Most helpful positive review
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Time to get out the matches
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"!