One of the secrets that Firestein shares is that scientific research is often a hit or miss affair with some use of the scientific method combined with a good deal of luck. You might be surprised to learn that as potential scientists, we should value “high quality ignorance” as well as perceived knowledge.

Why you should listen:

You’d think that a scientist who studies how the human brain receives and perceives information would be inherently interested in what we know. But Stuart Firestein says he’s far more intrigued by what we don’t. “Answers create questions,” he says. “We may commonly think that we begin with ignorance and we gain knowledge [but] the more critical step in the process is the reverse of that.”

Who is he:

Firestein, who chairs the biological sciences department at Columbia University, teaches a course about how ignorance drives science. In it — and in his 2012 book on the topic — he challenges the idea that knowledge and the accumulation of data create certainty. Facts are fleeting, he says; their real purpose is to lead us to ask better questions.


  1. Instead of using the scientific method, many scientists rely on trial and error and even lack – how can this approach to science be taught to an emerging group of science students.
  1. Why is it important to know “what we do not know”?
  1. How would a course on “the psychology of ignorance” be structured and taught?
  1. List at least two knowledge based questions that you would like to have an answer to. What is standing in the way of obtaining answers?
  1. He says that a popular myth is  “that scientists are patiently putting the pieces of a puzzle together to reveal some grand scheme or another”; what is the reality?
  1. If it is not reasonable to expect educators to “sell facts for a living anymore” what is the alternative in higher education? Also, are there some “facts” that are so important to survival that they MUST be taught and memorized? What would they be?

The pursuit of ignorance with Stuart Firestein


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