Ignorance: How It Drives Science
By Stuart Firestein
Stuart Firestein, chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences and a faculty member since 1993, received the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award last year. As a professor of neuroscience, Firestein oversees a laboratory whose research is dedicated to unraveling the intricacies of the mammalian olfactory system. He is an adviser for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In the following excerpt from his book, IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science, Firestein argues that human ignorance and uncertainty are valuable states of mind — perhaps even necessary for the true progress of science. “Scientists do reach after fact and reason,” he asserts. “But it is when they are most uncertain that the reaching is often most imaginative.”
Rose Kernochan ’82 Barnard
“It is very difficult to find a black cat
in a dark room,” warns an old proverb.
“Especially when there is no cat.”
This strikes me as a particularly apt description of how science proceeds on a day-to-day basis. It is certainly more accurate than the more common metaphor of scientists patiently piecing together a giant puzzle. With a puzzle you see the manufacturer has guaranteed there is a solution.
I know that this view of the scientific process — feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms — is contrary to that held by many people, especially by nonscientists. When most people think of science, I suspect they imagine the nearly 500-year-long systematic pursuit of knowledge that, over 14 or so generations, has uncovered more information about the universe and everything in it than all that was known in the first 5,000 years of recorded human history. They imagine a brotherhood tied together by its golden rule, the Scientific Method, an immutable set of precepts for devising experiments that churn out the cold, hard facts. And these solid facts form the edifice of science, an unbroken record of advances and insights embodied in our modern views and unprecedented standard of living. Science, with a capital S.
That’s all very nice, but I’m afraid it’s mostly a tale woven by newspaper reports, television documentaries, and high school lesson plans. Let me tell you my somewhat different perspective. It’s not facts and rules. It’s black cats in dark rooms. As the Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles describes it: It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” and then it’s off into the next dark room, looking for the next mysterious black feline. If this all sounds depressing, perhaps some bleak Beckett-like scenario of existential endlessness, it’s not. In fact, it’s somehow exhilarating.
This contradiction between how science is pursued versus how it is perceived first became apparent to me in my dual role as head of a laboratory and Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University. In the lab, pursuing questions in neuroscience with the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, thinking up and doing experiments to test our ideas about how brains work, was exciting and challenging and, well, exhilarating. At the same time I spent a lot of time writing and organizing lectures about the brain for an undergraduate course that I was teaching. This was quite difficult given the amount of information available, and it also was an interesting challenge. But I have to admit it was not exhilarating. What was the difference?
The course I was, and am, teaching has the forbidding-sounding title “Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience.” The students who take this course are very bright young people in their third or fourth year of University and are mostly declared biology majors. That is, these students are all going on to careers in medicine or biological research. The course consists of 25 hour-and-a-half lectures and uses a textbook with the lofty title Principles of Neural Science, edited by the eminent neuroscientists Eric Kandel and Tom Jessell (with the late Jimmy Schwartz). The textbook is 1,414 pages long and weighs in at a hefty 7.7 pounds, a little more in fact than twice the weight of a human brain. Now, textbook writers are in the business of providing more information for the buck than their competitors, so the books contain quite a lot of detail. Similarly, as a lecturer, you wish to sound authoritative, and you want your lectures to be “informative,” so you tend to fill them with many facts hung loosely on a few big concepts. The result, however, was that by the end of the semester I began to sense that the students must have had the impression that pretty much everything is known in neuroscience. This couldn’t be more wrong. I had, by teaching this course diligently, given these students the idea that science is an accumulation of facts. Also not true. When I sit down with colleagues over a beer at a meeting, we don’t go over the facts, we don’t talk about what’s known; we talk about what we’d like to figure out, about what needs to be done. In a letter to her brother in 1894, upon having just received her second graduate degree, Marie Curie wrote: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done … ”
This crucial element in science was being left out for the students. The undone part of science that gets us into the lab early and keeps us there late, the thing that “turns your crank,” the very driving force of science, the exhilaration of the unknown, all this is missing from our classrooms. In short, we are failing to teach the ignorance, the most critical part of the whole operation.
And so it occurred to me that perhaps I should mention some of what we don’t know, what we still need to find out, what are still mysteries, what still needs to be done — so that these students can get out there and find out, solve the mysteries and do these undone things. That is, I should teach them ignorance. Finally, I thought, a subject I can excel in.
The very driving force of science, the exhilaration of the unknown ... is missing from our classrooms.
This curious revelation grew into an idea for an entire course devoted to, and titled, Ignorance. A science course. That course, in its current incarnation, began in the spring of 2006. At the heart of the course are sessions, I hesitate to call them classes, in which a guest scientist talks to a group of students for a couple of hours about what he or she doesn’t know. They come and tell us about what they would like to know, what they think is critical to know, how they might get to know it, what will happen if they do find this or that thing out, what might happen if they don’t. About what could be known, what might be impossible to know, what they didn’t know 10 or 20 years ago and know now, or still don’t know. Why they want to know this and not that, this more than that. In sum, they talk about the current state of their ignorance.
Recruiting my fellow scientists to do this is always a little tricky — “Hello, Albert, I’m running a course on ignorance and I think you’d be perfect.” But in fact almost every scientist realizes immediately that he or she would indeed be perfect, that this is truly what they do best, and once they get over not having any slides prepared for a talk on ignorance, it turns into a surprising and satisfying adventure. Our faculty has included astronomers, chemists, ecologists, ethologists, geneticists, mathematicians, neurobiologists, physicists, psychobiologists, statisticians, and zoologists. The guiding principle behind this course is not simply to talk about the big questions — how did the universe begin, what is consciousness, and so forth. These are the things of popular science programs like Nature or Discovery, and, while entertaining, they are not really about science, not the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, at the office and bench kind of science. Rather, this course aims to be a series of case studies of ignorance — the ignorance that drives science. In fact, I have taken examples from the class and presented them as a series of “case histories” that make up the second half of this book. Despite them being about people doing highly esoteric scientific work, I think you will find them engaging and pleasantly accessible narratives.
Now I use the word ignorance at least in part to be intentionally provocative. But let’s take a moment to define the kind of ignorance I am referring to, because ignorance has many bad connotations, especially in common usage, and I don’t mean any of those. One kind of ignorance is willful stupidity; worse than simple stupidity, it is a callow indifference to facts or logic. It shows itself as a stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions, ignoring (same root) contrary ideas, opinions, or data. The ignorant are unaware, unenlightened, uninformed, and surprisingly often occupy elected offices. We can all agree that none of this is good.
But there is another, less pejorative sense of ignorance that describes a particular condition of knowledge: the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something. It is not an individual lack of information but a communal gap in knowledge. It is a case where data don’t exist, or more commonly, where the existing data don’t make sense, don’t add up to a coherent explanation, cannot be used to make a prediction or statement about some thing or event. This is knowledgeable ignorance, perceptive ignorance, insightful ignorance. It leads us to frame better questions, the first step to getting better answers. It is the most important resource we scientists have, and using it correctly is the most important thing a scientist does. James Clerk Maxwell, perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, advises that “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
Reprinted from IGNORANCE by Stuart Firestein with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2012 by Stuart Firestein.