THE NATURAL SCIENCES:
THEORY OF IGNORANCE
The activities on this page were inspired by Stuart Firestein's book, Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Professor Feinstein is Chair of Biology at Columbia University. He works on the neuroscience of olfaction.
This unit of inquiry will almost certainly shift student mindsets for the TOK class moving forward. In particular, it sets the stage for Is there a Scientific Method? in the Areas of Knowledge section.
WRY STIMULUS QUESTIONS FOR INITIAL
WHOLE CLASS DISCUSSION
Is Theory of Ignorance (TOI) a better name for this course than Theory of Knowledge (TOK)?
If the course focused on Ignorance would you still want to get an A?
How would teacher guest speakers respond if asked to come to talk about what they don't know in a class about ignorance?
Well before the conversation fizzle out, show Professor Firestein's full TED talk.
CLASS ACTIVITY I
Have students work in threes. They should produce written bullet point responses to the following questions. Printable pdf. Allow a strictly timed 10 minutes. While the trios are working on the task circulate freely and offer clarifications and generative hints.
Play some non-intrusive, inspiring, ethereal music. If it goes well, this unit of inquiry builds gently towards a sense of awe for the knowledge quest.
In his TED talk about Ignorance, we quickly recognize that Firestein does not mean "stupidity" or "indifference to fact or reason or data." In the context of being a real scientist what attitudes of mind about ignorance is Firestein actually championing?
Firestein mentions with plenty of irony that his fact-filled Neuroscience text book weighs more than two normal human brains. If the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance are so important, to what extent is it still important to learn facts?
Based on what you already know about the scientific method, to what extent is it accurate to say that science is all about "question propagation"? Can we say the same about History? How about other Areas of Knowledge?
CLASS ACTIVITY II
Before opening up full class discussion provide student trios with a copy of The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. Printable color Pdf. and ask the following questions.
Keeping in mind our work on mental Maps and Models; to what extent is the graphic an accurate and useful visualization of the progression through the various levels of academia and where they are positioned with regard to stretching the boundaries of knowledge?
Mark your own current position on your copy of this scheme. Also mark where you think you might you be in 10 years.
Briefly describe any other real life examples of the ignorance/knowledge boundary being pushed that is not contingent on pursuing a PhD.?
At this point open full class discussion. You may, or may not, need to ask them:
How familiar, and how comfortable are you, with the unknowns, frontiers and open questions in your various IB classes? Provide real examples from your own experience.
What have you learned so far today? Is this going to make you think differently?
Ensure that the students stay on task, keeping the original Common Agreements for Class Discussion in mind. Let the discourse run, staying open to what emerges. As the conversational to and fro unrolls, work in, and make explicit, the Schrodinger and Bernard Shaw quotes below.
When the dust clears; or at the start of the next TOK class, reveal the Feynman video.
CODA: NEGATIVE CAPABILITY
Closely related to Schrodinger's "abiding by ignorance," is the notion of "negative capability," encapsulated in an 1817 letter by John Keats referring to the way that Shakespeare looked at the world. This notion can be seen as a gateway to exploring the role of ignorance in the Arts