Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Well, Whattaya Know?

According to Stuart Firestein, what scientists don't know is sometimes far more important to their work than what they do know. Firestein wrote a book called Ignorance: How It Drives Science, and the good folks at Brain Pickings talk about it a little bit here.

Firestein suggests that our modern understandings of science tend to turn it on its head. When we think that science involves the accumulation of facts and data and amassing them into a completed whole, we miss the fact that this completed whole is actually where science begins. All of that data serve as equipment scientists take when they explore the unknown, like camping gear and other tools they will need on their journey.

Although Firestein suggests that this runs counter to much of our modern picture of what science does, it seems pretty intuitive once he says it -- pure research involves either looking at a great unknown and and devising experiments that can tell us our guesses are right or wrong, or looking at something that we know but don't understand and devising experiments that might help our understanding.

The book sounds fascinating and if I hadn't just bought a truck motor and a new tooth I'd score it right away, but it'll keep until my bank account recovers I'm sure. I'll mention one implication of this revised paradigm that might come about if scientists were to push it: A greater accessibility to scientific knowledge on the part of the general public. Firestein suggests that when science is seen as the ability to master a mass of data, people shy away from the sheer size of the task. But if the entry point to understanding most science was seen not as what is known but as what is unknown, it's somehow less threatening.

After all, if we're talking about ignorance, well, I'm way ahead of most any scientist you'd care to name.

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