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Ignorance: How it drives science

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  1,044 ratings  ·  135 reviews
Knowledge is a big subject, says Stuart Firestein, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance--not knowledge--that is the true engine of science.

Most of us have a false impression of science as a surefire, deliberate, step-by-step method for finding things out and getting things done. In fact, says Firestein, more often than not, science is like looking for a black
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published April 23rd 2012 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published March 7th 2012)
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Sep 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Power of Not Knowing

The 19th century American philosopher C.S. Peirce was, I think, the first to point out that all inquiry is provoked by doubt.* Before there is a fact, there must be a concern. Concern implies doubt. And doubt implies ignorance. Firestein defines ignorance in a way that Peirce would certainly approve: “It is not an individual lack of information but a communal gap in knowledge. It is a case where data don’t exist, or more commonly, where the existing data don’t make sense,
Jul 03, 2012 rated it it was ok
I saw a review of this book in the journal "Science". The premise is that scientists publish facts and give presentations of what is known, however, when they sit down and talk over a meal or a beer... they talk about what they don't know. Its cute... science is really about ignorance, not facts. In my experience as a scientist, this is true. Once something has been discovered we quickly lose interest. We have a party then move on.

The author freely quotes a proverb that it is difficult to find
Brian Clegg
Aug 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a delightful little book that really gets you thinking. I stress the ‘little’ part not as a negative, but as a good thing. There is nothing worse than fat, bloated popular science books where the author feels they have to get 120,000 words to be taken seriously. This is the sort of book that can be read in a couple of hours – but you will get so much more out of it than one of those tedious doorstops.

The premise underlying the book is in once sense extremely simple, yet is fundamental to
Science For The People
Featured on Skeptically Speaking show #174 on July 22, 2012, during an interview with authorStuart Firestein. ...more
Aug 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I first heard about this book in my car. Driving home from work, I heard a radio interview with the book's author. After hearing Dr. Firestein, I pretty much rushed home, picked up my iPad and immediately purchased the book.

Firestein's writings are full of extremely quotable quips and interest-piquing food for thought. Beyond that, however, this book threw me back into a number of poignant discussions which I was blessed to have had throughout my education.

The fact of the matter is this: I am a
Adrian Fridge
A book about making science accessible to the public? Why yes, I'll have that with a side of snark.

Stuart Firestein is amazing at taking highly technical subjects of quantum mechanics, neuroscience, theoretical mathematics, etc, and breaking it down into amusing stories, peppered with humor and (relatively) easy language. While it's true you'd need to have some rudimentary knowledge in the hard sciences to fully appreciate the facts, it shouldn't deter you from trying this out. One of the case s
Apr 30, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: stem
Let me start by saying I was not (apparently) the target audience for this book. It was a gift, and I didn't necessarily come to this book expecting to learn a lot, but maybe to get another perspective on things.

I was hooked in by the acknowledgements and introduction. The author shows some sarcastic humor, which drew me in enough to say "this is what I'm reading next". That humor, while vaguely present, felt like it barely came out to play for the entire rest of the text.

I agreed with most of t
Nripesh Pradhan
Dec 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Complete light annihilates itself. Humanity lived in complete darkness under their intersubjective belief that all the answers to everything is already available in the Vedas, the Koran, the Torah, the Bible. Only when we accepted our own ignorance, only when we deliberately went out to confront the unknowns, only when we rejected religions’ claim of complete knowledge, could we hold our torch in the depths of the workings of the universe. Ignorance is the white background that enables us to see ...more
Mar 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Good book about what science is and what drives it, aimed at explaining the process of science to nonscientists.
Ziyad Hasanin
Jun 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, 2018
[في الغالب سأنشر مراجعة وملخص بالعربية للكتاب فيما بعد]
Ignorance: How it drives science, my start point for "How does science work?" question.

The main argument of the book is that science is usually represented as a textbook of accumulated facts, and that's not how science actually works. Science advances by "managing ignorance", neglecting the not unimportant facts -as Firestein puts it- and looking for new areas of ignorance, the "black cat in a black room, that may not even be there".

Justin Staub
May 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This Christmas, not unlike others, I struggled for gift ideas to give my parents. I tried exceptionally hard to not put clothing or gift cards on my list. Instead, I found thought-provoking books to challenge my ideas on education, how individuals learn, or how individuals cultivate one's creativity. As a teacher, I know I need to change how I teach so students have more control over their learning.

I turned to my PLN on Twitter for help. Maria Popova (@brainpicker) put together her year-end list
Feb 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Ignorance is often (and widely) seen as a bad thing, and being called ignorant is a common pejorative. But, as pointed out in the introduction of this book, there are different kinds of ignorance. A willful ignorance, one that doesn’t question or challenge, is certainly a bad thing, evidencing a disturbing lack of curiosity or intellectual discipline. However, an informed ignorance, one that recognizes the boundaries of knowledge and uses that understanding to explore beyond the known, is certai ...more
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
While it's true that I'm an engineer rather than a scientist, I feel like I can relate to what this author says in the book with about 87.34% accuracy. I really like how he spells out, though, that the best science leads to more questions, and how science does not happen the way the media likes to portray it. Science *is* a lot more like searching for a black cat in a dark room (a room that may, in fact, be empty) than it is a way of grinding out the answers to question after question. Scientist ...more
Aug 18, 2015 rated it did not like it
Let's say you teach a cleverly named college course called Ignorance and all the cool kids want to take it and in it you tell some cute anecdotes about scientists trying to learn new things and how the scientific method can actually be--gasp--a little bit messy! Great. Be proud of yourself for all the jokes you come up with that boil down to HEY GUYS ISN'T IT CRAZY THAT I'M TEACHING IGNORANCE I MEAN HOW CAN ONE EVEN DO THAT HA HA.

Now let's say someone at a dinner party is drunk or bored, so they
Jun 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a thought-provoking little volume, and I'd recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in how science develops. Firestein's argument is simple: that we can glean more by focusing on what we don't know instead of what we do know; that there is more to be learned in questions than in hypotheses; and that by expanding the boundaries of our ignorance we can discover more than we even could imagine. While Firestein discusses ignorance and its implications for science, his arguments could ...more
Jun 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
Though Firestein comes at this topic from the perspective of a scientist, its message of exploration has a place in business as well. Great leaders in my life have always encouraged progress, not perfection. As this book illustrates repeatedly, few things are more boring than testing a hypothesis and getting the expected answer. Pursuing the "unknown unknowns" (apologies, Mr. Secretary) are what make all our endeavors interesting.
Desmond Sherlock
Jul 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
WOW! What a down to earth and refreshingly simple to read book about science. The size of a note book,and only 170 pages long, Stuart has summed up how all scientist should engage the public.
Stuart has done a great job disguising the fact that he is a scientist. His book on ignorance is an honest look at how we all should/could approach any knowledge that we receive based upon the power of the question not the potential dogma of the answer. Thanks Stuart!
Nathan Sharp
Jun 27, 2012 rated it liked it
This book does a decent job explaining how scientific research differs completely from many people's conceptions. It is written towards a general, nonscientific audience and it's not too long. I think it's worth the read.
Oleg Melnychuk
Oct 01, 2012 rated it liked it
Nicely written, with humor and has a handful of interesting stories. Still, the autobiographical ending was completely irrelevant, in my opinion. But guess it's only because I'm not a scientist myself…
Sep 18, 2012 rated it liked it
A nice book for a non-scientist to learn what scientists do.
Pete Wung
Jul 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book came onto my radar when I was reading Warren Burger’s book A More Beautiful Question. Burger referenced this book. As I was curious and Burger’s book sparked an interest in this topic, I proceeded to procure this book.
It took a while for me to get back to this book as I became interested in other things. I’d started it but I continued to pick it up and putting it down over the months. It wasn’t because of the writing or of the subject matter. It was because the book brought out a certa
Endah Rosa
Sep 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially when there is no cat."
"Ignorance works as the engine of science."

Dr. Firestein is a neurobiologist from Columbia University specialized in olfaction (the sense of smell).

I want to say that I truly enjoy the work of Dr. Firestein in this book of Ignorance. This book explores a more in-depth perspective about science in which the majority of the public tend to have this misguided view about research, and also about science in ge
May 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
A friend of mine mentioned this book and I thought "Ignorance and science in the title, gotta read it." I did, and I enjoyed it. It is an easy and quick read. It uses lots of examples to support its point. I really enjoyed the case studies that touch upon sensory vs motor skills and brain theory, different perspectives in astrophysics, and how to study mind/conscious. They gave me a glimpse of the fascinating approaches and scales in other fields of science.

The book ends with a chapter touching
Buster Quin
Dec 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
As an Engineer by profession and a life-long learner, I have often been reminded of how ignorant I was of certain subjects. I evolved an operating concept of expanding the bounds of ignorance....if I could name the thing I was ignorant of...and get some sense of its dimensions....I could attack it and make progress. The key thing was to not be demotivated by it. Example subjects were: electromagnetic interference emissions and susceptibility in electronics, the bounds of "testing" a new product, ...more
Oscar Romero
Jul 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is not an easy topic to talk about--as we, somehow, do not think anything good when someone tell us we are ignorant. It sure has a bad connotation every time is used. And this book is showing us that is nothing wrong with being ignorant--that is fact, good to be ignorant as it drives our attention and pushes us to get more insight, more knowledge more questions--in an attempt to get less ignorant.

I personally feel we are all experts in something and ignorant in many other things as well--t
Ajit Pillai
Apr 08, 2018 rated it liked it
A really good book. Allows you to take a good peek at how scientists look at problems, or rather how we should all look at problems and the grand nature of things. The first part of the book talks about how ignorance really matters and plays a huge role in the theories and experiments that scientists produce. The second half was not that great, where he talks more about the different scientists and what they are working on and how they approach things, especially if you already know about those ...more
Jerry Wall
ignorance .. as a callow indifference to facts or logic and there is ignorance as gap in knowledge. p. 6-7
. . . when new evidence forces scientists to modify their theories, it is considered a triumph, not a defeat. p. 22
agnotology study of ignorance. p. 30
If animals have brains like ours, do they also have souls? Even if their brains are only half as good as ours, don't they get some soul for that? p. 91
Why do we think that animals don't think? p. 93
. . . public accessibility to science. p. 170
Alex Telfar
Feb 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
Yep, I agree with the author. But there wasn't anything new. Just an echoing chamber of beliefs I already hold.

I am quite interested in the process of how one becomes aware of ignorance. It seems like the scientific method (gather data, hypothesise, falsify, reproduce, repeat) is about taking something we know we don't know and understanding it. But how can we optimally draw attention to the things we don't understand. Some mixture of tracking prediction error and a skeptical view of explanation
Roxanna López
May 03, 2019 rated it it was ok
Ignorance: How it drives science by Stuart Firestein. 2 stars.

How many ways I hate this book? Although in principle I would agree with the author's thesis that what drives science is not what we know but what we want to learn, I hated his writing so much. The author tries to be funny but comes off as entitled, pedantic, and disrespectful of his scientific colleagues. Nonetheless, there are a couple of interesting things inside, and if you are curious, you could check it out of your local library
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a quick, fun little read about the way ignorance, curiosity, and excitement animate scientists and researchers. The author provides an accessible contrast between a more public view of science as an accumulation of facts vs. the more active view of science as a search at the edge of knowledge. The concepts can be a bit repetitive as the author makes the points, but there is enough variation and case study examples to keep the flow interesting.
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Science Book Club...: July book 5 132 Jul 13, 2018 09:26AM  

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Stuart Firestein is an American neuroscientiest and biologist.
After earning his Ph.D. in neurobiology, Firestein was a researcher at Yale Medical School, then joined Columbia University in 1993. At the Columbia University Department of Biological Sciences, Firestein is now studying the sense of smell.

Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Dr. Firestein seeks to r

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6 likes · 3 comments
“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.” 2 likes
“In other words, scientists don't concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but also miniscule, but rather on what they don't know. The one big fact is that science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it.” 2 likes
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