Stuart Firestein presents C2ST Lecture on failure in science

By Kurt Brown, IIT Tech News

The Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST) hosts a variety of events in the city to enhance the public perception of science and technology. On the evening of Wednesday, October 21, C2ST hosted a lecture by Stuart Firestein entitled “Failure: Why Science is So Successful.” The lecture took place in the gymnasium of Chicago Tech Academy High School on the Near West Side of the city.

Firestein is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University and has published two books that deal heavily with the differences between public perception of science and how scientific progress is actually made. The first of which, “Ignorance: How it Drives Science,” was published in 2012, and his second book, “Failure: Why Science is so Successful” was released in early October of this year.

Approximately 50 people joined members of C2ST for the lecture. The audience included a variety of teachers, scientists, and students. Firestein opened his talk with a proverb he recalls often in “Ignorance:” “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. . . especially when there is no cat.” Firestein says that this quote in particular is a great descriptor of science; while many people think of science as exact and absolute, a lot of scientists spend their time stumbling through what they don’t know, looking for a connection that may or may not exist. Firestein explained to his audience that science isn’t solely built on knowledge, objectivity, fact, and truth, as many non-scientists perceive, but it is also built on ignorance, failure, doubt, and uncertainty.

Firestein spent his lecture explaining many of the human aspects of science that are often left out in an average person’s education on science. He spoke of his experiences as a professor of neuroscience, where he noticed that his curriculum and lectures seemed to imply that scientists has discovered everything that there is to know about neuroscience, when that is very far from the truth. That experience led Firestein to explore the differences between the way scientists do their work and the way the public perceives it. He says that scientists “don’t sit around and talk about what we know . . . we talk about what we don’t know and what we want to know.”

He continued his lecture and told a variety of historic stories of scientific progress and discovery that relied on human creativity, failure, and uncertainty. Firestein says that scientific progress is full of, and should be full of, failures, even though we normally don’t learn about the process of science in school or from the media; we only see the end result. Firestein also says that these human aspects aren’t a bad thing; they don’t mean that science is unsound. He told his audience that he thinks it is important that all members of the public are scientifically literate and understand more about how scientists do their jobs.

After Firestein’s lecture, copies of his newest book were available for purchase and he stayed at the venue to sign books and speak with members of the audience.

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