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Ignorance: How It Drives Science
Ignorance: How It Drives Science
Stuart Firestein
Oxford University Press, 2012
195 pp., 25.95

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Science in Focus: Alan Love

Ignorance: How It Drives Science, Part 2

Questions about questions.

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Ignorance and science are, at best, strange bedfellows. Their juxtaposition has the ring of an oxymoron. But Stuart Firestein, onetime stage manager and theater director, now neurobiological specialist on mammalian olfactory systems, wants us to embrace this counterintuitive pairing for revisionary and revolutionary reasons. The revision comes from peeling back the layers of science's overly buffed public image (the venerable "scientific method') and exposing a more realistic (i.e., messy and less methodical) picture of empirical inquiry: "Too much emphasis on the answers and too little attention to the questions have produced a warped view of science." A question-centered perspective, Firestein argues, has the potential to transform the public understanding of science and encourage the next generation to join in: "it is the questions that make science such a fun game." Students are not always inclined to take up scientific investigation since a focus on what we know—exemplified in scale-tipping textbooks—gives the impression of a job already finished.

The book emerged out of a course taught by Firestein at Columbia University, where he turned a standard molecular biology lecture course upside down and paraded a variety of his colleagues through class to display their ignorance. It was (and still is) a smash hit, even if students puzzle over whether an "A" in the class might hurt their vita. Firestein gives us a taste of the course through vignettes from investigations of mathematical topology, animal consciousness, the brain, and the unification of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Firestein is to be applauded for his efforts; science education needs this breath of fresh air. But he also should be prodded because he doesn't go far enough in painting an erotetic ("pertaining to questioning") picture of science. The questions of science do motivate inquiry, but they also organize it. We can see this by disambiguating the subtitle's transitive verb: drive. Firestein means it primarily in the sense of propel or provide the force or energy to move something. But it can also mean to steer or guide: "Scientists use ignorance to program their work, to identify what should be done, what the next steps are, where they should concentrate their energies." In order for this latter sense to obtain, there must be particular structures to provide the guidance. Firestein talks about trying to find black cats in dark rooms, emphasizing the difficulty of the looking. But how did the room itself take shape that one might walk into it? Individual questions don't have a multi-faceted structure or shape. The problems that scientists tackle don't correspond to standard interrogatives; "how do cells differentiate?" is not akin to "did Shakespeare write Hamlet?" Scientific problems exhibit a complex anatomy that is composed of historical strands of debate, a variety of question-types (empirical, conceptual), and a nested architecture among the questions in terms of their abstraction and generality. These dimensions of erotetic structure organize research and guide inquiry. Developing a more robust picture of science in terms of this problem-anatomy would be both revisionary and revolutionary, but also revealing in a way Firestein's discussion is not. Erotetic structure accounts for how ignorance drives (guides) science.

Alan C. Love is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.

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