On Wednesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for May's Secret Science Club lecture with neuroscientist and Columbia University chair of the department of biological sciences Dr Stuart Firestein. While Dr Firestein studies the vertebrate olfactory system, tonight's lecture was about ignorance and inquiry.
Dr Firestein began the lecture with a brilliant characterization of the difficulty of scientific inquiry. It's difficult to find a black cat in a completely dark room, especially one in which there is no cat. In some ways, scientific inquiry is like stumbling around in a dark room, until a source of light is found... then that light can be used to locate other sources of illumination. The perception of science is different from the pursuit of science- science is not merely and accumulation of facts, a lot of information remains to be discovered. As Marie Curie put it, "One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done."
Dr Firestein mentioned an "Ignorance Course" at Columbia, in which various scientists discuss what they want to know, and the current state of ignorance in their field. By ignorance, they do not mean simple ignorance, which can be styled "willful stupidity". By ignorance, Dr Firestein means an absence of facts, communal gaps in knowledge. Such ignorance can be termed "knowledgable ignorance". As 19th Century physicist James Maxwell said, "Thoroughly conscious ignorance is a prelude to every real advance in knowledge."
Dr Firestein noted that the iceberg is a traditional metaphor for ignorance, because much of it lies below the surface, be he rejected that image as too static. His preferred metaphor is the expanding ripples in a pool, a circle which gets ever larger. Knowledge creates "better" ignorance, it helps us frame better questions, even as it creates more ignorance. As George Bernard Shaw observed, "Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 new ones." Kant referred to this process as "Question Propagagtion"- each answer begets more questions.
On the topic of ignorance, Dr Firestein also mentioned an individual who I perhaps hate more than anyone else currently walking the planet... while what he said has some application to "conscious ignorance", I think he was just trolling:
One problem facing scientists is how to figure out what they need to figure out. As the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane noted: "I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
Dr Firestein related a mental exercise in which the philosopher Wittgenstein asked students how they could "prove" Copernicus' heliocentric model using only their senses, and how they would be able to tell a heliocentric system from a geocentric system. I found a video which nicely sums up this exercise:
Foucault's Pendulum demonstrated the rotation of the Earth, but that doesn't count for Wittgenstein's purposes.
Dr Firestein used the a term (perhaps a throwaway line) "Cognitive Copernicism"... there is nothing special or privileged about the cosmic landscape or the cognitive landscape.
Dr Firestein made a distinction between low quality ignorance and high quality ignorance... is the ignorance worthy of a grant proposal, or just a bull session? In determining the quality of ignorance, certain distinctions have to be made. Are the questions to be addressed big or little ones? Of course, some seemingly small issues are, in actually, big deals... considering a simple 8 minute arc allowed Kepler to revolutionize astronomy.
Other considerations in research are the tractability of the subject- science is often the "Art of the Soluble". The difficulty, or "obstinacy" of the problem is a factor. Of course, research is also limited by technical requirements, monetary and other resources, a sense of community among the researchers, the importance of research to the field, ethical and moral considerations, and the duration of necessary research- is a problem soluble in a researcher's "scientific lifetime"?
One interesting tack on research is poring over old papers to find new questions to tackle- the "ignorance of the known" is a good way to characterize these potential avenues of inquiry.
In the Q&A, some bastard asked Dr Firestein his opinion of a quote once offered by said bastard's waggish high school physics teacher: "When one pursues a doctorate, one learns more and more about less and less until one finally knows everything about nothing."
Dr Firestein addressed this specialization in higher education. One pitfall in research is that intellectual prejudices can interfere with inquiries. Often, an immense edifice of facts seems impregnable, and studies outside one's field are often impenetrable. One should strive for a quality Keats called negative capability:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
Erwin Schrodinger expressed the need to abide by ignorance while conducting research:
In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period… The steadfastness in standing up to [this requirement], nay in appreciating it as a stimulus and a signpost to further quest, is a natural and indispensable disposition in the mind of a scientist.
Researchers often have narrowing "silos" of information that can cause some problems "across scientific borders". There are pitfalls to interdisciplinary work- a risk of mediocracy.
Dr Firestein also indicated that skepticism is "dynamic ignorance"- often, the perceived "facts" are the least dependable part of an endeavor. A scientist must be skeptical, and continually engage in revision- revision is success. He also expressed his dislike of the idea of hypotheses... the hypotheses model may once have been useful, but one's "best idea of how things work" often leads to emotional investment on the part of a researcher. Unfortunately, grants usually depend on "hypothesis driven" inquiries rather than curiosity-driven "fishing expeditions". As he ruefully noted about hypothesis-driven research, "You always get what you screen for." He also quoted Fermi's observation about hypotheses: "There are two possible outcomes: If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery." Regarding the problem of emotional investment in hypothesis-driven research, Dr Firestein quoted comedian Emo Phillips: "I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this."
He indicated that we need more of a "Will Shortz" approach in our educational system.
To a question regarding the relative importance of basic research versus applied research, Dr Firestein indicated that both are important. He quoted Ben Franklin who, while he observed an early hot air balloon flight in Paris, was asked by a Parisian, "What use could this be?" and answered, "What use is a newborn baby?" He also described Dirac's proposition that positrons existed, which led to Anderson's discovery of the particle which eventually came to be employed in PET scans.
If I were to sum up the lecture in one sentence, the take-home message from this lecture is: Science is the search for better ignorance.
For another take on this lecture, a writer from the Dana Foundation posted her summary yesterday. I have to tip my hat to her because she "scooped" me... but for misremembering my stupid notebook, I woulda, coulda posted this on the same day. Well played, Dana Foundation!