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EMBL Forum Lectures

Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein, Columbia University

Friday, 28 June 2013 at 14:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Stuart Firestein, Columbia University, USA

Ignorance: How it Drives Science


Where there is light, there is always shadow.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe

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.


Dr. Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences where his colleagues and he study the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. Aside from its molecular detection capabilities, the olfactory system serves as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of signaling and perception in the brain. The olfactory system represents a unique opportunity for these studies as it processes sensory information over a very short neural pathway – giving rise to striking perceptions and memories with much less processing than the visual system requires, thus making it a more tractable system to understand. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell?

Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science. Recently he was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. His book on the workings of science for a general audience called Ignorance, How it drives Science was released by Oxford University Press this Spring.