Newspaper article International New York Times

The Case for Teaching Ignorance

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Case for Teaching Ignorance

Article excerpt

When we present knowledge as more certain than it is, we discourage curiosity.

In the mid-1980s, a University of Arizona surgery professor, Marlys H. Witte, proposed teaching a class entitled "Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance." Her idea was not well received; at one foundation, an official told her he would rather resign than support a class on ignorance.

Dr. Witte was urged to alter the name of the course, but she wouldn't budge. Far too often, she believed, teachers fail to emphasize how much about a given topic is unknown. "Textbooks spend 8 to 10 pages on pancreatic cancer," she said some years later, "without ever telling the student that we just don't know very much about it." She wanted her students to recognize the limits of knowledge and to appreciate that questions often deserve as much attention as answers. Eventually, the American Medical Association funded the class, which students would fondly remember as "Ignorance 101."

Classes like hers remain rare, but in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.

In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book "Ignorance: How It Drives Science," many scientific facts simply aren't solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein's phrasing, "feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms." By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them -- not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities -- Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don't merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance this summer, uses this analogy: The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline -- where knowledge meets ignorance -- extends. …

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