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Ignorance: How It Drives Science [Hardcover]

Stuart Firestein

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Book Description

March 27 2012
Knowledge is a big subject, says Stuart Firestein, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance - not knowledge - that is the true engine of science. Most of us have a false impression of science as a surefire, deliberate, step-by-step method for finding things out and getting things done. In fact, says Firestein, more often than not, science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room. The process is more hit-or-miss than you might imagine, with much stumbling and groping after phantoms. But it is exactly this "not knowing," this puzzling over thorny questions or inexplicable data, that gets researchers into the lab early and keeps them there late, the thing that propels them, the very driving force of science. Firestein shows how scientists use ignorance to program their work, to identify what should be done, what the next steps are, and where they should concentrate their energies. And he includes a catalog of how scientists use ignorance, consciously or unconsciously - a remarkable range of approaches that includes looking for connections to other research, revisiting apparently settled questions, using small questions to get at big ones, and tackling a problem simply out of curiosity. The book concludes with four case histories - in cognitive psychology, theoretical physics, astronomy, and neuroscience - that provide a feel for the nuts and bolts of ignorance, the day-to-day battle that goes on in scientific laboratories and in scientific minds with questions that range from the quotidian to the profound. Turning the conventional idea about science on its head, Ignorance opens a new window on the true nature of research. It is a must-read for anyone curious about science.

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"[A] sparkling and innovative look at ignorance . . . We should remember that when a sphere becomes bigger, the surface area grows. Thus, as the sphere of scientific knowledge increases, so does the surface area of the unknown. Firestein's book reminds us that it is at this interface that we can claim true and objective progress."
--MIchael Shermer for Nature

"Firestein challenges our culture's pat view of science as a simple process of placing one brick of knowledge on top of another in a simple progression toward greater knowledge."
--Publishers Weekly

"[I]t's the latter - the unanswered questions - that makes science, and life, interesting. That's the eloquently argued case at the heart of Ignorance: How It Drives Science, in which Stuart Firestein sets out to debunk the popular idea that knowledge follows ignorance, demonstrating instead that it's the other way around and, in the process, laying out a powerful manifesto for getting the public engaged with science - a public to whom, as Neil deGrasse Tyson recently reminded Senate, the government is accountable in making the very decisions that shape the course of science."

"Ignorance, it turns out, is really quite profound, and this is a good introduction to the subject." --Library Journal

"Stuart Firestein's Ignorance offers a pithier and more nuanced look at the fallibility of science." --Slate

Chosen by New Scientist's Culture Lab as one of the Ten Books to look out for in 2012

"This is a fascinating little book . . . it's Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein, and it will blow your mind as we used to say back in the '60s..."
--Ira Flatow, NPR's Science Friday

"An excellent read, Ignorance would be a fine companion text for potential scientists at the beginning of their studies. The book reminds us that although we are repeatedly given the impression our world contains an endless amount of knowledge, most of that is inaccessible to us, and it is the absence of knowledge that should concern us. Firestein's short account may even make you embrace your ignorance, wearing it like a badge of
honor." -- Science

"[A] short, highly entertaining book aimed at nonscientists and students who want to be scientists. The book comes at an important time. Today's most vociferous scientific controversies turn on different interpretations of facts - about climate change, about contraception, about evolution. When politics are injected, the shouting grows louder, the thinking muddier. Uncertainty is a dirty word. Dr. Firestein, by contrast, celebrates a tolerance for uncertainty, the pleasures of scientific mystery and the cultivation of doubt. If more people embraced the seductive appeal of uncertainty, he says, it might take some acrimony out of our public debates." --Sandra Blakeslee, New York Times

"[I]ntelligent and entertaining." --Wall Street Journal

"Firestein's ideas about how science works will strike most scientists as obvious. But his examples are interesting enough to keep those already committed to his thesis turning the pages, and for the non-scientist he offers a valuable counterbalance to know-it-all scientists and the portrayal of science by the media." --Books & Culture

About the Author

Stuart Firestein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, where his highly popular course on ignorance invites working scientists to come talk to students each week about what they don't know. Dedicated to promoting science to a public audience, he serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program for the Public Understanding of Science and was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  51 reviews
39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and not at all "ignorant" May 23 2012
By Wulfstan - Published on Amazon.com
Stuart Firestein is chair of the biological sciences department at Columbia University- where one of the classes he teaches is indeed "Ignorance".

"In fact more often than not, science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room." says Firestein. Then you need to understand what a scientist does next is to run into another dark room to do it all over again!

And sometimes (like with the experiments on luminiferous aether) , failure can prove as interesting and move science forward as much as a successful experiment.

It's important to understand what by "ignorance" here the author is not talking about willful ignorance, but more about a what has yet to be found out and tested.

The book has several interesting case studies and anecdotes, such as one scientist using a talking parrot to find out what they didn't know about the human brain. Also, the author points out that when a scientist gets a chance to predict the future- he is very often wrong. The author also goes into his rather unorthodox and interesting professional history.

Science is a matter of taking a `educated guess'= (a hypothesis) , which is then tested repeatedly until it becomes a "theory". Many people don't understand that a `scientific theory" isn't a guess, but something that has been proven to be right after repeated rigorous testing. The hypothesis is the guess, not a theory.

I agree with the author in that what's truly exciting is all that's still left to explore and find, things that we may have no idea even exist.

Easy to read, even for the layman.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Explains how science really works and is a joyful read July 9 2012
By J. Schimel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For years, I've said in my own classes that "knowledge is a 'waste product' of science"--once the paper is written it goes on the shelf and becomes part of the past. We're on to the next question. This book captures that idea eloquently and engagingly to explain what moves science and motivates scientists. It is beautifully written and develops the points to highlight their implications for society at large.

I loved that the book was short and pithy--Dr. Firestein took the time to write the short letter, and to collapse the arguments and stories down to their essence. He illustrates the fascination of science, its challenge, its compulsion, and its joy in a way no other book I have ever seen comes close.

I've been a scientist for 30 years, and this book says things I've known and understood for most of that career, but says it in a way that is fresh and novel. Even for me, its a rejuvenating reminder of why I went into science. A useful reminder when most of the day can get caught up in meetings and business instead of 'real' science.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Little Gem of a Book June 6 2012
By Book Fanatic - Published on Amazon.com
This is a small book in size and length and therefore it doesn't take long to read it. It's a refreshing change to have an author make his point without beating it to death by droning on and on.

It's important to note that the title is a little misleading. Maybe it should have been called "Questions and How They Drive Science". The author is not suggesting we be intentionally uninformed, but that we look to the areas where we don't have explanations and answers for future discoveries.

This is a thinking person's book and the point is that the more we discover the more we find we don't know the answers. Each question answered by science raises more areas of "ignorance"; more unknowns. This is a good book and worth reading. Please take advantage of the "Search Inside" feature of this book on Amazon. Read the available text in chapter one to get an idea about what the book is all about.

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Approachable, with implications beyond scientific inquiry June 4 2012
By Faisal Nsour - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I appreciate this little book because Stuart Firestein does exactly what he sets out to do. He conveys the experience of dealing with ignorance while working at the edge of what is known. He does so with simple language and with warmth. And he follows his own advice about humility with regard to what one knows by bringing in perspectives from scientists outside his field.

The book is light reading, although thinking about what you aren't thinking about can be slippery at times. Maybe that's why it's so fruitful to spend time on it. The ideas here are useful for anyone living in the modern world. Give more attention to questions than answers.
30 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ignorance is Bliss July 22 2012
By MoseyOn - Published on Amazon.com
I saw this short book on a display table at a bookstore and it looked like it would be a nice examination of scientific work for a non-scientist who is nevertheless very interested in science both as a way of organizing and discovering knowledge, and as a core part of a college or university education. And the book is that, in a way, though it is not entirely satisfying. The book stems from a course that Firestein, a neurobiologist, teaches at Columbia University. The idea is appealing and important: The scientist is driven not by what we know, but by what we don't know. It is the gaps in our knowledge, the questions, the unknown beyond the edge of knowledge, that provide the juice for the scientist. If you want to get scientists talking, ask what they don't know, what they're working on, not about the latest data they have produced. And while this is not a great book, and not as deep as I hoped it might be, Firestein's central point is well worth remembering. The book is short, but the truth is that Firestein could have made the point in even fewer words before getting to his case studies. And he could have dropped the little comments out of the side of his mouth that I guess were intended to bring a bit of levity to a serious topic, but which were mostly off topic, sometimes annoying, and easily expendable. But that's a quibble. I was hoping for a careful, nuanced, and probing examination of ignorance and its importance in the quest for knowledge. Perhaps I was looking for something with a bit more epistemological depth. But it's not for me to decide what kind of book Firestein or anyone else should write. I certainly don't regret reading this book. It is worth spending a few hours with as a reminder that there is a lot we don't know--and that the world would be far less interesting if that were not the case.

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