Ignorance : How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein is an interesting look at the importance of the unknown in driving science. Firestein emphasizes that the way science is presented to most people through text books is via the presentation of a vast array of facts whereas the process of science is actually one stumbling in the dark. The book starts with the proverb “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, Especially when there is no cat”.

The book comes from Firestein running courses for undergraduates and him seeing the contrast of this presentation of ordered facts and the process of actual scientific discovery. In order to help students understand he has asked various scientists to present lectures in which they describe what they would like to know but don’t.

Firestein is talking about a certain type of ignorance and does mean willful ignorance but rather ignorance due to do the knowledge and acknowledgement of unknowns. He points out that while a modern high school student has more scientific knowledge than Newton the proportion of available information that they have compared to the total is smaller than Newton had.

Firestein has interesting things to say about scientific facts :
“When is the fact final? In reality, only false science reveres “facts”, thinks of them as permanent and claims to be able to know everything and predict with unerring accuracy”.
“Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance”.

Clearly this has implications when supposedly authoritative compendiums of knowledge are created. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and its diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness until the 1970s is an example.

It’s an interesting book that looks at science from a perspective that is illuminating. It’s worth a read for anyone interested in how some scientists see science.


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