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Ignorance: How It Drives Scienceby Stuart Firestein
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About 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.
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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