In Defense of Curiosity and Science.

Sparking wonder and promoting curiosity is something I think and write a lot about. For instance wrapping up AAAS 2016, AAAS 2017 and SciComm Camp.

Curiosity sparks internal motivation to explore out the world, or one small part of it, at least. We’re here for too little time to experience it all.

Keep looking up. And down. And around. Look, hear, smell, everywhere. But be careful, our senses alone can lead us astray. Homer gazes at the night sky. Source: Frinkiac. From The Simpsons, “Mother Simpson” S7E8.

A curious culture – open to asking questions and listening – is a healthy one with an eye on horizons, working to solve the problems we have now and discover new ones not yet thought of. Curiosity matters for progress and it needs fertile soil and space to grow.

The Case for Curiosity is Always Made in Hindsight

The results of curiosity often sounds silly until it suddenly isn’t anymore.

50 years ago, “I wonder what it would be like to send an electronic message from one computer to another” becomes today’s connected and online world, with all its great and horrible features. Going further back, “I wonder what would happen when I take this ground glass and look at a drop of water” has become today’s knowledge that microbes are everywhere profoundly shaping our lives and planet. Further, it led to the insight that all life is cellular and had implications for how life evolves, behaves, how we treat diseases, and understand life now.

Life is everywhere, as Mr. Burns discovers in a paranoid, unhealthy way. Source: Frinkiac. From The Simpsons “$pringfield (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling)”S5E10.

Curiosity opens new worlds others get to explore. And we only realize what the most useful worlds are in retrospect.

In terms of describing nature’s technical features, that’s where science comes in.

Science is the forest of collective curiosity. It’s work is often out of sight in the network of largely invisible plant roots and fungi that find niches of nutrients and water in the soil. It is a complex, shifting, exploratory collective. The above-ground greenery is the consensus of all the supported flora and fauna, in part the result of invisible roots and fungi crafting and exploring and succeeding once in awhile. It is ever evolving and changing in subtle, sometimes not so subtle ways over time. And it benefits from diversity.

Opposition to science is largely not about the science. It’s about identity. Curiosity is how identity can change. But getting that to take hold, honest curiosity – where answers are actually sought and listened to, is challenging. It requires the right messenger with the right story at the right moment. And then a welcoming new community to further maintain and bolster curiosity.

Humans have depended on curiosity – and it’s collective, science, to grow to seven billion in number. At least some of us ask questions, even when it isn’t easy. And it is rarely easy.

A rare, but satisfying, moment for most scientists is calling their shot and having it turn out to be right. It might be big or small, but those are stories we tell. And they stand out because they don’t happen that often. I wrote about one of mine here.

Perhaps for something so critical to our modern lives, it is surprising to learn there are people actively working to dampen the culture of curiosity, of science, of asking questions, of seeking knowledge to enrich us all – making what is already hard that much harder. It is especially tragic when curiosity leaves scientists and it becomes not about continuing to build consensus, but the rote tasks of measuring – in part this taking the measurements for granted, becoming sloppy with protocol, and not listening to the people being served led to the Flint water crisis. Curiosity pays attention and is mindful of when something might be going wrong. Curiosity listens and reflects.

Science and Curiosity Under Threat

Senator Rand Paul tweeted about the “wasteful NSF” budget this week (& yes, also likely any arts funding as well).

Largely Republican led efforts are working to curtail any climate change research by shoving data under the rug/removing it from public view, preventing collecting any new data – even to the point of wanting to inhibit our ability to forecast weather (because that weather data is the basis of climate data). The very words “climate change” are also censored in some states or agencies now. As climate scientist Kathryn Hayhoe has said of climate change “It’s real, it’s us…”. We had better get fully on board to address a civilization threatening problem, and yet, the  current President is an authoritarian that can’t be bothered with expertise, and those now running the EPA, whose mission is to monitor and keep our environment suitable for humans is now acting against that:

This is only one contemporary example of ignoring curiosity and science leading to bad outcomes (scientists keep talking about this because it is a problem we face, ignoring it will make things worse for us as a species).

Henry Ford, the 20th century industrialist, also eschewed experts, ignored culture, and had a “his way or the highway” mentality when he tried to build Fordlandia, an effort to build up Brazil as a major rubber supplier in the world again (thank you 99% invisible for this excellent story). One issue Ford had was that rubber trees are native to Brazil. That is where all of their pests and diseases live too. Planting dense copses of rubber trees provided a breeding ground for plant pests and pathogens and the rubber trees could never thrive in a high density. Ignoring expertise and not listening led to a fiasco.

Botanist James Wong recently shared the story of Russian Geneticist Nikolai Vavilov this week and how he, an actually good scientist was cast aside, eventually dying of starvation in a Soviet Gulag for a charlatan and the devastating consequences that had (i.e. millions not in a Gulag starved):

And Lysenkoism is apparently rising in popularity again in Russia. It is not dissimilar to climate change dismissal here in the United States now. We needed to start acting yesterday, and we now have a major roadblock in the leadership of Republican Party of the United States limiting action on climate.

Experts and scientists aren’t always right, but they can help make less bad mistakes or make entirely novel ones to learn from (& this ignores the upside, of largely knowing how things will go when seeing something familiar, even if in a new context!).

Expertise comes from immersing oneself in a world that is the fruit of curiosity. Everyone has experienced this if they’ve gotten into the world of a TV show (the fruit of storytellers’/creatives’ minds)  or movie they love, diving deep into who came up with “mmm….open faced club sandwich…”, for example.

We need curiosity and science to survive. We need to find the ideas with roots to grow and eventually link with other ideas that are grounded in collective evidence. Climate change is supported by physics, chemistry, and biology (+ math) – anyone examining the evidence honestly could not escape the conclusion that the Earth is warming and humans are driving it. We need to get people to listen and say “huh, that could be correct…and if so….”, we need to ignite their curiosity.

Chalmers: Aurora Borealis?! At this time of day.
In this part of the country.
Localized entirely within your kitchen? Skinner: Yes. Chalmers: May I see it? Skinner: No. Source: Frinkiac, From The Simpsons “22 Short Films About Springfield”, S7E21.

Opposition to science is largely not about the science. It’s about identity. Curiosity is how identity can change. But getting that to take hold, honest curiosity – where answers are actually sought and listened to, is challenging. It requires the right messenger with the right story at the right moment. And then a welcoming new community to further maintain and bolster curiosity.

Make Curiosity and Science More Democratized

This is a moment when curiosity seems under threat.

However, as I’m not the first to point out, throughout history there are those for who we constantly have destroyed curiosity through an authoritarian, chauvinistic culture. I’ll bet most women, people of color, and those that are both can tell stories about dimmed curiosity caused by exclusionary and abusive behavior of (mostly) white men. Curiosity has a harder time thriving when mere survival is at stake or when no one listens to anyone but the old white men (“I’m a white male age 18-49, everyone listens to me!” – Nuts and gum, together at last…).

I don’t know where killing curiosity ranks in the long list of problems with sexism and racism. I haven’t experienced them, so I don’t know. I have certainly heard enough to believe destroying curiosity can be a result of questioning another’s humanity. How many great ideas have we missed out on because of racist and sexist attitudes?

Nuts and gum
Source: Frinkiac. From The Simpsons “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” S5E14.

Curiosity is not for the faint of heart – and the curious, those asking the questions can be the first to be persecuted if an answer people don’t like comes up (this is true within the scientific community as well as the wider world). It means living with uncertainty for a time before curiosity leads to more familiarity and a reduction in the error bars. It means being vulnerable.

We publicly fund science (& yes, the arts too) because it opens opportunity for more than the independently wealthy to do it for a living. It also happens to be a good investment for the economy, security, and a creating a culture having things worth defending.

Specious reasoning. Lisa pointing out that rocks do not prevent tigers from appearing despite there being no tigers. Homer is far from convinced the rock is not magic. Source: Frinkiac. From The Simpsons “Much Apu About Nothing” S7E23.

Spring is about to return in the northern hemisphere. We will watch, from space, as a satellite monitoring atmospheric CO2 that’s accumulated in the winter get absorbed into new growth of terrestrial plants and ocean microbes. Thanks to curiosity, we can watch our planet breathe over time and so much more.

It isn’t a panacea, but curiosity matters. Science matters. And the diverse panoply of scientists, artists, and all those in favor of creativity and wonder are, will and should fight hard to keep it in this world.

Purple Monkey Dishwasher.

Pass it on.


10/25/2019 :This post has been edited for greater clarity and to use more inclusive language


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