The “Pursuit of Ignorance” Drives All Science: Watch Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein’s Engaging New TED Talk

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.

For more of Stu­art Firestein’s thoughts on igno­rance check out the descrip­tion for his Colum­bia course on Igno­rance and his book, Igno­rance: How It Dri­ves Sci­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:


Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Noam Chom­sky Explains Where Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Went Wrong

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day recent­ly direct­ed 16 home­school­ers in Yeast Nation, the world’s first bio-his­tor­i­cal musi­cal.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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