Sir Douglas Robb Lectures 2016

Science and Uncertainty Sir Douglas Robb Lectures 2016 presented by Stuart Firestein

Science, and its product technology, are deeply woven into every part of our modern lives. Indeed we think of ourselves as modern in large part because of the sophistication of our science and technology. But less and less of that science seems accessible to fewer and fewer of the world’s citizens.

The sheer mountain of facts that have accumulated seems impregnable to all but the very few willing to dedicate an enormous effort and immense time. But this view is a distortion of a dysfunctional educational system that emphasises a kind of bulimic approach to science (memorise and regurgitate facts) and its enduring effect on our relationship to science.

Can we fix this state of affairs and allow a wider participation in what is arguably the greatest adventure of our species? We’ll do our best in three short lectures.

The three lectures were held at Engineering Lecture theatre 439, Faculty of Engineering Building, the University of Auckland's City Campus on:

  • 6:30pm Monday 15 August 2016 - Ignorance and Uncertainty
  • 6:30pm Wednesday 17 August 2016 - Failure and Doubt
  • 6:30pm Friday 19 August 2016 - Pluralism



2016 Robb Lecturer: Professor Stuart Firestein

Photograph of Dr Stuart Firestein
Dr. Stuart Firestein

Dr. Stuart Firestein is the former Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences where his laboratory studies the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. Aside from its molecular detection capabilities, the olfactory system serves as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of signaling and perception in the brain. The olfactory system represents a unique opportunity for these studies as it processes sensory information over a very short neural pathway – giving rise to striking perceptions and memories with much less processing than the visual system requires, thus making it a more tractable system to understand. The laboratory has published over 100 scientific articles on their research. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell?

Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science, where he reviews scripts for the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Science and Technology Program, and for the Tribeca and Hamptons International Film Festivals. Recently he was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, an Alfred Sloan Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. His book on the workings of science for a general audience called Ignorance, How it Drives Science was released by Oxford University Press in 2012. His new book, Failure: Why Science is So Successful, appeared in October 2015. They have been translated into 10 languages.

1. Ignorance and Uncertainty – what makes science go…

Monday 15 August 2016 - Science is often pictured as standing upon the pillars of knowledge and fact.  It possesses a method – the Scientific Method – for discovering truth and certainty.  In reality science traffics in ignorance and uncertainty. Facts are regularly replaced by better facts, good theories supplanted by superior theories. Revision is a victory in science. The main use of knowledge is to increase the quality of our ignorance, to frame better questions. 

2. Failure and Doubt – why science is so successful

Wednesday 17 August 2016 - Failure is a crucial ingredient in science. Not only retrospectively, as when it eventually leads to success, but as an end in itself. Maintaining sufficiently high levels of failure is the only way to insure the continued successful pursuit of science. If the unknown is the arena of science then the deepest ignorance is the unknown unknown, the things we don’t even know we don’t know. Failure is the portal into the unknown unknowns.

3. Pluralism – science maturing

Friday 19 August 2016 - Science is based on Ignorance, Doubt, Uncertainty and Failure. While this might seem to be existentially bleak, it is in fact the means by which science is most creative. How can science move from the stony public face of Truth and Certainty to the mature version of science as continuous investigation and continuous questioning. How do we understand that unsettled science is not unsound science?

One strategy that may be useful would be to adopt the value pluralism of philosopher Isaiah Berlin to the practice of science. This is distinguished from relativism but recognises that profound truths may coexist and fail to align. An every day example of this would be liberty and security. Both are valued but often in conflict. In science too there may be no ultimate single answer or explanation. As the poet Andre Gide remarked, “Follow those who seek the truth, flee from those who claim to have found it.”