Stuart Firestein, Chair of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, has a book about to be released. With any luck, it will be one of the more important scientific books in recent memory.
Ignorance: How It Drives Science will argue that a good scientist is consumed by ignorance. The basic argument is thus; every new discovery invariably leads to a score of new questions. Therefore, science, over time, produces many more “unknowns” than known facts. This geometric growth drives further inquiry, so that science is itself better understood as a being about questions than answers.
The ignorance of science is obvious to anyone who knows even a smattering of history, but we seem to have collectively lost sight of that simple truth. It is as the scientist Leonardo da Vinci said, “simplicity is the greatest sophistication.” Firestein’s argument is timely, and hopefully, will be widely embraced.
Science is wonderful, amazing, and mind-boggling. The advancement of science should be a national priority, yet without the acceptance of science’s vast ignorance, scientific undertakings are prone to hubris, and “scientific” arguments are wielded as political clubs.
In the hands of charlatans, opportunists, activists, and politicians, science has become something of a religious exercise. It’s alleged incontrovertible truths are used to quash further inquiry and halt disagreements. Many use science as the ultimate appeal to authority, and therefore a way to forestall critical thinking. When used to push a policy agenda, science itself becomes tarnished and discredited.
I applaud Firestein, and hope that his book restores some sense to our application of science.