Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, the chair of Columbia University’s Biological Sciences department, rejects any metaphor that likens the goal of science to completing a puzzle, peeling an onion, or peeking beneath the surface to view an iceberg in its entirety.
Such comparisons suggest a future in which all of our questions will be answered. In Dr. Firestein’s view, every answer can and should create a whole new set of questions, an opinion previously voiced by playwright George Bernard Shaw and philosopher Immanuel Kant.
A more apt metaphor might be an endless cycle of chickens and eggs. Or, as Dr. Firestein posits in his highly entertaining, 18-minute TED talk above, a challenge on par with finding a black cat in a dark room that may contain no cats whatsoever.
According to Firestein, by the time we reach adulthood, 90% of us will have lost our interest in science. Young children are likely to experience the subject as something jolly, hands-on, and adventurous. As we grow older, a deluge of facts often ends up trumping the fun. Principles of Neural Science, a required text for Firestein’s undergraduate Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience course weighs twice as much as the average human brain.
The majority of the general public may feel science is best left to the experts, but Firestein is quick to point out that when he and his colleagues are relaxing with post-work beers, the conversation is fueled by the stuff that they don’t know.
Hence the “pursuit of ignorance,” the title of his talk.
Given the educational context, his choice of wording could cause a knee-jerk response. He takes it to mean neither stupidity, nor “callow indifference,” but rather the “thoroughly conscious” ignorance that James Clerk Maxwell, the father of modern physics, dubbed the prelude to all scientific advancement.
I bet the 19th-century physicist would have shared Firestein’s dismay at the test-based approach so prevalent in today’s schools.
The ignorance-embracing reboot he proposes at the end of his talk is as radical as it is funny.