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Cultivating Intelligent Ignorance

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 3, 2015

Great Questions Emerge From Good Answers 

Columbia neuroscientist Stuart J. Firestein has what he calls an ancient proverb posted on his website: “It’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat.”

Discovery, he has explained in lectures and interviews, is like “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” And science, he says, is not the linear accumulation of facts to come up with a tidy proof for a preconceived hypothesis.  In his TED talk and in his 2012 book Ignorance, How it Drives Science, Professor Firestein emphasizes that facts, while necessary, are not solid permanent constructs.  Bits of information known to one generation will be challenged and revised by later generations.  What’s bigger than knowledge and perhaps even more intriguing, he asserts, is ignorance: all the things we don’t know and haven’t even imagined.

In a recent New York Times article, Jamie Holmes, author of the book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, makes a case for teaching ignorance so that students learn the limitations of knowledge and begin to appreciate that some questions may merit more attention than answers. Firestein, Holmes and other scholars have asserted that the best answers don’t only answer existing questions, they generate new questions.  In his Times article, Holmes cites an analogy used by Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University: as the island of knowledge grows, so does the shoreline, where knowledge and ignorance mix.  

Like the fertile realm where ecosystems meet, the knowledge shoreline is a place of ambiguity, conflicting information and mystery. Holmes says psychologists find that ambiguity intensifies emotions—surprise and excitement as well as frustration and confusion. All these emotions, in his view, can drive students, researchers and the rest of us to pursue more understanding, follow curiosity and ask more questions. Agnotology, the study of ignorance, is a term popularized by  Robert Proctor, a Stanford historian of science.  Holmes traces scholarly examination of ignorance, and says “educators should devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity, and the strategic manufacture of uncertainty.” He also calls study of ignorance an emerging field, and notes its interdisciplinary nature is highlighted in a new book, the Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies.

Firestein describes good and bad kinds of ignorance. The good kind ignites discovery and questions. His own work on the sense of smell raises questions involving what we know and don’t know about the brain. For example, how do we detect and combine scent from five different molecules and recognize the smell of a rose? Valuable ignorance, he stresses, isn’t stupidity, the narrowness of bias or the callow disregard of fact. It’s intelligent recognition of not knowing that expands the boundaries of the knowable and the unknown.  Read Holmes’s piece here.  Hear Firestein’s TED talk here.

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