#149…SCIENCE, religion, etc.: Science admits, “Too many facts!”

[This is the 3rd (of 5) favorite posts of the last year, recast and reedited.]


How can a person cope with so much available information?


A noted scientist suggests a way.


[For more use the DOOR]



This a real problem that seems to always get worse.


The chair of Biological Sciences at Columbia Univ. biochemist Stuart Firestein says: “…Scientists have had to fall back on another strategy for the mountain of information: we largely ignore it.”

Scientific American (April 2012, p.10)

Although he has (in his words) “a fancy PhD,” he acknowledges, “As a biologist, I wouldn’t expect to get past the first two sentences of a physics paper. Even papers in immunology or cell biology mystify me–and so do some papers in my own field, neurobiology.”

So where does this refreshingly honest expert take this?     And suggest to us?

Two comments about all this bewildering confusion:

(1) If you’re overwhelmed by “All that is,” and what we really know, you’re not alone–you’re elbow to elbow with the “experts.”

(2) You can’t just turn tail and hide. To be useful in the 21st century you need to learn what you can and be open to sharing this, as well as asking questions with those around you.

That’s one big reason for A Dozen Seconds.

And I’m in no way implying that religious matters are irrelevant or that just because we have a small piece of the pie of facts on our plate that we should say “All ways to whatever” are of equal weight. Cannibalism and torture, despite where your values come from (I hope), are still immoral, but enough of this distracting detour!

We need to open ourselves to understanding as much as we can.

Returning to the post…

Firestein’s perceptive one-pager is preserved on paper in two of my journals (taped in and still available if EMP* takes out all electric power and the Internet disappears) because it is so honest, selfless, and wise.  Let me quote from the fact-filled first paragraph which leads off his commentary:

“Most scholars agree that Isaac Newton, while formulating the laws of force and gravity and inventing the calculus in the late 1600s probably knew all the science there was to know at the time. In the ensuing 350 years an estimated 50 million research papers and innumerable books have been published in the natural sciences and mathematics. The modern high school student probably now possesses more scientific knowledge than Newton did**, yet science to many people seems to be an impenetrable mountain of facts.”

And later: “…everyday [sic] there is far more we know that we don’t know.” [italics, his]

And even later: “As James Clerk Maxwell, probably the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, said, ‘Thoroughly conscious ignorance ***…is a prelude to every real advance in knowledge.’”

Firestein’s point at the end (there’s so much I’m skipping!) is that rather than be so burdened with the mountain of detail [my words] we should keep asking the right questions about what’s been found (that we know about) and should know about. “Science becomes [then] a series of elegant puzzles and puzzles within puzzles–and who doesn’t like puzzles?….So if you meet a scientist, don’t ask her**** what she knows, ask her what she wants to know*****. It’s a much better conversation.”

Sounds like good advice as we end one year and begin another…


* EMP stands for electromagnetic pulse, devastating force that could destroy the electrical grid, and possibly civilization as we know it. Aside from science, this has been a concern of Newt Gingrich and others–and that includes me. What people do in the world devastated by EMP is explored as background in my novel, Earth Is Not Alone (always close by on the right side of this screen.)

** As a former high school science teacher, I testify that this gross overstatement needs clarification. What high school students “know,” in their heads, is far less than the knowledge they carry under their arms in the student textbooks and laptops.

*** “Conscious ignorance” is a term worth thinking about and discussing…

**** I’m sorry, but using “generic she” to replace generic he is a ridiculous grammatical choice, but who am I to question Firestein…

***** Careful though, you’ll probably sound more intelligent and informed than you really are.



Author: John Knapp