Thursday, April 26, 2012

Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, where his highly popular course on ignorance invites working scientists to come talk to students each week about what they don't know. Dedicated to promoting science to a public audience, he serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program for the Public Understanding of Science and was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. Also, he was recently named an AAAS Fellow.

His new book is Ignorance: How It Drives Science.

From Firestein's Q & A with Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast:

The Daily Beast: So, the most obvious question first—ignorance: how did you get into this and decide it was worth writing a whole book about?

Stuart Firestein: I came to the book because I seemed to be being paid for just the opposite: for vomiting out facts all over the place, for just letting out as many facts as possible. Which I guess is what the university’s business model has been for the last thousand years or so. Somehow or other, we know the facts and then we dole them out for some cash in return. That’s how we make it work.

But it occurs to me that in science, that’s not what we really care about. I worked in the lab on neuroscience questions, and I taught a course on neuroscience. And both of them were interesting things to do, but working in the lab was a lot more exciting. So I tried to imagine what it was that was exciting in the lab that wasn’t exciting in the course.

And in my course, I would use one of these neuroscience textbooks—this one that weighs seven and a half pounds, which is twice the weight of the human brain, by the way—to go along with 25 lectures, also chock full of facts, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. And I came to the realization at some point several years ago that these kids must actually think we know all there is to know about neuroscience. And that’s the difference. That’s not what we think in the lab. What we think in the lab is, we don’t know bupkis. So I thought well, we should be talking about what we don’t know, not what we know.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue