Lacking knowledge

Sandra Blakeslee discusses a new book about the process of science: Ignorance: How It Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein (“To Advance, Search for a Black Cat in a Dark Room”).

Dr. Firestein got the idea for his book by teaching a course on cellular and molecular neuroscience, based on a 1,414-page textbook that, at 7.7 pounds, weighs more than twice as much as a human brain. He eventually realized that his students must think that pretty much everything in neuroscience is known. This could not be more wrong, he writes. I had, by teaching this course diligently, given the students the idea that science is an accumulation of facts. When I sit down with colleagues over a beer at a meeting, we dont go over facts, Dr. Firestein writes. We dont talk about whats known. We talk about what wed like to figure out, about what needs to be done.

Lurking here is some insight about the process of deciding who gets to do what (and gets funded for it). To be willing to grant money to a project, there is a trade-off between admitting that the answer is unknown, and admitting that the process has a good likelihood of successful outcome. Ignorance has a dual role here: the grantor must admit a certain amount of ignorance, while the prospective grantee must define ignorance in an incredibly narrow way (and ideally demonstrate that it’s not ignorance after all).

In some sense, becoming successful at funding your work requires solving an intricate communication problem where the subject is ignorance.

I’m a little concerned about the idea (mentioned in the review) of an entire semester-long course titled, “Ignorance”. Don’t the students get enough about ignorance after one or two class sessions?