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Ignorance: How It Drives Science
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 16 November 2012
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. As Michael Lynch warns (In Praise of Reason, page 84), carried to its extreme a sceptic is someone who only questions and never commits, which is no way either to live a life or to do science. It's not just questions, but questions rightly asked that are important. (Lynch is discussing W.K. Clifford's great essay on the Ethics of Belief, which is collected in The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (Great Books in Philosophy).) I think Firestein would agree with Clifford that testing and open enquiry are what really matter.

One of the virtues of this book is its brevity. Almost half the book is taken up by a single chapter on four case histories, including current research on consciousness and the question of whether or not animals think. He finishes this chapter with a fascinating autobiographical section, outlining his own adventures in neuroscience. A section on suggested further reading includes useful single-paragraph summaries of the books he's recommending.

Given the vastness of this subject, it would be unfair to criticize Firestein for something he's left out. However, I happen to be reading Popkin's The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, which explores a strand of anti-intellectualism that began in Reformation Europe and has paralleled and plagued science ever since. Popkin quotes Michel de Montaigne: "The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge. That is why ignorance is so recommended by our religion as a quality suitable to belief and obedience." This is not the kind of ignorance recommended by Firestein, since it is associated with "the imbecility of human reason". The religious view is to trust in God to supply the revealed truth and that "man is safe in his total natural ignorance."

We need to be careful when celebrating ignorance not to endorse such views. Firestein is a robust defender of reason and he knows the difference between "dumb and ignorant". However, I think he goes too far in claiming that the single thing all scientists know about facts is that they're unreliable and that nothing "is safe from the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools." For the word "fact" to have any serious meaning it cannot be subject to this kind of continual revision. (In Uncommon Sense: Heretical Nature of Science, Alan Cromer makes a good case for certainty in science.)

Firestein "came to science late, after a career in, of all things, the theater" and his probably unique career trajectory into neuroscience is in itself remarkable. Most scientists will welcome the idea that science has as much "excitement and creativity" as can be found in the arts, and that "[m]ucking about in the unknown is an adventure". Fewer may appreciate his argument that grant applications are a good thing (even the President of the Royal Society thinks there should be longer intervals between having to fill in all those forms). Firestein recognizes that every scientist spends a significant amount of time writing - and complaining about writing - grants, but he argues that this can also be seen as an exercise in defining ignorance, a core part of the job of being a scientist. Firestein's advice to a scientist about to sit down and write a grant application? "Imagine being awarded a prize for what you don't know"!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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
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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on 13 July 2015
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
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. I think most people would grasp a very simple idea: if we had the answers already, then we would not need to do experiments or do science. We do experiments and science precisely because we do not know the answers. It is also true that science generates mystery - or more precisely, generates more questions to which no easy answers are to hand. But, as physicist Lawrence Krauss has pointed out elsewhere, `science specifies what uncertainty is'. The stress on ignorance therefore is not a new idea.

I do not want to sound like I am unduly doing the book down. It is interesting and the emphasis on the positive role of ignorance in the case studies he offers is interesting and convincing and it is worth knowing. Nor is he is a radical relativist - he is a practising neuroscientist himself. And he is right to stress that scientists do get it wrong. Phrenology is a pseudoscience yet its practitioners at the time didn't think so. But we now know it's a false science because it is demonstrably false. Bumps on the skull explain nothing and predict nothing. No rules about human behaviour and conduct can be derived from bumps on the skull. Not everything a man in a white coat says and does must necessarily be true merely account of his authority. But how do we know if he is wrong? By appealing to the facts, that's how. And if he is in ignorance of something, when he thinks he has the answer, then to show this we need, once again, to appeal to the facts.

Read this book to be informed and stimulated. But the conclusions it makes in my view are overstated. Science is in large part driven by ignorance (to repeat, in the sense of framing what it is we don't know and what sort of questions we should be asking) but to say that it is not about the accumulation of facts and rules is surely an exaggeration.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 July 2013
I gave this as a present and the recipient loved it.
Has shared it with friends and family.
Arrived quickly. Well packaged
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 September 2014
A cover to cover read. Nice case studies.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 24 February 2015
Perfect
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 November 2014
Not that good
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