Monday, June 4, 2012

Science is Really About Ignorance

In the March issue of Scientific American there is a really great article by Dr. Stuart Firestein titled, What Science Wants to Know - An impenetrable mountain of facts can obscure the deeper questions. Please take the time to read it by following this link. Then read the letter below, sent to the author by Kitura Main, a staff member of Headwaters Science Center. It reflects the frustration felt by so many of us, until you realize that science is not about facts and knowledge, but rather about ignorance. What a fresh way to look at it! Please read on.
John M.

Greetings Stuart Firestein,

I have worked at a small science center in northern Minnesota for 13 years and have been passing on the joys of ignorance, fear and failure to our guests for most of those years. When I first started as a volunteer I needed to get over my fears of some of the animals. (Being a small center it is possible for our guests to handle our animals) I worked my way from lizard to snake till I hit the tarantula wall. I asked my trainer “what gives you the confidence that it won’t bite?’ The answer?  Ignorance! I said “I have plenty of that” and from then on I have embraced ignorance, questions and holding huge hairy spiders.

Just today I was extolling the joys of fear and failure in the demonstrations I was doing for visiting school groups. I tell them that most people have the wrong idea about science. They think of white lab coats, bad hair and always getting the answer right. Nahhh.  Try something and fail. Try again and fail better! We need a bumper sticker…………….. Ignorance is Inclusive.  More Questions, Less Krebs Cycle

Ignorance makes for better discussions. In the science club I run I try not to congratulate a right answer. Nothing shuts a discussion down faster than saying “that’s right, good job, your so smart”.  Emphasizing ignorance is definitely inclusive.

Fears have kept us alive, failure makes us smarter and logic doesn’t always win. These ideas come alive with the help of a few good props (such as a 6 foot boa constrictor).I know we have changed the way people think. Its freakin awesome! I love my job. I work at the Headwaters Science Center (the mighty Mississippi is not so mighty up here) in Bemidji MN.  in case you want to check us out.

I look forward to going to the library to get your book. One great thing about a small town -  Being a library addict, the librarians will actually buy the books I request. Our library now has a lot more science books and children’s books with strong female characters.

After I finish reading my copy of SA I send them to Belize where my daughter (it’s actually her subscription) is in the Peace Corps. Just thought you’d like to know.

Thanks for your work.
Kitura Main

Note:  Dr. Firestein responded to Kitura with an autographed copy of his book - and some great comments.

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