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“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger…and it is more interesting.” These are the words of neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, the chair of Columbia University’s biology department. Firestein claims that exploring the unknown is the true engine of science, and says ignorance helps scientists concentrate their research. He compares science to searching for a black cat in a dark room, even though the cat may or may not be in there. Firestein’s laboratory investigates the mysteries of the sense of smell and its relation to other brain functions. A discussion of the scientific benefits of ignorance.
It’s commonly believed the quest for knowledge is behind scientific research, but Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein says we get more from ignorance. In his new book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” Firestein argues that pursuing research based on what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know.
Firestein said most people believe ignorance precedes knowledge, but, in science, ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions about data that sometimes don’t exist or fully make sense yet. “I use that term purposely to be a little provocative. But I don’t mean stupidity. I don’t mean dumb. I don’t mean a callow indifference to facts or data or any of that,” Firestein said. Instead, thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community’s understanding and seeks to resolve them.
The Scientific Method Was A Mistake
The scientific method was a huge mistake, according to Firestein. He said nobody actually follows the precise approach to experimentation that is taught in many high schools outside of the classroom, and that forming a hypothesis before collecting data can be dangerous. “The trouble with a hypothesis is it’s your own best idea about how something works. And, you know, we all like our ideas so we get invested in them in little ways and then we get invested in them in big ways, and pretty soon I think you wind up with a bias in the way you look at the data,” Firestein said. There is an overemphasis on facts and data, even though they can be the most unreliable part of research. “I think science and medicine has set it up for the public to expect us to expound facts, to know things. And we do know things, but we don’t know them perfectly and we don’t know them forever,” Firestein said.
Chasing A Black Cat In A Dark Room
Firestein compared science to the proverb about looking for a black cat: “It’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room especially when there’s no cat, which seems to me to be the perfect description of how we do science.” He said science is dotted with black rooms in which there are no black cats, and that scientists move to another dark room as soon as someone flips on the light switch. He said scientific research is similar to a buying a puzzle without a guaranteed solution.
Finding A Cure for Cancer
Scientists have made little progress in finding a cure for cancer, despite declaring a war on it decades ago. Firestein said he wondered whether scientists are forming the wrong questions. “It’s just turned out to be a far more difficult problem than we thought it was, but we’ve learned a vast amount about the problem,” Firestein said. But he said the efforts haven’t been wasted. Many important discoveries have been made during cancer research, such as how cells work and advances in developmental biology and immunology.
Asking Specific Questions
Firestein avoids big questions such as how the universe began or what is consciousness in favor of specific questions, such as how the sense of smell works. For example, he is researching how the brain recognizes a rose, which is made up of a dozen different chemicals, as one unified smell. Firestein said scientists need to ask themselves key questions such as, “What will happen if you don’t know this, if you never get to know it? What will happen when you do? Then where will you go?” He calls these types of experiments “case histories in ignorance.”
You can read the full transcript here.
Reprinted from IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Stuart Firestein.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It's commonly believed the quest for knowledge is behind scientific research, but neuroscientist Stuart Firestein says we get more from ignorance. He teaches a course on the subject at Columbia University where he's chair of the department of biology.
MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is titled "Ignorance: How It Drives Science." Stuart Firestein joins me in the studio. You are invited to join us as well. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, thanks for being here.
DR. STUART FIRESTEINGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for having me.
REHMYou know, when I saw the title of this book and realized that you teach a course in this, I found myself thinking, so who's coming to a course titled "Ignorance?"
FIRESTEINThat's a good question. I thought the same thing when I first started teaching the course, which was a very -- I just offered it kind of on my own. I put up some posters and things like that. Then it was a seminar course, met once a week in the evenings.
REHMAnd what was the subtitle?
FIRESTEINWell, it was called "Ignorance: A Science Course" and I purposely made it available to all. Well, it was available to seniors in their last semester and obviously I did that as a sort of a selfish trick because seniors in their last semester, the grading is not so much of an issue. They're all into medical school or law school or they've got jobs lined up or something. So they don't worry quite so much about grades so I didn't have to worry about it.
FIRESTEINI'm always fond of saying to them at the beginning of the class, you know, I know you want to talk about grades. but you want to think carefully about your grade in this class because your transcript is going to read "Ignorance" and then you have to decide, do you want an A in this...
FIRESTEIN...or an F in this?
FIRESTEINSo the first year, a few students showed up, about 12 or 15, and we had a wonderful semester. It was very interesting. And then, somehow the word spread around and I always tried to limit the class to about 30 or 35 students. I put a limit on it and I quickly got to 30 or 35 students. I don't really know where they come from or how, but most interestingly students who are not science majors. Many of those began to take it, history majors, literature majors, art majors and that really gave me a particularly good feeling.
REHMBecause ignorance is the beginning of knowledge?
FIRESTEINWell that's right. In fact, I would say it follows knowledge rather than precedes it. I think most people think, well, first, you're ignorant, then you get knowledge. I would actually say, at least in science, it's almost the flipside. You get knowledge and that enables you to propose better ignorance, to come with more thoughtful ignorance, if you will.
FIRESTEINI mean, ignorance, of course, I use that term purposely to be a little provocative. But I don't mean stupidity. I don't mean dumb. I don't mean a callow indifference to facts or data or any of that.
FIRESTEINI mean a really thoughtful kind of ignorance, a case where we just simply don't have the data. It's not that you individually are dumb or ignorant, but that the community as a whole hasn't got the data yet or the data we have doesn't make sense and this is where the interesting questions are.
REHMYou know, I'm fascinated with the proverb that you use and it's all about a black cat. Tell us about that proverb and why it resonates so with you.
FIRESTEINI've run across it several times. The first time, I think, was in an article by a cancer biologist named Yuri Lazebnik who is at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories and he wrote a wonderful paper called "Can a Biologist Fix a Radio?" It was a comparison between biologists and engineers and what and how we know what we know and how the differences are, but that's another subject.
FIRESTEINBut the quote is -- and it's an old adage, it's anonymous and says, it's very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room especially when there's no cat, which seems to me to be the perfect description of how we do science. I know most people think that we, you know, the way we do science is we fit together pieces in a puzzle. But it is a puzzle of sorts, but of course, with real puzzles, the kind you buy, the manufacturer has guaranteed there's a solution, you know. The puzzle we have we don't really know that the manufacturer, should there be one, has guaranteed any kind of a solution.
FIRESTEINSo we really bumble around in the dark. We bump into things. We try and figure out what's what and then somebody eventually flips a light on and we see what was in there and say, oh, my goodness, that's what it looked like. And then it's right on to the next black room, you know, to look for the next black cat that may or may not be there. And science is dotted with black rooms in which there were no black cats.
FIRESTEINI mean, the famous ether of the 19th century in which light was supposed to pass through the universe, which turned out to not exist at all, was one of those dark rooms with a black cat. And many people tried to measure the ether and this and that and finally the failure to measure the ether is what allowed Einstein to come up with relativity, but that's a long story.
REHMSo what is the purpose of your course?
FIRESTEINWell, the basis of the course is just a seminar course and it meets two hours once a week in an evening usually from 6:00 to 8:00. It doesn't really matter, I guess, but -- and the basis of the course, we do readings and discussions and so forth, but the real basics of the course are that on most weeks, I invite a member of our science faculty from Columbia or someone I know who is coming through town or something like that, to come in and talk to the students for two hours about what they don't know.
FIRESTEINBut I call them case histories in ignorance. Not the big questions like how did the universe begin or what is consciousness. I mean, those things are on NPR and NOVA and all that and PBS and they do a great job at them. But those aren't the questions that get us into the lab every day, that's not the way everybody works.
REHMGive me an example.
FIRESTEINWell, an example would be, I work on the sense of smell. I work on the sense of olfaction and I work on very specific questions. I want to know how it is we can take something like a rose, which smells like such a single item, a unified smell, but I know is made up of about 10 or 12 different chemicals and they all look different and they all act differently. And how does our brain combine that blend into a unified perception?
FIRESTEINSo that's a very specific question. Somebody else could work on a completely different question about smell. How do we determine things at low concentrations? I don't know. Or why do we like some smells and not others? What's the relation between smell and memory? I don't work on those. I have very specific questions. I've made some decisions and all scientists make decisions about ignorance about why they want to know this more than that or this instead of that or this because of that.
FIRESTEINAnd those are the kind of questions we ask these scientists who come. What will happen if you don't know this, if you never get to know it? What will happen when you do? Then where will you go?
REHMBut, you know, the last science course I had in high school, mind you, had a very precise formulation. You had to create a theory and then you had to step back and find steps to justify that theory. Now, if you're beginning with ignorance and how it drives science, how does that help me to move on?
FIRESTEINSo you're talking about what I think we have called the vaunted scientific method, which was actually first devised by Francis Bacon some years ago.
FIRESTEINAnd in my opinion, a huge mistake by the way.
FIRESTEINSo this notion that we come up with a hypothesis and then we try and do some experiments, then we revise the hypothesis and do some more experiments, make observations, revise the hypothesis. This is supposed to be the way science proceeds. I have to tell you I don't think I know anybody who actually works that way except maybe...
REHMIn high school?
FIRESTEIN...in science class, yes. But in point, I can't tell you how many times, you know, students have come to me with some data and we can't figure out what's going on with it. And I say, well, what are we going to do with a hypothesis? And I say to them, as do many of my colleagues, well, look, let's get the data and then we'll come up with a hypothesis later on. So I actually believe, in some ways, a hypothesis is a dangerous thing in science and I say this to some extent in the book.
FIRESTEINAnd the trouble with a hypothesis is it's your own best idea about how something works. And, you know, we all like our ideas so we get invested in them in little ways and then we get invested in them in big ways and pretty soon I think you wind up with a bias in the way you look at the data. You can't help it. It's unconscious.
REHMSo you say you're not all that crazy about facts?
FIRESTEINYes, all right. So I'm being a little provocative there. but I think that's true. I think we have an over-emphasis now on the idea of fact and data and science and I think it's an over-emphasis for two reasons. One is scientists themselves don't care that much about facts. I mean, we work hard to get data. We work had to get facts, but we all know they're the most unreliable thing about the whole operation.
FIRESTEINThe next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools is going to revise the facts. That's what science does it revises. Revisions in science are victories unlike other areas of belief or ideas that we have.
REHMBut, you know, take medical science, take a specific example, it came out just yesterday and that is that a very influential group is saying it no longer makes sense to test for prostate cancer year after year after year...
FIRESTEINThat's a relief to me.
REHM...because even if you do find a problem with the prostate, it's not going to be what kills you...
FIRESTEINThat's right at a certain age, yes.
REHM...and 99 percent of the time you're going to die of something else. So for all these years, men have been given these facts and now the facts are being thrown out.
FIRESTEINWell, there you go. Yes, it's exactly right, but we should be ready to change the facts. I mean, the problem is I'm afraid, that there's an expectation on the part of the public -- and I don't blame the public because I think science and medicine has set it up for the public to expect us to expound facts, to know things. And we do know things, but we don't know them perfectly and we don't know them forever.
FIRESTEINThey will change. They need to be able to be revised and we have to accept that's the world we live in and that's what science does.
REHMBut too often, is what you're implying, we grab hold of those facts and we keep turning out data dependent on the facts that we have already learned.
FIRESTEINYou're exactly right, so that's another. That's another ill side effect is that we become biased towards the ones we have already.
REHMStuart Firestein, he's chair of the department of biology at Columbia University, short break here and we'll be right back.
REHMI know many of you would like to get in on the conversation and we're going to open the phones very shortly. Stuart Firestein teaches, of course, on the subject of ignorance at Columbia University where he's chair of the Department of Biology. Now he's written a book titled "Ignorance: How it Drives Science." It's a big black book -- no, it's a small black book with a big question mark on the front of it.
REHMAnd just before the break we were talking about the change in statements to the public on prostate cancer and how the urologists all across the country are coming out absolutely furiously because they feel that this statement that you shouldn't have a prostate test every year is the wrong one. So what I'd like you to do is give us an example where research -- not necessarily in the medical field, but wherever where research led to a conclusion that was later found out to be wrong. You talk about spikes in the voltage of the brain.
MR. STUART FIRESTEINYeah, so that's not quite as clear an example in the sense that it's not wrong but it's biased what we look at. So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we're very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it's a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.
MR. STUART FIRESTEINAnd because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we've spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we've learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much -- and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.
MR. STUART FIRESTEINAnd one of the great puzzles -- one of the people came to my ignorance class was a professor named Larry Abbott who brought up a very simple question. He said, you know what I really wonder is how do I remember -- how do I remember small things? How do I remember inconsequential things? I mean, we all have tons of memories in this, you know. You leave the house in the morning and you notice you need orange juice. You go to work, you think of a hundred other things all day long and on the way home you go, I better stop for orange juice. Now how did that happen?
MR. STUART FIRESTEINWe begin to understand how we learn facts, how we remember important things, our social security number by practice and all that, but how about these thousands of other memories that stay for a while and then we lose them. So this is a big question that we have no idea about in neuroscience. And it looks like we'll have to learn about it using chemistry not electrical activity.
REHMSo what you're saying is you think from a biological standpoint that we've been on the wrong track.
FIRESTEINIt's hard to say on the wrong track because we've learned a lot on that track. But we've been on this track as opposed to that track or as opposed to multiple tracks because we became attracted to it. The data flowed freely, our technology's good at recording electrical activity, industries grow up around it, conferences grow up around it. The next thing you know we're ignoring all the other stuff.
REHMBut what happens is that one conclusion leads to another so that if the conclusion has been met by one set of scientists then another set may begin with that conclusion as opposed to looking in a whole different direction.
FIRESTEINYes. The difference is they ought to begin with the questions that come from those conclusions, not from the conclusion. So every fact really that we get just spawns ten new questions. And those are the things that ought to be interesting to us, not the facts. And, by the way, I want to say that one of the reasons that that's so important to me is that I think this makes science more accessible to all of us because we can all understand the questions. Many of us can't understand the facts. I mean, you can't be a physicist without doing a lot of math and a lot of other things and you need a PhD or whatever it is or a biologist.
FIRESTEINBut you can understand the questions quite well and you can talk to a physicist and ask her, what are the real questions that are interesting you now? What are the questions you're working on and you'll have a great conversation. If you ask her to explain her data to you, you can forget it. You'll be bored out of your (unintelligible) ...
FIRESTEINAbsolutely. Even me, yes.
REHMSo when you ask of a scientist to participate in your course on ignorance, what did they say?
FIRESTEINWell, that's always a little trick, of course. I call somebody up on the phone and say, hi. Listen, I'm doing this course on ignorance...
FIRESTEIN...so I think you'd be perfect for it.
REHMYeah, right, right.
FIRESTEINBut to their credit most scientists realize that's exactly what they would be perfect for. And I have a set of rules. I said, no PowerPoint. Don't prepare a lecture. If you want we can talk for a little bit beforehand, but not very long because otherwise all the good stuff will come out over a cup of coffee instead of in front of the students. And then we just sit down, and of course, all they ever think about all day long is what they don't know. That's what a scientist's job is, to think about what you don't know. So they're imminently prepared to give this talk -- to talk to the students about it.
FIRESTEINAnd the questions come and we get off on tangents and the next thing you know we've had a wonderful two-hour discussion.
REHMYou write in your book ignorance about the PET scanner, the development of the PET scanner and how this fits into the idea of ignorance helping science.
FIRESTEINWell, I think this is a question that now plagues us politically and economically as well as we have to make difficult decisions about limited resources. Should we be putting money into basic fundamental research to learn about the world, to learn about us, to learn about what we are? Or should we be putting money into what's called translational or applied research, making new gadgets, making new pills, things like that. And of course, we want a balance and at the moment, the balance, unfortunately, I think has moved over to the translational and belongs maybe to be pushed back on the basic research.
FIRESTEINThe example I give in the book, to be very quick about it, is the discovery of the positron which came out of an equation from a physicist named Paul Dirac, a very famous physicist in the late '20s. And this equation was about the electron but it predicted the existence of another particle called the positron of equal mass and opposite charge. And even Dirac wasn't sure it was right, but the math said it was. And then, a few years later...
REHMThe math said it was.
FIRESTEINYes, the math said it was so...
FIRESTEIN...everybody said, okay, it must be there. And a few years later, a British scientist named Carl Anderson actually found a positron in one of those bubble chamber things they use, you know. Both of them were awarded a Nobel Prize for this work. But if you would've asked either of them in the 1930s what good is this positron, they would've told you, well, none that we could've possibly imagined. This is a fundamental unit of the universe. We're learning about the fundamental makeup of the universe.
FIRESTEINBut now 60 years later, you go to the hospital, you might have something called a PET scan. That's Positron Emission Tomography. That positron that nobody in the world could've ever imagined would be of any use to us, but now it's an incredibly important part of a medical diagnostic technique.
REHMI'm going to take you to another medical question and that is why we seem to have made so little progress in finding a cure for cancer. We have spent so much time trying to understand, not only what it is but we have seemed to stumble on curing it. And I wonder if the wrong questions are being asked.
FIRESTEINWell, so I'm not a cancer specialist. You understand that of course...
REHMI understand that.
FIRESTEIN...but I think that it's a wonderful example because we've had this war on cancer that we all thought we were gonna win pretty quickly.
REHMYou bet, since the Nixon era.
FIRESTEINThat's exactly right. That's exactly right. And I think the problem was that we didn't know what the question was when we started the war on cancer. We had a very simple idea. We've gotten it -- I mean, we've learned a tremendous amount about cancer. It's not as if we've wasted decades on it. It's just turned out to be a far more difficult problem than we thought it was but we've learned a vast amount about the problem.
FIRESTEINAnd I should say all along the way many, many important discoveries have been made about the development of cells, about how cells work, about developmental biology and many, many other sort of related areas. Immunology has really blossomed because of cancer research initially I think, or swept up in that funding in any case. And so we've actually learned a great deal about many, many things. Just haven't cured cancer exactly. Although some of them, you know, we've done pretty well with actually with relatively early detection. Other ones are completely resistant to any -- it seems like any kind of a (word?) or treatment.
REHMSo the question is why.
FIRESTEINWell, of course, you know, part of the problem might be that cancer is, as they say, the reward for getting older because it wasn't really a very prevalent disease until people began regularly living past the age of 70 or so. And then it's become now more prevalent in the population. So it's not clear why and it's a relatively new disease and we don't know about it and that's kind of the problem. We still need to form the right questions.
REHMAnd especially where younger people are concerned I would guess that Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, those diseases create fundamentally new questions for physicists, for biologists, for...
REHM...medical specialists, for chemists. You know, all of these problems of growing older if we can get to the real why are going to help us an awful lot.
FIRESTEINI think a tremendous amount, but again, I think if we concentrate on the questions then -- and ask the broadest possible set of questions, try not to close questions down because we think we've found something here, you know, gone down a lot of cul-de-sacs. So that's part of science too. I mean, in addition to ignorance I have to tell you the other big part of science is failure. We fail a lot and you have to abide by a great deal of failure if you want to be a scientist.
REHMOne of the fascinating things you talk about in the book is research being done regarding consciousness and whether it's a purely human trait or if it does exist in animals. And as I look at my little dog I am convinced that there is consciousness there. What conclusions do you reach or what questions do you ask?
FIRESTEINWell, I have a dog, too, so...
FIRESTEINA Newfoundland. I have a big dog.
FIRESTEINAnd he's a big consciousness.
FIRESTEINAnd a little cat who I think, I must say, displays kinds of consciousness. A conscious is a difficult word because it has such a big definition or such a loose definition. We're not really sure what it means to have consciousness ourselves. We don't know whether consciousness is a critical part of what our brains do or a kind of an epiphenomena, something that's come as a result of other things that we do.
FIRESTEINSome of the most consciousness identified things that we do, the things we think we're most conscious of, quite often we're not. I'm at the moment attending here in Washington a conference at the National Academy of Scientists on communicating science to the public. And last night we had Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate, the economist psychologist talk to us about -- he has a new book out. I'm plugging his book now, but that's all right...
FIRESTEIN..."Thinking Fast and Slow." And it's just brilliant and, I mean, he shows you so many examples of acting unconsciously when you thought you'd been acting consciously. Even when you're doing mathematics problems but your unconscious takes over. So where is consciousness? Where does it -- I mean, these are really interesting questions and they're being looked at. When you look at them in detail, when you don't just sort of make philosophical sort of ideas about them, which is what we've been doing for many years, but you can now, I think, ask real scientific questions about them.
FIRESTEINYou know, my wife who was on your show at one time asked us about dolphins and shows the mirrors and has found that dolphins were able to recognize themselves in a mirror showing some level of self awareness and therefore self consciousness.
REHMStuart Finestein (sic) . He's professor of neuroscience, chairman of the department of biology at Columbia University. His new book is titled "Ignorance: How it Drives Science." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." It's time to open the phones. We have many callers waiting. First to Grand Rapids, Mich. Good morning, Brian.
BRIANOh, good morning, Diane. And good morning, Stuart.
BRIANMy question's a little more philosophical. How does one get to truth and knowledge and can it be a universal truth?
FIRESTEINWhew. Yeah, that's a big question. Boy, I'm not even sure where to start with that one. I think that truth again is -- has a certain kind of relativity to it. I know you'd like to have a deeper truth. You'd like to have a truth we can depend on but I think the key in science is to recognize that truth is like one of those black cats. It moves around on you a bit. And you don't want to get, I think, in a way, too dedicated to a single truth or a single idea.
REHMBecause it keeps evolving.
FIRESTEINThat's right. That's right. And you want -- I mean, in this odd way, what you really want in science is to be disproven. I mean, you want somebody to attack your work as much as possible and if it stands up that's great. And if it doesn't, that's okay too because science is a work in progress. And I believe it always will be.
REHMDoes that answer it, Brian?
BRIANYeah, I got one more thing.
BRIANLanguage is so important and one of my pet peeves is I'm wondering if they could change the name of black holes to gravity holes just to explain what they really are.
FIRESTEINThis is a very interesting question actually. It means a lot because of course there is this issue of the accessibility of science to the public...
FIRESTEIN...when we're talking some wacko language that nobody can understand anymore.
REHMThe very issue you were talking about earlier here at the conference.
FIRESTEIN...at the National Academy of Scientists right now at this conference. And so you want to talk science and engage the public in science because it's an important part of our culture and it's an important part of our society. At the same time you don't want to mystify them with it. And so I think the black hole idea is one of those things that just kind of -- it sounds engaging whereas a gravity hole, I don't know whether it would -- but you're absolutely right. It's what it is.
FIRESTEINBut, you know, the name the big bang that we call how the universe began was originally used as a joke. It was actually used by, I think it was -- now I could get this wrong, I believe it was Fred Hoyle, famous astronomer. It was either him or George Gamow. And one of them came up with the big bang and the other one ridiculed them, ridiculed the theory of saying, well this is just some big bang theory, making it sound as silly as possible. And now it's become a technical term.
REHMBrian, I'm glad you called. It does strike me that you have some issues that are totally beyond words.
FIRESTEINYes. Some issues are, I suppose, totally beyond words or very hard to find words for, although I think the value of metaphors is often underrated. Brian Green is a well known author of popular science books and physics and the string theorist. He was very clear about that. He came and talked in my ignorance class one evening and said that a lot of his work is based on his ability to make a metaphor, even though he's a mathematician and string theory, I mean, you can't really imagine 11 dimensions so what do you do about it.
REHMSo how do you make a metaphor for string theory?
FIRESTEINYou have to talk to Brian. You have to have Brian on the show for that one. That's beyond me.
REHMI thought you'd say that, Stuart Firestein. He's professor of neuroscience, chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University. His little big with a big title, it's called "Ignorance: How it Drives Science." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Stuart Firestein is chairman of Columbia University's Department of Biology and the author of the brand new book that challenges all of us, but particularly our understanding of what drives science. The title of the book is "Ignorance," which sort of takes you aback when you look at it, but he makes some wonderful points. Here's a website comment from somebody named Mongoose, who says, "Physics and math are completely different animals from biology. Please address these fields in which changes build on the basic information rather than change it."
FIRESTEINSo I'm not sure I agree completely that physics and math are a completely different animal. They maybe grown apart from biology, but, you know, in Newton's day physics, math and biology were all of the thing. And even there's a very famous book in biology called "What is Life?" that was written by Erwin Schrodinger who was a brilliant quantum physicist. So I'm not sure how far apart they are, but agreeing that they're sort of different animals I think this has happened in physics, too. I mean the classic example being Newtonian physics and Einsteinium physics.
FIRESTEINIn Newton's world, time is the inertial frame, if you will, the constant. And in Einstein's universe, the speed of light is the constant. And they make very different predictions and they work very different ways. They don't mean that one is wrong, the other is right. But I don't think Einstein's physics came out of Newton's physics. Einstein's physics was quite a jump. I mean, again, I’m not a physicist, but to me there's a huge, quantum jump there, if you will.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Brewster, Mass. Hi there, Dana.
DANAHello, Diane. Good morning to you and to Stuart.
DANAThank you. I wanna go back to what you said about facts earlier. And it just reminded me of something I read from the late, great Steven J. Gould in one of his essays about science where he talks, you know, he thinks scientific facts are like immutable truths, you know, like religion, the word of God, once they find it. But an example of how that's not how science works, the theories that prove successful until something else subsumes them. And I really think that Einstein's general theory of relativity, you know, engulfed, after 200 years or so, Newton's well-established laws of physics.
DANAI mean, in motion they were, you know, they were the standard for the longest time, until Einstein came along with general relativity or even special relativity, I guess. And so, you know, and then quantum mechanics picked up where Einstein's theory couldn't go, you know, for …
REHMHe had gone as far as he could go.
FIRESTEINYes. We're still, in the world of physics, again, not my specialty, but it's still this rift between the quantum world and Einstein's somewhat larger world and the fact that we don't have a unified theory of physics just yet. Absolutely. So again, this notion is that the facts are not immutable. And that I worry because I think the public has this perception of science as this huge edifice of facts, it's just inaccessible. You just could never get through it. How are you ever gonna get through all these facts?
FIRESTEINAnd I would say you don't have to do that to be part of the adventure of science. You have to get to the questions.
REHMAnd here's a tweet. "Please explain the difference between your critique of facts and the post-modern critique of science."
FIRESTEINWow, all right. That's a very tricky one, I suppose. I don't actually think there maybe is such a difference. If I understand the post-modern critique of science, which is that it's just another set of opinions, rather than some claim on truth, some strong claim on truth, which I don't entirely disagree with. I mean I do think that science is a very powerful way of looking at and understanding the world. It certainly has proven itself again and again. We have iPhones for this and pills for that and we drive around in cars and fly in airplanes. And we talk on the radio for God's sakes. And this is all science.
FIRESTEINAnd so I think it's proven itself again and again, but that does not necessarily mean that it owns the truth in every possible area that humans are interested in.
REHMYou have a very funny saying about the brain.
FIRESTEINOh, I wish it was my saying, actually. It's the smartest thing I've ever heard said about the brain, but it really belongs to a comic named Emo Phillips. I often introduce my neuroscience course -- I also teach neuroscience. I often introduce my course with this phrase that Emo Phillips says, which is that I always thought my brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. And then one day I thought to myself, wait a minute, who's telling me that? You realize, you know, well, like all bets are off here, right? So how are you really gonna learn about this brain when it's lying through its teeth to you, so to speak, you know.
FIRESTEINAnd I must say a lot of modern neuroscience comes to exactly that recognition, that there is no way introspectively to understand. You can think about your brain all you want, but you will not understand it because it's in your way, really. It's telling you things about how it operates that we know now are actually not true.
REHMBut don't we have an opportunity to learn about our brain through our research with monkeys, for example, when electrodes are attached and monkeys behave knowledgably and with perception and with apparent consciousness?
FIRESTEINYes. Well, I think we can actually earn a great deal about our brain from fruit flies. And we have learned a great deal about our brain even from the study of fruit flies. And nematode worms, believe it or not, have been an important source of neuroscience research, as well as mice and rats and so forth and all the way up to monkeys depending on the particular question you're asking. So it's not that our brain isn't smart enough to learn about the brain, it's just that having one gives you an impression of how it works that's often quite wrong and misguided. And you have to get past this intuitive sense you have of how your brain works to understand the real ways that it works. And we're just beginning to do that.
REHMAll right. To Athens, Ohio. Good morning, Christopher.
CHRISTOPHERGood morning. How are you both?
REHMFine, thank you.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
CHRISTOPHEROkay. You were talking about Sir Francis Bacon and the scientific method earlier on this morning. What I'd like to comment on was comparing foundational knowledge, where you plant a single tree and it grows into a bunch of different branches of knowledge. As opposed to exploratory discovery and attempting to plant entirely new seed which could potentially grow an entirely new tree of knowledge and that could be a paradigm shift.
CHRISTOPHERFoundational knowledge is relatively low risk, but exploratory research has relatively high risks for potential gain. My question is how should we direct our resources and are there some disciplines that are better for foundational knowledge or ground-up research and are there others that are better for exploratory or discovery-based research?
FIRESTEINYeah, this is probably the most important question facing scientists and in particular, science policy makers right now, whether we wanna spend our effort -- we talked about earlier -- on basic research and these fundamental understandings. There's a wonderful story about Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers and actually a great scientist, who witnessed the first human flight, which happened to be in a hot air balloon not a fixed-wing aircraft, in France when he was ambassador there.
FIRESTEINAnd the story goes that somebody standing next to him said, well, this is all nice, but what good could this possibly be to anybody, being able to fly? And Franklin is reputed to have said, well, really what good is a newborn baby? Now, that might sound a bit extreme...
FIRESTEINBut his point simply was, look, we don't know anything about newborn babies...
FIRESTEIN...but we invest in them, don't we, because a few of them turn out to be really useful, don't they. So I think that's what you have to do, you know. You have to have some faith that this will come to pass and eventually much of it does, surprisingly.
REHMThanks for calling, Christopher. And now to Mooresville, N.C. Good morning, Andreas.
ANDREASGood morning, Diane. Good morning, professor. It's a pleasure...
ANDREAS...speaking to both of you.
ANDREASI'm a big fan. I'm big into lateralization of brain and split-brain surgery, separation of the corpus callosum. And that got me to a little thinking and then I do meditate. And through meditation, as crazy as this sounds and as institutionalized as I might end up by the end of the day today, I have reached a conversation with a part of myself, a conscious part of myself. It's me. It's obviously me, but it's almost a back-and-forth conversation with available arguments and back-and-forth.
ANDREASAnd my question to you is -- and by the way, this has been verified. I've had a couple of friends to dive into this crazy nook that I found and they have agreed with me, that it is possible through meditation to reach that conversation. What crazy brain tricks is my brain playing on me to allow this to happen and why does it happen?
FIRESTEINWell, I don't know the answer to that. And I'm gonna say I don't know because I don't. And that's an important part of ignorance, of course. I think that the possibility that you have done that is not absolutely out of the question, it's just that, again, it's so easy to be fooled by what are brain tells us that I think you would be more satisfied if you sought out a somewhat more -- I think that's what you're asking for is a more empirical reinforcement of this idea.
FIRESTEINYou might try an FMRI kind of study. You might see if there was somebody locally who had a functional magnetic resonance imager. I mean, I think they'd probably be interested in -- there are a lot of studies that look at meditation and its effects on the brain and how it acts. And FMRI's, they're not perfect, but they're a beginning.
ANDREASAll right. Thank you very much. I do appreciate it.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. Here's an email from Robert who says, "How often in human history has having the answer been a barrier to advancing our understanding of everything?"
FIRESTEINThat's an extremely good question. Now, I'm not a historian of science. I'm a working scientist. And so I'm probably not the authority to ask on that, but certainly I even have a small chapter in the book, a portion of the book, where I outlay the fact that one of the barriers to knowledge is knowledge itself sometimes. I mean more times than I can tell you some field has been thought to be finished or closed because we knew everything, you know. I mean that's been said of physics, it's been said of chemistry. It's been said of geology. You might think that geology or geography, you know, it's done. We mapped the place, right?
FIRESTEINBut in point of fact, geography is a very lively field, mapping other planets, mapping other parts of this planet, mapping it in different perspective, mapping the ocean floor. I mean it's quite a lively field actually and yet, for years people figured well, we have a map. That's done. We're done with it, right? And then quite often, I mean, the classic example again is perhaps the ether, knowing that, you know, there's an idea that it was ether.
FIRESTEINAnd in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person's personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It's absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.
REHMStuart Firestein, his new book is titled, "Ignorance: How it Drives Science." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Virginia sends us an email saying, "First your guest said, let the date come first and the theory later. Then he said facts are constantly wrong. Please explain."
FIRESTEINWell, so they're not constantly wrong, mind you. I guess maybe I've overdone this a little bit. I’m just trying to sort of create a balance because I think we have a far too fact-oriented idea about science. And I'm just trying to push the needle a little bit to the other side because when you work in science you realize it's the questions that you really care the most about. The facts or the answers are often the end of the process. Now, you have to think of a new question, unless it's a really good fact which makes up ten new questions. And those are the best kinds of facts or answers.
FIRESTEINSo certainly, we get the data and we get facts and that's part of the process, but I think it's not the most engaging part of the process. The most engaging part of the process are the questions that arise.
REHMAnd David in Hedgesville, W.Va. sends this saying, "Good old Donald Rumsfeld...
REHM...was right about one thing, there's what you know, what you don't know and what you don't know you don't know." And that's followed up by, let's see...
FIRESTEINOne of my favorite quotes, by the way.
FIRESTEINHe's exactly right.
REHMDirk sends this in, "Could you please address the concept of proof, which is often misused by the public and the press when discussing science and how this term is, for the most part, not appropriate for science?
FIRESTEINYes. Well, this now is another support of my feeling the facts are sort of malleable. So proof and proofs are, I think, in many sciences -- now, maybe mathematics is a bit of an exception, but even there I think I can think of an example, not being a mathematician even, where a proof is fallen down because of some new technology or some new technique in math. I mean, this is of course a problem because we would like to make science policy and we'd like to make political policy, like climate or where we should spend money in healthcare and things like that.
FIRESTEINWe'd like to base it on scientific fact or scientific proof. And I think we should. We just have to recognize that the proof is the best we have at the moment and it's pretty good, but it will change and we should let it change.
REHMAnd one final email from Matthew in Carry, N.C. who says, "When I was training as a graduate student we were often told that fishing expeditions or non-hypothesis-driven-exploratory experiments were to be avoided. And yet today more and more high-throughput fishing expeditions are driving our science comparing the genomes between individuals. Are fishing expeditions becoming more acceptable?" And that really goes to the heart of your book.
FIRESTEINI think it absolutely does. And of course I could go on a whole rant about this, but I think hypothesis-driven research which is what the demand is of often the reviewing committees and things like that, is really, in the end -- I think we've overdone it with that. I think the idea of a fishing expedition or what's often called curiosity-driven research -- and somehow or another those things are pejorative, it's like they're not good. And I'm thinking, really? Curiosity-driven research, what better thing could you want?
FIRESTEINI think it's a good idea to have an idea where you wanna put the fishing line in. You wanna put it over there because people have caught a lot of fish there or do you wanna put it somewhere else because people have caught a lot of fish there and you wanna go somewhere different. All of those things are important, but certainly a fishing expedition to me is what science is. It's like a black room with a cat that may or may not be there.
REHMStuart Firestein. His new book is titled, "Ignorance: How it Drives Science." He's chair of Columbia University's department of biology. Fascinating. Thank you for being here.
FIRESTEINThank you so much for having me. I've just had a wonderful time.
FIRESTEINA great discussion with your listeners.
REHMThank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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