The Importance Of High Quality Ignorance

How can science capture the hearts and minds of the general public?

At a TED Conference in 2012, Stuart Firestein (Columbia University) suggested that more emphasis be put on communicating the role of questions (‘conscious ignorance’) than on answers (‘facts and knowledge’) to give a more compelling insight into how science actually works.

From an article that comments on his talk:

Firestein said George Bernard Shaw was delightfully right when he noted that “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.” And Firestein said this was a good thing: “We use knowledge to create high quality ignorance.” High quality ignorance is the goal, because what we don’t know makes a good question for a scientist.

Science is a practice of revision, and Firestein asserted that it’s a victory to revise. He’s suggesting a major revision in how we communicate science. He believes communicating our quest for ignorance to students and the public is the best way to spark scientific imagination. “Answers create questions… we may commonly think that we begin with ignorance and we gain knowledge,” he prefaced. “The more critical step in the process is the reverse of that.”

Looking at the video, which is a good and easy watch, I liked his phrase ‘you get a little knowledge so you can better define the ignorance you have to go after’, which has obvious business applications as well. This is probably quite far from the common perception that science is linked to hard facts and certainty.

On this theme, there’s a nice quote from Richard Feynman on the roles of ignorance, doubt and uncertainty in science:

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

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