Monday, February 3, 2014

The Scientific Method and Ignorance

Occasionally I like to watch Ted videos to relax. I find that they make my mind race, like it does when I'm in the classroom or having a heated debate with someone about some point or another. They fill me up with thoughts, ideas, and words. This most recent video is no exception. In fact, it explained exactly why I'm so drawn to learning, even though the speaker, Stuart Firestein, is primarily focusing on science. Firestein tells a story about his two jobs as a professor. In one, he works closely with graduate students in the lab. They come up with new ideas and experiments for studying the sense of smell or some other thing they are working on. Another role he takes on as professor is teaching undergraduates in a very large course on the brain: Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience 1. It consists of 25 lectures and is chocked full of facts with a giant book (the approximate weight of not one but two human brains) to go along with it. While he finds both roles to be challenging and interesting, he says only the first exhilarates him. Why is this?

Firestein makes many good points, but his main message is this: science is not the knowns, it's the unknowns. In his undergraduate course it's so chocked full of facts and information that it gives students the impression that we know everything there is to know about the brain. Of course, this isn't the slightest bit true. As Immanuel Kant suggests, every new question only begets more questions. He called this the question propagation.

Firestein points out that many people see scientists as fact gatherers. They use the scientific method and other avenues for finding out information, writing it down, and organizing it. This isn't at all what scientists do, Firestein argues. They don't talk about what they know, but only about what they don't know. Marie Curie says, "One never notices what is to be done, but only what is left to be done." This is what scientists do, Firestein states. They discuss what's left to be done. So what's missing from Firestein's undergrad course? The ignorance.

Firestein emphasizes that he means a kind of communal ignorance. A gap in our knowledge- something that isn't known or at least isn't known well enough. There is no finite end to science. There's no way to see the rest of that iceberg we can just now view the tip of. There's no way to get to the very middle of the onion to find that one kernel of truth. Instead, science (and learning really) is a magic well. No matter how many buckets you take out, there is more to be taken out. In other words, the more you know the less you know.

So I thought about all of this... and all of the other wonderful things Firestein has to say (I recommend you watch it!). Then I thought of our preschoolers. The way they approach new problems makes it clear they already know this. Their insatiable need for more, more, more speaks to me as someone who is a reflective learner herself. They can't get their questions out fast enough. With each new "fact" they discover, a thousand more questions bubble up. Watching them is like watching a volcano of learning. They exemplify the exact process Firestein describes... and they love every second of it. Our preschoolers? They know how to be ignorant... and I'd love to invite anyone who needs a real look at how science works to view them.

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