Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein is a short book. I wish I could say it was also a sharp shock of a book, but not quite. This is a classic case of a book that cries out to be shorter — in this case from a decent slim hardcover reduced down to probably what could have been a terrific Kindle Single-sized book, something we’re finally able to produce, consume and reward appropriately in the Internet age.
So what’s the book about? It’s basically a philosophy of science book designed for a mass audience, making the core and very valid point that science doesn’t advance from knowledge and certainty, but from ignorance and doubt. Firestein makes that point very well in the opening chapters, the problem is that those opening chapters are a bit repetitive making those points. I found that he tended to just make the same points over and over, just slightly rephrased or in a slightly different context. Sort of like those last two sentences.
Some of the best parts of the book were Chapter 5’s fairly detailed explanation of the question-asking process in science and what model systems are. Chapter 6 also had a nice section on how to read a scientific paper and in particular pages 86 and 87 had some great sample questions to ask scientists about their work, such as “Do you think things are unknowable in your field?” and “Are you often surprised?”
And the absolute best parts of the book were the case studies which took up most of the second half. This is where Firestein’s informal story-telling style really excelled: he took a few examples of fields and particular researchers and went through, step by step almost, what is known and what isn’t in that field and gave a nice sense of how the field is tackling their own ignorance. He talked about cognitive psychology/neuroscience, cosmology and most importantly and most interestingly, his own life story. It was really fascinating how he took a fairly winding path from the world of the theatre to neuroscience research. These final sections really came alive in a way the first half mostly didn’t. I’m glad I stuck in through because there were a few times I was tempted to put the book aside.
Given my mediocre review, would I recommend this book? Yes, definitely. While it might not be the best “intro to philosophy of science” out there (I recommend James Robert Brown’s Who Rules in Science?: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars, which I liked an awful lot. His recent Philosophy of Science: The Key Thinkers seems like it might be a terrific follow-up.), it does take a slightly different angle than perhaps the standard text so it might find a appropriately slightly different audience. It might find better use among science students/practitioners than a more overtly philosophical book while still making many of the same points. So any general academic or science library that collects philosophy of science would do well to get this book. It’s also accessible enough that I can definitely see an audience amongst keen high school students.
Firestein, Stuart. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 195pp.
(Print copy provided by the publisher.)