"Education is not about filling buckets; it is lighting fires." – William Butler Yeats

What’s the opposite of “knowing”? According to Professor Stuart Firestein, it is “questioning”. He literally flips knowledge on its head (see chart below) making the “failure of knowledge”, ie Ignorance, more desired and more valuable.

Firestein is pioneering his own crusade in education. He describes the “scientific method” as “farting around” and teaches an entire university course on “Ignorance” (“something I can finally excel at, perhaps”). Normally, science is doing the debunking of what daily phenomena are all about, but he does some debunking of his own of what science is about. He presents 3 common models of science which are all “based on the idea of a large body of facts that we can somehow or another get completed,”… a notion he summarily dismisses…

  • Puzzle Model – “Scientists are patiently putting the pieces of a puzzle together to reveal some grand scheme or another. This is clearly not true. For one, with puzzles, the manufacturer has guaranteed that there’s a solution.”
  • Onion Model – “Peel by peel, you take away the layers of the onion to get at some fundamental kernel of truth.”
  • Iceberg Model – “We only see the tip of the iceberg but underneath is where most of the iceberg is hidden. But all of these models are.”

His TED lecture is a gem which was a real challenge to pare down to some Reader’s Digest highlights here (echoing many themes from this blog – scientific method, doubt, reforming education)…

  • “There is an ancient proverb that says it’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially when there is no cat. I find this a particularly apt description of science and how science works — bumbling around in a dark room, bumping into things.”
  • “When I go to a meeting, after the meeting day is over and we collect in the bar over a couple of beers with my colleagues, we never talk about what we know. We talk about what we don’t know. We talk about what still has to get done, what’s so critical to get done in the lab…This is the stuff that’s exhilarating and interesting. It is, if you will, the ignorance. That’s what was missing.”
  • Ignorance has a lot of bad connotations and I clearly don’t mean any of those. So I don’t mean stupidity, I don’t mean a callow indifference to fact or reason or data. I mean a different kind of ignorance. I mean a kind of ignorance that’s less pejorative, a kind of ignorance that comes from a communal gap in our knowledge, something that’s just not there to be known or isn’t known well enough yet or we can’t make predictions from, the kind of ignorance that’s maybe best summed up in a statement by James Clerk Maxwell…who said, ‘Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.’ I think it’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance.
  • “What are we going to do with all those facts? So it is true that science piles up at an alarming rate. We all have this sense that science is this mountain of facts, this accumulation model of science, as many have called it, and it seems impregnable, it seems impossible. How can you ever know all of this? And indeed, the scientific literature grows at an alarming rate. In 2006, there were 1.3 million papers published. Divide that by the number of minutes in a year, and you wind up with three new papers per minute. So what do we do about this? Well, the fact is that what scientists do about it is a kind of a controlled neglect, if you will. We just don’t worry about it, in a way.”
  • The facts are important. You have to know a lot of stuff to be a scientist. That’s true. But knowing a lot of stuff doesn’t make you a scientist. You need to know a lot of stuff to be a lawyer or an accountant or an electrician or a carpenter. But in science, knowing a lot of stuff is not the point. Knowing a lot of stuff is there to help you get to more ignorance. So knowledge is a big subject, but I would say ignorance is a bigger one.”
  • The philosopher Immanuel Kant who a hundred years earlier [came] up with this idea of question propagation, that every answer begets more questions.”
  • So I’d say the model we want to take is not that we start out kind of ignorant and we get some facts together and then we gain knowledge. It’s rather kind of the other way around, really. What do we use this knowledge for? What are we using this collection of facts for? We’re using it to make better ignorance, to come up with, if you will, higher-quality ignorance. Because, you know, there’s low-quality ignorance and there’s high-quality ignorance. It’s not all the same. Scientists argue about this all the time. Sometimes we call them bull sessions. Sometimes we call them grant proposals. But nonetheless, it’s what the argument is about. It’s the ignorance. It’s the what we don’t know. It’s what makes a good question.
  • “Erwin Schrodinger, a great quantum physicist and, I think, philosopher, points out how you have to ‘abide by ignorance for an indefinite period’ of time. And it’s this abiding by ignorance that I think we have to learn how to do. This is a tricky thing. This is not such an easy business.”
  • “Let’s face it, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, the business model of the university and probably secondary schools is simply going to have to change. [Academia] just can’t sell facts for a living anymore. They’re available with a click of the mouse, or if you want to, you could probably just ask the wall one of these days, wherever they’re going to hide the things that tell us all this stuff. So what do we have to do? We have to give our students a taste for the boundaries, for what’s outside that circumference, for what’s outside the facts, what’s just beyond the facts.”
  • “We currently have an educational system which is very efficient but is very efficient at a rather bad thing. So in second grade, all the kids are interested in science, the girls and the boys. They like to take stuff apart. They have great curiosity. They like to investigate things. They go to science museums. They like to play around. They’re in second grade. They’re interested. But by 11th or 12th grade, fewer than 10 percent of them have any interest in science whatsoever, let alone a desire to go into science as a career. So we have this remarkably efficient system for beating any interest in science out of everybody’s head.”
  • The bulimic method of education…We just jam a whole bunch of facts down their throats over here and then they puke it up on an exam over here and everybody goes home with no added intellectual heft whatsoever.”
  • “When people talk about evaluation, evaluating students, evaluating teachers, evaluating schools, evaluating programs, that they’re really talking about weeding. And that’s a bad thing, because then you will get what you select for, which is what we’ve gotten so far. So I’d say what we need is a test that says, "What is x?" and the answers are "I don’t know, because no one does," or "What’s the question?" Even better. Or, "You know what, I’ll look it up, I’ll ask someone, I’ll phone someone. I’ll find out." Because that’s what we want people to do, and that’s how you evaluate them. And maybe for the advanced placement classes, it could be, "Here’s the answer. What’s the next question?" That’s the one I like in particular.”

"Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more." – George Bernard Shaw


Ignorance and Questions chart