What’s the role of “ignorance” in science?

Stuart Firestein was the guest speaker at this month’s Secret Science Club. His area of research is neuroscience and the olfactory system, but at this talk he discussed his ideas on ignorance and how it is important for driving scientific research.

Ignorance, according to Firestein, is what drives science because discoveries do not happen as a result of sequential studies and reasoning. It is more like searching in a dark room for a black cat (his example), although sometimes there won’t be a black cat at all. It may be difficult for career scientists to admit that they don’t have a clear idea of what they are doing or looking for, but asking those questions to get at what we don’t know and how to get there is what is important to the process.

I put ignorance in quotes because it does have a lot of negative connotations, like Firestein admits, but I think those negative connotations are sometimes too dominant to justify using the word plainly. I think there should be a better word for it, but don’t have something in mind at the moment, so the quotation marks.

Make Your Own Path

Another issue he talks about is the vastness of knowledge. How can we possibly keep up with all of the knowledge found and advances in science? I cannot keep up with ecology journal articles, much less the weekly issues of Nature and Science (which are the gold standard in academic publishing). With the increasing pace of publishing academic articles, there is also an increase in field-specific jargon. The bar to enter a field and be an expert gets set higher and higher each year, and to know one’s field becomes a really tough prerequisite to being a respected researcher (and to getting tenure for those who really care about that).

Dr. Firestein teaches an interesting seminar course at Columbia University, where prominent researchers come in and discuss what they don’t know and what they want to know in their field. It is this type of discussion that brings the research to a more universally understandable level, because the jargon doesn’t exist yet for things we don’t know about. I really like this point because I agree that it is so hard to even read a single academic article in a field that I am not active in, but I can relate to discussion in terms of the unknowns.

Firestein also said some interesting things about hypotheses (and the scientific method). He doesn’t like them, and I agree. He argues that hypotheses open up research to biases (or, more boldly put, pigeonhole research into biases and expectations), whereas more curiosity-driven open-ended questioning avoids bias in some ways. But the way to get funding for your research is to describe and structure your studies in a hypothesis-driven way. Basically, the scientific method is bogus!

If I was able to ask Dr. Firestein a question, I would ask him how he feels about the lack of interest in publishing negative results. Meaning, studies that come up short of significant results, but still might have some interesting intellectual value by informing people about what didn’t happen. I can imagine a new academic journal going by the title of “Ignorance,” but that might not give much confidence to researchers who are looking to publish. (Update on May 29, 2012: Here is a post about this very topic talked about in Nature!)

This talk couldn’t have come at a better time as I’m getting closer to doing my own research projects (I’ll post more on this later). I don’t have any hypotheses, although I have some questions, some thoughts and a short plan. But, I think it’s ok not to have set plan. Most of the time.


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