Book Review - Ignorance: How it Drives Science

Articles —> Book Review - Ignorance: How it Drives Science

Ignorance is defined as a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education - a state which may sometimes be perceived as a weakness. Our educational system is based upon this concept, where ignorance translates to poor performance. It then comes as no surprise that this concept carries over to many parts of society, including one which thrives on ignorance: Science. Science is about questioning what we know (or think we know), it is about investigating the unknown. Stuart Firestein's book Ignorance: How It Drives Science lays the foundation for these and many other concepts.

Firestein describes the concepts of ignorance in several complementary chapters, taking the reader through the scientific process at a high level. The book begins with a simplistic yet powerful phrase that defines the subject of the rest of the book - "Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting." There is so much we don't know, in fact we cannot even quantify how much we don't know. To use a classic phrase coined by Donald Rumsfeld and used by Firestein to illustrate a point:

"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.

But there are also unknown unknowns there are things we do not know we don't know."

As opposed the former two points, the latter category cannot even be quantified. But it is just this point of not knowing which brings an urge - or desire to discover - that makes Science so exciting. Ignorance brings scientists into the lab early, and keeps them there late. Ignorance defines our direction, both personally and as a society. Ignorance defines our future - both what we know and what we create, from weather forecasts to electric cars.

The word 'ignorance' in the title made me skeptical of picking up this book, as my first thought of the word 'ignorance' immediately make me think 'weakness'. However, the book makes clear the distinction, and after reading the book I believe this word quite appropriately defines how basic science works. Being a trained scientist, many of the concepts in this book regarding ignorance weren't surprising. That being said I found the book concise, informative, entertaining, and full of good examples of great science. It has my recommendation for anyone, but for some I would suggest this book as required reading. This group include teachers (especially science teachers) at any level and students wishing to pursue a career in science. How I would love to have had the opportunity as a student to attend Firestein's class on the subject, and how I wish more institutions would follow that lead.

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