cover image Ignorance: How It Drives Science

Ignorance: How It Drives Science

Stuart Firestein. Oxford Univ, $21.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-19-982807-4

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)