Wednesday, July 30, 2014
PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Rock doc: Ignorance and the progress of science

By
August 28, 2013 |

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.”
So begins Stuart Firestein’s book Ignorance: How It Drives Science.
 
Part of the core message in the book about how science should work is wrapped up in a brief story about a physicist named Isidor Isaac Rabi. When Rabi came home from school each day his immigrant mother didn’t ask him what he learned, but rather whether he had asked any good questions in class. That approach to thinking about learning helped propel Rabi to enormous professional success. He developed nuclear magnetic resonance, a technique of investigation that lies at the heart of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines found in hospitals today. Rabi’s work earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics.
It’s easy to slip into thinking that science is a description of facts about the world. Freshman geology textbooks are large volumes packed full of descriptions and vocabulary highlighted in bold text. When I used to teach introductory geology I tried to make exams richer than merely being vocabulary quizzes. But it was also true that scores and scores of terms had to be mastered by the students in order that we could talk in class about some of the more interesting geologic ideas. One of those was “deep time,” by which we mean the immense length of Earth history.
But science isn’t really about facts or vocabulary. Rather, it’s a way of inquiring about the world around us. And the spirit of questioning can only blossom when we recognize the fact there is a great deal we don’t understand.  As Firestein puts it in his blog, the textbook approach to thinking about science can make it “appear as a scary, insurmountable mountain of facts, rather than the playground of inquiry it actually is.”
I really like that last phrase with its imagery of play.
Questions, rather than facts, are what really lead a person forward in science. Firestein makes the case that “what leads to good science is uncertainty. That doesn’t mean scientists shouldn’t be certain about their findings. It means they should be comfortable that their findings are not the final answer.”
To do science we must not just tolerate uncertainty and recognize our ignorance, we have to embrace the fact there is a great deal we don’t know. And even beyond that, we are wise to acknowledge that some of what we think we know is bound to be wrong. I own a textbook that was written before the plate tectonic revolution swept through geology. It mentions the idea some people had put forward that the Earth’s crust could move around the globe, but it does so only to dismiss the notion out of hand. In other words, the early concept of “continental drift” is brought up only to attack it, not to consider it.
Keeping an open mind takes hard work and conscious effort. But it’s worth it in science – and in many of our other pursuits in life.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. 

Comments

comments

E. Kirsten Peters

.

News

 
District 2 candidate statements tell of goals

By Dawn Hodson | From Page: A1

Sand Fire nears containment: 66 structures destroyed

By Cole Mayer | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Tails wagging over dog park approval

By Julie Samrick | From Page: A3

Quarter-acre fire in Kelsey

By Rebecca Murphy | From Page: A3

 
Schedule for Highway 50 blasting closures

By News Release | From Page: A3

.

Opinion

My Turn: Privatization of public services

By Mark Belden | From Page: A4

 
Policy book

By Mountain Democrat | From Page: A4

 
.

Letters

GDPUD management report

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5

 
District 2 supervisorial special election

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 3 Comments

Piano replaced

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5

 
Comments sign-in policy

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

Save the Guinea Worm

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
Large bangs

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 2 Comments

Private property gets no respect

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
.

Sports

Taz pull through for SSL trophy

By Patty Pope | From Page: A8

 
Ex-Bruin lends a helping hand

By Steven Shaff | From Page: A8 | Gallery

Sierra Sharks finish middle of the pack

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A8

 
Roundup: July 29, 2014

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A8

.

Prospecting

Nuns discover a pleasant place

By Lexi Boeger | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Bargains can be found everywhere

By Democrat Staff | From Page: B2 | Gallery

At a glance: Game time

By Mimi Escabar | From Page: B2

 
Barbecue dinner to benefit Blue Star Moms

By Mount Aukum Winery | From Page: B2

Stagecoach story takes riders on a trip

By Wendy Schultz | From Page: B3

 
Help needed to make cool ties

By Sew 4 | From Page: B3

Stroke and osteoporosis screenings planned

By Life Line Screening | From Page: B3

 
Gold Rush Days activities cancelled this year

By Sacramento Convention And Visitors Center | From Page: B4

Master Food Preservers: Tomato time

By Monique Wilber | From Page: B4

 
Build an author platform at the Library

By El Dorado | From Page: B5

 
Sacramento area museums offer summer fun

By Sacramento Association Of Museums | From Page: B5

.

Essentials

Weather stats 7-29-14

By Michael Raffety | From Page: A2

 
Building permits 6/2-6/2014

By Michael Raffety | From Page: A2Comments are off for this post

Crime Log: July 17

By Cole Mayer | From Page: A2

 
.

Obituaries

Merlyn Wilbur Adams

By Contributor | From Page: A2

 
Lisa Oliver Rose

By Contributor | From Page: A2

Wallace Murrel Thomas

By Contributor | From Page: A2

 
.

Real Estate

.

Comics

.

Women’s Health

Love the skin you’re in

By Noel Stack | From Page: WH4

Dump stress and improve your health, productivity

By Wendy Schultz | From Page: WH7Comments are off for this post

Women’s Health Expo

By Marshall Medical | From Page: WH8

Find the confidence you need to fight back

By Special to the Democrat | From Page: WH12

Our choices directly affect our health

By Special to the Democrat | From Page: WH14

They’re NOT your mother’s hearing devices!

By Marshall Medical | From Page: WH17