When ignorance is bliss – for science’s relationship to society

I recently watched, and loved, Professor Stuart Firestein’s TEDtalk on “The Pursuit of Ignorance.”

Firestein, a professor and researcher of olfactory neuroscience at Columbia (the pertinence of his subject to mine already draws some important links between us, but just wait for more) presents an exposé on how science is really done, versus how it is often perceived by the public.

I highly recommend that you watch the talk itself (around 20 minutes and well worth the time), but here I’ll provide a bit of a summary and mostly my reaction, relevant whether or not you have time to watch the whole thing.

I find his assessment of the modern public perception of science very accurate – that it is often perceived as (and more importantly, I think, purported to be) a “well-ordered mechanism” that leads us neatly from a question, down the neatly hedged path of the rule-based scientific method toward the production of “hard cold facts.”

This, he proclaims, is in total contrast to the real way in which science is conducted, which he claims to be more similar to “bumbling around in a dark room” looking for answers that may or may not be within.

I found all of this wonderful, as I love when people, particularly scientists, recognize the great divide between the perception of science and what science actually means, but his next point was really where he brought it home for me, helping me to realize where some of my personal interest in this subject of the perception of science really comes from.

He discusses his experience as a lecturer, teaching a general course on neuroscience, and how he realized that the manner of presenting the course, with a giant textbook (weighing the same as two brains… now how are students supposed to be able to fit all that in their single brain, anyways?) and force-feeding lecture method, must give the impression that “we already know all there is to know about the brain”.

This sentence brought me back to the hard chairs of my high-school chemistry class, where, in fact, I fell in love with the idea that everything was already understood.  I think this is precisely why I’ve always struggled a bit in my research experiences, as they are, in reality, a world apart from what you learn in a course, and how the material is presented.  I actually chose my major in college because I preferred the coursework in chemistry over biology, because I always felt that it was more well-defined, precise, mathematical, but a part of me never really understood why more research needed to be done in this discipline, which in my years of courses, seemed to be so… complete.

In stark contrast to this world of knowns, this world of facts and certainty, the world of research is wide-open.  Questions, hypotheses and theories are posed, modified, proposed, and reposed, but rarely are these things we call “facts” defined.

I have seen this gap.  This wide crevice between how science is presented in school and how science is “done.”  And it shocked me.  But I was one of the lucky ones – I was introduced to ‘real’ research at the tender age of 16.  But still, throughout my years of academic training, I felt this disconnect – I always had a bit of trouble connecting what I learned in class and what I did in the lab.  They were related, but didn’t ever feel like the same activity, or even that they utilized the same cortices of the brain.

Firestein explains why scientists need to know all of these “facts” – to be able to pose good questions.  But the fact of the matter is that they don’t everything, just everything that is specific to their particular field (which is typically very narrow).

He proposes that it is this, the questioning, that is what is interesting in science, where the magic (or science, as it were) really happens. This is why he’s chosen to study ‘ignorance’.  He goes on to explain what he means by this, and I’ll let his own words speak for themselves there, but basically he is referring to everything that we don’t know.  A process of “question propagation” where working to answer one question creates still others.

I think he is right, that the way we present science to students needs to be modified.  We need to reflect more of this unknown, this ignorance, that predominates in science.  Students should be presented with a clearer picture of what research is really about, not only to help keep them interested in science by assuring them that there is plenty left to be done (which is important in itself), but also as a sort of societal insurance (nothing like ObamaCare – don’t worry – I don’t think this one would create so much controversy. Let alone a government shutdown).  The more accurate society’s picture of “science” is, and how it is done, the better.  The smaller the gap between “the perception and pursuit of science,” as Firestein puts it, the better.  People should be critical of scientific “discovery”, they should allow themselves to question, just like they would of any other discipline.  Experts are experts, but they are not deities.  Science is not here to dictate facts, but to open our minds and give us tools to explore our natural world.  But science often has an impact on the populace – think of nuclear energy, the ethics of GMOs or stem cells, etc.  Having a more accurate vision of science would help society to be able to make their own assessments of scientific advances and their greater implications. The more knowledge we have about ignorance, the better.  For everyone.

More info can be found on Professor Firestein’s website, about him, his research, the course on Ignorance, and his book, which I’m currently reading in Kindle version.

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