Dec 2 Stuart Firestein (Columbia University), Elite Ignorance

Stuart Firestein


Back to the program of the DEC 2-3 Workshop

Une conférence sur un thème proche / Another talk on Ignorance, at TED:


Elite Ignorance

Science produces questions more than it generates answers.

Among scientists that is a matter of such common knowledge that it is rarely stated explicitly.  But, like the jargon filled language that passes as easy conversation for the trained scientist while completely excluding the non-expert and nonscientist, this failure to be explicit about the value of ignorance has the unwanted effect of excluding the citizenry from the inner workings of science. Coincidentally it seems now also to foster a growing and easily manipulated mistrust of both scientists and science.

There is a point in the training of every scientist in which they make the transition from textbook oriented learning to discovery, not only of facts, but discovery of questions.  This may not be a single moment, but rather a transitional period, and indeed, not every student/scientist succeeds in this developmental process. It is nonetheless arguably the most critical achievement attained by the apprentice scientist, aka, graduate student.   The conversion from an obsessive focus on facts in textbooks to the search for better questions is the point at which a young scientist becomes an independent actor.  It is the first moment when it is understood, consciously or not, that the question trumps the answer, that the scientific life is about the what we don’t know, the what remains to be done, the unsettled and the uncertain.

Unfortunately this is precisely where the nonscientist gets left behind. Having been forced by an outmoded educational system to bear the misery of overweight textbooks, testing absent understanding, and valueless memorization, they are left with this as their sole experience of science. Worse than the obvious distaste that this produces in so many, it also provides a disastrously distorted view of science as authoritarian, factual, settled and immutable. Fortunately, science is none of these things. But who besides scientists knows this?

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