Ignorance: How it drives science

Author: Stuart Firestein

This book has new take on ignorance — what we as a scientific community don’t know. Overall, the book club members enjoyed reading it, and we had several interesting discussions about science and our ignorance. Here are some of our key takeaways.

First, knowledge is a big subject. But ignorance is bigger: it’s so much more that we don’t know than we know. And it’s dinging deeper into the unknown is what drives science. Collecting facts is a side effect. This is the author’s main point.

Second, but the author doesn’t advocate that facts are unimportant. They are important. But they don’t drive science.The author argues that they only serve to access the ignorance. Therefore, to become an expert in the field, we must be experts in ignorance. So, it’s more important to know what we don’t know in the field rather than knowing all the facts.

Third, he also provides advice on how to find ignorance. Apart from reading proposals, he suggests us to look at Science or Nature papers. But not those that recently got published, because any open problem in there is likely worked on or solved by the group that published the paper or others like you. Instead, we should be contrarians look at ten year old papers and see if some of the open problems are still unsolved.

Fourth, we lack ignorance in teaching. University students study books and learn facts that give the impression that everything is known. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As google and wikipedia grow and  get more popular, there’s less  and less incentive to teach facts. Instead, teaching should be directed to show what we don’t know and suggest future work there.

To close, the mathematician Andrew Wiles explains quite well how science often works: It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says “Oh, wow, that’s how it works!”.

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