Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein

Summary: It is ignorance, not knowledge that really drives science.

Stuart Firestein is a professor of Neurobiology and a researcher.  At one point he realized that he loved doing research and coming up with new things to research and questions to ask.  But when he taught his upper level undergrads about Neurobiology he tended to focus not on the questions and what was unknown and where the science was going, but on the facts.

He realized that this gave students the impression that what was important was gaining a foothold in the facts so that they could grasp the concepts of the field.  But what he needed to be teaching them was not the facts (although they did need basic information and concepts that were important), he needed to be teaching them wonder and sparking the creative ideas of his students and helping them understand that no matter how much we will learn, that the very fact of learning opens up new areas of ignorance so that there will never be a point when science has solved all the questions of particular field.

The book is split into two large sections, the first is a description of what Ignorance is all about. Eventually, Firestein started teaching a class on ignorance. He would bring in prominent scientists in their field and talk about what was unknown, what areas were driving their research, what things that scientist would love to know, but can’t because of limitations of equipment or observation.  Essentially, the scientists talked about all the areas of their field that they were ignorant of and how that was driving their science.

Firestein is not promoting a type of irrational ignorance (stupidity) but a view of the world that is curious, a rational ignorance that knows that the more you know about something the more there is to know.  So the first six chapters are about quality of ignorance, limits of knowledge, how we understand impossibility, and generally curiosity.

He does not talk about this, but a lot of this is similar to some of the ideas behind the Common Core standards in education. It is less about memorization of facts and more about understanding why things work, especially in the mathematics standards.

The second part of the book is four case studies that takes some of the examples of his scientist friends and then finally some of his own research.

I thought the first section probably could have been trimmed a bit.  This isn’t a long book. But the first section could have been a long essay if you wanted.  There was certainly more added because it was six chapters that would not have been included in a long essay.  But once you get the idea of what he is promoting it is pretty clear.

I thought the case histories were pretty interesting. He looked at how we understand animal behavior and brains, astrophysics and his own research into the brain and how we smell.

He ends with some of his own history, which is not the normal scientist’s path. He worked in the theater from the time he was 18 until 30. Then because he was stable for a while and working in the evenings he decided to take some college classes to fill his time. Eventually, a professor talked him into going back to school full time. His history of memorizing scripts helped him fly through Organic chemistry and by the time he was 40 he had a PhD and was a researcher.

Firestein’s background in theater and alternative educational path probably has made him more aware of the importance of curiosity getting students interested in the right things.

Right now the kindle book is only $1.94 and the audiobook is only $3.99 with purchase of the kindle book.  The audiobook narration is a little on the flat side, so I wouldn’t strongly recommend it.  But it was a quick listen and I enjoyed the book as a whole.

Bookwi.se Note: I did not watch Firestein’s TED talk, but my guess is that in 15 minutes he covers most of his first section of the book and hints at some of the case studies.  It is linked below. Also linked below are four different short reviews of the book from 2012 in Books and Culture Magazine.

Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook Audiobook is discounted to $3.99 with purchase of Kindle Book

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