Stuart J. Firestein is the former chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences and has won the University’s Distinguished Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. His research is dedicated to unraveling the intricacies of the mammalian olfactory system and his course on “Ignorance” is one of the most popular on campus.
Prof. Firestein will explain that science is the production of questions, not facts; that scientists spend their time on what they don’t know. A new fact or result in the lab serves primarily to frame a new and better question. The all-too-common myth of science as no more than an accumulation of facts is furthered by an educational system that teaches from textbooks and uses a bulimic approach to science education: force as many facts as possible down the studentss throats and then have them regurgitate them up on an exam. This leads to a public, even an educated public, who hold a distorted view of science. On the one hand this is simply a shame because science is so much a part of our lives and our culture and it’s a great adventure. On the other, more nefarious hand, it leaves the public vulnerable to manipulation by corporate and political interests.