The Ends of Curiosity
By Christy Lynn
Why are some people incurious? For “curiosity snobs” Russ Roberts and Ian Leslie, this is a motivating question. Perhaps curiously, I found myself wanting to respond that everyone is incurious about most things. Even children asking 40,000 questions a year (one of many facts Leslie tosses at listeners) come to the end of what they want to know at that moment about how does my brain grow, where was I before I was born, and why can’t I wear mermaid make-up all the time.
To focus on topics like “Curiosity” and “Conflict,” (the subject of his previous book and an EconTalk podcast) Leslie must turn away from many other topics. Roberts’ different shifts in the guests and topics for EconTalk are also a turning away from other, infinite possibilities. Is the answer to this question, “Why are some people incurious?” more like solving a puzzle or more like exploring a mystery?
A taste from this EconTalk episode to whet your, well, curiosity:
Russ Roberts: “It’s interesting to me that mysteries, you’re suggesting because they’re bottomless, there’s always more to discover, but for some people that’s just a source of endless frustration. ‘Why would I learn about that? Tell me about something I can figure out.’
Ian Leslie: Yeah. That’s true. But, I think it ultimately is a deeper satisfaction; and not just in terms of fiction or art, but I think that’s how scientists think about their fields of investigation. They think about them as mysteries, not puzzles. They’re not kind of thinking, ‘Okay, if I write one more paper, I can kill this whole field of inquiry.’ Maybe some of them are actually some of the time; but generally speaking, they feel like they’re part of a kind of great river of inquiry that’s going to go on a long time and won’t be solved with one more bit of information. And, that’s why they love it: they’re enthralled to the mystery.
Much of what many researchers and academics do is turn big mysteries into small, solvable puzzles. The numerous studies Leslie talks about (and presumably many more in the book) are attempts to “puzzle” the “mystery.” Roberts, as usual, expresses some reservations about whether these studies are good stories or real truth-telling but either way, they give the speakers and listeners ideas to ponder.
The conversation explores tensions in education and learning, including thinking about the relationship between knowing things (the geography of Europe) and knowing how to think about things (like the causes of World War II). How an education can balance giving the mind information to work with knowledge of how to work on that information is a concern of both Roberts and Leslie. They are also both fans of open-ended, discussion-based seminars because it encourages a kind of exploration that is different from listening to an expert lecture. (Curious about that? Check out Zena Hitz with Roberts)
Something was missing in the conversation (although perhaps it is in the book!): how to direct curiosity. There’s a wonderful Adam Smith quote:
The great secret of education is to direct vanity to proper objects.
(TMS, Section III.: Of Self-Command)
There is something vain about too large curiosities and some pursuits of knowledge do not move people toward things most would recognize as good. Leslie holds out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as an example of a work that lends itself more towards contemplation and discussion (poor Agatha Christie, a mere puzzle-maker, is brushed aside). So, I shall take up his Gatsby challenge.
Setting aside that I would personally rather not spend any more of my life in the company of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan than I already have, there’s also an unhealthy kind of curiosity that can and is indulged by people. A young girl who reads The Great Gatsby (or, perhaps worse, watches one of the many quite glamorous movie versions) could be forgiven for wanting to be more like Daisy Buchanan. To be curious about Daisy’s life and feelings and clothes and cocktails and being desired by such different men. She wouldn’t necessarily share Daisy’s fate, she just wants to share her style. A girl’s attempt to become more like Daisy, presumably, isn’t the kind of transformation that Roberts and Leslie would likely encourage and yet it’s part of the curiosity and sympathy they broadly seem to want to encourage.
This episode clearly lives up to the EconTalk tagline, “Conversations for the Curious” and since it is a topic that cannot possibly be exhausted in an hour, there are still many reasons to seek out Leslie’s book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It. He has been on EconTalk once before talking about his book Conflicted. He also has a substack called The Ruffian that you can sign up for. He must have been an early adopter because his first post is dated Aug 27, 2017. You can read a recent, unlocked (free) post here: https://ianleslie.substack.com/p/creating-thinking-deciding.
In the meantime, we’d like to hear what you took away from this episode. We hope you’ll take a moment to consider one or more of the prompts below:
1 – Leslie projects a rosy perspective of changes as a result of curiosity being mostly positive and good. Is this true?
2 – Both Roberts and Leslie express skepticism about trusting academic studies but also both think that knowledge can be acquired and that the acquisition of knowledge has improved the lives of many people. What sorts of processes or institutions for curiosity-based inquiry should people look to if not these or in addition to these?
3 – Leslie suggests that curiosity and judgment often conflict. When you are curious, you are abstaining from judgements. When you are actively judging, you aren’t engaging in the same kind of open-ended curiosity as when you are not. Is he right about that? Can one be judging and curious at the same time? If not, why not?
4 – How can curiosity be guided to proper objects? Roberts and Leslie discuss the importance of reading literature and being sympathetic in entirely positive ways but are they missing a concern about improper sympathy? When is sympathy bad?
5 – Would Jay Gatsby (and/or F. Scott Fitzgerald) have been better off if he had been less curious about a different sort of life than the one he was born into?