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Ignorance

How It Drives Science

By Stuart Firestein
15-minute read
Audio available
Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein

Ignorance investigates the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific method and reveals the importance of asking the right questions over the discovery of simple facts. Using real-life examples from history, Ignorance shows that it is our awareness of what we don’t know that drives scientific discovery.

  • Anyone considering working in a laboratory or research facility
  • Anyone who wants to know how a scientist’s mind works
  • Anyone interested in the history of knowledge

Stuart Firestein is the head of the Department of Biology at Columbia University, where his laboratory is investigating the mammalian olfactory system. In addition, Firestein was the recipient in 2011 of the Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching.

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Ignorance

How It Drives Science

By Stuart Firestein
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein
Synopsis

Ignorance investigates the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific method and reveals the importance of asking the right questions over the discovery of simple facts. Using real-life examples from history, Ignorance shows that it is our awareness of what we don’t know that drives scientific discovery.

Key idea 1 of 9

Although we think of it as objective truth, science is always a product of imperfect humanity.

What exactly is a “scientific fact?”

You might think a scientific fact represents an absolute truth, that is, the correct explanation for a certain phenomenon. However, this isn’t true: scientific facts are the products of imperfect human beings, and therefore fall short of being completely objective.

While scientists attempt to design experiments to be as unbiased as possible, a scientist – as a human – is never unbiased. Consider a researcher who has spent years working on a particular hypothesis; she is of course eager to prove it correct. This desire to be right could easily affect how she draws her conclusions from her studies.

Many scientists as well follow the tradition of positivism, the idea that everything can be explained by empirical observation and through logic. This view of the world is mechanistic, that is, it assumes that everything has strong causal relationships. For example: if you don’t sleep (cause), you’ll be tired and unproductive (effect).

However, cause and effect are not always discernable, as one thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another. Is a sleepy person always unproductive? No. Some may be, and others not. From this relationship, we couldn’t draw a concrete rule, as it would be incorrect.

What is key here is that we can’t always know what we don’t know. While scientists may try to discover and describe everything that exists, they’re limited by their own faculties in doing so.

Consider the human eye. While it is a sophisticated organ, there are still things it cannot do. For example, it can’t detect ultraviolet light. As a result, we simply had no idea that ultraviolet light even existed until very recently.

Now consider the human mind. Applying this same example, we have to stop and think how we could possibly expect to understand everything in our world when some things may simply be incomprehensible, considering the limitations of our own minds.

Because of these limitations, a scientific discovery should never be considered as an end in itself.

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