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The Scientific Method: Cultivating Thoroughly Conscious Ignorance

Ignorance_HowItDrivesScience_StuartFirestein_coverStuart Firestein brilliantly captures the positive influence of ignorance as an often unacknowledged guiding principle in the fits and starts that typically characterize the progression of real science. His book, Ignorance: How It Drives Science, grew out of a course on Ignorance he teaches at Columbia University, where he chairs the department of Biological Sciences and runs a neuroscience research lab. The book is replete with clever anecdotes interleaved with thoughtful analyses - by Firestein and other insightful thinkers and doers - regarding the central importance of ignorance in our quests to acquire knowledge about the world.

Each chapter leads off with a short quote, and the one that starts Chapter 1 sets the stage for the entire book:

"It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room," warns an old proverb. "Especially when there is no cat."

He proceeds to channel the wisdom of Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles (who proved Fermat's Last Theorem) regarding the way science advances:

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, so that's how it looks," and then it's off into the next dark room, looking for the next mysterious black feline.

Firestein is careful to distinguish the "willful stupidity" and "callow indifference to facts and logic" exhibited by those who are "unaware, unenlightened, and surprisingly often occupy elected offices" from a more knowledgeable, perceptive and insightful ignorance. As physicist James Clerk Maxwell describes it, this "thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science."

The author disputes the view of science as a collection of facts, and instead invites the reader to focus on questions rather than answers, to cultivate what poet John Keats' calls "negative capability": the ability to dwell in "uncertainty without irritability". This notion is further elaborated by philosopher-scientist Erwin Schrodinger:

In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.

PowerOfPullIgnorance tends to thrive more on the edges than in the centers of traditional scientific circles. Using the analogy of a pebble dropped into a pond, most scientists tend to focus near the site where the pebble is dropped, but the most valuable insights are more likely to be found among the ever-widening ripples as they spread across the pond. This observation about the scientific value of exploring edges reminds me of another inspiring book I reviewed a few years ago, The Power of Pull, wherein authors John Hagel III, John Seely Brown & Lang Davison highlight the business value of exploring edges: 

Edges are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn significant new unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk takers. Edges therefore become significant drivers of knowledge creation and economic growth, challenging and ultimately transforming traditional arrangements and approaches.

On a professional level, given my recent renewal of interest in the practice of data science, I find many insights into ignorance relevant to a productive perspective for a data scientist. He promotes a data-driven rather than hypothesis-driven approach, instructing his students to "get the data, and then we can figure out the hypotheses." Riffing on Rodin, the famous sculptor, Firestein highlights the literal meaning of "dis-cover", which is "to remove a veil that was hiding something already there" (which is the essence of data mining). He also notes that each discovery is ephemeral, as "no datum is safe from the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools", highlighting both the iterative nature of the data mining process and the central importance of choosing the right metrics and visualizations for analyzing the data.

Professor Firestein also articulates some keen insights about our failing educational system, a professional trajectory from which I recently departed, that resonate with some growing misgivings I was experiencing in academia. He highlights the need to revise both the business model of universities and the pedagogical model, asserting that we need to encourage students to think in terms of questions, not answers. 

W.B. Yeats admonished that "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Indeed. TIme to get out the matches.


On a personal level, at several points while reading the book I was often reminded of two of my favorite "life rules" (often mentioned in preceding posts) articulated by Cherie Carter-Scott in her inspiring book, If Life is a Game, These are the Rules:

Rule Three: There are no mistakes, only lessons.
Growth is a process of experimentation, a series of trials, errors, and occasional victories. The failed experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that work.

Rule Four: A lesson is repeated until learned.
Lessons will repeated to you in various forms until you have learned them. When you have learned them, you can then go on to the next lesson.

Firestein offers an interesting spin on this concept, adding texture to my previous understanding, and helping me feel more comfortable with my own highly variable learning process, as I often feel frustrated with re-encountering lessons many, many times:

I have learned from years of teaching that saying nearly the same thing in different ways is an often effective strategy. Sometimes a person has to hear something a few times or just the right way to get that click of recognition, that "ah-ha moment" of clarity. And even if you completely get it the first time, another explanation always adds texture.

My ignorance is revealed to me on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis (I suspect people with partners and/or children have an unfair advantage in this department). I have written before about the scope and consequences of others being wrong, but for much of my life, I have felt shame about the breadth and depth of my own ignorance (perhaps reflecting the insight that everyone is a mirror). It's helpful to re-dis-cover the wisdom that ignorance can, when consciously cultivated, be strength.

[The video below is the TED Talk that Stuart Firestein recently gave on The Pursuit of Ignorance.]



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