Ignorance: How It Drives Science

Particle simulation in a black box, searching for the edges (c) 2019

Particle simulation in a black box, searching for the edges (c) 2019

Stuart Firestein likens science to finding a black cat in a dark room…especially when there is no cat. From his perspective as a neuroscientist and Professor at Columbia University, he paints a description of scientists bumping around in the dark trying to figure out what this is or that might be, perhaps finding that cat, which might or might not be there. And if it’s Schrödinger’s cat, might or might not be alive. 

He acknowledges that this is an uncommon and I’ll add slightly cynical view of science. But it is from this vantage that Firestein lays out his carefully constructed thesis in Ignorance: How It Drives Science how scientists need to embrace ignorance more than embracing knowledge and facts. 

Being inspired by James Clerk Maxwell, perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, Firestein defines ignorance as “thoroughly conscious ignorance“, and begins to deconstruct the temple of facts. 

The literary critic, historian, and author Mary Poovey traces the development of the fact as a respected and vaunted unit of knowledge in “The History of the Modern Fact”. Firestein, like Poovey, is skeptical of facts because, “no matter how objective a measurement, someone still had to decide to make that measurement, providing ample opportunity for bias”. This is in stark contrast to the idea that facts arise from unbiased observations and measurements, unaffected by subjective interpretation. Regardless of this fallacy, the idealized view of the fact still commands a central place in science and beyond. No opinions please; only the facts.

 Firestein doesn’t mean to demean facts, but rather to place them in a more accurate perspective, or at least from his perspective as a working scientist. He describes facts as the “dark side of knowledge”. A fact can be perfectly good, until it is wrong. But proving a fact wrong is difficult because disproving something is nearly impossible, by both scientific and philosophical standards. Instead, Firestein writes that “science changes with every funeral”. Apparently, scientific facts are subject to change only when their keepers also change.

So how does a famous neuroscientist define the activity of science then? He argues that science is neither a puzzle, nor a mystery to unravel, nor an iceberg to peer under. Instead, he envisions science as ripples on a pond, where the body of knowledge continually pushes outward, thereby creating more questions. 

The idea of ‘question propagation’, originally attributed to philosopher Immanuel Kant , is a better way to envision scientific progress. Fierstein argues that knowledge leads to more questions, better questions, higher quality ignorance. Despite the ever increasing volume of scientific papers, which he estimates to be approximately three papers per minute all day everyday, Firestein argues that the volume of ignorance is still exponentially greater.

Matt Might, Professor of Internal Medicine and Computer Science at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, shares a similar view of the relationship between knowledge and ignorance. Might created The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. to explain what a Ph.D. is to new and aspiring graduate students. In the Guide, he provides prospective of what ‘new knowledge’ looks like. The tiny bump in knowledge again the boundary-less white backdrop is certainly humbling. But Firestein would say that the tiny bump causes limitless ripples — like a butterfly flapping its wings. 

Firestein’s little black book on Ignorance includes several vignettes of high-quality ignorance, token examples plucked from his graduate course at Columbia entitled Ignorance: a discussion of the primary role of ignorance in science. His course invites leading thinkers in their respective fields to not present what they know about a topic, but what they decidedly do not know.

But Firestein’s carefully constructed journey leads to the question about whether something is knowable. This concept of knowable, and the notion of discovery as uncovering or revealing, is in essence a Platonic view of the world. Plato argued that reality already exists and eventually we will, or could, know all about it. The cat is either in the room or not, and we will eventually know. 

If this is a reasonable way of thinking, then how does the definition of ignorance change? Ignorance, then, is what we do not know or understand yet. And as the books subtitle directs, this is what drives science.

An idea I’ve explored previously in this space is how we come to know things — how we come to know new things: 0 to 1. What does Ignorance mean for creativity and for coming up with good ideas? Firestein’s take home point is that by acknowledging what we don’t know and finding high-quality ignorance, we will identify the edges of knowledge. And it is at these edges, where new knowledge can be found. Firestein would add that new questions will be found at these edges too.

This is reminiscent of how curiosity is a prerequisite for creativity. When solving problems or taking on new creative endeavors, cultivating curiosity is the first step to developing an exploratory mind that will connect new ideas previously unconnected. Firestein's Ignorance is curiosity in disguise: he claims ignorance leads to questions, and questions are the stuff that curiosity is made of. Finding high-quality questions, whether new or in the familiar, is essential to push the boundaries. 

Firestein goes a step further and adds that in order to ask the right questions to know new things, you need to have a certain level of skepticism. How do you know what you know? Are you certain about it? Is this even the right question? Carrying healthy skepticism, and curiosity, will lead to better questions. 

Firestein preaches we all must be OK with ignorance. But this is difficult, because it goes against human instinct. Recall that studies by Adam Grant showed that the human mind is apt to move prematurely from the discomfort of not knowing to the more comfortable place of evaluating and deciding. Good questions highlighting what you don’t know can be uncomfortable, and ultimately frightening.

The natural tendency to dismiss newness for the familiar appears to be hard-wired into human biology, says Grant. This discomfort is further amplified in an age of immediate information, hyper-connectedness, fear of missing out (FOMO), and the socially unacceptable status of not knowing or not having an opinion. 

Firestein concludes that Ignorance, not facts, should hold the elevated position. And quoting famed quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger, we should “abide by ignorance for an indefinite period” of time. We all need to embrace not knowing — not knowing if the cat is there, if the idea is right. 

Because Shrodinger would also say that according to quantum physics, the cat is equal parts in the dark room, and not in the room, at the same time. It’s only when we turn the light on, that the cat is in a definite state of in or out of the room. Until that time, quantum physics goes, the cat is a blur of probability, half in the room and half out. 

This absurdity was the point of Shrodinger’s thought experiment, which he found so philosophically disturbing that he abandoned his work in quantum physics — the field he helped make. But despite this absurdity, quantum objects can be in two states at once. And while still several high-quality questions remain surrounding the dual particle and wave nature of everything, Schrodinger’s cat in a dark room certainly abides by ignorance for an indefinite period of time. 

Explore Further

1. Watch Firestein in this witty TED2013 talk entitled "The pursuit of ignorance". Firestein jokes that science looks a lot less like the scientific method and a lot more like "farting around ... in the dark." Firestein gets to the heart of science as it is really practiced and suggests that we should value what we don't know -- or "high-quality ignorance" -- just as much as what we know. 

2. Check out the TED-Ed video (linked above and here) on the quantum phenomenon of superposition describing the dual particle and wave nature of everything.

3. I recently discovered a new type of art called “generative art”, after spending much time lately with the computer programming language R (more on that later). The cover image of this article is generative art that I made which traces in white the paths of particles in a simulation, appropriately in a black box. For the curious, 1000 particles were placed in an empty field, and then giving an initial velocity, random direction, and set decay. A force field is then applied, and the particles interact with the force and eachother, as they spread out towards the edges, until the decay threshold is passed. The image above was one of my favorite.