Linfield convocation raises questions
"Not stupidity; not callow indifference to facts," said Firestein, author of "Ignorance: How It Drives Science."
Rather, he told a crowd gathered for the school's opening convocation, he's talking about "thoroughly conscious" ignorance, which acknowledges that there's always so much more to discover about a subject.
If you're willing to be ignorant, you'll ask more, he said. And by asking questions, you'll find your way not only to answers, but also to even more and better questions
Firestein was chosen as the convocation speaker because his 2012 book was required reading for Linfield's incoming students — about 470 freshmen and 80 transfers. They make up about one-third of the student body that will start classes Monday on the McMinnville campus.
Throughout the year, students will use "Ignorance" as a springboard for discussion as part of the college's overall PLACE program. The theme of this year's PLACE is, "How do we know?"
Firestein knows about ignorance because he serves as chairman of the Columbia University Department of Biology and adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program for public understanding of science. His field of research examines the vertebrate olfactory system.
Firestein became a scientist after 20 years of working in the theater. After leaving the stage, he earned a bachelor's degree in biology from San Francisco State University and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.
He authored "Ignorance" because the importance of questioning "is simple and self-evident, but it doesn't get said enough," he said. "Questions are more important than answers," he said.
Firestein rejects the usual analogies about science, which compare it to a puzzle or an onion or an iceberg. Those comparisons assume that there's a finite amount of information that somehow could be completely known, he said.
He prefers to compare science to the ripples created by dropping a pebble into a pond. Each bit of knowledge sends the ripples outward as the circle spreads infinitely, and its circumference touches ignorance.
In the same way, he told students, "You should collect knowledge in order to increase your ignorance in quantity and quality, so you can ask more sophisticated questions and join the conversation."
After reading Firestein's book over the summer, new Linfield students were asked to write essays in response to his ideas. Authors of the top four essays received prizes that partially or fully cover the cost of their books this semester.
First place when to Ehren Cahill, who graduated from McMinnville High School in June.
In addition to Firestein's talk, convocation included a ceremonial entrance by faculty members dressed in their academic regalia.
At the end of the program, incoming students received acorns as symbols of the growth they will experience over the next four years. They will return the acorns at graduation.