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IgnoranceReview - Ignorance
How It Drives Science
by Stuart Firestein
Oxford University Press, 2012
Review by Keith Harris, Ph.D.
Dec 4th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 49)

In 2006, Columbia University added a new course to its catalog, offering students a 4 credit class designated SCNC W3920y – Ignorance, with the disclaimer that "There are no prerequisites and it is NOT limited to science majors." 

Why would such a course be worth putting on one's transcript?  According to its creator and facilitator, Stuart Firestein, Chair of Biological Sciences, students (and the public) have problematic misconceptions about science, scientists, and the scientific method.

[People] imagine a brotherhood tied together by its golden rule, the Scientific Method, an immutable set of precepts for devising experiments that churn out the cold, hard facts. . . . Science, with a capital S. . . . That's all very nice, but I'm afraid it's mostly a tale woven by newspaper reports, television documentaries, and high school lesson plans. (p. 2)

Instead, as Firestein makes clear, science is neither a linear nor even a necessarily stepwise enterprise, but is pushed roughly along with intermittent starts and stops, its engine fueled by ignorance; it's a process marked more by curiosity and serendipity than by cold facts, formulaic hypotheses, and emotional debates over abstract theories.  In this context, ignorance is defined as "the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something" (p. 6).  Science is not tidy; it's not rationality per se, but ignorance, that defines the empirical scientific process: "It's not facts and rules.  It's black cats in dark rooms."

Repeatedly across its several-thousand year history, natural philosophy (the earlier term applied to the domain of scientists) has laid claim to an ultimate, comprehensive book of knowledge; just as regularly, these hopes have been dashed by what came after.  For example, the prospects for a complete scientific understanding of the world waxed bright with Newton's work. As Alexander Pope's epitaph for his older contemporary noted: "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in Night: / God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."  But as everyone now knows, Einstein and the quantum revolution subsequently provided an antidote to this headiness. (Not to say Newton was wrong of course, only that his work was incomplete, and represents a special case of a larger theoretical model.)

In the first half of this slim book, Firestein explains in everyday terms the conditions under which modern science is actually pursued.  He describes how scientists are on the lookout for anomalies, how they squint into shadowy areas and probe porous boundaries looking for clues about what to study next.  He shows how small questions can lead to larger questions, and in which ways questions are often better than answers.

Of course, Firestein isn't by any means the first to point out the essential role of ignorance.  He quotes James Clerk Maxwell's (1831-1879) observation that "Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science" (p. 7).  But Firestein helpfully shines a yet brighter light on ignorance, to illustrate just why it's so important.  Obviously, many things that we think we know are misunderstood, many things that are knowable are not yet known, and of course there is that troublesome "true" uncertainty found in fields as different as economics and quantum physics, unpredictable things that are by their nature uncertain. But perhaps more worrisome (or liberating, depending on one's orientation) is the likelihood that some things may not be knowable at all, because of our own limitations: "Just as there are forces beyond the perception of our sensory apparatus, there may be perspectives that are beyond the conception of our mental apparatus" (p. 32). These limitations may not be ultimately surmountable. It seems important to distinguish among these types of ignorance because we can remedy or accommodate the first of them but can only be cognizant of the last.

In a chapter titled "Unpredicting," Firestein addresses the limitations of scientists in some areas to make testable predictions or to design replicable experiments.  Replicable research designs are the gold standard for the experimental sciences of course, and this is the type of research that most people think of when imagining the scientific method.  Yet some very foundational fields simply aren't able to use this approach. Take astrophysics or archaeology, for example – it's not possible to do replicable experiments involving distant stars and planets, or events in the distant past.  In such domains, scientists become creative with observational data, and find novel ways to rule out (or rule in) as many possible inferences as can be addressed with the data available.

In another of the book's handful of chapters, Firestein looks at the "quality" of ignorance, and points to the many ways that pure science (i.e., research with only knowledge as its current objective) has later been found important or even instrumental to applied science or engineering.  Examples include work on "model systems" such as fruit flies and the nematode worm, work which has generalized to important areas of medicine and genetics. Some of this research may seem a fiscal boondoggle, "But it is very easy, and very dangerous, to mistake a model system for a trivial pursuit" (p. 74).

In the longest of the book's chapters, Firestein provides a few fascinating examples of science with its boots on the ground.  The first of these involves studies of consciousness, a field of intense interest in which experimental methods are necessarily of limited usefulness.  Firestein considers the work of two scientists who are trying to answer the question of whether any other animals have self-awareness and agency similar to that of humans. Comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University has become well-known for her work with the talkative grey parrot, Alex, and cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, a researcher and professor at Hunter College and CUNY, is known not only in academia but has been interviewed in the popular press for her work with dolphins. For obvious reasons, such research doesn't lend itself to the empirical scientific method as taught to undergrads – that is, the most interesting aspects of the inner mental life of other species aren't accessible by way of formal hypotheses and repeatable laboratory experiments. Instead, these scientists use interactive, observational research approaches, giving the animals opportunities to engage in intentional, goal-directed behaviors from which abstract reasoning might be inferred. "For both Reiss and Pepperberg, the key strategic leap was to give up worrying about the definition of consciousness . . . and how to produce it, and instead to provide an opportunity for an individual creature to simply show us whether it acted consciously" (p. 97).

Having been taught a vocabulary of some 100 words and given the freedom to employ them, the parrot Alex began to combine these words in novel ways to achieve his own specific purposes. Further, he learned to actually count (unlike the infamous early-20th century case of Clever Hans, a horse that only appeared to count but was inadvertently being cued by handlers).  The female dolphin Circe demonstrated her agency by subjecting Reiss to a dose of the scientist's own reinforcement strategy –a clear "time out" in response to being inadvertently given food the researcher knew Circe didn't like.  These are discoveries that could not have occurred in laboratory settings with controlled conditions.

The work of another cognitive scientist, Larry Abbott, illustrates the use of computer modeling as a scientific method, and in yet another example, Firestein describes the work of Amber Miller, an "experimental astrophysicist [who] practices a kind of archaeology of the universe" (p. 118).  This use of the term experimental here refers to novel deployment of data collection systems rather than to the experimental control of variables in a lab setting.  Although these methods may not be conventional in the sense that movie-goers would expect, Firestein points out their effectiveness.

Toward the end of the case history chapter, Firestein provides a brief autobiography as an illustration of the circuitous ways that people can find their way into science.  In contrast to the orderly, idealized path the public might hold in mind, Firestein's own path led from a profession in theater to a profession in science.

In the compact space of a lively 195 pages, scientific ignorance is explored, explained, appreciated and applauded.  This is a book to be recommended for the lay audience (for whom Firestein says it is intended), but just as well will be an interesting read for those already working in science.

 

© 2012 Keith Harris

  

Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.


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