Ignorance Drives Discovery

Many years ago my thesis advisor gently corrected my assertion that “The research proves that…..”. In fact, most research suggests that something is so. It’s very difficult to PROVE anything is so. Witness how theories fall over time as new ones take their place. What we know as a civilization is simply our best thinking at this time. We’ve learned that nerves can regenerate, jets do fly and leeches are not the answer.

Neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, notes that when scientists go out for a round of beer they don’t talk about what they know. They talk about what they don’t know. His new book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science, explores the joy of not knowing all the answers. As he writes in a Daily Beast interview:

As I began to think about it, I realized that, contrary to popular view, scientists don’t really care that much about facts. We recognize that facts are the most unreliable part of the whole operation. They don’t last, they’re always under revision. Whatever fact you seemed to have uncovered is likely to be revised by the next generation. That’s the difference between science and many other endeavors. Science revels in revision. For science, revision is a victory. In religion, or astrology, or any other belief system, revision is a kind of defeat. You were supposed to have known the answer to this. But the joy of science is that it’s about revision.

I am a brain science junkie and I genuinely enjoyed my science classes in school–especially genetics. But then I got to thinking about the difference between the sciences and ‘other endeavors’. Ignorance drives discovery in all realms. In every field, individuals form hypotheses and try something new. I am, technically, a social scientist, and we are also trying to discover new frontiers. I think of all the personality assessments we use with leaders in an effort to build self-awareness. Many of you, I know, are lifelong seekers, striving to understand yourselves and the world around you. I believe it’s important work to do. As one of our dear departed professors used to growl, “Understanding yourself is lifelong work”. It is possible that whatever you have learned about yourself has undergone revision (let’s HOPE so!). Facts you thought you knew about others or about your organization must also be revised.

Of course, no one would call Dr Firestein ignorant. The more one knows about a field the more one understands what is still unknown. As research suggests, the more you know about a domain the more innovative you can be.

The danger is a diminishing return on innovation when you think you KNOW everything.

The trick is to stay curious and let those unknowns drive your discovery, whether it’s in your area of expertise or self-discovery. So stay curious and let what you don’t know drive your quest for discovery.

(You can hear Dr Firestein in this 22-minute interview on Science Friday here.)