Neuroscientist Stuart Feierstein has long held an unexpected idea: Ignorance and failure are fundamental to scientific progress.
And it’s not that I say it outside the box. In 2006, he created a course called “Ignorance” at Columbia University (USA), where he heads the Department of Biological Sciences and studies Neuroscience. In 2012, he released a book of the same name (published in Brazil in 2019 by Companhia das Letras).
As populist politicians seek to undermine the credibility of science, one caveat is needed. “The name of the course is just that it’s provocative,” Feierstein says. “It’s not about stupidity or indifference to facts.”
The proposal, he explains, is to show the big questions that scientists are trying to answer, and to introduce more doubts and doubts and fewer facts and data. “Because we won’t get the data we want if we don’t ask the right question,” he says.
Feierstein advocates changes in the way science is taught at all stages of formal education, from school to college, where, according to him, a deterministic view typical of the nineteenth century still prevails.
He also argues that better scientific communication with the public is needed, a topic he began researching in partnership with Brazilian scientist Natalia Pasternak.
The two will hold the inaugural conference for the 2022 season of Fronteiras do Pensamento, with performances on August 8 in São Paulo, August 10 in Porto Alegre and online from August 19.
like mr. They came to the idea that ignorance, not knowledge, drives science? It was my double league at Columbia University. I realized that in the neuroscience lab, I found it very exciting to interact with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as reflect on the experiments and the big questions we ask.
But I am also a professor on a university course where you use a book that weighs more than 3 kg, more than twice the weight of a human brain. And I began to think that over the course of 23 chapters, the students imagined that everything they needed to know about the brain was in this book and the facts I kept quoting. But this is far from the case.
I also felt that the students thought that all the scientist did was produce all these facts to put them together in a textbook and then force the students to memorize them before the exam. But this is not the case either.
When I meet other scientists, we don’t talk about what we know. We talk about the big issues and how we’re going to deal with them.
When I realized this disconnect between the way science is seen and the way it is followed, I thought, “What are we teaching students?” We don’t study what’s exciting about science. And so I thought we should teach the things we don’t know, because that’s all about science.
The course’s name, “ignorance,” is just meant to be provocative. It is not about stupidity and indifference to facts. The idea is, in collaboration with other faculty, to show what they are working on, what are the main issues in their fields, why they choose these issues and not those, etc.
If science is perceived the way the master is perceived. She says she is oppressed, what difference will she make? It will be more accessible to the general public, a public that may feel that science is an indomitable mountain of facts and data. Of course, to be a scientist, you have to learn a lot. But you also have to learn a lot to become a lawyer, plumber, and musician.
But you don’t have to be a professional musician to enjoy a symphony or show. So why do you need it knowing? Why don’t people enjoy the great science adventure? Everyone loves a puzzle, an open question.
the master. In his book he argues that it is a mistake to focus too much on results in science. But due to the pandemic, people have been more anxious than ever to know the results of research about vaccines, coronavirus, etc. Could it be different? I have nothing against facts and data. I’m just looking for a better balance in the way we think about science. After all, in the lab, we examine the facts very carefully, but in many cases, the most important part is framing a particular issue. Because we won’t get the data we want if we don’t ask the right question.
So the one thing that might work better in communicating with the audience is to show not only what we know but also what we don’t know and what we’re trying to figure out.
And the pandemic has made the scientific process very straightforward, because researchers from various regions have halted what they were doing to try to contribute. There was data sharing like we’ve never seen before, and in many cases with incompatible data.
But this is the way science advances, and not as in historical novels where one genius after another makes the great discoveries. Mistakes fall and scholars are deadlocked; But failures are very important to success.
Much of this cooperation in fighting the pandemic has been done through social media. like mr. Do you see this performance of scholars? Communication with the public is essential. The science trapped in the lab is the science that society has lost. But should all scientists be involved in communicating with the public? Mostly not. There is no reason to imagine that a good scientist is necessarily also good at lecturing, writing, or teaching, for example.
How to deal with people who distort the role of skepticism in science, making it not a step in the process of searching for answers, but rather a supposed sign of weakness? This is a complex question, and of course there is no simple answer. But I think it goes through the science education we give people. We continue to teach a deterministic view of science typical of the 19th century. And that’s from school to college. We continue to teach facts and formulas, but we do not teach uncertainty.
When a person finishes their formal education, their experience with the knowledge is that there are right and wrong answers on the test. So when a scientist says he’s not right about a topic, or that there are different opinions, that person thinks it’s not science, because he never learned that uncertainty is part of the process.
Can AI help change the way science is taught? One might expect AI to at least take the pressure off the facts. Google and Wikipedia are already partially doing this. Anything that leads to abandoning the idea that we should keep a lot of facts in our heads can help improve education, if used correctly.
The only thing that worries me about education is that there were good proposals for reform a century ago, but nothing happened. is it because? I think evaluation is one of the biggest obstacles. We need to be able to assess both the student and the course they are taking.
It’s just that we still use the same tools we always use, like standardized tests. It’s what I call the developing model of education: We shove a bunch of facts down a student’s throat, throw it all into a test, and then move on to the next year, with no tangible gain from doing everything right.
AI can offer a solution by suggesting ways to assess students individually. We know today that people do not learn things at the same pace. A person can progress in math faster than they can in writing at basic levels, for example, and then vice versa at intermediate or advanced levels.
So why are all the students in every class the same age? Well, because it’s easier from an administrative point of view, but that’s a bad reason.
What would be the alternative? I think about video games. The player needs to collect certain points to pass the level. One player may move very quickly from stage 1 to 5 and then falter in stage 6. Another player may start slowly, but once they practice that, they move through the stage very easily. It’s an individual way of evolving in the game, and education can learn something from that.
To get into the spirit of your book, over the past ten years, what is the most interesting thing that Mr. I learned you don’t know anything about ignorance? This is fun (laughs). I would say that one thing I later learned about ignorance has to do with the things we don’t know and don’t know. How did we get to these things? This is a kind of deep ignorance.
So I started thinking about it, and in part because of that, I wrote the book Fail. [fracasso, sem tradução em português, publicado em 2015]: It is through failure that we reach these things. This means that we must embrace not only ignorance but also failure, because failure shows us things that we did not even know we did not know.
You do an experiment expecting a certain result, but the experiment fails or has a result that you don’t understand. Well, now you need to think again and come up with new experiences to understand what happened. Great discoveries have been made in this way.
Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University (USA), where he researches the sense of smell, teaches neuroscience and coordinates a course on ignorance. He is the author of “Ignorância – Como Ela Impula a Ciência” (Companhia das Letras, 2019) and “Failure – why science is so successful” (Failure – why science is so successful, not yet published in Brazil). Before starting his science career at the age of 40, he worked in theater for nearly two decades.
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