Ignorance, Cardiology, And The Milky Way Galaxy

Question: How is the Milky Way Galaxy like cardiology (and the rest of medicine and science)?

Answer: Sometimes we think we know a lot more about them than we really do.

I remember staring at the page of my third grade science textbook. We were learning about astronomy and the Milky Way galaxy. There was a photograph of a spiral galaxy and, underneath it, the simple caption: “The Milky Way Galaxy.”

This is NOT a photo of the Milky Way Galaxy (Wikimedia Commons)

This is NOT a photo of the Milky Way Galaxy (Wikimedia Commons)

On the one hand, I learned something about the Milky Way galaxy that day: it was really big, it contained billions of stars, it was spiral-shaped, and it was one of billions of other galaxies in our universe. On the other hand, I didn’t learn something far more important about the limitations of science and knowledge.

The sad thing is that the truth about these limitations is far more interesting and engaging than the dull pretense of authority. Suppose the caption had instead said: “This is a photograph of a galaxy that scientists think looks something like the Milky Way. The Milky Way is so huge that human beings will not be able to get far enough away from it to take a picture for millions of years, if ever.” Personally I believe that would spark a lot more interest in children than the dull recital of bland scientific “facts” that, it turns out, aren’t even really facts.

I highly recommend you read “The Case for Teaching Ignorance” by Jamie Holmesaug in the New York Times today. It contains gems like these:

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.)

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.

And let’s be clear: our ignorance is not limited to neuroscience and astronomy. There is plenty of hubris in cardiology as well. I’ll get to that part in a future post.

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