Summary of Ignorance by Stuart Firestein

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Ignorance by Stuart Firestein

In the world of scientific discovery, researchers don’t go looking at things we already know. They delve into what we don’t know and therefore driven by ignorance. These gaps in knowledge are the spaces where the greatest discoveries come from but we can’t get to them if we don’t ask the right questions. 

Many people are unaware of how scientific inquiry works, but this book summary will help readers understand. Methods in scientific research can be understood by anyone and they will allow you to welcome your ignorance and the possibilities for discovery and personal growth that it will bring. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • How scientists work
  • Scientific predictions
  • Scientific discoveries and ignorance. How are they linked?
  • Examples of ignorance in scientific discoveries
  • Embracing ignorance is something that should be taught to students

Key lesson one: How scientists work

First and foremost, whenever scientists set out to design an experiment, they are taught to be objective. However, this is nearly impossible to do. They do try as much as they can to remain unbiased but it is inevitable that they will prefer a certain outcome. Scientists are only human, after all, so you can’t blame them for their unconscious bias. What they need to be careful of though, is if this bias will affect the way they interpret the results of their experiments.

Scientists believe that most things can be explained through logic and empirical observation. This is known as positivism and assumes that all things in the universe have causal relationships. To explain this further, these relationships identify everything as a cause that has a definite and clear effect. But, as with life, nothing is so clear-cut. In fact, what scientists are ignorant about are blind spots in their own experiments. We don’t know what we don’t know. As much as scientists strive to understand everything, they are limited by their own minds. This is why each scientific discovery is picked apart and built upon by other scientists. They attempt to fill in these limitations. 

It is for this reason that we should be critical of ‘scientific facts’ as they are not completely objective. 

Key lesson two: Scientific predictions

Scientific method allows for specific types of predictions to be made. As much as scientists are unable to see the future, given their experiments and observations they can develop an idea as to what will happen under specific conditions. Chemists, for example, conduct experiments to see how elements will behave under specific conditions. In doing so, they can develop an idea as to the types of reaction that will occur in their experiments. 

These type of predictions are limited though. They are made through research, observation and identification. Predictions about the future, however, are not so simple. No matter how many experiments and observations are made by scientists, trying to accurately predict what will happen a decade from now is never simple. There are too many factors involved and scientists do not have the evidence to accurately make predictions.

Instead of making predictions that will inevitably be wrong, scientists should rather pose questions. A question works better than a statement as it has a greater chance of being relevant in the future whereas statements would be immediately dismissed. 

Key lesson three: Scientific discoveries and ignorance. How are they linked?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not knowledge that drives scientific inquiry but rather, ignorance. Two types of ignorance exist namely wilful stupidity and absence of facts or insight. Wilful stupidity occurs when one consciously ignores facts or logic because it opposes their beliefs. The absences of facts and logic can be described as both an individuals lack of knowledge and a larger communal lack of knowledge. This type of ignorance can be valuable. Scientists strive to understand what they do not know. A simple question can spurt multiple answers and inspire scientific research.

Take leadership for example. In recent years, scientists have identified different types of leadership styles. With this identification comes areas of ignorance such as how do people respond to a specific leadership style? Or, what causes someone to have a certain leadership style? These scientific questions can be extended to different areas of science as well. Psychologists could conduct trials, neurobiologists can analyse the brains of leaders to pick up differences and even business analysts could identify the best leadership style for a specific industry. Multiple areas of study and therefore multiple questions can arise from one simple scientific discovery. 

This is why scientists have to come up with a research proposal. It narrows down the research they want to conduct into one simple question. Proposals are crucial for scientists to secure funding for their research but the process of writing one can be quite frustrating. Despite this, a research proposal is quite handy in identifying areas of ignorance and which question should be answered first. Simplicity is key. Answer the small questions in order to find the answers to the large ones. This is known as the model system in modern science. An example of the model system at work is the study of the human brain. The human brain has approximately 80 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections which complicate things for researchers. They, therefore, turn to rats or mice which have brains with fewer neurons. This allows them to scale back and ask smaller questions making it easier to manage. 

Key lesson four: Examples of ignorance in scientific discoveries

There are some great examples of how ignorance steered scientists in their research. One of them was a horse named Clever Hans. Clever Hans could count and he could answer simple arithmetic questions. He used to do this by stomping out the answer using his hoof. However, after further investigation, it was found that the horse wasn’t counting but simply reacting to cues from his owner’s body language. Even though Clever Hans didn’t do what they thought he did, he still ignited questions of scientist’s ignorance in animals and whether they could think.

This caused scientists to pay more attention to animals hoping to find cognition in animals. Now that this was brought to their attention, it was easier to spot. The first such instance came from Diana Reiss, a researcher who worked with dolphins. She fed them the heads and bodies of fish but not the tails as she knew the dolphins did not like them. Furthermore, as part of their training, if the dolphins did not listen to Reiss, she would walk away from the poo, ignoring the dolphins, as a form of a time-out. One day, Reiss unintentionally fed one of the dolphins a fishtail. The dolphin voiced its dislike of the action by swimming away from her and ignored her as she did during their time-outs. 

Then cognition was identified in chimpanzees. Gordon Gallup Jr. conducted a simple mirror test in the 70s. He tranquilised a few chimpanzees and marked their foreheads with a red dot. When they regained consciousness, he presented them with a mirror. The chimps recognized the red dot on their forehead as something new proving that they had an idea of their appearance and bodies. 

Physics is also an area where ignorance has fuelled research and theories. None so are more prominent than string theory. Physicists have an immense amount of knowledge due to the laws of physics presented by Albert Einstein and research done in quantum mechanics. However, they are ignorant as to how to bring the laws of two areas together so they remain separate. String theory hopes to bridge this gap in knowledge. Introduced by theoretical physicist Brian Greene, he theorised that these strings of energy vibrate and produce subatomic particles and they travel through space and time thus meeting the requirements of both classical and quantum physics. It is still largely theoretical and has no doubt produced more questions than answers, but, at the end of the day, that’s the very definition of research.

The last example of ignorance in science comes from an area that always provides a multitude of questions: the brain. There are so many areas of study regarding the brain that scientists are ignorant about. One of these areas is memory. Neuroscientists could not understand how the human brain could retain large amounts of information. With careful study, they found that the brain has to make room for new memories. Thus even though humans can learn quickly, if not used these memories can be overwritten with useful information. 

Ignorance fuelled these scientific discoveries and continues to do so proving just how important it really is. 

Key lesson five: Embracing ignorance is something that should be taught to students

Ignorance is important to research and scientific discovery yet it is still somewhat looked at with a negative connotation. If scientists have been able to label their ignorance as an asset, the word needs to spread. Scientists should make research processes known to the public so they too, can use ignorance as a tool. In doing so, the public will also get a clearer idea of what scientific research is actually going on in the world. No one wants to read a complicated scientific paper because not many people understand them. 

Furthermore, the value of ignorance should be taught to future scientists. Students need to start thinking and forming their own line of scientific inquiry from the very beginning. Asking questions is something every budding scientist should learn. By adding the importance of considering ignorance when asking these questions, a new, more capable generation of scientists will emerge.

The key takeaway from Ignorance is:

Ignorance plays a huge part in scientific inquiry. Scientists do not base their experiments on what they know but rather on what they don’t know. Identifying these gaps in knowledge can open a whole new world of questions and scientific discovery. The importance of ignorance should not go unnoticed further and should be taught to students.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Ignorance:

Why not try and identify areas of ignorance in your own life. You might discover that there may be something that you would like to do or try to bridge this gap in knowledge. It could be something simple that you implement to learn a new skill or more complicated like trying different techniques to identify what best suits your needs.

🤙 Your Next Step… 🤙

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