NPR Story
12:39 pm
Fri June 1, 2012

Why Ignorance Trumps Knowledge In Scientific Pursuit

Originally published on Fri June 1, 2012 1:22 pm

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

People looking at the scientific world from the outside often see it as one dominated by facts, where scientists use a stepwise, systematic process that begins - you know, you learned all this stuff in grade school, a hypothesis, the collection of data, of observations, blah, blah, blah, you go through all these steps.

But my next guest says nothing could be further from the truth. Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein says in fact science is a fishing expedition propelled by what scientists don't know and produces more questions than answers, as it should. He has tackled this complex subject in his new easy-to-read book "Ignorance: How It Drives Science." He also teaches a class on ignorance at Columbia University, where he is professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. I'm very happy to have Stuart back with us today. Welcome back to the show.

STUART FIRESTEIN: Thank you, Ira, it's a great pleasure to be here, as always.

FLATOW: This is a fascinating little book, and I want to start off with one quote from - you write about George Bernard Shaw toasting Albert Einstein, saying science is always wrong, it never solves a problem without creating 10 more. Isn't that glorious?

FIRESTEIN: That's I think the kernel of the whole thing. I mean, the answers that count - not that answers and facts aren't important in science, of course - but the ones that we want, the ones that we care about the most, are the ones that create newer and better questions because it's really the questions that it's about.

I mean, this is the way science is pursued, really, among scientists. When we go to meeting together and talk or go out to the bar and have a beer or whatever, we never talk about what we know. We talk about what we don't know, what we need to know, what we'd like to know, what we think we could know, what we may not even know we don't know just yet and things of that nature. And that's what propels the whole operation along.

FLATOW: Do your science students understand this - at Columbia?

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: So the undergraduate science students I think don't get it so much, and that's what really - that's what propelled me to think about this and to write about it. As I mentioned in the book, I also teach a course, in addition to working in the laboratory with graduate students and thinking up experiments and all that. I also teach a course in - called forbidding title of Cell and Molecular Neuroscience I. And it's, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNORING)

FIRESTEIN: Exactly, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: Even me. So, you know, it's 25 lectures. We use this big book called "Principles of Neuroscience" by the eminent neuroscientist Eric Kandel, also a member of the Columbia faculty. I'm fond of pointing out that the book weighs seven and a half pounds. That's twice the weight of a normal adult human brain, and it's about the brain, I mean.

So - and of course I try and give these lectures that are full of information and so forth, because that's what you want to do as a diligent teacher, you know. and I came to realize at some point, standing up there in front of the students, that I must have been giving them the idea, by the end of the semester, that we pretty much knew everything there was to know about the brain and that the whole idea of neuroscience or any science was just a collection of facts that we put in these big encyclopedic-looking books.

And neither of things are anywhere close to the truth, of course. And so I began to think, well, maybe we should teach them about the stuff we don't know, the ignorance.

FLATOW: Ignorance.

FIRESTEIN: Exactly right. Finally something I can excel in, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: I finally found something for me here.

FLATOW: It's interesting because I mentioned this before when we talked to scientists about discoveries, and I'm talking about the Large Hadron Collider and finding the Higgs Boson, scientists are excited that they're not - if they don't find it, they're more excited.

FIRESTEIN: Absolutely be a better result. They'll find something, and its absence, of course, means a great deal, as well, I mean, and it'll bring up new questions. The worry is in some ways you find an answer, and it's kind of the end of the line. I mean, now what are you going to do? Unless it's a really answer, and those are the kind that generate more questions.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to continue our discussion with Stuart Firestein, author of "Ignorance: How It Drives Science." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I with questions about ignorance and science and how science is done. We'd like to hear from you. Stand by. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Stuart Firestein, author of "Ignorance: How It Drives Science," a great little book about - well, if you thought you knew how science works, this book will actually tell you a little bit different. And Stuart, in the book, I'm going to quote again one of my favorite characters from the old days, Steve Allen you talk about. He had the question man, right?

And the question man would be given an answer, and it was his task to come up with a question, you write. You say: "We need the question man again. We still have too many answers."

FIRESTEIN: I think that's right, or at least we think too much about answers, we worry too much about answers. And we have all these answers now. We have Google, and we have Wikipedia and whatever is going to follow it, as I assume something will, and the answers are now - they're a click away, or one day I guess you'll ask the wall or whoever, who knows where or what, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: But somewhere along the line, the answers have become so easy and so readily available that I think we now have too much emphasis on answers and not enough on questions. A wonderful story about Gertrude Stein being wheeled into potentially life-threatening surgery, and her lifelong companion Alice B. Toklas, said Gertrude, what's the answer? And Stein typically responded: Alice, what's the question?

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: And that's - but I think she's right. You know, we need the questions, and we need to think about questions. We need to think about how we pose questions because not all questions are good ones. I mean, not all ignorance, as I like to point out, is the same. We use the term in a big way, but there's low-quality ignorance, and there's high-quality ignorance.

And scientists, I think, argue about this all the time. Sometimes we call those grant proposals and sometimes just bull sessions, but it's basically what we argue about is whether this is useful ignorance or not.

FLATOW: And as I said at the beginning, we tend to learn in eighth grade that there are the processes of finding out. How do scientists work? They start with a hypothesis. They do an observation. They make - blah, blah, blah. You say that's all wrong, that's not how science works.

FIRESTEIN: You know, you're going to get me off on a rant here, I'm going to tell you that.

FLATOW: I only have 10 more minutes.

FIRESTEIN: OK, I'll make it a quick rant.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: It's not how science works. I mean, it would be nice if it were so well-ordered and so thought-out and so carefully chronicled, but it's not. It's complete chaos most of the time. I mean, all of us, of working scientists, have told our graduate students at one time or another, well, look, let's get the data, and then we'll come up with a hypothesis, because that's sometimes just the way it is.

In fact, I think a hypothesis is, in some ways, a bad idea for science; because a hypothesis is, after all, your best, cutest idea about how something works. And it's bound to buy us everything you do after that. If you have too strong a hypothesis, you become naturally invested in it. You're a person like anyone else, and so pretty soon you begin doing experiments that are likely to prove the hypothesis.

You spend more time looking at the data that supports it than the data that doesn't. There's a wonderful story about Enrico Ferme and his students, the famous physicist, who used to say if you make a measurement - I'm sorry, if you do an experiment, and it proves the hypothesis, you've made a measurement.

If you do an experiment, and it doesn't prove the hypothesis, you've made a discovery. And that's like the Large Hadron Collider situation really, isn't it?

FLATOW: So you could spend your whole life going down the wrong track and still be successful.

FIRESTEIN: I know people who have.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But that's what science - got a lot of bodies, right?

FIRESTEIN: Yes, it is. So it's not always - of course it's never the wrong track entirely. There's always - I mean, you could say Newton went along the wrong track until Einstein showed up and straightened it all out. But of course Newton was correct within the - how can I say this simply - within the regime that Newton worked. And he's still correct in a certain area, it's just that Einstein has now revised that a bit, expanded it.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, to Jim(ph) in Maryland. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Fine.

FIRESTEIN: Richard Feynman had a lot to say about ignorance in science and how it drives his own inquisitiveness and did - has your guest ever gotten into Feynman's, you know, musings on this subject?

Yes, so Feynman is a wonderful character in this regard. I actually - somehow or another, I never managed to - there was a ton of material in it. I never managed to work any of it into the book. I think so much of it is known from Feynman's own writings that I didn't spend a lot of time on it, but you're absolutely right.

Feynman understood this very well. I mean, he was...

JIM: I'd add that there's a ton of stuff on YouTube of having some of his informal discussions that get into this area a lot.

FIRESTEIN: Oh, so I didn't know that. That's very nice to know. I'll have a look at that, and I suggest listeners do, as well. Yeah, he was a man who believed in curiosity, you know.

FLATOW: Right, right. I remember you talk about questions and needing more questions. I'm just reminded, I think it was - was it A.A. Robbi(ph), the physicist, who - when they asked him or at his physics - at the Nobel Prize ceremony or something, they asked him what drove him, and was it your mother. Did your mother tell you study or something?

And he said something to the effect: When I came home every day, my mother wouldn't say how did you do, she would say did you ask a good question.

FIRESTEIN: Really? That's a wonderful story. I didn't know that one.

FLATOW: Something along - it's somewhere along those lines, or before he went to school, ask a good question. But he realized, as you say in your book, it's the questions that are more important than the answers.

FIRESTEIN: Yes, yes, it's the way forward. It's the way we move forward is by question after question.

FLATOW: And you say, all right, we've already done with that answer. Let's find the next problem to solve. How do you go about - how do you know what the next problem is? How do you know what you don't know?

FIRESTEIN: Well, this is always, of course, is a problem, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said, remember old Donald.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: You know, it's not only the known unknowns, it's the unknown unknowns that we have to worry about, the things we don't yet know we don't know. And of course we - some of it may be a cognitive limitation. I mean, it's a good an interesting philosophical question, if nothing else. We talk about the limits of knowledge, but there may actually be more important limits on our ignorance.

FLATOW: There's a tweet from Jeff Chester(ph) says: If ignorance is bliss, why aren't more people happy?

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: Because it's not so blissful, that's why.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: Yeah, I don't know where that saying comes from, but I've never found that to be the case.

FLATOW: Is there a difference between what a scientist asks when he questions something and what people ask? Is there knowledge that scientists can't understand and will never understand? Is there stuff we will not be able to decipher?

FIRESTEIN: Well, it's quite possible, of course, that that will be the case. And I'm not happy to think about this or particularly optimistic to worry about it, but it's quite possible. I mean, we have brains that were built for hunting and gathering, not chemistry and calculus, and remarkably we do all of those things.

But will we come up against some sort of a cognitive limit? It's not really clear. There may very well be some out there. It's very hard, for example, to think about quantum physics and particle physics and all these weird things that go on, and it's maybe just as difficult to try to understand parts of how the brain works.

FLATOW: You also talk about ignorance gets cemented into our culture, and one in particular, I want you to tell the story about the tongue and how we taste things.

FIRESTEIN: So it's actually false knowledge that gets incorporated into the culture, and there are many - unfortunately - many examples of this, but one of the ones that I know best because my laboratory works on the sense of smell and taste, is the so-called tongue map, which we all, I think we've heard of somewhere along the line.

FLATOW: Sure.

FIRESTEIN: And I can show you medical textbook and physiology textbook, one after another, that will have a picture of the tongue map, where you taste sweet on the tip of the tongue, salty and sour on the sides and bitter in the back, and it's simply not the case. There's absolutely no basis whatsoever in experimental fact for it.

It comes from an early German textbook, a physiology textbook, and I can't remember the fellow's name, it's right out of my head, Haich(ph) I think or something to that effect, who wrote down some anecdotal - by the way very anecdotal - observations about a slightly greater sensitivity here or there on the tongue.

And there are slight differences in sensitivity, but you can taste anything anywhere on the tongue, and that got picked up in a mistranslation by a famous psychologist named, of all things, Boring, who wrote a textbook by Boring, "Psychology by Boring," the butt of many undergraduate jokes, as you can imagine.

FLATOW: No explanation is...

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: And codified. And it's been in the literature ever since, but yet nobody knows really where it came from. If you ask people, they often can't tell you a reference for it, but we just keep repeating it.

FLATOW: You say working scientists don't get bogged down in the factual swamp, because they don't care at all, much, for the facts.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: All right, so maybe I overstated that just a little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But the point being...

FIRESTEIN: I'm trying to bring some balance into the equation here because I think we overdo it on the facts. And I think it is true: Scientists recognize that the facts are actually the weakest part of the whole operation. We all recognize that whatever discovery we make, whatever fact we appear to have discovered, will be revised at the very least if not overturned by the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools, or that they'll be expanded in some way that we can't even yet imagine.

So the facts, in an odd way, are the most malleable, the least reliable part of the whole operation. But I think that's not the way the public perceives it at all.

FLATOW: Tweet in from Christocarshatz(ph), who says: What about willful ignorance, as in creationism?

FIRESTEIN: Well, I try not to - I mention this very briefly in the book because there are uses of the word ignorance, especially in common usage, that are not very good at all, have very bad connotations - such as willful ignorance or kind of a callow indifference to fact, disregard for data. And I don't know what to do about that. I mean, that's just plain, old, simple stupidity, I suppose. I don't know how else to put that.

The ignorance that I'm talking about is a more communal kind of gap in knowledge. Nobody knows, and it's not to be known, or there's either no data there, or the data that are there don't quite add up yet, and this is what the puzzle is about.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Michael(ph) in Miami. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: Hey, how are you?

FLATOW: Hey there. Go ahead.

MICHAEL: OK. A quick question. You know, sometimes a scientist has so much information and so many ideas that instead of just giving the simplest answer, you know, they might be veered off of all these other ideas. Sometimes an ignorant person could come up with a simple idea because they're not directed and scattered in many, you know, many directions.

FLATOW: Yeah. So knowing too much is a hindrance sometimes.

FIRESTEIN: Yes, sometimes it can be. And in fact, that's one of the difficulties that scientists have talking to each other across disciplines, in a way, is that they - we use too much jargon. So I think it's a very serious problem today, and it's part of what this interest in ignorance is about for me, is can we make science more accessible to the public by getting rid of this reliance on a pile of facts and a lot of jargon that you need three Ph.D.s to understand, because I think you can understand the questions. One of the marvelous things about the class that I've been teaching, called ignorance - I must congratulate Columbia University...

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: ...for permitting me to teach a class called ignorance - I always tell the students at the beginning of the class you might think about what kind of a grade you want in this class...

FLATOW: Right.

FIRESTEIN: ...because your transcript is going to read ignorance, and then you want an A in that or do you want to fail it...

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: ...and then they get all confused. So - but the important issue is that we can - so the idea of the class is we bring scientists of all sorts in - physicists, chemists, et cetera, et cetera - and I only ask them to spend two hours in an evening talking to the class about what they don't know, what are they working on, what do they want to know, what do they need to know, why I know this rather than that or why is it important to know this rather than that, and so forth. And what's interesting is we can talk to all these people. They can talk to us because, when they don't have a PowerPoint...

FLATOW: Right.

FIRESTEIN: ...presentation and a ton of facts to talk about, when they're just talking about what they don't know, then it becomes quite accessible. And even - listen, I don't know any physics either. I can't read a physics paper. I can't read most chemistry papers.

FLATOW: Yeah.

FIRESTEIN: I can't read most biology papers to tell you the honest truth. So - and in that sense, I'm no more or less ignorant than a musician is about science.

FLATOW: Yeah. There's the famous - I think it was the Apple computer or early Apple computer days, I think Steve Jobs put the coffeepot right at the intersection of all the different departments so that when people came they would share ideas that maybe you haven't been thinking about, you know? And other people bringing ideas that you've been too close to the problem for.

FIRESTEIN: Absolutely, it happens all the time. Of course, it happens all the time. It's one of the wonderful things about having laboratories that run with undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and a scientist, because you have two or three generations worth of thinking, and experience coming into the lab. And that's what really makes them work best.

FLATOW: And you say in your book the single biggest problem with understanding the brain is having one.

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: Yes. Well, it's true because not that the brain isn't powerful enough to understand itself, which I think it can do. I don't think there's a philosophical issue there, particularly, but just that our experience of having a brain is so different from how it actually appears to work that we're fooled by it all the time. You know, it gives us ideas about how it ought to work, and they're never it seems the true ones, you know?

FLATOW: Talking with Stuart Firestein, author of "Ignorance: How It Drives Science" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Is it possible to understand, you know, if we're in our own dimension, we have our own brain here, do we have to be at another dimension to look back down and understand our own brain?

FIRESTEIN: So vantage point, of course, is always the critical thing in science, and sometimes, you don't have that vantage - yes, that would be the ideal thing to do, but like cosmologists who study the universe, they have to do it from within the universe they're in. They don't have that vantage point. And we're, in some ways, in the same situation. We're in the brain that we want to study. And so one of my favorite quotes about the brain is from the comic Emo Philips, who says I always thought the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body, and then one day I thought, wait a minute, who's telling me that?

(LAUGHTER)

FIRESTEIN: Then, you know, well, now, you can't believe a thing, right?

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one more caller in before we have to go. Let's go to Phil in Wooster, Mass. Hi, Phil.

PHIL: Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

PHIL: Good. I just wanted to make a quick observation when you're talking about how much knowledge we have versus how much ignorance or lack of knowledge and the idea that for every answer we're getting, scientists get another 10 new problems to solve. And what struck me, I believe it was Einstein, made a brilliant visual metaphor that, I thought, that, you know, here we are flirting with universe of information, of potential knowledge and he saw it as being inside a balloon, the balloon containing all of our knowledge.

And as we gain more knowledge, the balloon grows, and the surface of the balloon grows, which means it's touching on more and more of that universe of what we don't know. So that literally, you know, you can see it (unintelligible) see that the more we learn, the more we know...

FLATOW: We don't know.

PHIL: ...the more we know that we don't know.

FIRESTEIN: Absolutely. It's a brilliant image. I use ripples on a pond is the same sort of idea, but it's more interesting in three dimensions, I agree. So I think that's right. I mean, the important thing is that we often think that ignorance comes first and then you gain knowledge. But I would say in science we flip that around actually. You gain some knowledge which helps you to gain better ignorance, and that's really the equation.

FLATOW: That's it. So how does science driven by ignorance bridge the gap between scientists and the public?

FIRESTEIN: This is, I think, a very good question and a very critical one, because, I mean, the public needs to be able to part of this great adventure. It's a critical part of Western culture or the culture we live in every day. We all use science. We all use wonderful gadgets, take pills, do - make great use of science. And we pay for it, of course, as well, with our tax dollars. I mean, that's one of the great things about this culture we live in, that it supports science. But - and so the public needs to be brought in to it.

And I think they have the sense now, that it's impossible because there's just so many facts. There's so much to know. How can you hope to do it? And not only that, the amount that we know seems to be expanding at a sort of an alarming rate. I mean, there's a new paper published every three minutes. We're already - since we've been talking, we're 10 papers behind.

FLATOW: Right.

FIRESTEIN: So - but I think the public can be brought in to the game, to the adventure, by thinking about the puzzle, by thinking about the questions and what's left to be known, and that's the amazing part of science.

FLATOW: We can all ask questions.

FIRESTEIN: We can all ask questions.

FLATOW: We can all be sort of scientists. Is there a stupid question or not a stupid question?

FIRESTEIN: You rarely know that the question was stupid until way too far after - I don't think there is a stupid question. At least there are...

FLATOW: Yeah.

FIRESTEIN: ...one never ought to think that there never is a stupid question. And if it's stupid today, it may not turn out to be stupid tomorrow.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, if you want to be brought into the conversation and be part of understanding what scientists - what science is all about, this is a great little book. So you go read in two nights.

FIRESTEIN: By the way, the little is very important. I really set out to write a little book that people would find accessible and easy to read, and then they can go on from there if they like it because...

FLATOW: And you - and it really is - 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...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...about what you used to think you knew about science but you didn't know enough to ask about it. Thank you, Stuart.

FIRESTEIN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Dr. Firestein is a - teaches a class on ignorance at Columbia University where he's professor and chair of the Department of Biological Science. And we're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about the weird wildlife discoveries. Yeah. Stay with us. Flora Lichtman will be with us after this break. Don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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