledge. It is with this concept in mind that I want to revisit that concept of a ‘theory.’  

Simply put, a ‘theory’ is an idea or expression of why something is the way it is.

The dictionary defines “theory” as “the supposition or system of ideas explaining something” (Theory, 2012).  While every discipline has a set of theories that are relevant to their field, not all disciplines create or use theories in the same way. Cultural theory, for example, is broad and descriptive, whereas literary theory is more selective and comparative in nature. Scientific theory, however, is rooted in the laws of nature, empirical science, and human rationality.

All scientific inquiry is an attempt to fully understand a hidden objective truth or reality (Scientific Explanation, 2002). Scientific theory is based on rigorous, reproducible, and substantiated experiment results. Successful scientific theories describe real states in nature based on old observations that remain true over time and still conform to all current knowledge available in the modern world (Scientific Explanation, 2002). However, in all theory there is a layer of caution. Although scientific theory is grounded in reality and truth, all theory has an element of guesswork and is limited by current human knowledge.

“…scientific theory is a contrived foothold in the chaos of living phenomena” (Reich, 1973, pp. 39-40).

This definition is particularly useful for several reasons. First, scientific theory is contrived, deliberately created, and does not occur naturally in this world. The use of the word contrived introduces a layer of prediction and guesswork that is present in all theoretical work. Second, a foothold is a secure position from which further progress may be made, suggesting that all theoretical work builds on previous knowledge and any progress is methodical and controlled. Next, the use of the word chaos introduces two layers: first, acknowledging the complete disorder and confusion that comes from exploring new frontiers; and second, acknowledging the actual formless matter that has existed before the creation of the universe that forms the basis of all scientific theory. Lastly, the phrase living phenomena brings the focus of the inquiry to a fact or situation that can be observed in the living and known world, but whose cause or explanation is in question.

We all have some connection to the world of scientific inquiry and the scientific theory, whether you sit behind a desk or a lab bench. But the way we approach our work, in may ways, is very similar. To approach any project with a sense of “productive stupidity” implies that we are reaching beyond the normal routine to find something new, creative, and unique—and possibly, better than anything we’ve ever had before.


  • Reich, W. (1973). The Function of the Orgasm. New York, New York: The Macmillan Company.
  • Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science121(11), 1771-1771.
  • Scientific Explanation. (2002). In A. Flew (Ed.), A dictionary of philosophy, MacMillan(3rd ed.). Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Retrieved from
  • Scientific theory. (2012). In C. C. Gaither, & A. E. Cavazos-Gaither (Eds.), Gaither’s dictionary of scientific quotations (2nd ed.). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Science+Business Media.
  • Theory. (2012). In M. Klage, Key terms in literary theory. London, UK: Continuum.

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Article publié pour la première fois le 15/10/2019

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