Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Book About Ignorance

A new book attempts to separate good ignorance from bad ignorance, and helps promote the understanding that science is a process of investigation, not a set of facts.

A Book About Ignorance


This New York Times story/review encapsulates much of what I find annoying about the so-called science literacy movement. Some science literacy tests are loaded with trivial facts – emphasizing the memorization of data over the understanding of concepts.

Science is, after all, a process of investigation and not a set of facts. Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein puts facts in their place in his new book “Ignorance: how it drives science” 

Here’s a bit from the Times story quoting Dr. Firestein: 

Working scientists don’t get bogged down in factual swamps, he says, because they don’t care all that much for facts. Facts are not what science is all about. It’s only when the facts fail that scientists really put on their thinking caps.

Scientists, Dr. Firestein says, are driven by ignorance.
In this sense, ignorance is not stupidity. Rather, it is a particular condition of knowledge: the absence of fact, understanding, insight or clarity about something. It is a case where data don’t exist, or more commonly, where the existing data don’t make sense.

That said, it’s hard to pick the right questions if you don’t have a good sense of what’s already known in a given field. Einstein had to understand Maxell’s equations in order to formulate the question that led him to special relativity. Darwin read voraciously about natural history – the life sciences and geology. He knew the available facts but he wasn’t content with them. He recognized where science was ignorant and he looked for a deeper understanding of the living world than a creationist paradigm could ever offer. Ignorance is fine – ignorance of your own ignorance is more problematic.
Interestingly, Dr. Firestein is married to the well-known biologist Diana Reiss, and the Times quoted her in the story:

Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College and the City University of New York and Dr. Firestein’s wife, studies the minds of animals. She wonders if there is a smooth progression of mental function as animals become more evolved, or if there is a mysterious discontinuity that separates human consciousness from whatever is experienced by other animals.
The problem is that “mind” tends to be circularly defined as something that only humans have. According to Dr. Reiss, this definition is useless. It creates ignorance in the wrong way — by appearing to mean something when it means nothing.
“Why do we think animals don’t think?” she said. “We begin with a negative starting assumption and then must prove that they do.”
In exploring animal minds, Dr. Reiss does the opposite: She assumes that they can think and patiently gives them opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. To gasps of surprise, she has shown that dolphins and elephants, like humans and chimpanzees, can recognize themselves in a mirror.

I don’t understand the phrase “as animals became more evolved”, in this context, since it implies that modern-day elephants, whales and other animals are not as evolved as human beings. They aren’t less evolved – they just evolved in different directions since our common ancestors split off. I would think the smooth progression would have more to do with increasing brain size or increasing size of the cerebrum.

Still, I like her take on the different kinds of ignorance. Science can progress in different ways. Sometimes scientists can delve into a pit of known ignorance – studying, say, the origin of life or the nature of dark energy. Sometimes they have to go after embedded assumptions – ignorance that’s not widely acknowledged. Darwin did that with the assumption that God created species as they existed in the 19th century.

Darwin’s idea went a long way toward breaking down false divisions between humans and other animals. But during the 20th century a new wall was erected with this assumption that non-human animals can’t think/lack consciousness/have no sense of self. Reiss and other animal behavior scientists are now breaking that down, using experimental evidence to refute these old assumptions.


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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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