Saturday, July 02, 2005

Celebrating Our Ignorance

The new issue of Science celebrates that magazine's 125th anniversary by exploring 125 major open scientific questions. I haven't had time for a thorough read yet, although I'm looking forward to it, but a couple of things have already caught my eye.

The subtitle of the Science issue is "What Don't We Know?", and this is one reason to be excited about the contents. For me, one of the great powers of the scientific approach to the world lies in the ability to say I don't know. This simple statement of ignorance drives scientists along, spurs new discoveries, keeps us awake at nights and, despite what those who do not understand science might say, firmly distinguishes science from any of the belief systems with which it is sometimes compared. New discoveries in science are triumphs for those directly involved, for science in general, and for humankind as a whole. They are rightly heralded by scientists, journalists and the public alike. But visit the office or laboratory of any practicing scientist the day after a major new discovery is announced, and you'll invariably see them sitting around asking "How does this cast light on other unanswered questions?", "How can this help us with other things we don't know?", "What next?!". It's all about moving on - we're excited by what we don't know.

Because of our sceptical attitude, and willingness to say what we don't know, there is a sense in which scientists know less than many other people in our society. I'm using "know" here in the sense that if someone truly believes they understand the answer to a question, independently of the actual evidence that that answer is correct, they truly think they "know" something. It is true that scientists know many fascinating, sometimes technical, sometimes arcane facts about nature. However, the broad strokes of many of these ideas are often also widely accepted by society. However, in addition to this knowledge, many members of society think they know vast "truths" about the universe beyond those established by rational enquiry. Because scientists are typically unwilling to sign on to such unwarranted beliefs, we often "know" less than others. Despite being frequently derided as "arrogant know-it-alls" (which we sometimes ask for), I think there's a reasonable case to be made that scientists are "humble know-nothings" (but I'm guessing people won't be clamoring to adopt this interpretation).

I've written before about the crucial role played by science journalism in our society. At its best, great science writing doesn't just provide a jargon-free, simplified, analogy-laden version of what scientists write in their technical journal articles. Rather, it helps frame the crucial issues, shows how they fit into the wider realm of scientific and human enquiry and, perhaps most crucially, conveys a picture of how science works, including the power of acknowledging the things we don't know.

I was therefore delighted to see that the Science issue contains an opening essay by one of my favorite science journalists, Tom Siegfried, titled "In Praise of Hard Questions". This is an extremely well written article, which I think presents science in an exciting and beautiful light. In a paragraph that partially quotes David Gross, one of the 2004 Nobel Prize winners in physics, Siegfried writes
"Science's greatest advances occur on the frontiers, at the interface between ignorance and knowledge, where the most profound questions are posed. There's no better way to assess the current condition of science than listing the questions that science cannot answer. "Science," Gross declares, "is shaped by ignorance.""
Science is not the study of a dead body of knowledge. The action is at the frontier and there are mountains of interesting questions and fascinating work to be done. One thing that Siegfried's essay accomplishes is to demolish the silly argument that some commentators have made - that we are approaching the end of science. It seems to me that we now realize that there is more science left to do than we ever realized before, and I hope that young people reading Siegfried's article and this Science issue can see that there's a place for them in the great endeavor. It would provide a fascinating focus for a class discussion led by an innovative science teacher.
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