Pursue ignorance, learn science

Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. – Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner

Dr. Stewart Firestein, a Columbia University neurobiologist is a scientist after my own heart. A former actor and theater manager, he went to graduate school in his mid-thirties, and despite the late start, has pursued a successful career understanding olfaction. He teaches a class on ignorance in science, and he’s written a book based on the ideas in the class, Ignorance: How It drives Science.

The basic message of the book is that facts are boring, while ignorance is (or can be) interesting, and we need to teach and practice science with this in mind. In this brief, genial book, Firestein gives advice on how to have an interesting conversation with a scientist – ask any of the following questions:

Do you think things are unknowable in your field?

What are the current technological limitations in your work? Can you see solutions?

Where are you currently stuck?

Is there something you would like to work on knowing but can’t?

Are there data from other labs that don’t agree with yours?

I’m largely in agreement with Firestein. Learning science as a slew of facts set in an authoritative canon is stifling and boring, although some memorization is crucial to becoming a competent science. But knowing how to ask questions is more important. What chain of questions and logic led Einstein to come up with Special Relativity? What was Mendel thinking when he started doing experiments with peas? Why on earth were Watson and Crick interested in the structure of DNA? These questions aren’t just of historical interest, they get at the heart of how science works and why it can be such a compelling career to pursue.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is currently not rewarded in some particularly risk-averse fields of science, especially when it comes to early-career biomedical scientists. The increasingly fierce competition for limited independent positions and the big money in science is leading us away from ignorance driven science and more towards science focused purely on application.

“[T]rying to take short cuts,” Firestein argues, “to short circuit the process by going directly to the application, rarely produces anything of value.” Yet that is the trend, to emphasize the practical payoff of say, the human genome sequence, despite the fact that the lag time between groundbreaking discoveries and their widespread commercialization is on the order of 10-30 years.

Einstein wrote that:

My interest in science was always essentially limited to the study of principles, which best explains my conduct in its entirety. That I have published so little is attributable to the same circumstance, for the burning desire to grasp principles has caused me to spend most of my time on fruitless endeavors.

There is no room for fruitless endeavors today.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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