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The Case for Teaching Ignorance

Posted: Wed 27 Jan 2016 2:41
by RitaA
Camp Other recently tweeted about this, and it's a good reminder of just how much uncertainty still exists in both medicine and science in general: ... rance.html
The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

The Case for Teaching Ignorance


IN the mid-1980s, a University of Arizona surgery professor, Marlys H. Witte, proposed teaching a class entitled “Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance.” Her idea was not well received; at one foundation, an official told her he would rather resign than support a class on ignorance.

Dr. Witte was urged to alter the name of the course, but she wouldn’t budge. Far too often, she believed, teachers fail to emphasize how much about a given topic is unknown. “Textbooks spend 8 to 10 pages on pancreatic cancer,” she said some years later, “without ever telling the student that we just don’t know very much about it.” She wanted her students to recognize the limits of knowledge and to appreciate that questions often deserve as much attention as answers. Eventually, the American Medical Association funded the class, which students would fondly remember as “Ignorance 101.”

Classes like hers remain rare, but in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.

In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them — not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities — Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

The more I learn about how medicine is practiced -- through personal experiences as a patient, and from listening to family members and friends -- the more I realize just how much uncertainty still exists when it comes to all sorts of medical conditions/diseases/illnesses.

Re: The Case for Teaching Ignorance

Posted: Mon 1 Feb 2016 2:42
by Lorima
This is just what medical people need. There's a strong incentive to pretend to know it all, in medicine, and a lot of doctors (maybe most?) never quite get it, how limited and sometimes fictitious medical knowledge really is. Presumably as they get older and more experienced they should take off the training wheels and learn to take their textbook certainties with a big grain of salt. But so many of them never mature to that point. Is this just how most humans are? Or is there something about medical training and practice that is retarding their development?

Re: The Case for Teaching Ignorance

Posted: Tue 2 Feb 2016 5:13
by ChronicLyme19
Can we expand the list of people that need to take the course from medical professionals to everyone in STEM (science technology math and engineering)? :)