Ig­no­rance feeds cu­rios­ity. Cu­rios­ity cures ig­no­rance

FAYE FLAM

Financial Chronicle - - EDIT, OPED, THE WORKS -

SCI­EN­TISTS have stepped up their in­ves­ti­ga­tions into fake news in re­cent months, and amid all the analy­ses, stud­ies and meet­ings, some have raised the pos­si­bil­ity that a lot of peo­ple sim­ply don’t care whether the claims they em­brace are true. “Post-truth” has be­come a hot topic for re­searchers from a va­ri­ety of fields, in­clud­ing No­bel prizewin­ning chemists: The an­nual Lin­dau No­bel Lau­re­ate Meet­ing in Ger­many this sum­mer took as a theme “Science in a Post-Truth Era.”

Scep­tics have long stud­ied why peo­ple wrongly be­lieve in astrol­ogy, ESP and all man­ner of weird things, but not car­ing about truth at all would seem to fly in the face of ba­sic hu­man cu­rios­ity. Peo­ple send probes to other plan­ets, dig up di­nosaur bones, and build pow­er­ful mi­cro­scopes to find out the truth about in­ner and outer space. We fol­low crime sto­ries be­cause we want to learn what re­ally hap­pened. Shouldn’t cu­rios­ity act as a guardrail to keep us from fall­ing into a post-truth world?

As­tro­physi­cist Mario Livio makes a key ob­ser­va­tion in his new book, Why?: What Makes Us Cu­ri­ous: To be truly cu­ri­ous re­quires a mid­dling level of knowl­edge. If you know ab­so­lutely noth­ing, then you don’t know what to be cu­ri­ous about. If you know ev­ery­thing, you have no rea­son to in­quire. So chil­dren who have never heard of di­nosaurs can’t be cu­ri­ous about them, and very few adults are cu­ri­ous about how many pen­nies are in a dol­lar.

I re­alised, how­ever, that it’s not ac­tual knowl­edge but peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of their own knowl­edge that en­cour­ages or sti­fles cu­rios­ity. That ob­ser­va­tion snapped into place for me at an event at the MIT Me­dia Lab. In a talk, Putin bi­og­ra­pher Masha Gessen noted that one strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity be­tween Putin and Trump is their ut­ter lack of cu­rios­ity. I asked her to elab­o­rate, and she said that both men think they al­ready know ev­ery­thing. So cu­rios­ity re­quires a level of hu­mil­ity. But how far does the prob­lem of ego in­fla­tion go? In his new book The Death of Ex­per­tise, au­thor Tom Ni­chols makes a case that there’s a rag­ing epi­demic of ego­ma­nia in the United States. “Most cases of ig­no­rance can be over­come if peo­ple are will­ing to learn,” he writes. “Noth­ing, how­ever, can over­come the toxic con­flu­ence of ar­ro­gance, nar­cis­sism and cyn­i­cism that Amer­i­cans now wear like full suit of ar­mor against the ef­forts of ex­perts and pro­fes­sion­als.”

Ni­chols is not con­vinced that cu­rios­ity mat­ters to the bulk of the pub­lic. Sure, he said, some peo­ple are cu­ri­ous — the en­gi­neers and sci­en­tists and artists of the world. But he doesn’t see cu­rios­ity as an im­por­tant driver of hu­man be­hav­iour. “Peo­ple don’t go on Red­dit to learn stuff — they go there to win,” he said. If they read news­pa­per or mag­a­zine sto­ries at all, he ar­gues, it’s not to sat­isfy a thirst for knowl­edge, but to look smart or to col­lect likes on Face­book.

Of course, not ev­ery­one takes such a dim view of hu­man cu­rios­ity. In an­other book about ex­per­tise, If I Un­der­stood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, the ac­tor and science ad­vo­cate Alan Alda takes for granted that many peo­ple are hun­gry for knowl­edge. But to en­gage that cu­rios­ity, he ar­gues, ex­perts have to pay at­ten­tion to their au­di­ences to gauge where they fall on that spec­trum of in­ter­me­di­ate knowl­edge. By lis­ten­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing, ex­perts can avoid talk­ing over peo­ple’s heads or re­peat­ing things they al­ready know — both mis­takes sci­en­tists some­times make.

While Wil­liam Mo­erner, a No­bel Lau­re­ate in chem­istry, was on­stage dur­ing the panel dis­cus­sion at the meet­ing of No­bel win­ners in Ger­many,, a jour­nal­ist asked him why he wasn’t more out­raged, given the way the US gov­ern­ment was sidelin­ing science. In­deed, the world (and es­pe­cially the world of so­cial me­dia) seems to de­mand in­dig­na­tion. But out­rage hinges on cer­tainty — not on that in­ter­me­di­ate level of knowl­edge that stim­u­lates in­ves­ti­ga­tion and cu­rios­ity. Mo­erner’s re­sponse? At times like this, he said, “Some­one needs to be ra­tio­nal.”

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