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Unanswered Questions: New York Times Highlights the Benefits of Teaching “Ignorance” in Science

Sarah Chaffee

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Concerned that his students thought they now understood the brain after studying the course’s 1400+ page textbook, Dr. Stuart Firestein, neuroscientist and chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, wrote Ignorance: How it Drives Science. He was afraid his students might come away with the idea that science has all the answers. His book takes a more realistic view, describing scientific discovery as “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.”

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Jamie Holmes, author of the forthcoming book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, shared Firestein’s story to emphasize the role of ignorance in education. He explains that ignorance can catalyze curiosity and prompt questions in fields from science to business to education:

As [Firestein] argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. …

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones…

But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

… Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.

It’s encouraging to find a discussion like this in what might seem an unlikely place. At Discovery Institute, we support critical analysis of ideas about evolution and the origin of life precisely because those are issues where many answers remain as yet unknown. Teaching students about issues where there are more questions than answers fosters high-level learning.

The science of the past two centuries has dramatically expanded our knowledge, from the inventions of computers and the Internet, to making open-heart surgery possible. But there are still many mysteries, and not just at the margins either. Teaching only about our positive scientific knowledge is not enough. Quality science education informs students about areas of certainty and about those where inquiry is ongoing.

Alluding to Thomas Kuhn, Holmes notes that acknowledging ignorance causes us to confront our preconceptions. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn stated that when faced with an anomaly, a theory’s defenders “will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.” But eventually, given enough anomalies, the old theory will be replaced. Confronting unknowns is an essential part of scientific progress.

Chemical evolution — the development of the first cell — is clouded with mystery. 2007 Priestley Medalist George M. Whitesides wrote, “Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.” Similarly, leading molecular biologist Eugene Koonin has noted:

The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science, but it is also one of the most important. Origin-of-life research has evolved into a lively, inter-disciplinary field, but other scientists often view it with skepticism and even derision. This attitude is understandable and, in a sense, perhaps justified, given the “dirty” rarely mentioned secret: Despite many interesting results to its credit, when judged by the straightforward criterion of reaching (or even approaching) the ultimate goal, the origin-of-life field is a failure — we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth. Certainly, this is due not to a lack of experimental and theoretical effort, but to the extraordinary intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the problem. A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life, from the synthesis and accumulation of nucleotides to the origin of translation; through the multiplication of probabilities, these make the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.

Koonin acknowledges that some progress has been made, but falls back on the controversial multiverse theory to explain how life sprang into existence against all odds.

The enigma of biological origins offers an ideal opportunity for students to learn about a field of persistent scientific uncertainty, instead of simply being spoon-fed “facts.” Our Science Education Policy states:

Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

Indeed, the sense of mystery has driven some of the very greatest scientists. Isaac Newton put it well when he said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Learning based on active engagement and critical thinking promotes understanding and excitement. As Holmes writes, “Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Firestein now teaches a class on scientific ignorance. Hoping to acquaint his students with the world of inquiry, he invites scientists from diverse fields to come and lecture — not about their discoveries, but about what they don’t know. Our stance on academic freedom merely recognizes that his beneficial pedagogical philosophy should extend to the teaching of evolution, no less than any other area of study.

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Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.