Scientists know nothing!

by Matthew Cobb

Jerry is back in Chicago, but I thought I’d just slip this in before he gets back in harness later on today. This popped up on Twitter (@edyong209 and @alicebell). It’s a video by 25 year old PhD student Zara (@zanyzaz) who went round her department in Glasgow asking colleagues a set of questions that popped on the UK competition “I’m a scientist get me out of here“, “an award-winning science enrichment and engagement activity, funded by the Wellcome Trust. It’s an X Factor-style competition for scientists, where students are the judges.”

Anyway, Zara took her phone/video camera round the department and asked a load of questions. See how many you can answer. The overwhelming response was the fantastic one that tells us a lot about the epistemology of science: “I don’t know”. After all – science isn’t about knowing stuff, it’s about finding it out, and how you do that. Which kind of chimes with PZ’s recent letter to a 9 year-old.

(I could have done without the music, Zara!)


  1. Marella
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Well I knew some of them, and I knew that no-one knows some of them!

  2. Posted June 24, 2011 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    Truly, the three hardest words to say in the English language is “I don’t know” (Well, techinically four words, as one is a contraction)

    • Posted June 24, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      A real scientist is not at all afraid of “I don’t know”.
      In fact, it is a sign of intellectual maturity.
      Richard Feynman comes to mind.

      • Posted June 24, 2011 at 4:21 am | Permalink

        Those who claim the conceit to “know” are often vulgar and facinorous religious dullards whose claim to knowledge rests upon entirely illusory & vapidly spectral sources, not actual evidence.

  3. Posted June 24, 2011 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    My first reaction to the headline was: “of course! that is the whole point!”.
    Some of the questions in the video I can guesstimate, some I really don’t know, some I can answer, most importantly I can give a confidence level to my answers.

  4. Posted June 24, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    That was great!

  5. Kevin
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    How did the sun form? Gravity!

    Will the Earth ever end? Of course … in about 5 billion years when it’s consumed by the red giant phase of our sun.

    Every other question … dunno. But the question about the testicles is fun. Gonna look that one up. The questioners were obsessed with the blue whale, so that would be my first guess.

    • Davros
      Posted June 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      I wondered whether they were talking absolute size or relative to body size. If it is absolute size I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a whale. If they were talking relative to body size, I’m guessing that it’ll be something that is semelparous with external fertilisation. The fish my lab group works on, Galaxias maculatus, has testes that can be over 30% of their total weight and are most often around 20 to 25%. There’s a possibility that those measurements have been taken from individuals that have already shed some sperm too. I would guess that some sessile aquatic animals that spawn by broadcasting their gametes could beat that easily.

  6. martindh
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. It seems that the animal with the largest portion of its body mass is the Bush Cricket at 14% (that’s like carrying round a pair of balls each weighing 5kg)

    • Posted June 24, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Scooped! I searched for “biggest testicles” before I realized that I might not want to see the answers.

  7. Posted June 24, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    There was nothing surprising in that video.

    This is why I think epistemology (part of philosophy) has it wrong when it defines knowledge as “justified true belief.” Scientists have a not of knowledge, but they they keep their facts in their data sheets and reference books, not in their memories.

  8. Posted June 24, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Mathematicians know nothing.

    That is to say, mathematicians know the empty set, and they know it very well.

  9. Dominic
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I had a stab at some of those & some I knew & some no one knows. It seems harsh to ask etymological questions about entomolgy! In the USA a ladybird is a ladybug, only in Norfolk it is a bishybarnabee or Bishop Barnabee –
    Bishy Bishy Barnabee,
    Tell me when my wedding be,
    If it be to-morrow day,
    Take your wings and fly away!
    Fly to the east, fly to the west,
    Fly to them that I love best!
    The name was as they looked like a bishop in his scarlet and black gown.

  10. Posted June 25, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    The most common large animal on earth is humans.

    Otherwise, my guess would have been some kind of aphid.


    Nematodes. Damn.

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