Igno­rance: How it Dri­ves Science

Stu­art Firestein
  • From the Publisher
April 20, 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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