PULLMAN, Wash. – “Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.”

So begins Stuart Firestein’s book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science.”

Part of the core message in the book about how science should work is wrapped up in a brief story about a physicist named Isidor Isaac Rabi. When Rabi came home from school each day his immigrant mother didn’t ask him what he learned but rather whether he had asked any good questions in class.

That approach to thinking about learning helped propel Rabi to enormous professional success. He developed nuclear magnetic resonance, a technique of investigation that lies at the heart of hospital MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines. Rabi’s work earned him the Nobel Prize for physics.

More than facts

It’s easy to slip into thinking that science is a description of facts about the world. Freshman geology textbooks are large volumes packed full of descriptions and vocabulary highlighted in bold text. When I used to teach introductory geology I tried to make exams richer than merely being vocabulary quizzes.

But it was also true that scores and scores of terms had to be mastered by the students before we could talk in class about some of the more interesting geologic ideas. One of those was “deep time,” by which we mean the immense length of Earth history.

But science isn’t really about facts or vocabulary. Rather, it’s a way of inquiring about the world around us. And the spirit of questioning can only blossom when we recognize that there is a great deal we don’t understand. 

Embracing uncertainty

As Firestein puts it in his blog, the textbook approach to thinking about science can make it “appear as a scary, insurmountable mountain of facts, rather than the playground of inquiry it actually is.”

I really like that last phrase with its imagery of play.

Questions, rather than facts, are what really lead a person forward in science. Firestein makes the case that “what leads to good science is uncertainty. That doesn’t mean scientists shouldn’t be certain about their findings. It means they should be comfortable that their findings are not the final answer.”

To do science we must not just tolerate uncertainty and recognize our ignorance; we have to embrace the fact that there is a great deal we don’t know. And even beyond that, we are wise to acknowledge that some of what we think we know is bound to be wrong.

Wisdom for life

I own a textbook that was written before the plate tectonic revolution swept through geology. It mentions the idea that the Earth’s crust could move around the globe, but it does so only to dismiss the notion out of hand. In other words, the early concept of “continental drift” is brought up only to attack it, not to consider it.

Keeping an open mind takes hard work and conscious effort. But it’s worth it in science – and in many other pursuits in life.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.