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Ignorance: How It Drives Science [Kindle Edition]

Stuart Firestein
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

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This is a lovely little book ... Give it to your friends or relatives to explain why you do science. (Professor Jack Cohen FSB, The Biologist)

[B]oth concise and splendidly aphoristic. (Robin Ince, New Statesman)

A valuable acquisition for academic libraries, given the current emphasis on STEM education and undergraduate research. (R. E. Buntrock, CHOICE)

It is important to emphasize the creative process in the sciences. This is not just another methodological book on the empirical cycle, but an unpretentious and smooth-reading plea for attention on an uncultivated but mineable area. (Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie, Dec 2012)

An excellent read, [it is] a fine companion text for potential scientists a the beginning of their studies ... You may gradually become more and more ignorant as you read, and you will enjoy the journey. Ignorance in this telling is truly bliss. (Moran Cerf, Science Magazine)

a quietly mind-blowing new book. (Readers Digest)

Stuart Firestein, a teacher and neuroscientist, has written a splendid and admirably short book about the pleasure of finding things out using the scientific method. He smartly outlines how science works in reality rather than in stereotype. Ignorance is a thoughtful introduction to the nature of knowing, and the joy of curiosity. (Adam Rutherford, The Observer)

A splendid book ... Packed with real examples and deep practical knowledge, Ignorance is a thoughtful introduction to the nature of knowing, and the joy of curiosity. (Adam Rutherford, The Observer)

The fundamental attribute of successful scientists, Firestein argues in this pithy book, is a form of ignorance characterised by knowing what you don't know, and being able to ask the right questions. (Culture Lab)

The book is effectively conversational and can be read quickly, as intended. (The American Journal of Epidemiology)

In Ignorance: How It Drives Science Stuart Firestein goes so far as to claim that ignorance is the main force driving scientific pursuit. Firestein, a popular professor of neurobiology at Columbia, admits at the outset that he uses "the word ignorance at least in part to be intentionally provocative" and clarifies that for him it denotes a "communal gap in knowledge." He describes clearly how scientists continually uncover new facts that confront them with the extent of their ignorance, and how they successfully grapple with uncertainty in their daily research work... Especially valuable is Firestein's ability to capture how science gets done in fits and starts... He demystifies the day-to-day activities of research scientists across a variety of disciplines with case studies illustrating how breakthroughs in understanding, however humble or grand, are essentially unforeseeable even to a seasoned mind. (New York Review of Books)

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.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1772 KB
  • Print Length: 208 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0199828075
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (26 Mar. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007M7HXMC
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #355,113 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time to get out the matches 16 Nov. 2012
By Sphex
W. B. Yeats admonished that "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Stuart Firestein agrees, and in this marvellous book he argues that science is less about accumulating facts and rules and more like looking for "black cats in dark rooms." The scientific process is not a tidy logical procession from one grand truth to the next. It's "mostly stumbling about in the dark", "bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms". In short, it's about dealing with ignorance.

This isn't the view held by most non-scientists, who for the most part subscribe to the popular image of the scientist as brainy or a boffin, not as a fount of ignorance. It's true that a professional scientist, like any professional, knows an awful lot. Knowing everything is of course impossible, and, anyway, knowing lots of facts "does not automatically make you a scientist, just a geek." Firestein argues that science is different in that the facts "serve mainly to access the ignorance" and to frame new questions. Scientists concentrate on what they don't know, and "science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it."

Firestein is not talking about ignorance in the pejorative sense. He's interested in "knowledgeable ignorance, perceptive ignorance, insightful ignorance" - the kind that "leads us to frame better questions, the first step to getting better answers." His big claim is that it's "the most important resource" scientists have, and using it correctly is "the most important thing a scientist does."

Scientists love questions. Naturally, we should guard against a simple-minded idea that asking a few questions (especially the so-called "big" ones), any more than knowing a few facts, is all there is to being a scientist.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant (reviewed by a scientist) 10 Aug. 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Brilliant. Every other sentence really is an aphorism. And a good one.
Rarely has such a small book weighted so much in my mind. Made me think of zen, for no particular reason but the sparse beauty of each page.
After years of PhD and research, a real tonic. Now back to find some more ignorance...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real eye-opener on what science is really about 16 Aug. 2014
By Brian Clegg TOP 500 REVIEWER
This is a delightful little book that really gets you thinking. I stress the ‘little’ part not as a negative, but as a good thing. There is nothing worse than fat, bloated popular science books where the author feels they have to get 120,000 words to be taken seriously. This is the sort of book that can be read in a couple of hours – but you will get so much more out of it than one of those tedious doorstops.

The premise underlying the book is in once sense extremely simple, yet is fundamental to an understanding of what science is and what scientists do. And it is an understanding that is totally at odds with the typical way science is portrayed both in university lectures and popular science books. As Stuart Firestein points out, what is important is not the facts, but rather the area of ignorance. The interesting part and the fundamental heart of science is not about what we know, but about what we don’t know and where we want to look next.

Take this lovely quote: ‘Working scientists don’t get bogged down in the factual swamp because they don’t care all that much for facts. It’s not that they discount or ignore them, but rather that they don’t see them as an end in themselves. They don’t stop at the facts; they begin there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out.’

If I have any moan, the introductory section is just a touch repetitive on the central role of ignorance in science, but I think it’s such an important aspect that so few people recognise that it’s well worth hammering home. I also, despite the case histories he gives, find it difficult to follow his explanation for the process of selecting the right bits of ignorance to work on. But overall this is a great book and recommended reading for both scientists and anyone with an interest in science.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Insights into the making of science 13 July 2015
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a book about the exploratory, and adventurous side of science. Firestein takes us through the multiple paths that lead to scientific discoveries, or to dead ends. The author reveals a very human endeavour that is rarely shown as such in the science news. 'Ignorance' is an insightful and entertaining read. Firestein is our companion to the wide backstage of science, where what scientists don't know (and sometimes they don't know they don't) is what guides them through the dark oceans of the unknown.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but overstated 24 Feb. 2013
By F Henwood TOP 1000 REVIEWER
This is an interesting book but its main thesis is not novel and one feels that it is somewhat overstated for the purpose of effect.

`It's not facts and rules, it's black cats in darkened rooms' that drives science forward, the author states. The first clause, stated like that, is clearly false. The second clause is valid but not novel.

First of all, to deny that science is not about facts and rules is false. The laws of thermodynamics for instance describe a rule about the world and the sort of facts that we can expect to find out about the world if the rule is true. You need to fill your car's petrol tank from time to time to keep it on the road and you need to eat in order to live. The reason why you must eat is the same why you must fill your car's tank. Your car and your body are closed systems that need energy. If your car kept rolling after your tank ran dry or you live without eating, then your car and your body are both generating energy from within, without having got it from petrol or food. Your car and your body have become perpetual motion machines. But because the laws of thermodynamics are true, in the sense they are about facts and rules, then both possibilities are ruled out. It is very easy to put this proposition to the test. Try not eating for a few weeks and see how you feel or try starting your car without any petrol in its tank.

It is true that science is defined partially by ignorance, in the positive sense of the word in that it helps frames what we don't know, and what questions still need to be answered. This is the sense in which the author appears to be using the word. Perhaps the general public or non-scientists are not aware of this but this supposition is to patronize.
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