Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ignorance by Stuart Firestein

One kind of ignorance is willful stupidity; worse than simple stupidity, it is a callow indifference to facts or logic. It shows itself as a stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions, ignoring contrary ideas, opinions, or data. The ignorant are unaware, unenlightened, uninformed, and surprisingly often occupy elected offices. We can all agree that none of this is good.

But there is another, less pejorative sense of ignorance that describes a particular condition of knowledge: the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something. It is not an individual lack of information but a communal gap in knowledge. It is a case where data don’t exist, or more commonly, where the existing data don’t make sense, don’t add up to a coherent explanation, cannot be used to make a prediction or statement about some thing or event. This is knowledgeable ignorance. It leads us to frame better questions, the first step to getting better answers. It is the most important resource we scientists have, and using it correctly is the most important thing a scientist does. James Clerk Maxwell, perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, advises that “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”

One of the crucial ideas of this book is that ignorance of this sort need not be the province of scientists alone, although it must be admitted that the good ones are the world’s experts in it. But they don’t own it. You can be ignorant too. Want to be on the cutting edge? Well, it’s all, or mostly ignorance out there. Forget the answers, work on the questions.

In the early days of television, the pioneering performer Steve Allen introduced on his variety show a regular routine known as The Question Man. The world it seemed had an overabundance of answers but too few questions. In the postwar 1950s, with its emphasis on science and technology, it could easily have felt this way to many people. The Question Man would be given an answer, and it was his task to come up with a question. We need the Question Man again. WE still have too many answers, or at least we put too much stock in answers. Too much emphasis on the answers and too little attention to the questions have produced a warped view of science.

Of course, science creates and uses facts; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. As a scientist you have to know the facts or some subset of them. But how does a scientist use facts beyond simply accumulating them? As raw material, not as a finished product. In those facts is the next round of questions, improved questions with new unknowns.

The direct result of the discovery process in science is, of course, data. Observations, measurements, findings, and results accumulate at at some point may gel into a fact. The literary critic and historian Mary Poovey recently wrote a noteworthy book titled A History of Modern Fact in which she traces the development of fact as a respected and preferred unit of knowledge. In its growth to this exalted position it has supposedly shed any debt to authority, opinion, bias or perspective. That is, it can be trusted because it supposedly arose from unbiased observations and measurements without being affected by subjective interpretation. Obviously this is ridiculous, as she so exhaustively shows. No matter how objective the measurement, someone still had to decide to make that measurement, providing ample opportunity for bias to enter the scheme right there. And of course data and facts are always interpreted because they often fail to produce an uncontested result. Nonetheless, this idealized view of the fact still commands a central place, especially in science education where facts occupy a position at least as exulted as truth, and where they provide credibility by being separated from opinion. Scientific facts are “disinterested,” which certainly doesn’t sound like much fun and may be why they have become so uninteresting.

In reality, only false science reveres “facts,” thinks of them as permanent and claims to be able to know everything and predict with unerring accuracy. Indeed, when new evidence forces scientists to modify their theories, it is considered a triumph, not a defeat. Max Planck, the brilliant physicist who led the revolution in physics now known as quantum mechanics, was asked how often science changed. He replied: “With every funeral.” As each new generation of scientists comes to maturity, unencumbered by the ideas and “facts” of the previous generation, conception and comprehension is free to change in ways incremental and revolutionary. Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

The poet John Keats hit upon an ideal state of mind for the literary psyche that he called Negative Capability – “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact &reason.” He considered Shakespeare to be the exemplar of this state of mind, allowing him to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of his characters because his imagination was not hindered by certainty, fact, and mundane reality. This notion can be adapted to the scientist who really should always find himself or herself in this state of “uncertainty without irritability”. Scientists do reach after fact an reason, but it is when they are most uncertain that the reaching is often the most imaginative. Erwin Schrodinger, one of the great philosopher-scientists, says, “In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.” Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. At any rate, there is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

Remember also the admonition of the the renown early 20th-century biologist J.B.S. Haldane: not only is the universe queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” There are things going on right under our noses that we don’t know about. Worse that that, things we can’t know about; things about which we may never have the capability to know about. There may be limits. If there are sensory stimuli beyond our perception, why not ideas beyond our conception? Have we run into any of those limits yet? Would we know them if we did?. Comedian philosopher George Carlin wryly observed that “One can never know for sure what a deserted area looks like.”

We are all scientists: trying to understand our environment, to make sense of input that is not always complete or sensible, looking for black cats in dark rooms. Our minds do their best to decipher a complex world with information gathered by our limited sensory organs. The process is familiar to us all. We occasionally do “experiments,” testing this or that to see how closely it fits our theory of the world. But let’s face it: we are mostly stumbling around in the dark. The occasional glimpse of genuine reality only confirms for us the extent of the darkness we live in, the scope of our ignorance. But why fight it? Why not enjoy the mystery of it all? After all, there’s nothing like a good puzzle, and it turns out, in this life, it’s not hard to find one.

1 comment:

  1. Stuart Firestein's book is an excellent addition to the study of scientific ignorance - in the discipline of sociology, this is the sociology of scientific ignorance. For more on the multi-disciplinary study of ignorance