The practice of science is more about what we don’t know than what we do know, or at least that’s how it ought to be. So says Stuart Firestein, professor and Biological Sciences Chair at Columbia University. Real scientific work, he says, “is less like the scientific method and more like farting around...in the dark.” Embracing what we don’t know, and asking better questions because of it, makes us better scientists. Read on—and listen in—to learn more.
In his funny and eloquent TED Talk, Firestein tells us that although the practice of science is widely perceived as this “very well-ordered mechanism for understanding the world,” it’s not really like that. Real science is far more chaotic. And real scientists do their best work when they embrace what Firestein calls “high quality ignorance.”
The ignorance that Firestein espouses is not the kind with negative connotation. It doesn’t mean “stupidity, or callow indifference to reason or data.” Rather, it’s a “kind of ignorance that comes from a communal gap in our knowledge, something that’s just not there to be known or isn’t known well enough yet.”
Firestein so strongly believes that “thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every advance in science,” that he designed, and now teaches, a course at Columbia on the subject. Firestein asserts that the recognition, encouragement, and embracing of ignorance as a source of power has to start playing a bigger role in education. “We can’t just sell facts anymore,” he says. “We have to give our students a taste for the boundaries, for what’s outside the circumference, for what’s just beyond the facts.”
To learn more about ignorance as a gateway to scientific discovery, we encourage you to watch Firestein’s TED Talk in its entirety.