Notes & quotes from Firestein's Ignorance

Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance : how it drives science (Kindle ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

9th January 2014

Much to like about this book. In particular the portrayal of the anxiety of researchers who pursue a particular line of enquiry that is different from the main stream and can always finish in a dead end. Without folk who take those risks, fields would more or less simply recycle the same ideas over and over, something some sections of the education academy do.

Perhaps more interesting are the neuroscience insights Firestein tosses in as illustrations. He cites Larry Abbott, a theoretical neuroscientist who participated in his class on ignorance.

he is a real person and a real scientist, but he asks questions about brain function by using computer-generated mathematical models of how bits and pieces of it might work. (p. 132)

I'll use SF instead of typing the full name from now on. SF compares the role that mathematics has played in theoretical physics. He points to the opposition to these practices:

The objection to equations most often voiced by biologists is that they oversimplify, that you cannot capture the complexity of biology, of a biological system, whether it be a single cell or a whole animal, in an equation. Nonsense, I say. You can capture the whole physical universe in a few of them. This is another case of pre-Copernican thinking creeping into our reasoning as received wisdom. The brain seems complicated, so its explanation must be also. (p. 134)

3rd January 2014

I'm reading this with at least two projects in mind, the big data writing with Radhika and amending/responding to crits of the ladders paper with Leonie.

George Bernard Shaw, in a toast at a dinner feting Albert Einstein, proclaimed, “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.” Isn’t that glorious? Science (and I think this applies to all kinds of research and scholarship) produces ignorance, possibly at a faster rate than it produces knowledge. (p. 28)

This sits awkwardly alongside the Latourian1 line about critical sociology: "The problem of critical sociology is that it can never fail to be right." ( p.249)

So does this mean that a field like education is better compared to engineering, where if you get things wrong, people may die or be injured? There is a quest for certainty that seems to underpin so much of education research and scholarship. There seems to be an aversion to having claims that are able to be falsified, which, at least in terms of science, is the only way to make progress. I think too that always expecting to be proven wrong eventually, gives scientists a kind of playful opportunity in their research, what Firestein calls "farting around in the dark".

The take-home message from this case history is not just that scientists design an experimental strategy based on what they don’t know, but that the truly successful strategy is one that provides them even a glimpse of what’s on the other side of their ignorance and an opportunity to see if they can’t get the question to be bigger. That’s progress. (p. 107)

Like Firestein, I like the notion of a glimpse, something you are not looking for and it just briefly catches your eye.

Einstein’s breakthrough: he was willing to get past experience, in this case a Newtonian perspective, and imagine life as a photon riding a beam of light. (p. 112)

The quote comes from a part of the text in which Firestein writes about "understanding the world from uncommon and unintuitive points of view". I am reminded of an excellent presentation by Bret Victor, in which he gave the presentation as if he was in the 60's. He used an old overhead projector and was able to make his telling points about the future of programming.

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