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2014 Common Read

All new Linfield students participate in the Common Read program by reading a common text. This year's selection is Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein.  The Common Read program also kicks-off the 2014-2015 Program for Liberal Arts and Civic Engagement (PLACE) program  and its theme "How Do We Know? Paths to Wisdom."  The goal of PLACE is to build on the Linfield Curriculum to encourage the free exchange of ideas across disciplines, promote active forms of citizenship, and pique intellectual curiosity through the exploration of thematic connections among modes of thinking and inquiry.  

The 2014-2015 PLACE program seeks to create a common space within the Linfield curriculum to ask this most basic of human questions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, exploring the methods (paths or ways) that we use to acquire knowledge with a particular emphasis on the NW, QR, and UQ modes of inquiry.  In doing so, we will consider questions including: What are the powers and limits of science?  How do the humanities factor into this equation?  What are the underlying assumptions of the scientific method and how do we know if said assumptions are correct?  How do statistics, pure mathematics, or computational models inform our understandings of the human experience?  Can philosophy, religious studies, the arts, or literature still reveal deep truths about the world that make a difference?  In the end we can, and should, always ask as a rejoinder to any purported answer... how do we know? 

A copy of the common reading book is included in your Orientation packet.  Plan to read the book over the summer and arrive on campus prepared to discuss it in your Colloquium class.  Read on for more information about Ignorance: How it Drives Science
and the Summer Common Reading Essay Contest.  


Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein

Ignorance: How It Drives Science


Knowledge is a big subject, says Stuart Firestein, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance--not knowledge--that is the true engine of science.

Most of us have a false impression of science as a surefire, deliberate, step-by-step method for finding things out and getting things done. In fact, says Firestein, more often than not, science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room. The process is more hit-or-miss than you might imagine, with much stumbling and groping after phantoms. But it is exactly this "not knowing," this puzzling over thorny questions or inexplicable data, that gets researchers into the lab early and keeps them there late, the thing that propels them, the very driving force of science. Firestein shows how scientists use ignorance to program their work, to identify what should be done, what the next steps are, and where they should concentrate their energies. And he includes a catalog of how scientists use ignorance, consciously or unconsciously--a remarkable range of approaches that includes looking for connections to other research, revisiting apparently settled questions, using small questions to get at big ones, and tackling a problem simply out of curiosity. The book concludes with four case histories--in cognitive psychology, theoretical physics, astronomy, and neuroscience--that provide a feel for the nuts and bolts of ignorance, the day-to-day battle that goes on in scientific laboratories and in scientific minds with questions that range from the quotidian to the profound.

Turning the conventional idea about science on its head, Ignorance opens a new window on the true nature of research. It is a must-read for anyone curious about science.

About the Author

Professor Stuart Firestein teaches Neuroscience and is Chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University, where his laboratory investigates the mysteries of the mammalian olfactory system, the sense of smell. He has published more than 100 papers in scientific and scholarly journals. Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, he serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundations' program for the Public Understanding of Science. He was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching and was recently elected as a Fellow of AAAS.

Summer Common Reading Essay Contest: Due August 1, 2014

Submit essay to by 5:00PM PDT on August 1.

First place: Books from Linfield Barnes and Noble for your first semester at Linfield (up to $500)
Second place: $250 gift certificate to Linfield Barnes and Noble
Third place: $100 gift certificate to Linfield
 Barnes and Noble

Essay Guidelines: 800- 1000 words, inclued your name, faculty and peer advisor names and email. Be sure to include appropriate citations as necessary (citations are not required).

“Knowledge is power.”  So goes the common adage.  In fact, to this day most of your schooling— if not all—has been devoted to this endeavor.   In contrast, Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, one of the wisest people to have ever lived, argued that his wisdom was rooted in the realization that he did not think he knew when he actually did not.  He kept his own ignorance very close to his heart and mind; this drove his relentless questioning.  Stuart Firestein follows this venerable tradition when he argues for the value of ignorance.

As you embark on this book’s reading here are some related questions that, building on one another, may help you delve into the unique, uncharted, and fascinating waters of ignorance as a passage to deeper knowledge and wisdom.

Before reading the book…

List a few: a) things you know that have some significance for you b) things you do not know that you find important.  The latter are examples of your ignorance.  In what ways can the latter be useful? 

As you read the book…


Firestein makes a compelling case for the creative role of ignorance in science.  In your own words, what are the qualities of the right kind of ignorance?  How do you cultivate it, and why?  In what other academic disciplines, fields of investigation, enterprises, and areas of life can this kind of ignorance be fruitful? (64)

Ignorance & You

Consider chapter 6 and the relevance of asking the right question for ignorance. How can you engage ignorance in your life? As you look forward to attending college, how can ignorance be an intellectual compass for you? In other words, in what ways do you see ignorance— the kind that Firestein describes—as an asset in your future education?

After reading the book …

You & Ignorance

What is the current state of your ignorance? What sort of unknown questions are alive for you in Socrates and Firestein’s rich sense? How has your view of ignorance changed after reading the book? 

May you enjoy your voyage into the wondrous realm of ignorance!

Essay prompt written by,

Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza

Director, Program for the Liberal Art and Civic Engagement (PLACE)

Associate Professor or Philosophy, Linfield College