Ignorance: How It Drives Science

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Overview


Knowledge is a big subject, says Stuart Firestein, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance--not knowledge--that is the true engine of science.

Most of us have a false impression of science as a surefire, deliberate, step-by-step method for finding things out and getting things done. In fact, says Firestein, more often than not, science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room. The process is more hit-or-miss than you might imagine, with much stumbling and groping after phantoms. But it is exactly this "not knowing," this puzzling over thorny questions or inexplicable data, that gets researchers into the lab early and keeps them there late, the thing that propels them, the very driving force of science. Firestein shows how scientists use ignorance to program their work, to identify what should be done, what the next steps are, and where they should concentrate their energies. And he includes a catalog of how scientists use ignorance, consciously or unconsciously--a remarkable range of approaches that includes looking for connections to other research, revisiting apparently settled questions, using small questions to get at big ones, and tackling a problem simply out of curiosity. The book concludes with four case histories--in cognitive psychology, theoretical physics, astronomy, and neuroscience--that provide a feel for the nuts and bolts of ignorance, the day-to-day battle that goes on in scientific laboratories and in scientific minds with questions that range from the quotidian to the profound.

Turning the conventional idea about science on its head, Ignorance opens a new window on the true nature of research. It is a must-read for anyone curious about science.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Scientists do not sit in the light looking for facts they know exist, waiting to be discovered, says Firestein, chair of the biological sciences departments at Columbia University. Rather, the scientist is in a dark room, bumbling around till she finds the light switch, turns on the light, and then runs into another dark room to repeat the process. In other words, science is based on ignorance, not knowledge. A corollary to the ignorance principle is that the results of research are not predictable. An experiment can prove fruitless because the facts don’t exist. Firestein uses case studies in cognitive science, theoretical physics, astronomy, and neuroscience to demonstrate how ignorance is foundational to science. But with experience, according to Firestein, scientists can learn to frame their ignorance into specific questions that are solvable. One neuroscientist began to approach what she didn’t know about the human brain by doing a small experiment with a talking parrot, hoping the results would allow her to frame larger questions. Firestein challenges our culture’s pat view of science as a simple process of placing one brick of knowledge on top of another in a simple progression toward greater knowledge. (May)
From the Publisher

"[A] sparkling and innovative look at ignorance . . . We should remember that when a sphere becomes bigger, the surface area grows. Thus, as the sphere of scientific knowledge increases, so does the surface area of the unknown. Firestein's book reminds us that it is at this interface that we can claim true and objective progress."
--MIchael Shermer for Nature

"Firestein challenges our culture's pat view of science as a simple process of placing one brick of knowledge on top of another in a simple progression toward greater knowledge."
--Publishers Weekly

"[I]t's the latter - the unanswered questions - that makes science, and life, interesting. That's the eloquently argued case at the heart of Ignorance: How It Drives Science, in which Stuart Firestein sets out to debunk the popular idea that knowledge follows ignorance, demonstrating instead that it's the other way around and, in the process, laying out a powerful manifesto for getting the public engaged with science - a public to whom, as Neil deGrasse Tyson recently reminded Senate, the government is accountable in making the very decisions that shape the course of science."
--BrainPickings.org

"Ignorance, it turns out, is really quite profound, and this is a good introduction to the subject." --Library Journal

"Stuart Firestein's Ignorance offers a pithier and more nuanced look at the fallibility of science." --Slate

Chosen by New Scientist's Culture Lab as one of the Ten Books to look out for in 2012

"This is a fascinating little book . . . it's Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein, and it will blow your mind as we used to say back in the '60s..."
--Ira Flatow, NPR's Science Friday

"An excellent read, Ignorance would be a fine companion text for potential scientists at the beginning of their studies. The book reminds us that although we are repeatedly given the impression our world contains an endless amount of knowledge, most of that is inaccessible to us, and it is the absence of knowledge that should concern us. Firestein's short account may even make you embrace your ignorance, wearing it like a badge of honor." -- Science

"[A] short, highly entertaining book aimed at nonscientists and students who want to be scientists. The book comes at an important time. Today's most vociferous scientific controversies turn on different interpretations of facts - about climate change, about contraception, about evolution. When politics are injected, the shouting grows louder, the thinking muddier. Uncertainty is a dirty word. Dr. Firestein, by contrast, celebrates a tolerance for uncertainty, the pleasures of scientific mystery and the cultivation of doubt. If more people embraced the seductive appeal of uncertainty, he says, it might take some acrimony out of our public debates." --Sandra Blakeslee, New York Times

"[I]ntelligent and entertaining." --Wall Street Journal

"Firestein's ideas about how science works will strike most scientists as obvious. But his examples are interesting enough to keep those already committed to his thesis turning the pages, and for the non-scientist he offers a valuable counterbalance to know-it-all scientists and the portrayal of science by the media." --Books & Culture

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199828074
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 213,811
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Stuart Firestein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, where his highly popular course on ignorance invites working scientists to come talk to students each week about what they don't know. Dedicated to promoting science to a public audience, he serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program for the Public Understanding of Science and was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. Also, he was recently named an AAAS Fellow.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. A Short View of Ignorance
Chapter 2. Finding Out
Chapter 3. Limits, Uncertainty, Impossibility, and Other Minor Problems
Chapter 4. Unpredicting
Chapter 5. The Quality of Ignorance
Chapter 6. Ignorance in Action: Case Histories
Chapter 7. Ignorance beyond the Lab

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