Non-Fiction Reviews

Ignorance: How It Drives Science

(2012) Stuart Firestein, Oxford University Press, hrdbk, 14.99 / US$21.95, ix +195pp, ISBN 978-0-199-82807-4


This book is one that I really welcome with passion. I recall following my BSc graduation realising that there was so much I did not know about the subject I had been studying. Then following my second degree I remember thinking that I now had a vague idea as to how much it was that I did not know about my subject and that even this thought was more likely than not to be incorrect. And so I embarked upon a career that could be broadly labelled as one of science communication: publishing, meeting secretariat services, press liaison, and science writing. In the course of this I had to constantly combat my own ignorance: to learn about new areas of science and/or policy to at least a level to which I could perform the task at hand. And then there was the ignorance of those to whom the information was being targeted (for if they already knew of the information then the communication exercise would be redundant) that sadly, as often as not, was coloured by prejudice especially with politicians but also (more sadly as they should know better) by some scientists. You see we all are more ignorant than we are knowledgeable if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) as the total sum of things to know is arguably infinite (or at least close to it), while the sum of things we know are finite.

All this is by way of explaining to you that the subject, 'ignorance', of Stuart Firestein's gem of a book really is important.

His book is short, just 190 pages or so in a small sized page format and easy to read with next to no jargon. Stuart Firestein is a biologist into neuroscience and while we get some illumination of ignorance from his expertise, he also takes a logical deductive approach to ignorance as well as examines some areas of our ignorance in astronomy and other areas of science. Indeed he flips ignorance on its head and asks things like when do scientists know they know when something for sure? In short the book is a tiny tour de force of a topic about which most of us are, well, largely ignorant. He goes on suggest that we might cultivate ignorance instead of fearing it and that non-scientists might be able to appreciate science more through an understanding of ignorance.

The book also has plenty of examples and anecdotes to illustrate the points Firestein makes. I loved the one about the dolphin who turned the tables on his/her investigator when she gave a reward with the wrong bit of fish. Marvellous stuff.

Needless to say that I recommend this delightful book to you. Obviously we all would want politicians to be less patronising and have an understanding that they might on occasion be wrong, so they should clearly read this title before being let out of the house and loose on the rest of us. Scientists also should read it. Science (in terms of the way its is practiced) has become increasingly specialised and there has been an unfortunate tendency for some to thing that their specialist expertise in one narrow field entitles them to claim authority in another. But another cadre of readers who could well find this book of particular interest are the science fact and fiction Concateneers who like the view from the border of science and science fiction. The problem for Concateneers is that this border is moveable: today's science fiction can sometimes become tomorrow's science fact. This book helps provide a landmark for those navigating such wondrous lands.

In the early 21st century world of the internet, mass communication via multiple platforms and let's be blunt information overload, Stuart Firestein's Ignorance is an oasis of sanity that could benefit everyone. What a gift.

Jonathan Cowie

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