Friday, August 30, 2013


Ignorance: How it drives scienceIgnorance: How it drives science by Stuart Firestein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short essay with case studies by scientist Stuart Firestein about the power of ignorance in advancing scientific knowledge and inquiry. Firestein suggests that the right kind of ignorance is actually more important to scientists than factual knowledge. The facts may mislead us, or be themselves wrong: therefore being able to ask the right questions is essential.

Firestein discusses what he calls strategies of ignorance, which scientists use to help them decide where to start looking for new knowledge. He ends the book with four brief and fascinating case studies in very different fields that all indicate the new frontiers of ignorance that scientists are broaching. It's all written to illuminate the process of scientific inquiry to laypeople. For a taste of the book, check out his 2013 TED Talk "Celebrating Ignorance".

The first connection I made while reading was to a book I often think of: So Many Books by Gabriel Said. It's another small punch in the gut, giving me a powerful sense of the scale of my own ignorance of an area I know a lot about: literature and book publishing.

Reading Ignorance and So Many Books as a librarian whose job it is to "find the answers", was a helpful reminder about the vagaries of human knowledge. Highly trained scientists spend their entire careers working on problems that may or may not have solutions - but no one will know until someone is curious enough to look. In reference librarianship, the first thing you are taught is how to conduct a reference interview to get at the patron's real question, which is almost never the first thing they ask. (Finding the real question, in fact, often takes longer than finding the answer.)

Firestein points to a microhistory by Mary Poovey called A History of the Modern Fact, which is another good follow-up for those interested in how we came to our modern definition of knowledge.

"Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting." - 10

"Curiously, as our collective knowledge grows, our ignorance does not seem to shrink. Rather, we know an ever smaller amount of the total, and our individual ignorance, as a ratio of the knowledge base, grows." - 13

"Libraries are both awe inspiring and depressing. The cultural effort they represent, to record over generations what we know and think about the world and ourselves, is unquestionably majestic, but the impossibility of reading even a small fraction of the books inside them can be personally dispiriting." - 14

"The universe is not deterministic; it is probabilistic, and the future can't be predicted with certainty." - 36

"This is an example of why the brain is so poor an instrument for understanding how it works - at least through introspection. You can think about it all you want, and you will never get access to what your brain is doing computationally at any given moment. You only have access to a result, a behavior or perception, that could have been reached in numerous indistinguishable ways." - 147

"We often use the word ignorance to denote a primitive or foolish set of beliefs. In fact, I would say that 'explanation' is often primitive or foolish, and the recognition of ignorance is the beginning of scientific discourse. When we admit that something is unknown and inexplicable, then we admit that it is worthy of investigation." - 167

No comments:

Post a Comment