Thursday, August 17, 2006

One of the smartest things ever said...

"The public has an insufficient understanding of our ignorance."
Susan Hockfield, president, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

'Tis true. I just came across this quote today, but have been thinking along these lines for the last couple of weeks. Not coincidentally, I started this semester's teaching about two weeks ago. Here's the thing, we often teach out of textbooks, giving the impression (albeit not purposely) that this is gospel. It's not. My postdoc mentor, a very smart man, is fond of telling students that if they want to find a really good research project, just open up a textbook and find somewhere with a sentence that starts "It is well known that..." There's a research project. We really know so very little. I spend much of research time learning just how little. In fact, I've spent the last nine or so years working on an area of proteins where "It is well known that..." I get funded to do this, publish papers on the subject, and have begun to gain a (hopefully positive) reputation for my work. If it's really "well known", really all worked out, then how could that be so? Perhaps "It is well known that..." should be replaced with "We currently believe that...but we could be wrong. Again." At the very least we should be honest about what we do know and what we don't.

Ultimately the people we think are smart and wise aren't that way because they know so much more than we do. The difference between them and everyone else is that they recognize just how little we know.


JollyRgr said...

Large amounts of knowledge clearly do not equal wisdom....oh wise one :-)

Odyssey said...

As my career progresses, I find I know more and more about less and less. Eventually I will know everything there is to know about nothing.