Dr Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein, PhD, is the former chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, where his laboratory is researching the vertebrate olfactory receptor neuron. He has published articles in Wired (magazine), Huffington Post, and Scientific American. Firestein has been elected as a fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his meritorious efforts to advance science. He is an adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation program for the Public Understanding of Science. His TEDtalk will touch upon the fact that, in spite of the exponential growth of scientific knowledge as reflected in an ever more unwieldy literature, the driving engine of science is Ignorance. Facts and knowledge are accumulated, but in science, unlike medicine, law or finance, the purpose of the facts are to generate more and improved questions. Although our papers always have a “Conclusions” section, there are in fact very few conclusive answers in science. Uncertainty is the way of science, revision is always a victory, not an embarrassment. It is not so difficult to convince scientists of these working conditions, but what of the general public, the citizenry that pays for and depends on science. How can science remain a viable and important contributor to society and policy if it is steeped in doubt? I will suggest that it is the responsibility of scientists to communicate to the public that unsettled science is not unsound science; that on many crucial issues (climate change, GMO foods and cloning, spread of infectious disease, etc.) there is generally more agreement than disagreement, but that scientists naturally only speak of what remains undecided since that is after all where the work remains to be done. In science ignorant and dumb are not the same thing. Ignorance, doubt and uncertainty cannot remain solely the province of elite trained scientists, it must be owned by the pubic as well. If this is to happen we will have to re-think our approach to science education – both for prospective scientists and perhaps more importantly for the non-professional scientists, who will be advisors, corporate leaders, policymakers… voters. All of our students, like working scientists, need to be engaged by questions, not engorged with facts.