Stuart Firestein – How Ignorance Drives Science

June 25, 2012

The idea that science moves forward by carefully peeling back layers of the onion of truth, one by one, in a deliberate fashion, is so prevalent that it borders on cliche. But the truth is that running scientific experiments often feels more akin to dipping a cup into a bottomless well of information: each new study simply raises more questions than it answers. Although scientific knowledge is vast, ignorance, or what’s left to learn, dwarfs what we think we know. Exploring this boundless frontier, neurobiologist Stuart Firestein explains how ignorance, rather than facts, drives science.

Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences where he studies the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science. His popular course at Columbia University served as the basis of his new book Ignorance: How it Drives Science published by Oxford University Press.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 25th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Indre Viskontas point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. And at the grass roots, if you were a director and your job was to recreate the scientific method on a TV show, you’d probably start with a somewhat nerdy looking character in a lab coat standing in front of a bench where there are lots of expensive tools and going through a deliberate step by step process in order to find out a new fact. And oftentimes the entire scientific endeavor is attacked when one particular fact is shown to be incorrect. But as neurobiologist Stuart Firestein outlines in his new book, Ignorance, rarely does science actually work that way. Instead, he suggests the process is closer to searching for a black cat in a dark room, which can be a particularly difficult task, especially when there is no cat. Knowledge is a big subject. But ignorance is bigger. And it’s what we don’t know about the universe that drives scientists and monopolizes their lunchtime conversation with his popular course at Columbia University and this new book. Stuart Firestein encourages scientists to come out of the closet and talk to the public about what they don’t know. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Stuart Firestein. 

Hi, how are you? Nice to be here. 

It’s great for us to have you on the show. And I have to say that this is the first time we’ve had someone on the show on point of inquiry talking about ignorance. 

No, really. No, it’s the first time we’ve had somebody admitting it. That’s all. Well. 

Oh, well, I hope that’s not true. But in any case, I wanted to first start off the conversation by asking you what exactly was it that triggered your thinking about ignorance being an important part of science? 

Well, I guess to be absolutely honest about it, it was kind of the dual role that I play here at the university. 

I’m at Columbia University, and I both run a laboratory with graduate students and postdocs and undergraduates in it. And I also teach a course in neuroscience and running the laboratory and sitting around with the graduate students and the postdocs and picking up experiments and wondering how things work and doing experiments and so forth. Looking at Thetas. It’s a lot of work and and everybody applied themselves to it. And it’s difficult sometimes, but it’s quite exhilarating, to say the least. It’s a lot of fun and I’m thrilled to be able to be paid for it. And at the same time, I was teaching this course called the and molecular neuroscience, one rather forbidding sounding title and forbidding seeming course. And it’s about the brain as well. Neuroscience. And it’s 25 lectures uses this very big, huge book, which is very famous book called Principles of Neuroscience by Eric Kandel. I’m always fond of pointing out that the book itself was seven and a half pounds, which is about twice the weight of a normal human brain. 

But it’s about the brains of how it whole holes down my bookshelf as well. 

It’s very good for that. 

It’s notorious for that sort of thing among medical students as well who also use it. And and then I prepared 25 lectures, and that was a very challenging thing to do. This is a lot of work that has to be presented and so forth. And so that was challenging and interesting, but it was hardly what I would call exhilarating. And I thought, well, what’s what’s the difference here? And that’s what that’s what sort of begun to get me thinking about the difference between the way we pursue science and the way we perceive it. And I suppose teach it really as well, which is that when we pursue science, we only care about the stuff we don’t know. And when we teach science, we just teach the stuff that we do know. And that’s a mistake because, well, first of all, we don’t know so much more than we do know. And and that should be brought out. I’m afraid that we give students the idea that everything must be sort of known here by the end of my course on 25, fact build, fact filled lectures and this big book. And also that that somehow science is really the purpose of science is to accumulate a lot of facts and then write them down in these big encyclopedic like books. And none of that’s really true, is it? That’s not what I do as a scientist. 

When I get together with scientists, we go sit and have a beer and talk about what we don’t know now. 

Absolutely. And what really resonated with me. And in terms of your description of how science has done in the lab, is that now when I’m talking to people who are outside of the lab, who are non scientists and a lot of my work involves explaining science to the lay public, I find myself in this position of having to talk about facts and defend facts and talk about how we got to those facts and really put those facts up on a pedestal. And it’s in some ways a very uncomfortable position, because that isn’t how I mean, for me, the joy of science is the exploration is the discovery and the facts themselves, you know, may or may not be there. They might be very important. But in some ways they can be less interesting than the process of discovery, to which I think that the lay public is often completely admitted too much to their detriment. 

I couldn’t agree more with you. I mean, of course, as a former someone, even as working scientists now, you know that the facts actually for scientists, the facts are kind of the weak link of the whole thing. I think that we’ve we’ve given either intentionally or unintentionally, but someone either the public has been given or has, as some has taken on view of science as if it’s just some big edifice of facts piled one on top of another, and that this is what’s so wonderful about it. And that’s why we should be so proud about it. But but we all know in the business, as it were, that that really the facts are kind of unreliable. In a funny kind of a way, I mean, they they change. That’s what science is about it. It’s it’s like revision, revision. And science is a victory, not a defeat, not something that was wrong with with the given word, as it were, something like. We expect things to be revised and so and so for us, the questions are the important things, the facts, of course, I mean that they exist and they’re important. But we really use facts to get to do with better questions, to frame them in better questions so that we’ll get new and better facts to frame new and better questions, of course. But what is that said? Dynamic that’s important. Not a collection of facts, not the accumulation that’s important. 

And one of the things I find really frustrating often is that when people are out to criticize science, they will pick on a fact that has changed. You know, with more knowledge or, you know, something that may may end up we realize it’s not true 50 years now or 50 years ago. And so they criticize the whole enterprise of science on the basis of something that was wrong. Whereas those of us within science, as you said, it’s it’s part of our bread and butter. It’s one of a sort of fun things to do is to prove that some paper that was written 10 years ago is, in fact wrong, even if it was your own papers to prove it. 


And if it’s somebody else’s, it’s even more fun. That’s absolutely right. And it’s actually it’s a it’s a it’s a very tricky issue, I think, at the moment, because you’re right. So many people do to their own benefit, I’m afraid, try and make science look as if it’s not trustworthy, because, look, you know, it just keeps getting revised and because it keeps changing. And so what can you make of it? And why should we worry about the climate or why should we stop smoking cigarets? I mean, now we know better about it. But for a long time, the cigaret industry in a well, very well documented campaign against science tried to show that there just wasn’t enough science to prove beyond a doubt that cigaret smoking was dangerous to your health. And actually, for a long time, the cigaret industry supported most of the research in science, so to speak. And they did that with this idea that, well, we’ll keep doing research and in the meantime, we’ll keep selling you cigarets. Of course, this is very dangerous. But but it’s part of the nature of the beast. I mean, the fact is the science still is, I think without much question, the best method we’ve ever come up with, finding something empirical about the earth, about the planet, about the universe, about us, about you, about what’s going on and and how things work. 

But it’s not perfect. And we kind of have to learn to live a little bit with that. 

So do you think that one of the ways of moving forward is to inform the public how science works rather than what science tells you? And in terms of facts, I guess what I’m trying to ask is what I whenever I do encounter someone who has a very sort of anti science bent, I try to get them into a conversation which I start asking them questions, questions that scientists, you know, really enjoy asking, trying to get the bottom of some kind of a problem. And that’s been my kind of homespun use of the Socratic method to try to get them to think more deeply about something. Is there a better way of sort of showing the public that ignorance is OK and that it’s exciting and that it’s not a reason to throw out the facts that science has provided us with? 

I don’t know the tourism, and I think that sounds that sounds great. I’m always fond of telling. There’s an old story which may or may not be absolutely true, although I’ve heard it from a few sources about Albert Einstein and the high invites. Miller was the first president of the state of Israel and the scientist himself, although he never really practiced much science. I don’t believe they were supposedly taking a Atlanta quashing together from New York to Europe on the way, I suppose, to Israel perhaps. And they decided that Weitzman wanted to understand relativity. So they they agreed that for every morning they would sit on the deck for two hours. And Einstein would explain relativity to Weitzman. And at the end of the cruise, Weitzman is reported to have said, well, I am absolutely convinced that Professor Einstein understands relativity. 

And that was kind of it. Now, I think, of course, that environment had been smarter. He would have asked Einstein not to explain relativity, but to tell about what he was thinking about. Now, what are the new questions now that there is this thing called relativity, whatever it might be? What how does that make us think differently about the universe? What are the new questions and what is this quantum stuff all about and so forth and so on? And then I think you would have gotten quite an earful, really, and he would have understood a whole lot more than just simply that Einstein knew what relativity was. 

So I think that’s the way we have to get the public somehow once to get involved in science and they have been in the past. Some of it’s our fault. You know, I think we we we talk in a language that can sound a little strange and jargony, and we’re not very careful about that. And and we tend to emphasize the fact, because I guess this is how careers get built these days, for better or worse, government grants. You get government grants because you’ve published papers with facts in them. You you get tenure. You get rewards of one sort or another. And people don’t often ask you about the questions. 

And now with the advent of the Internet, we sort of have facts at our fingertips than we we know or we learn, at least in school, how to find the facts. You know, you either go to the library or look up scholarly papers or you read textbooks and that’s how you find the facts. One thing that I’m not clear yet on is how do we find out what it well, what we are ignorant in a more intellectual way. I mean, I can tell you all there’s all sorts of things I don’t know about in the world. And some of them might be completely false or hard to grasp. You know, things like the paranormal or the supernatural. And a lot of these cases, we don’t know whether or not, you know, E.S.P exists, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for it. But how do we know what aspects of our ignorance are actually worth spending a career pursuing? 

Of course, this is the trickiest question that any scientist has to come up with and has to confront. And careers are really, in the end made and broken based on precisely that. 

And unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to do. I mean, I don’t think there is a really good rule for it. You’re absolutely right. We now live in an age when when facts are indeed in a way cheaper than ever just because they’re so easy to get. I mean, you know, the university can’t really make money anymore selling facts because they’re available or with a click of your mouse or pretty soon just by asking the wall or wherever they’re going to hide the computer or something, you know, so. 

So we can’t just sell the facts. 

We have to think we have to teach people to think beyond the facts. I think what the questions are and that’s that’s, of course, the hardest thing to do. There’s a great story about Gertrude Stein or oveI and what was then considered life threatening surgery. And she was asked by her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas. So, Gertrude, what? What’s the answer? And Stein in her particular way, of course, looked at her and said, well, Alice, what’s the question? And that’s, of course, really the key issue. But learning how to figure out what that question is, is really what we need to teach science. That’s how that’s what science education should, of course, be about, is learning how to come to these questions. And there are so many different ways. And wouldn’t you know, of course, I wrote this book based on a course that I teach at Columbia, where I invite scientists to commit and tell us about what they don’t know and why they picked this particular thing. Not to know how come there this is what interests them and not that I mean, there are lots of good questions out there. But could you ask certain ones? And different scientists, of course, have very many different reasons for them. And there’s a long list of them which I could go through and bore you with. But but they wouldn’t surprise you, any of them. I mean, some people like big questions and some like little ones, some like tractable questions and other ones like really difficult questions. Some people like to work on questions that the whole field or a community is interested in. And other people like questions that are curiosity use. And you can’t see where they might be going at an all of these different reasons. And I think they’re all perfectly valid. 

And one of the things, I guess, that comes out of you listening to a lot of these scientists describe their process of how they came up with what they want to answer is if it doesn’t come from an area of interest that they had. Was it more serendipitous? Did you. Do you see any of those particular scientists that have come up with kind of a holy grail of how to figure out what questions to ask? Or is that. 

No, of course, of art. If I figured that out, I’d write that book. 

It would be called the formula. But I don’t I don’t have one. 

What actually, I think what’s been most interesting about teaching this course, which I’ve done now for nearly six years and talking more and more to scientists about. About this sort of thing and with this perspective in mind is how idiosyncratic science actually is, how different each scientist is, how they come to a particular question. Sometimes by accident, sometimes because it’s been in their head for almost their whole life. Quite often it’s in some ways by accident in the sense that you didn’t predict this pathway. But in retrospect, the pathway looks perfectly reasonable. That happens quite often, I suppose. But it’s the idiosyncrasy, the uniqueness of it that I find so intriguing, because once again, I think the public and the way we teach science to gives rise to the idea that science is this very orderly, very rule driven kind of project that we’re all on and that we follow things called the scientific method and so forth is one. I don’t know anybody who really uses the scientific method, even though they teach it to you like crazy in high school. But but that’s just not the way it’s done. Science is much more chaotic, much, much less ordered, much less rule driven. In fact, we, I think, abused the rules kind of all the time in science. That’s part of the fun of it. 

And in fact, in your book, you come right out and say that you hate hypotheses, which I thought was really interesting. And, you know, a lot of grants are criticized because they seem to be a fishing expedition. I hear that term a lot in science, too, whereas people don’t have, you know, hypotheses that are clear enough or concise enough and that they’re just gonna go out and look at the data. Why is it that you hate hypotheses? 

Well, I it’s funny you might think of this as quirky or something like that, but but most of the feedback I’ve gotten in the book from other scientists is what a relief it was to read that one line that everybody says, I picked that one line up. 

And I thought, oh, well, somebody else thinks this way to thank God because we all feel a bit trapped by them, that it is true that the one of the reasons we felt trapped by them now is that the government funding agencies tend to have gotten themselves caught up in this notion that what they want to see in the way of a proposal is what they call hypothesis driven research. So that that sounds very nice. Sounds kind of highfalutin and all the rest of that. And it sounds like a smart way to go, but I think it has in it many evil components, if you will. So the trouble with the hypothesis, of course, is that it’s your it’s your own personal best idea of how something might work, of how a little bit of data that you have that don’t quite add up to an answer yet, but how they might fit together or how some system works or could be some small system or some big one, how the brain works or how this works or that works. And then you you proceed to go out and try and find some day to do experiments to test that hypothesis. And then you revise it and that all sounds fine. And you go out and test it against some more and have a work just like that. Maybe it would be OK, but it rarely does, because I think once you develop a hypothesis, it’s, after all, your cute idea about how something should work. And so you’ve become kind of attached to it, shall we say, in subtle little ways. And pretty soon, I think you find yourself proposing experiments that are likely to prove the hypothesis. You in very unconscious ways, I think, begin to pay more attention to data that proves the hypothesis, the data that tends to go against it. And pretty quickly, you’re you’ve got yourself quite a little corner somewhere. And you see this in science where people defend their hypotheses as if they were as if they were Nasch nations or something or whoever was their patriotic duty to do so. Well, of course, the first thing we should happen is you should be willing to give it up very quickly. There’s a wonderful phrase in science about there’s no greater tragedy in science than a beautiful hypothesis killed by an ugly fact. But it happens a lot. And unfortunately, it should happen more. But you see so many scientists, I’m not even sure I can tell you that I’m not guilty of this, too. You know, in spite of the ugly fact, just won’t give up the hypothesis that is going to work around it. Some more work around it, some more. So I think. Very dangerous things, as Mike is my point. And it’s not really the best idea. And really, I don’t really see what’s wrong with a fishing expedition for science. I don’t see what’s wrong with something called curiosity driven science. It’s sort of hypothesis driven science. It seems to me this is exactly what should drive science. 

I mean, I’m I’m always, you know, I’m a bit frugal with my my time and my efforts. So I always try to design experiments that, well, no matter how they end up, they’re going to be interesting so that I don’t have to redo an experiment. You know, if it does turn out that the results are null, that, you know, even that provides some kind of information. So I think it’s true that, you know, going going towards the more fishing expedition route can lead to, you know, more multiple, multiple ways of interpreting your your data. And, you know, every one of those ways being interesting in some to some extent. But, you know, I think originally hypotheses were are supposed to be knocked down. Right. I mean, science, the scientific method is supposed to say, OK, well, we definitely know it’s not, you know, this particular hypothesis. We don’t know what else it could be. But, you know, supposed to work by knocking them down. 

Right? You’re sure it’s virtually everything. You had to disprove them. And only after they stand up for years and years can you begin to think that they’re acceptable. And that method would be fine. I agree with you. And I I also agree with you that a pure fishing expedition is not exactly the best idea either. 

You should have some good idea about maybe where you want to put your line in the water and you can’t just have a look at anything you pull up. There are things you do want to throw back. So in some ways, a fishing expedition is more difficult for exactly the reasons you point out that it can be inefficient or you can make mistakes with it. You can go down lots of cul de sacs and dark alleys and have hypotheses for use that way. You’re right. There’s a wonderful quote from Enrico Fermi, who used to tell his students that if you do an experiment and it proves the hypothesis, you’ve made a measurement. And if you do an experiment and disprove the hypothesis, you’ve made a discovery, then that’s what we want, of course, for more discoveries. 

The measurements are OK. But really, what you want is a discovery. But it’s very difficult. I can tell you I mean, I would we have lab meetings in my lab or when I go talk to the students in the lab or really all I want them to do is tell me about the stuff that’s not working. But all they want to do is tell me about the stuff that is working, which I don’t care about because I knew it was going to work. That’s what we did. 

Yeah. Now, those are always the most yeah. The most fun moments in science for me were the ones where, you know, you have some completely unexpected result. And now, as you as you mentioned, your book opens up a whole new set of questions and you can make your career suddenly on that unexpected result. 

Absolutely. So this is the wonder of it. And this is why this is the very power of science. This is why we should have confidence in science, because it’s so prepared to change its direction, to move in another place, to follow whatever it turns out to be. The current the current truth, understanding that it may not be the turtle truth, but it’s the current truth. That’s where we go with it. No, this is at first that may seem contradictory, but I think that’s what gives scientists real power. Of course. 

Yeah. And so in some ways, you are trying to help the public understand the difference between dogma and sort of what an ideal science says, which is constantly changing so that they can then, you know, take what we know now and make decisions on it. That’s I think that’s something that really does frustrate a lot of us, a lot of listeners to a point of inquiry when they see in particular pseudo scientific studies that cause the public to go in a direction that just, you know, is is misleading. For example, you know, the vaccine anti vaccine movement, there was one study that was published, you know, that showed potentially a link between autism and vaccinations. And of course, we now know that since then, the science has been completely has shown that it’s there’s just no link. And yet it’s people are still very influenced by that kind of, you know, within under the guise of a scientific study. And they point to this study saying, look, but it’s been published and. Yes. 

Well, we we could point to many things that have been published that that haven’t held up. And that’s important. Of course, you can point to many things that have held up. And there, again, I think of you. I mean, I think that the vaccination thing is maybe a perfect example. 

And if I were more of a historian of science, I would spend more time with it, although people have done so well, I think done a good job on it, because there if you had really thought carefully about the question that was being asked, you would have recognized the science was a bit specious to begin with. You would have been less trusting of that science than you would of any other science, because it was all correlation and it all came out of a kind of a desire for an explanation and almost all the wrong reasons for asking a particular question that. Whole vaccination that came out of and so you would have been suspicious, as most people, most scientists were right from the very beginning. 

But there were a few facts and that was all it took for. For some people to be taken in by it. But, you know, these were people who wanted an explanation. We unfortunately, as Erwin Schrödinger told us, in the pursuit of science, you have to abide by ignorance for some period of time. And that’s a very difficult thing, I think, for people to do. We’re not wired for that. 

Yeah. And in fact, in your book, you if I could, because quote you directly. Another sentence that really resonated with me was being a scientist requires having faith and uncertainty. Finding pleasure in mystery and learning to cultivate doubt. And I think that’s absolutely true. But I also think it’s one of the things that makes scientists a difficult person to interact with, with a lay public because they’re often not willing to say, yes, you know, 100 percent. This is the fact. But rather, they’ll say, well, you know, under these circumstances, with these conditions, you know, this is the result that we might expect. 

Exactly. Then they get taken advantage of. You’re absolutely right. But, of course, that’s again, because they’ve been asked the wrong thing. They’ve been asked to come out on one side or another of an issue which they rightly don’t care to do because they recognize that the facts aren’t all in yet. And you’re much better off asking the scientists, you know, what the question is than what the answer is at the moment. But if you ask them what the questions are, I think you’ll get something out. But I mean, the climate change issue is a very good one. There are a few bits of facts there, but there are some open questions. But what we don’t concentrate on those except as if they were as if they were some something lacking, as if they were some a hole in the story. But that’s not really the case. I mean, the real cases that the questions are very clear questions and we’re getting better and better at precisely what questions we should be asking. And as we do, we’re going to understand the whole thing much better as well. And we should be asking climate scientists, well, what what are the questions? Which are the ones that are going to get answered first, do you think? And and where are these questions going? Because even the nature of the questions points you in a certain direction. 

So do you think that science journalists now should actually be bringing up these issues, these questions and the beginning of their articles? I tend to to find that that’s just not the case. And most of the articles in newspapers and magazines, you know, they really go they start with the fact, you know, in the lead and then they talk about the method somewhere down the line. But maybe they there should be at a start with a question. 

Well, I think I think it’d be a nice thing to try in any case. Yes. I mean, the problem is, of course, that I think for most journalists that the assignment they get were however they get that assignment comes from the announcement of some discovery, typically. And and the last thing they ask anybody is, well, gee, gee, how did you come to this? I mean, how did this come about or why did you make. Why did you even start asking this question? But that would be an interesting thing to say. And, of course, that the most interesting thing to ask is what lies. You know, as you know, there’s a little bit of whatever it is, you know. 

No. What’s the next question? What what what are you going to work on? Mental. What does that tell us about what we should be asking next? 

And that’s that almost never gets asked. I’m afraid. 

Yeah, and I think that that’s what makes it hard to be a consumer of science when it’s not especially outside of your field. I mean, you know, I’m an expert in a very small portion of neuroscience, but there’s so much of science that I’m, you know, just a layperson in. And it is often hard for me to even know where to begin in terms of evaluating that science. Is there something that you’ve learned from your course or the way your students have responded to your chorus that has helped you, has helped inform you of how to become a better consumer of science? 

Well, not to not to overdo this too much, not to push the same thing too many times, but it’s basically that I think the idea of questions. So one of the remarkable things that I think in the courses that we’ve been able to bring in scientists of many different stripes, as it were, we’ve had chemists and astronomers and astrophysicists and physicists and engineers of various sorts, even mathematicians, a whole slew of different kinds of biologists from geneticists to immunologist to neuroscientists. And the remarkable thing is that we can talk to each one of these people because we don’t talk to them about the jargon, these sorts of fact, to their work. I mean, I forbid PowerPoint in the class. There’s never a lecture of any sort. Nobody but you can get up and use the blackboard if you want. But nobody, almost nobody ever does. And and when we talk to these people about the questions they’re asking, they become remarkably, how can I put it? They’ve become remarkably eloquent about it in ways that are very understandable, because when you are still putting the question out, who you’re still thinking about the question, you don’t really have the jargon yet. You don’t have the set piece yet in the way that you talk about your work, the way you learn to talk about your work, when you give a seminar somewhere or something like that. And so the conversation becomes quite human and it becomes about the question. And and surprisingly difficult things become understandable. Now I can listen to an astrophysicist and talk about their ignorance and their particular questions. And that doesn’t mean that I can go home that night and work on some things for them and send them a solution to their problem in the morning. I’m not going to be an astrophysicist by the end of talking with them, but I will have some sense about what their life is like, about why they have certain questions that they feel are more important than other questions that really deserve a lot of a lot of work answering as opposed to questions that we’ll get to later if we ever get to them or things of that nature. 

And I think this approach can be particularly powerful because it really draws the audience into the conversation rather than just being passive. You know, listeners of facts, they can actually start engaging and thinking about what what what might be the next question. But you bring up a good point. You know, what is the year you’re then? Not as not not being an astrophysicist. You’re not in the best position to decide for them what their next question is. So what is the relationship between the knowledge and the wisdom that they’ve gained through their training and their experience? But how is that related to their understanding of what is left out there to still ask? 

That’s I guess that’s a that’s a question you’ll have to ask each one of them, of course. And it’s their life story in a way. I think if I understand what you’re asking me, which is that they continue to get facts really not for the purpose of getting the facts, but for the purpose of honing in on a better and better kind of question. Sometimes I find the fact that really sets them off into a whole new area, as you pointed out earlier. But sometimes they are just sort of building. I like to think of it, not so much is building an edifice of facts, but building an edifice of questions that that that gives them a kind of a perspective on the world or the universe or what it is they’re looking for that tells them where to go, where to go next, what the next experiment is, what the next and usually what the next doesn’t experiments are. It’s often said that science never gets anything right. Every time it answers a question, it just seems to discover ten new ones. But that’s the best part of it, of course. 

And I also wanted to just bring up the notion that, you know, there there now are so many papers and there’s so much knowledge out there. There might be even more ignorance, but there’s it’s it’s just impossible to know, even in your own field. All of the literature, all the things that have been published. And oftentimes now when I see either when I’m asked to peer review a paper or I edited a journal called NeuroPace, and when I’m watching you, the my reviewers do their work. So many papers get forgotten. And so how now can we. How do we combat this problem of having so much knowledge that it’s even it’s on somewhere? If we’re going to become ignorant of what was done 20 years ago, pretty soon because. It’s just impossible to pass all of this information, not only just 20 years ago, but in some cases. 

I mean, 20 days ago. I don’t think I can keep up with that even that quickly anymore. You know, they they claim there’s a new paper published every four or five minutes. So since we’ve been talking, there’s 20 or 30 papers that have come out. 

You know, it’s really kind of possible. 

So yet another reason, I think why we why we can’t let ourselves be drowned by the facts will be too too dedicated to the facts because we will just drown in them. These facts fit into puzzles. They’re important here and there, but you can’t know them all. I mean, I wish they libraries. You’re a wonderful, amazing things. They’re all inspiring for all the information that we put in them and the generations and generations of information that go with them. But I find them sort of mildly depressing sometimes, too, because I know that I’ll I’ll never know. But the smallest tiny is percentage of what’s in any given library, let alone what’s being published every day. So so you so you can’t really you can never hope to keep up with that. And so you might as well, in a way, give up. That’s all I do. 

You have to learn a kind of a benign neglect as well. But you can learn, but you can keep track of a lot more of it by the questions, because for every paper that’s out there, there’s really often one or two overriding questions that may that may generate 20, 30, 40 papers. And you don’t have to know all those papers to still be interested in that question, to still find that question engaging or interesting to you as an individual in the process. 

I just really worry that, you know, we’re just gonna be doing the same experiments because we just haven’t you know, someone else has done it 10 years ago. 

And but I suppose if you’re if you’re better getting better at better and at formulating the questions, then the chances of your missing a previous paper hopefully will diminish because you will be more specific about what it is that you are trying to get at. And then you will be able to find, you know, any other work that’s been done in that area. 

I think that’s true to a large extent, because I think, again, if you if you think that the purpose of these papers is not so much to add another fact to the to the to the edifice here, but to but to make the question better, then that’s what really works best. When you you do read a paper, you hear about a paper or papers published or feel what you’re interested in is what’s the new question that it’s that it’s brought up. I often tell my students that the best place to look for for new questions for ignorance is to go back about 10 or 15 years and look at the paper nature of science then, because that paper is really finished. 

I mean, it was in its day, but new questions have arisen about that work. And from that work, it’s not that that work is even necessarily wrong. It shows that the people who did it didn’t have the tools that we have today, didn’t have the additional knowledge that we have today. And so there were questions that either they couldn’t answer then or that never even occurred to them. 

You mean over. As opposed to picking up a current issue of nature? 

Yes. Yes. So I think because that because that’s an infertile race that you’ll never win. Staying ahead of nature, I mean, it just arrives every week. It’s so maddening, you know? I mean, you’ve barely finished. Well, I’ll close to finish the last one I have here. I haven’t been able to wrap yet. So so. So the fact that they arrive every week is really maddening, I find. And so sometimes you need to go back and take this longer perspective, I think, and see what’s still an unanswered question. 

Even in unasked question, you might have nature guilt and I have New Yorker guilt. 

They pile up every week to say, yes, I get it. 

Well, thank you very much, Stuart Firestein, for coming on point of inquiry and talking about your book, Ignorance How It Drives Science. 

Thank you so much. He was a real pleasure talking with you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show on ignorance and how it drives science visit point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org on Twitter, at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Indre Viskontas. 

Indre Viskontas