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Tuesday, August 25, 2015


IN the mid-1980s, a University of Arizona surgery professor, Marlys H. Witte, proposed teaching a class entitled “Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance.” Her idea was not well received; at one foundation, an official told her he would rather resign than support a class on ignorance.
Dr. Witte was urged to alter the name of the course, but she wouldn’t budge. Far too often, she believed, teachers fail to emphasize how much about a given topic is unknown. Eventually, the American Medical Association funded the class, which students would fondly remember as “Ignorance 101.”
In case some who have read our posts here haven’t noted that we very much are dedicated to pointing out the vast areas of ignorance which surround the few islands of knowledge, this article from the Times is totally on point.
Being aware of what you don’t know, we add, is much harder than being aware of what you do know. In neuroscience we dwell on an island, surrounded by a vast ocean who extent we don’t even glimmer. Perhaps many of us are afraid to set out on that ocean of uncertainty and radical questions for fear like those before Columbus, that they might fall off the edge of the earth.…/…
In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)
As he 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. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.”
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.
Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance this summer, uses this analogy: The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions.
However, we must note that answers don’t always breed questions….sometimes the reward in the answers is so great that we cling to models which helped us and failed to ask the broader deeper questions…..surely answers can lead to the recognition of the need to ask more questions…but they don’t always. In neuroscience many of those doing the most brilliant and diligent research are rattling around inside a cage created by the answers of the past…and not realizing that new questions must be asked.
Those of us who engage in scientists are merely mortal creatures and not “minds” observing any sort of “objective reality”. We only proceed by means of models and metaphors that guide our thought ( those of us who are not angels…really on such devices for our minds to work. Once we find a model to work somewhat (as for example the nineteenth century model of the atom, patterned after our solar system) we cling to it. The problem is we learn to live within the bounds of that model…and so rarely come to realize all the questions that remain …not only unanswered….but unasked.
It is not easy to realize what those questions might be however, until we free ourselves from the model/metaphor which has given us our answers. Newtonian physics gave us a wealth of answers…and yet all the questions…the hypotheses…..the proofs …or relativity physics did not even arise. Since the questions asked by Einstein were not possible within the confines of the established paradigm And why would one not be more interested in digging around in the turf of the island of knowledge? It took an Einstein to follow the path of Columbus….and realize what was unknown…and thus ask those questions.
The borderland between known and unknown is also where we strive against our preconceptions to acknowledge and investigate anomalous data, a struggle Thomas S. Kuhn described in his 1962 classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”
This, for us , is one of the truly seminal books of our times and every scientist should be forced to read that as part of his or her education. Kuhn said, memorably, that ‘new paradigms often only succeed old established paradigms, when those who were educated in the old paradigms reach their demise…either through retirement or death.
So for us the issue of realizing our ignorance and asking new questions is intrinsically involved with our realization of the ephemeral, destined to be surpassed nature of our way of speaking about things in neuroscience….and to grasp just how we might break out of the model/metaphor in which we are unwittingly entrapped. We have posted a wonderful shot tale from the dervish Nasrudin on this point already…but it bears repeating:
A man was walking home late one night when he saw the Mulla Nasrudin searching under a street light on hands and knees for something on the ground. "Mulla, what have you lost?" he asked.
"The key to my house," Nasrudin said.
"I'll help you look," the man said.
Soon, both men were down on their knees, looking for the key.
After a number of minutes, the man asked, "Where exactly did you drop it?"
Nasrudin waved his arm back toward the darkness. "Over there, in my house."
The first man jumped up. "Then why are you looking for it here?"
"Because there is more light here than inside my house
The study of ignorance — or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford — is in its infancy. This emerging field of inquiry is fragmented because of its relative novelty and cross-disciplinary nature