Firestein at The Amaz!ng Meeting, 2012
|Citizenship||United States of America|
|Alma mater||San Francisco State University BS in Biology, UC Berkeley PhD|
|Known for||Chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University, professor of neuroscience|
Stuart J. Firestein, PhD, is the 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. Firestein's writing often advocates for better science writing. In 2012 he released the book Ignorance: How it Drives Science.
Firestein was raised in Philadelphia. As a child, Firestein had many interests. In an interview with a reporter for Columbia College, he described his early history. "I started out with the usual childhood things — cowboy, fireman. My first interests were in science. I wanted to be an astronomer." Firestein attended an all-boys middle school, a possible reason he became interested in theater arts, because they were able to interact with an all-girls school. Firestein worked in theater for almost 20 years in San Francisco and Los Angeles and rep companies on the East Coast. At the age of 30, Firestein enrolled in San Francisco State as a full-time student. He has credited an animal communication class with Professor Hal Markowitz as "the most important thing that happened to me in life.” Firestein received his graduate degree by age 40.
At the Columbia University Department of Biological Sciences, Firestein is now studying the sense of smell. In his neuroscience lab, they investigate how the brain works, using the nose as a "model system" to understand the smaller piece of a difficult complex brain. He says, "One looks for simpler systems along the idea that fundamental mechanisms in the brain are going to be found on simpler levels, possibly in simpler organisms, like worms or flies, or subsystems of complicated organisms. The sense of smell is a good subsystem of the brain to learn a lot about important issues in the brain."
Ignorance: How It Drives Science
|Stuart Firestein: The pursuit of ignorance, (18:33), TED talks|
|Ignorance: The Birthsplace of Bang: Stuart Firestein at TEDxBrussels, (16:29)|
In his 2012 book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, Firestein argues that pursuing research based on what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know. When asked why he wrote the book, Firestein replied, "I came to the realization at some point several years ago that these kids [his students] must actually think we know all there is to know about neuroscience. And that’s the difference. That’s not what we think in the lab. What we think in the lab is, we don’t know bupkis. So I thought, well, we should be talking about what we don’t know, not what we know." The book was largely based on his class on ignorance, where each week he invited a professor from the hard sciences to lecture for two hours on what they do not know. No audio-visuals and no prepared lectures were allowed, the lectures became free-flowing conversations that students participated in.
Firestein explained to talk show host Diane Rehm that most people believe ignorance precedes knowledge, but in science, ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions about data that sometimes don’t exist or fully make sense yet. "I use that term purposely to be a little provocative. But I don't mean stupidity. I don't mean dumb. I don't mean a callow indifference to facts or data or any of that," Firestein said. Instead, thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community's understanding and seeks to resolve them.
The scientific method is a huge mistake, according to Firestein. He says that a hypothesis should be made after collecting data, not before. Firestein claims that scientists fall in love with their own ideas to the point that their own biases start dictating the way they look at the data. Oddly, he feels that facts are sometimes the most unreliable part of research. He feels that scientists don’t know all the facts perfectly, and they “don’t know them forever."
Searching for a black cat in a dark room
According to Firestein, scientific research is like trying to find a black cat in a dark room: It’s very hard to find it, "especially when there’s no black cat." His thesis is that the field of science has many black rooms where scientists freely move from one to another once the lights are turned on. Another analogy he uses is that scientific research is like a puzzle without a guaranteed solution.
Firestein is married to Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College and the City University of New York, where she studies animal behavior. They have one college age daughter, a cat, and a Newfoundland dog. Firestein likes to relax with people who are not in academia or the sciences.
- 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching
- 2011 Elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He was recognized for his “pioneering work” on the mammalian olfactory system.
- "The next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools is going to revise the facts. That's what science does it revises. Revisions in science are victories unlike other areas of belief or ideas that we have... Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger...and it is more interesting.
- "People don’t like ambiguity. They don’t like to hear ‘We don’t know.’…[So], when it comes to time to write a textbook—I mean, how many textbooks are you going to sell if you write at the end of every paragraph, ‘but we don’t really know too much about this.’ And how many times are they going to come back and interview you if every time you just say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great question. I wish I knew the answer.’"
- "Why do science majors change their mind? They wise up... American students change their majors because they recognize that this country has stopped providing a reasonable future for scientists, with slashed budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health.
- "Si los científicos nos explicaran las preguntas, en lugar de aburrirnos hasta sacarnos los ojos con su jerga, si los medios de comunicación no se limitasen a exponer los descubrimientos y dieran cuenta de los problemas que condujeron a ellos, y si los docentes dejasen de traficar con datos ya disponibles en Wikipedia, tal vez encontraríamos a un público dispuesto a implicarse en esa gran aventura que llevamos viviendo en las quince últimas generaciones."
- When asked what should be the takeaway a reader gets from his book, Firestein answered, "That you don't need five PhD's to be a part of this marvelous adventure of science. You can do that by thinking more about the questions than the answers... The next time you're in the room with a scientist... don't ask her about what she knows, ask her about what she's working on."
- "This is the power of science, this is why we should have confidence in science, because it is so prepared to change its direction, to move in another place, to follow whatever it turns out to be. The current truth, understand it may not be the eternal truth, but it's the current truth. It's where we go with it now."
- Firestein, Stuart (2012). Ignorance: How it Drives Science. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199828074.
- Firestein, Stuart (2015). Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199390106.
- "Stuart J. Firestein, PhD". Columbia University.
- Firestein, Stuart. "Doubt Is Good for Science, But Bad for PR". Wired Magazine. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "Stuart Firestein". Huff Post. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- Firestein, Stuart. "What Science Wants to Know An impenetrable mountain of facts can obscure the deeper questions" (PDF). Scientific American Magazine. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "Tribeca Film Institute and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Announce 2011 TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund Recipients". Tribeca Film Institute. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- Firestein, Stuart. "We Need a Crash Course in Citizen Science". Huff Post. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
- Rouen, Ethan. "Five Minutes with … Stuart Firestein". Columbia College. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "Prof. Stuart Firestein Explains Why Ignorance Is Central to Scientific Discovery". Columbia University. May 9, 2012.
- Schwartz, Casey. "Stuart Firestein, Author of ‘Ignorance,’ Says Not Knowing Is the Key to Science". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- Rehm, Diane. "Stuart Firestein: "Ignorance How it Drives Science"". The Diane Rehm Show. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- Blakeslee, Sandra. "To Advance, Search for a Black Cat in a Dark Room". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-01-06.
- "BookTV: Stuart Firestein, "Ignorance: How it Drives Science"". Book TV. Retrieved 2013-01-06.
- "Stuart Firestein". Retrieved September 3, 2012.
- "Eight profs receive Columbia's top teaching award". Columbia Magazine. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "Stuart Firestein and William Zajc Elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science". On Campus. Columbia News. December 21, 2011. Retrieved September 3, 2012.
- "Announcements". Columbia University. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "Giving Up on Math and Science". NY Times. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "El Meme de la Semana". Destejiendo el Mundo. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
- "Episode 65 Dr. Stuart Firestein JUL 1, 2012". Think Atheist. Retrieved 2012-11-29.
- Viskontas, Indre. "Stuart Firestein – How Ignorance Drives Science". Point of Inquiry. Retrieved 2012-11-29.
- Media related to Stuart Firestein at Wikimedia Commons
- Stuart Firestein's Website
- Stuart Firestein at TED
- Big Think interview with Stuart Firestein
- C-SPAN's Book TV interview
- Ignorance by Stuart Firestein; It's Not Rocket Science by Ben Miller – review
- Science Friday interview "Why Ignorance Trumps Knowledge in Scientific Pursuit"
- Lecture from TAM 2012 "The Values of Science: Ignorance, Uncertainty, and Doubt"
- "The Nature of Reality" Roundtable discussion with Mark Alford, Deepak Chopra, Stuart Firestein, Stuart Hameroff and Menas Kafatos