Intro. [Recording date: May 2, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is May 2nd, 2022 and my guest is author Ian Leslie. He was last here in June of 2021 discussing his book, Conflicted. I liked the book so much as well as his writing on Substack--where he has a column called "The Ruffian" that I recommend--that I read another book of his called, Curious, which is our subject for today. Ian, welcome back to EconTalk.
Ian Leslie: Thank you very much, Russ. It's great to be back.
Russ Roberts: Now, for a number of years now, EconTalk has had a tagline, "Conversations for the Curious". I think of myself as a curious person. I confess, though, that until I read your book, I hadn't really thought about it in any kind of systematic way. So, I want to start with a contrarian take that goes against my own perspective. There's a well-known saying, 'Curiosity killed the cat'. Curiosity, is it a little bit dangerous? You could argue, ignorance is bliss. So, what's the virtue of curiosity?
Ian Leslie: Ooh. Yeah. Good question. I think the virtue of curiosity is it becomes a virtue if you care about progress and innovation and making positive change in the world or creativity. If you care about those things, then curiosity is a virtue, because curiosity is what kind of takes you beyond what you know already and takes you beyond what you need to know in order to get by.
If you don't care about any of those things and what you care about is essentially order and stability and keeping things the same, then curiosity is not important. In fact, it is positively dangerous. And that's why, for a large part of human history, that's how it was considered. So, it's relatively recently in the last kind of few hundred years that we've started to think about it as a virtue.
Russ Roberts: But, you would argue, I think you do in the book, that it had evolutionary benefits--that, when you're out in primitive society being curious, would be useful. Is it?
Russ Roberts: Why?
Ian Leslie: Well, precisely because it provides or helps create new opportunities for you to survive and thrive in evolutionary terms. But, once you've established a way of surviving--and I'm not just talking about in evolutionary terms, actually in our lives--you work out a kind of set of habits and routines for getting by whether you're an individual or an organization, then the need for curiosity kind of decreases. At least that's how it seems. What happens is actually you're making yourself more fragile or vulnerable to threats, because you stopped really kind of thinking about what might happen and how to make the most of it.
Russ Roberts: I have to say, in my life--and I don't know whether--I wouldn't generalize past myself on this, so I'm curious on what you think. And, it won't be the first time you use the word 'curious' probably unintendedly. Curiosity--it might be my favorite thing in life. When I discover something new--and it's usually an insight, not a fact, although there are some facts that are entertaining--but when I see some connection to something I hadn't noticed before, I find it so exhilarating. And, I think part of my essence as a teacher is the desire to share those fruits of curiosity. And, your book made me think about that. So, for me, it's just this sublimely pleasurable experience. I don't--it makes me feel alive.
Ian Leslie: I agree. And, you know, the reason--or, not the reason, but one of the thoughts--that started me thinking about this subject and then the book was: It wasn't why are people curious? It was: Why are some people incurious? That seemed to me a kind of more mysterious phenomenon than curiosity itself.
And, you can tell when you sit next to somebody--say, you're at a dinner or a lunch, you get sat next to somebody--you can tell within a couple of minutes, whether or not that person is curious. They're asking questions about you. They're asking questions about the world around them. And, there's a kind of light behind the eyes of a curious person that just isn't there. So, an incurious person could be perfectly polite: they kind of know the routines to go through, the form. But, you can just kind of tell there isn't really much hunger to learn anything they don't know already. And, it just seemed to me that they are objectively less interesting as a result. And, it seemed to me, their lives are less rich as a result as well. So, I was just wondered, how do people end up that way? What happens? Why do some people become more curious and some people become less curious?
Russ Roberts: Like myself, I think you're a curiosity snob, Ian.
Russ Roberts: Right? It's not my strongest--it's not my probably best character trait, but I do have a certain preference for curious people. I think that's true.
Ian Leslie: And, I also think, from their own point of view, it would be better. I just think everybody's going to live a richer, happy, more interesting life if they're more curious; but somehow we fall out of it as we grow older, in many cases. So, the book is really about: How do you stay curious?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm not sure you're right about better life, but 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' said Socrates; and I thought he was, and still think he was onto something. But, many people lead wonderful lives who are not curious about either themselves or the world around them. But, such is life.
Russ Roberts: Do you think curiosity can be taught? stimulated?
Ian Leslie: Yes, but I'm skeptical that it actually can be taught, but as someone who has just written a book about it, this is a bit of an odd thing to say. But, I'm not sure it can be taught sort of directly as effectively as it can indirectly. I.e., by giving people things to get curious about, by showing them information and knowledge and helping them understand things in a way that makes them think, 'Oh, that's interesting and I want to learn more,' rather than, 'Okay, I've got what I need now.' But, I don't think we should say, 'I'm going to teach you how to be curious. Here's how to do it,' without saying, 'Okay, here are some things to be curious about. See how that worked.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. What's interesting about the book, and this is a theme we've touched on recently in a number of episodes about education, is: What is real learning? What is real education?
And, I think--you talk about sort of two extremes. One is knowing a lot of things: facts, etc. And the other is having techniques of thought.
And, there are certain schools of teaching and learning that emphasize the one over the other. In fact, there's a certain bias today, I think, against teaching things, facts, because it's, quote, "old fashioned." And also, because we have the internet now, which lets us find out things very quickly on our own without much trouble.
And at the other extreme, where they're: 'We'll just teach people how to think.'
And, your theme through a large part of the book is that thinking without knowledge, thinking without facts is meaningless; and the two work together very powerfully. And, I think that's correct, so talk about that.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So, I don't think you can teach critical thinking in the abstract. Being able to think critically about the Second World War or how stars produce energy, it really requires you to have a lot of factual knowledge before you can begin to think critically about it.
Somebody put it to me like this the other day, which was: you don't teach somebody who has never run a marathon before by saying, 'Right, now you run marathons.' You start with diet and with conditioning, and you start by running a few kilometers at a time. You put all these things together and you build up gradually over time until they can do it.
It's a little bit similar to that. In order to get to the stage where you can exercise your critical thinking about a field, you need to know quite a lot about it. You can't just go straight to the critical thinking stage.
You know, if I ask somebody who doesn't know much about the Second World War at all, 'Can you give me some critical thinking about why did Hitler invaded the Soviet Union?' I don't think I'm going to get a very high level critical analysis, unless they already have a lot of knowledge of the field.
So, I think it goes back to a really kind of fundamental, well, what--more than one probably--but a kind of fundamental mistake about how people learn. And, we don't, kind of--we don't just sort of go along thinking, 'Okay, I need to find some information; then I can think critically about it.' When we are thinking critically, we're actually drawing on our long-term memory, on knowledge of things that we've built up over time.
Then we take some of that knowledge from our long-term memory, move it into our short-term memory--which is basically our conscious thinking. And, we manipulate it and then we kind of cogitate on what we know. But, if we have to spend time getting that basic knowledge into the long-term store in the first place, it's very hard for us to do both at once, if you see what I mean. Which is why the idea that we don't have to worry about kids learning facts and acquiring knowledge over time because they can just Google anything--it's why it doesn't make sense. And it doesn't work.
Russ Roberts: I hadn't thought about the long-term memory thing until I read it in your book. And, it reminds me of my struggles at the age of 67, learning Hebrew. I'm living in Israel now, so I knew a little bit of Hebrew when I got here. And, most people who are trying to teach me Hebrew, want me to memorize some verb forms and--etc., etc. And, that's not how most people learn: certainly not how anybody learns the language when they're younger. They just hear it, and it goes in and they hear it again and again, and it eventually creates these grooves of memory. And, I never thought about the fact that so much of what we draw on for thinking is accessing things we already know that are factual and applying them to new things. Right?
And, it's not just you have to teach facts, because teaching facts is a little like teaching grammar: I'm not sure it goes in very well. The main way we learn grammar is through this great gift we have called the brain. And, a lot of the facts that we access when we think, it's not like I sat down one day and said: 'I need to know a bunch of stuff about World War II. Okay. I need to know that Soviet Union is to the east of Germany; and, let's see, Poland,'--right. All that stuff, you don't memorize it. It just gets put in--you don't consciously memorize it. It gets put in, in context: you don't memorize a chart, say, about causes of wars that now you know, and when you are asked about, 'Well, what caused,'--or causes of invasion.
So: 'What caused Nazi Germany to invade the Soviet Union?' 'Well, let me see. I know there's three or four possibilities that I learned from my other,'--that's not what thinking is. Thinking is not just figuring out what stuff should be on the list. Because there is no one answer, often, about why a country invades another country. It's nuanced; and it'll be a little different with Germany and the Soviet Union. So, you've got to think about how that applies. But, if you don't have that matrix of complexity from the previous stuff you've read, studied, internalized, you're totally at sea. You're lost. You have no way of thinking about it.
Ian Leslie: That's right. And, the other point here is there's a compounding effect because it's more difficult to learn new information about a subject if you don't have information about it already stored in your long term memory.
Russ Roberts: It seems unfair, isn't it? But, that's the way it is.
Ian Leslie: It is unfair. Yeah, it is.
And, actually, the unfairness cuts most deeply in school between less-advantaged kids and more-advantaged kids.
So, let's say you take two children; and they're in the same class and one of them comes from a kind of what the psychologists who study this call 'cognitively rich' household--a household where, usually a middle class household, where the parents have time and money to have books around the house to read with their kids, to have conversations about knowledge, versus a kid who hasn't had that privilege and comes into school with a much lower level of just general knowledge about all sorts of things. Those two kids sitting next to each other at school, if they put in the same effort, then the kid who started with a head start will just get further and further ahead because he or she is actually acquiring new information at a much faster rate, because that new information finds it much easier to become part of the network of information, knowledge that's already in their head.
And, then, what does the other kid think after a few months of that? She doesn't think, 'Oh, well clearly this is just, they've got a cognitive advantage, they have a head start and this is how learning works.' She thinks, 'No, I'm stupid,' or 'This is not for me,' and she gives up. And that is, I think, heartbreaking. So, that's why it's so important that schools put a huge investment into those disadvantaged kids at an early stage, because you're trying to stop that kind of--effectively, a cognitive rich get richer effect kicking in, because once it does, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to reverse.
Russ Roberts: I just want to reiterate, though, this point about how knowledge--factual knowledge--is acquired, because I find it just so interesting to me. Have you ever looked up a word in the dictionary that you didn't know, and then you close the dictionary and then you come across the word six weeks later and you have no idea what it means? Right?
Ian Leslie: All the time. Or, people will explain a difficult concept to me and I'll grasp it and I've got it. And then it'll happen three or four times, and I'll forget it every time.
Russ Roberts: But, the point about the dictionary, which I'd never thought about, is that that's not the way we learn what a word means. We don't learn about what a word means by looking up it in the dictionary. We learn about it from hearing it a number of times in context, in conversation, in reading. And, this whole idea that you can just sort of look up stuff on Wikipedia when you need it, or Google it, is valuable for certain things. It answers--solves debates and arguments you're having, or solves something that's puzzling you or bugging you that you can't remember. But, it doesn't go into the brain. It's a little bit to me like: you have a vitamin D deficiency so you take vitamin D. And, it's not obvious to me, and I suspect there's science behind this, that taking vitamin D is not the same as sitting out in the sun.
I mention this partly because you hear about this all the time: 'Oh, get out of the sun, get out of the sun.' I said, 'Yeah, but vitamin D is good for you.' 'Oh, well you can take a supplement.' Well, it doesn't actually, I don't think, go into your bones the same way it does when you sit out in the sun. I get the idea of it, but that's kind of like the equivalent of looking up words in the dictionary. And, if you haven't had--especially in your childhood, when your brain is really good at it--if you haven't embedded that stuff in there, you're at a disadvantage, for sure.
Ian Leslie: Absolutely. I think that's a great analogy. Yeah; it just doesn't absorb in the same way.
And, it's why, in education and teaching, the evidence suggests that repetition is really important. Particular kinds of repetition, you do it in different ways, but just the idea you have to repeat something quite a few times before people start to acquire it.
But, yeah, as I say that the higher the level, the base-level knowledge that the person is beginning with, the easier it is for them to absorb new knowledge, however they do it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. My mom tells me that when I was two years old, she would talk to me all day. She was home with me and my dad was at, I think, in school at the time. And, she said, 'I treated you like an adult. I shared my thoughts with you.' And, she probably--it wasn't a strategic decision on her part, but I suspect that helped me understand things about all kinds of things that I had no awareness of and just are built in now.
Ian Leslie: No doubt. I think there's a study in the book that I cite where they looked at children in different households and sort of study their levels of curiosity as they grew up. And, I'm really kind of simplifying here. But, the most interesting finding was that the children who turned out to be really curious, lived in households where the parents were talking to them.
And the parents weren't just answering their questions. The crucial difference seemed to be that the parents would ask questions back.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That makes sense.
Ian Leslie: They'd say, 'Oh, well, I think it's meant this, but I'm not sure. What do you think?' And, they would actually have a conversation about it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; no: I love that. It could be true. I don't believe most studies, but that's okay.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. Well, I agree just, but it does feel intuitively right.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; no: it's true.
Russ Roberts: Let's--I want to let listeners know that A. J. Jacobs will be coming onto EconTalk--at least he's scheduled to talk about his new book, which is called The Puzzler, which is about his obsession with puzzles. And, your book makes the point, which I think about a lot, which is that there's a difference between a puzzle and a mystery. Talk about that difference.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So, a puzzle is something where you, once you get the answer, you're no longer interested in it. So, when you solve your Wordle, you don't have to go back and think about it again. A mystery is something where you are really interested in the answer, but you know you'll never really find it, and therefore your curiosity about it is kind of never exhausted. And, most fields of knowledge are best seen as mysteries--physics, or how did the universe begin?--it's unlikely we're going to solve. That's a mystery, right? Maybe at some point it'll become a puzzle and we'll solve it, but that seems to be a long way off. And so, mysteries are much more conducive to kind of long-term curiosity.
And, I think when we're trying to invoke curiosity, trying to get people curious, we really should be kind of trying to frame it as a mystery. Because, a puzzle, it'll stimulate your curiosity and then the moment you get a piece of information that solves the puzzle, the curiosity goes. It's killed. It's like a bee stinging you and then killing itself. Right?
And so, actually you can think about this in storytelling terms. A storyteller like Agatha Christie, say, is a brilliant maker of puzzles. And, she will kind of give you a little bit of information and then let you know that you don't have all the information. So, you know that somebody got killed in the study with some lead piping, but you don't know who done it.
Once you find out who done it--I don't think many people reread Agatha Christie novels, right? They're brilliant for what they are, but that's not how they work. Whereas if you read The Great Gatsby and you're trying to work out what motivates Gatsby, what was really going on there, or I'm trying to understand Nick, these are mysteries that you probably won't ever solve. And, that's why you go back and reread the book and that's why people discuss the book endlessly. So, yeah, I think it's a useful distinction in all sorts of ways.
Russ Roberts: But, it doesn't have to be the case, you would think--and I think this is true for maybe a lot of people--that mysteries are discouraging. There's a sweet spot in puzzle solving, right?
Russ Roberts: So, if you do the New York Times crossword puzzle, Monday is the easiest and Saturday is the hardest. And, Sunday is sort of a special case--certain other requirements about Sunday--but they're supposed to get harder with each day of the week. And, there's certain people who--I hope it's not bragging, but I don't enjoy doing a Monday New York Times crossword puzzle. It's not satisfying because it's too easy. So, what you want when you have a puzzle is it needs to be challenging, but not too challenging.
So, what if I get a really hard puzzle--certain types of cryptic crosswords, which I haven't spent enough time with--I don't like to do them because I don't make any progress. So, you'd think mysteries, in a certain sense, would be like those badly designed puzzles: they're too hard or too easy--in this case too hard, where you're never going to get the answer.
So, I think a lot of people, instead of saying, 'Well, I'm going to delve deeply into this,' instead they say, 'Well, I give up. If I can't figure it out, what's the point?' Whereas other people, I think, enjoy savoring the complexity of it, the nuance. In fact, you could argue that a lot of modern novels that end on a note of uncertainty--people go, 'What's going to happen next?' And the answer is, 'Well, I'm not going to tell you.' That's like life. And, I think modern fiction is much more open-ended that way, much less pat, much less like Agatha Christie. And, it's not everybody's cup of tea as a result. And, 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.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about that word, 'inquiry.' And, I teach at this college--I don't teach so much at it: I'm president of this college, Shalem College. We're a liberal arts education in a place that has liberal arts education. And, one of the things we talk a lot about here is the power of a seminar, a conversation among students about a great book, say, Homer's The Odyssey. And, when I tell people that, sometimes their reaction is--and by the way, in that class, the teacher's role can be manyfold, but one of them could be teacher, meaning: Here's what this book means and let me explain it to you. And, the other could be guide: Here's some questions to think about that don't have answers that you need to think about to try to understand this book.
And, a lot of people's reaction is 'Well, why would I want to listen to my fellow students who have read this book for the first time, when I could listen to a master of Homer, who has read it 20 times and who understands it deeply?' And, I think what those people are missing is the power of inquiry. The idea that I, as the reader, need to explore the book to fully begin to try to understand it. There's not a set of facts to learn about Homer. There are some facts. You can find out who Odysseus was and why he's on this odyssey--why is he on this trip? Who was Penelope? What's the role of Telemachus' son, etc., etc. There are facts related to it.
But, most of the things that are profound and deep about the book are not factual. They are things like, what is home? What is fellowship? What is courage? What is love? Those aren't puzzles, those are mysteries. They don't have simple answers. And, the life-changing, transformative, educational aspect of that is to inquire--not to learn, not to get an answer. It's to puzzle over, not to answer the puzzle.
And, I think that it's all about inquiry. And, if you've never inquired into a mystery, it's hard to appreciate how powerful it is to just explore it, not to answer it.
Ian Leslie: I think that's absolutely right. And, beautifully put. So, I think it was Chekhov who said the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them. And, I think it was Chekhov, it might have been someone else who said something to the effect of bad art is art that can be easily explained. If I can explain what's going on in this work of art, this novel or this painting, it's probably not very good. If I'm basically quite stumped by it, even if I know it incredibly well, then that means it's a great work of art.
And, I think you can relate that thought to all sorts of different places, because: there's a really great thought from Kevin Kelly who said that the problem with the--well, not the problem with the world--the way the modern world has developed with greater machine intelligence means that there's now a great excess of answers. The answers are everywhere. I think he says answers are cheap: in simple supply and demand in terms we can get answers in all sorts of ways, instantly all the time; but there hasn't been a commensurate increase in the number of good questions. So, good questions are becoming more valuable. And, it's the really great question-askers, the great inquirers who will be the great innovators and the great kind of revolutionaries of the future, because we are kind of outsourcing our capacity for our system machines.
Russ Roberts: Well, you quote David Foster Wallace. And, it's funny, I like to quote his speech all the time, his commencement speech that he gave at Kenyon College. And, I like to quote the passage where he says, 'Everybody worships,' because I think that's profound.
But, I forgot about the rest of the speech, which is also profound, where he talks about the power of what we're talking about--a liberal arts education, meaning the exploration of mysteries in literature and history and art that don't have clear answers. And, what he says is--and this is so interesting--he says: a great education doesn't teach you just how to think, which is sort of a cliche that might have some truth to it, but there's something even more important, which is it teaches you what to think about. It gives you the tools for you to decide what to think about. It gives you the whole, this incredible landscape, that it's up to you how you perceive the world. It's up to you, how you perceive your fellow human beings. And, that's very deep and very true and really important.
Ian Leslie: Yeah, I agree. It helps you think about what to think about and also kind of helps you understand where the most important and interesting questions are. But yeah, just how to think about them rather than what to think.
But, to go back to our earlier part of the conversation, I don't think you can really understand that about any given field, unless you know something about the field. But really, the job of an educator, whether that's, I think, a teacher or podcaster or anybody who's kind of interested in enlightening people or informing people is to help them inquire, is to help them ask better questions. It's not to give them answers. And, it's the same as the role of the artist.
Russ Roberts: You have an interesting insight in the book about city life and how the move from, let's say, the village to the city--one of the things that's educational about that is strangers, which is a word I never thought about. Strangers are people you don't know. But, if you think about the root, it's people who are strange to you: they're not just like you, and they provoke curiosity. And, I loved what you wrote about that. Talk about why cities are educational experiences, why they stimulate curiosity.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. They rise at the same time as the rise of enlightenment and inquiry. And, the idea that curiosity is a virtue. And, obviously, all these things are all connected.
And, there's a couple of reasons, at least. What--one of them is what Jane Jacobs talked about. She said the rise of the city provides what could otherwise only be given by traveling--namely, the strange. So, if you don't live in a city or before cities, if you want to discover new and strange and exotic people and behaviors and cultures, you have to go traveling. In a city, the world comes to you and presents itself for investigation. And, that was something that people at the time that these modern cities were growing were recognizing it and were really excited by.
So, there's something that Samuel Johnson said: he said, "It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists." It's not this kind of physical conglomeration. It's the people, all the different strange people clustered together in one place. That's what makes this place so wondrous and means you never get bored of it.
And, then I think the second reason that cities are such an incredible stimulant to curiosity is to do with what we were talking about earlier, which is: Okay, you get curious about something, but then, are you going to kind of build knowledge over time? And, one of the ways to do that is to inquire in communities of people. And, of course, what a city does, is it makes it much easier for you to connect with and come together with communities of people who are interested in the same things that you are.
So, a big part of the Enlightenment in Britain was bottom-up. Right? It was groups of people forming societies, informal or formal, meeting in coffee houses and clubs in London and Birmingham, and trying to understand things and sharing ideas and sharing thoughts.
So, yeah, for both those reasons, the way it introduces you to difference and strangeness on a daily basis, and also the way it can connect you with like-minded people who are interested in inquiry into the same fields that you are, I think they're an incredible engine of curiosity.
Russ Roberts: And, you tied it in, in the book, to the birth of the novel: that it--the novel, modern fiction--is the stimulation of imagination. You called it, what it feels like to be another person. Now you can muse on that all day long based on conversations you have with other people, but the whole idea of a great novel is to give you a really wise person's insight into what makes somebody tick who is not like you probably, whether it's Anna Karenina or one of the brothers Karamazov. And, I've never really thought about that. I thought that was really a wonderful, wonderful idea: that the whole birth of consciousness, which I guess you could say comes from Freud in our modern language, really came before Freud in the form of fiction. And amateur psychologists--which is what a great novelist is, is a good psychologist--is helping us access something we, by definition, can't access--another person's consciousness.
Ian Leslie: Absolutely. So, obviously, we've had stories for a long time. Forever. But, what the particular form of story that a novel is, is taking us into the minds of other people, probing the consciousness of others different from us. And, again, it's not a coincidence that it arose at the same time that industrialized cities were forming in the 18th century and people were seeing all these different people around, being near all these different people and having to think about: How do I get along? Or, what do I think about these people? Do I like them? Just what is going on here? What's it like to be--and, the novel kind of answers that question: what's it like to actually be a different class, or a different religion, or a different sex, different race. And, it's been a great creator of empathy--emotional and intellectual empathy; and somebody like Charles Dickens, of course, was very conscious of that and put it towards political ends. Right?
And, there's a philosopher, American philosopher, Richard Rorty, who says it's absolutely central to the rise of democracy--the rise of the novel is central to democracy. It's a much better tool than reason for bringing people together. You can ask people to read Kant and understand the theory of human universalism, or you can get them to read David Copperfield and they go, 'Yeah, okay. I get it.'
And, the great example from the United States is Uncle Tom's Cabin--not the best novel perhaps, but a very influential one, socially, that changed attitudes to slavery. And, I think it was Lincoln who said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, 'So, this is the little lady who started this great war?', which I also thought was a bit of a backhanded compliment.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's true. Not necessarily the kindest way to characterize somebody.
I like what you wrote about The Wire, which is one of my favorite works of art--the miniseries; it's not such a mini, I guess--a multi-season series about--it starts out the first season--it's really about the city of Baltimore, but the first season, maybe the first two, and it continues to work through it--the drug war and the relation between the police and the drug dealers. And, what talking about fiction makes me realize is that, in the drug war, in a city like Baltimore, the police see the drug dealers in a certain way. And, the drug dealers see the police in a certain way. And, I thought the power of that show was to show how similar they are actually. And that, in the absence of an empathetic imagination, you tend to create cardboard imagery of your adversary or your enemy, or sometimes your friend, I guess.
But, you write:
One way of describing the achievement of the TV series The Wire was that it took a genre, the police procedural, which is conventionally based on puzzles, in the form of crimes that are solved each week, and turned it into a mystery--the mystery of Baltimore's crime problem.
Then you write,
And in doing so, it demonstrated that while police and politicians like to present urban crime as a puzzle with a definite answer--Arrest all the users! Longer prison sentences!--it is more akin to a mystery: multilayered, shifting, nuanced.
And, what I'm suggesting adding to that, is that: And that the people who are in this game, in this drama, they're also, multi-layered, shifting, and nuanced. And, they're more like each other than either can imagine. And we, as the viewers on the outside, get to look at them and realize: Oh my gosh, they both respond to kind of the same incentives. They both get misled by the wrong kind of carrots and sticks--those incentives. And, it's much more complicated than either one thinks it is or that we might think looking at it from the outside in a cardboard way. And, as a great work of art, part of what it's able to achieve is to get you to see a richer picture of the players. Doesn't mean you're going to be a better policymaker, by the way, but you're a better human being, I think, for it.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. That's a great way of putting it. And, it's why it's, in Chekovian terms, it's why it's a great work of art: It's asking more questions than it answers. It's not saying, 'Hey, look, this is what's going on here and this is why it's happening.' It's saying, 'Wow. What are people like? And, why are they like this? And, why do they do these things against their own interests?' And, etc., etc.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, somebody who you think is a good guy actually has some bad things. And, somebody you think is a bad guy actually has some good things. And, again, that can ruin your morning, but it probably makes you a better appreciator of the human experience.
Ian Leslie: It does. And actually, it touches on something which I think is interesting, which is: there's a real opposition between curiosity and judgment. You can kind of be in one mode or the other, but they don't really kind of go together.
So, you can be curious about why a person is the way they are, or you can judge them and say, 'Well, they're bad,' or 'They're stupid,' whatever it is. But, you can't kind of do both at once.
And, as you know, my last book was about conflict and disagreement, and that's where it kind of connects, I think, to curiosity--is that when you're trying to get yourself out of that more judgmental mindset, when you're thinking about people you disagree with, it works to kind of put yourself in a curiosity mindset and say, 'Well, I might never agree with them--I know I'm never going to agree with them--but I can be interested in why they think that.' And, actually that can kind of build more empathy.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. For sure.
Russ Roberts: What did Rousseau think about education and why do you think he was wrong?
Ian Leslie: Well, in very kind of broad brush terms, Rousseau was the philosopher who introduced this idea--which is a very powerful idea and is still behind the way that a lot of people talk about education today--this idea that a boy can learn everything. He talked about a boy; it could have been a girl. He wrote a book called Emil about a boy who can learn everything he needs without interference from adults--that he can be taught by experience alone. And that we're kind of wasting our time sending children to school and filling them up with information and facts. Really, we should just send them out into the garden and let them learn about nature and they'll soon work out everything for themselves. The idea has been really revived recently with the rise of Google and the Internet and Wikipedia--
Russ Roberts: YouTube--
Ian Leslie: Why are we doing this? Why are we instructing people? Why don't we would just send them out into the garden of the Internet and let them work it out themselves?
Well, you can probably already see a few problems with that. It doesn't work. What he fundamentally missed, I think, is that we are cultural creatures. It's probably what makes us distinctive. We could live in any biological, any physical niche in the world, unlike most animals--they kind of stay where they can survive. We can live anywhere on the planet just about, and in all sorts of conditions. And, the reason for that is that we are very good at acquiring and sharing and passing on knowledge. And, the holders of this knowledge are adults, when you're a kid. And that's why we have this biological drive, really, to ask questions when we're young.
So, we're asking many, many, many questions, particularly between the ages of three and five. Somebody worked out that kids ask about 40,000 questions a year. Why- and how-questions, explanatory questions.
So, we have this enormously powerful engine of curiosity. And, we work out--we instinctively seem to know, in fact, that adults are the holders of the key to this invisible world of knowledge.
And actually, before we worked that out, even more amazing thing is that we know the stuff we don't know. I mean, that's extraordinary when you think about it. We just have this instinct that there's a whole world of knowledge out there and we don't know it and we want to know it.
And, we also work out that adults are good gatekeepers of that knowledge. We seem to have pretty well-refined instincts for working out which adults are reliable and which aren't. So, that indicates that this is how we're evolved. We're evolved to acquire culture in order to survive and thrive.
So, yeah, the passing on of knowledge and instruction, I think, is absolutely kind of key to who we are. That's why, along with some of the other reasons that we've touched on it, I don't think we should loosely say, 'Wh, well, you don't need to teach children facts and information,'--that they'll just find this stuff out for themselves.
Russ Roberts: Well, that raises a bunch of interesting questions about parenting. I think if you're not careful as a parent, you stuff your kids' heads with facts. That's at one extreme. The other extreme is you teach them what the right opinions are, whether it's about politics or religion or whatever else. And, that's also not the ideal. And, I think the 40,000 questions that we ask a year when we're little--if a parent says, 'Do this,' a child will often say, 'Why?' But, that's not an inquiry question. That is a different kind of question.
Ian Leslie: Oh yeah, no, I agree.
Russ Roberts: And, I think a lot of what great parenting is--just like, I think, great teaching is, going back to the model of the classroom or seminar of inquiry--is to teach people how to ask those questions. Right? Because, as you point out--it's a really crazy thing, which I didn't appreciate, I didn't think enough about--which is: Why would you ask a question? Why would you ask, 'Why is the sky blue?' There's a thousand questions like that, and of course, there are really annoying children sometimes who just ask questions randomly, partly I think, because they learned that it annoys adults. They're not looking for answers: they're looking to get a little self-control. They're trying to get something back from the people who are bossing them around--which I also understand.
But, I think it's a cliche that we both have, I think, said in this conversation that it's important to learn how to ask the right questions. You have to really think about what that means. Right? And, to teach people the art of a good question is--or a child, as a parent to teach them that--is really an amazing thing. It's really gets at a lot of what makes us human.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. And, I think a lot of it is--well, it's sort of two things at once. One is, your questions will be better once you know something about the field, the domain. But then, there's this second kind of countervailing principle, which is that your questions will be better if you don't let the domain kind of dominate your thinking too much--if you don't let the kind of existing conventional wisdom kind of shape your thinking too much. So, ideally you should be asking questions that are informed, but are also somewhat a little bit rebellious. Don't accept that--
Russ Roberts: Skeptical--
Ian Leslie: And, don't be afraid to ask what seems to be the stupid question. I love this thing Nabokov said--I think it's at the front of my book--about curiosity is the purest form of insubordination. It should be a questioning of adult wisdom, even as you're drawing on it, or a questioning of conventional wisdom, even as you're drawing on it. So, there is a kind of sweet spot there.
Russ Roberts: Well, there's no doubt that some of the great discoveries of the world come from people who aren't specialists because they have that advantage. Ed Leamer is one of my favorite EconTalk guests. His essay on business cycles, he says at the beginning of it, he says, 'I have a great disadvantage writing about business cycles.' He goes, 'I don't know any macroeconomics. But, I have a great advantage also, which is, I don't know any macroeconomics.'
Russ Roberts: So, he's able to start afresh, which can--the kid in the garden wandering among the snails and the peonies doesn't learn very much. They have to have that--some--base. And of course, Ed Leamer is being a little bit silly when he said he doesn't know any macroeconomics. Of course he knows some; but he's not versed in it the way that you were implying earlier.
Another one of my favorite EconTalk guests, Kevin Kelly, favorite thinkers. Kevin Kelly had the great disadvantage of--I think he never went to college. He also has the great advantage that he never went to college. His brain is unfettered in certain ways that other people's are constrained because he wasn't shoved into certain boxes and certain channels and certain highways of thinking.
And, that is both, for the right kind of person, a disadvantage, but also a tremendous advantage because it allows you to think freshly about things, which is--so that kid in the garden who has got nothing to start with is not going to learn anything hardly at all. They'll learn that a snake can bite you, perhaps, or a worm is mushy; and they'll learn some things. But, to understand what a garden is and how it functions and how the natural world works requires a guide, a teacher who doesn't necessarily give you a set of facts about the garden, but they'll tell you a bunch of facts that will be built on to get that deeper understanding. And, then you do the exploration. You want to let the person loose after they've reached that certain level. And, that's, we hope, for the rest of their life.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. Yeah. They'll give you a framework which you can then build on and improve. And, maybe at some point, dispense with--
Russ Roberts: Reject--
Ian Leslie: and create a new one, but you have to kind of start with something. Because you're actually--you're thinking with the knowledge that you have. Thinking isn't this kind of thing which exists separately from knowledge or information. You use the bits of knowledge that you have in order to construct your thinking, in order to construct your frameworks.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to fiction for a minute and tie it into economics, because I liked this a lot. You talked about the power of, quote, "What's going to happen next?" And, of course, this is the essence of great storytelling, is to write a page-turner that you keep reading because you want to know: 'What's going to happen? what's going to happen?' And, of course, to get to that point, you have to have done some really powerful work. You've had to have created characters that your reader cares about or a plot or plot twist that they're anxious to find out how it's resolved. But, at one point you're write,
Our stories, from The Odyssey to The Searchers to Harry Potter, revolve around these two conflicting instincts--to strike out or stay home.
Striking out, meaning to go out into the world; or to stay home. What do you mean by that? And, how does that tie in with curiosity?
Ian Leslie: Well, there just is this kind of deep human impulse to explore, and at the same time, this deep human impulse to return home. Right? That's why Homer's The Odyssey is such a formative story for our culture.
But, you can see that the tension between those two things in just so many different areas of our life. You can actually hear it in music. Music will start in the tonic key; it'll move to a relative key, it'll move to a dominant chord, and it'll come back to the tonic. So, it's always like saying we need to kind of go away from where we are in order to get interested and excited and energized. But then we're satisfied when we return to where we come from; but when we return to where we come from, we're always changed by the knowledge that we gained on our travels.
And yet, you see that in our stories, you see that in our music, and you see it in just human existence and human behavior.
I think there's another study or series of studies that I quote--again, with caveats, but, again, it's sort of intuitively interesting--where they take babies, they kind of get mums with babies into the lab. They introduce the babies to some toys--these are kind of one-year olds. And then, the researcher stays in the room and the mum leaves the room, says, 'I'll be back in a few minutes, darling. See you in a minute.' And, they're interest in what happens, not just does the baby continue exploring the room, but what happens when the mum comes back?
And, what they found was that when the mum comes back, the babies who had kind of less-secure emotional attachments--I don't actually know how they established that, but I think they established that prior to recruiting them--the babies who were a little bit more insecure in their emotional attachments, saw the mum and they come back and they're delighted and they're really, really happy. And, then they just stay with mum. The babies who had really secure emotional attachments--who were very kind of emotionally stable--were delighted to see their mum and they would give them a cuddle and then they would crawl off again and they would go exploring again.
And, I just thought that's actually--it's a tiny kind of, like, it's just a little study, it's a tiny little thing--but I thought that was rather nice. It just suggests that, what I say in the book, curiosity is underwritten by love. That, actually, when you feel that you kind of love your home, however you constitute that, then actually that can give you permission to go off and explore the world and then come back and feel at home again, but also feel differently.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's really nice.
Russ Roberts: The tie-in for economics to me, which is not quite this point about love--but I love that point--is that I think for many of us who fell in love with economics, we fell in love with it because it's a way of figuring out what happens next. I like to quote George Stigler, Thomas Sowell--I keep forgetting who said it first, whether it was Sowell or whether Sowell got it from Stigler--but one of them said, 'Good economics is remembering to ask: and then what?' So, yeah: This is the first order effect of, say, a subsidy or a tax or a price control. But, then: and then what? What does that set into motion? And, I think that's--
Russ Roberts: That's a profound--it takes economics--you know, economics is fundamentally, some people see it as a mathematical science. I don't. For me, intuitive economics is about narrative. It's about storytelling. And, I don't mean that in insulting way, like making stuff up. I mean it in the way that it helps you organize your thinking in a causal way about things around you. And, once you see that--once you're exposed to that kind of thinking--it's a very powerful tool for both examining puzzles and mysteries. It helps you understand--I'll take one of my favorites--why women's dry cleaning is more expensive than men's. For some people, that's a puzzle. And, the answer is it's because people who own dry cleaning places discriminate against women. But, for me, it's more of a mystery because if that were true, if it's merely discrimination, then a woman who's not discriminating against her own kind could open up a dry cleaning store with lower prices and drive all the other ones out of business--at least in theory, or at least give it a shot. So, there's a mystery there.
And so, then the question is, what else could be going on there? And, economics is a way of, not necessarily finding the truth--sometimes we hope it is--but more to think about things around you as mysteries and giving you a tool for imagining what it is that could come next. What is the causal link to this thing that you're trying to understand, this puzzle that looks like a puzzle, but might be a mystery? And, I never thought about that before. I think for some economists--and some of them probably are listening now--that could be why you fell in love with the field. It's certainly part of the reason I fell in love with it.
Ian Leslie: Well, that's super-interesting. And, now I'm wondering why that distinguishes the economics from other fields of scientific inquiry. Right? So, in what sense is economics different from biology? Isn't biology about what happens next?
Now, let me give my hypothesis here, is that I think the reason it's powerful from your perspective as an economist is, it's because you're talking about social--you're talking about human beings, where we tend to kind of jump to puzzles--to answers--very quickly. We try and make things into puzzles and say, 'Well, this is the answer.' There's a kind of political and social pressure to do so in lots of these tricky issues, where--so, economics is really kind of in part about pushing back against that and saying, 'Well, hang on, maybe it's not.'
Russ Roberts: No, I'm not sure not. I'm not sure, actually. I think good economics is. But I think there's also a temptation just to turn it into a puzzle and say, 'Well, I know how to fix that. Here's the lever I need to use.'
And, I think economics is a complicated mix of both of those impulses--'I know how to fix this' versus 'This is more complicated than I probably think, and I should be maybe a little bit agnostic about what the answer or solution is.'
And, I think, as you get older, you push yourself in one direction or another. When you're young, you tend to think, 'Oh, I know all the answers and we need to just do this, this, and this and everything will be great.' And, I think as you get older, you get a little more skeptical.
But, to come back to your point, it is a lot like biology. If you think about asking a question, 'What happens if you put a price control on gasoline?' say, that's somewhat akin to the question, 'What happens if I get rid of wolves in Yellowstone Park?'
So, in Yellowstone Park there used to be a lot of wolves and people didn't like them for a whole bunch of reasons, so they got rid of them and one of the things that happened was, what happens next, well, the deer population isn't as endangered and vulnerable as it was when there were a lot of wolves around. So, the number of deer in the parks start to grow. And then the riparian, riverside, streamside, creekside willows and aspen, and other things that deer like to eat--elk mainly--they suddenly become less available because there's all of a sudden more deer. And, because there's less aspen and willow, there are fewer beaver in the park. And so, there's a connection between how many wolves are in the park and how many beaver. And, you think, 'Well, that's easy, wolves must eat beaver and so the fewer wolves, the more beaver.' No, actually there's more[?fewer--Econlib Ed.] beavers. So, now, how could that be? And, I just told you the chain of logic.
And actually, when Yellowstone reintroduced wolves in the last few decades--which has been, I think, I'm very happy about it--the deer, the elk population got a little smaller and the aspen and willows got a little taller and all of a sudden the beaver came back to Yellowstone Park and there were beaver dams.
And, that sort of causal chain as an economy, that's no different than any--I could do the same chain for: you put in price controls, all of a sudden there's less people willing to sell the thing, because they can't make as much money. And, all of a sudden the amount of time you after wait goes up and that means that people--there's a whole causal set of interesting things that you can forecast and anticipate.
And, it doesn't mean that you can move things around easily. It's not like these are well-designed knobs and levers; but it lets you see a plot, a narrative there that maybe was invisible before; and it could be a true narrative actually, which would be nice. And I would suggest--by the way, this is really a ridiculous stretch of speculation--but some of the appeal of behavioral economics, I think in modern times, is it introduces a more quantum element into human behavior, a less predictable part. At first. Then it became back into the old, 'Oh, it's a puzzle. I'll just nudge them. I know how to do this. I know how to get them to save more--they don't save enough because they're flawed. They're irrational, but I can make them on the outside--.' So, we do have these two impulses of puzzles and mysteries that I think are always at work in there.
Ian Leslie: I think that's right. And, I think that one of the ways of defining the difference between a really curious person and somebody who's incurious is that the curious person just gets excited when they think: This puzzle, I thought this was a puzzle; it's actually a mystery. I thought this was something that was where we know the answer or, or if we get this bit of information, we'll solve it; but actually this is much more complex than I thought. Becoming aware of our ignorance or your own ignorance and actually liking that is probably what it means to be a truly curious person. Being threatened by ignorance and thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I need to shut this question down right away and just say this is the answer'--that is incuriosity.
Russ Roberts: When I was younger, I did a lot of empirical work in economics. And, you'd run a regression--a statistical technique--expecting a certain answer and you'd get a different answer. And, your first impulse is to say, 'Well, I don't want to think about that. Just that's a bad result. Forget it. We start over. Pick a different question.' But, there is a point where, if you're grown up, you realize, 'Oh my gosh, I discovered something. Something I didn't know.' And, sometimes you made a mistake in the code. That's the problem. But, often it's like, 'Oh, this is more complicated than I thought.'
Ian Leslie: Yeah. And isn't that wonderful?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, it's glorious.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to close this out with a quote that I loved here, that--it's in a footnote. You say the following:
People making progressive-style arguments are fond of quoting W. B. Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
And then you continue:
Apart from being a good example of why the Internet is an unreliable source of knowledge (Yeats never said or wrote any such thing), the metaphor actually reveals the blind spot of progressive thinkers. To keep burning, fires need fuel.
So, talk about that first, please. And, then I want to add a little footnote to it.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. It goes back to what we were saying at the beginning. The flame of curiosity does not burn in a vacuum. It needs the fuel. You need to kind of feed ourselves and feed other people knowledge in order to keep going. We need to keep finding out stuff. And, the more you find out, the more you realize how much stuff you don't know, which makes you kind of desperate to learn more.
That, to me, is kind of this wonderful virtuous circle of curiosity. It's not this thing that just kind of happens in the abstract. It's a function of learning stuff and knowing stuff and talking about facts and information and knowledge, which just kind of just sparked this wondrous insight that we're all born with, but we soon forget, which is: there's loads of stuff out there that I don't know. And, isn't that great, because I can never stop learning. That's a wonderful thought.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. At least for me; and maybe, and for you, I think. But, the reason I liked it--a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm reading it, I'm thinking, 'Yeats didn't say that.' And, then you point out he didn't. Because, I know who said that: It was Plutarch. Plutarch said, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." And, certainly he was onto something. It's true that you need fuel; but it's certainly true that real education isn't just passing on facts, it's igniting the question and curiosity of the child or the student.
But, it turns out Plutarch didn't say that--Plutarch didn't say it, either.
And, I thought, 'Oh--well, someone before Plutarch said it?' No. Plutarch had a paragraph or two where he makes that point. Somebody at some point in history turned it into that very memorable phrase: "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." Of course, Plutarch didn't write in English, so he certainly didn't ever say that actual phrase, no matter what. But, he didn't say it in Greek or Latin. Was Plutarch Roman? I think he's Roman, not sure
Russ Roberts: But, he didn't say it in Latin, either. He said something more complicated. We'll put up a link up to the actual context of the quote. But, I just thought that was very cool.
Ian Leslie: That is brilliant.
Russ Roberts: Before we go, tell us about your next book, because that's pretty amazing.
Ian Leslie: Oh. Yes. So, it won't be out for awhile. I'm really in the middle of it now. It's a bit of a left turn for me in some ways. It's about the Beatles; and specifically it is about the relationship between Lennon and McCartney; and just--it's a biography of their relationship. And, I'm really fascinated by how their emotional dynamic and their love for each other led to this incredible explosion of creativity.
And, I've always been a Beatles fan. And, just recently I started to write about them a bit more. And, the things that I've written, people have enjoyed reading. So, I thought actually, why don't I just do a whole book about this? And, the thing I'm most fascinated by about the Beatles is that relationship between between John and Paul: You know, what the hell happened there? So, that's what I'm focusing on.
Russ Roberts: So, you have a long essay on the greatness of Paul McCartney, which many people would assume is a very short essay--people who don't understand the Beatles or McCartney. And yet, you make a very, I thought, effective--I confessed before we started recording to you, Ian, that I like the Beatles, but I'm not a fan. I'm not a strong fan. And, your case for Paul McCartney, I found quite fascinating. And, we'll put a link up to that if it's public. I can't remember if it's for subscribers only.
Russ Roberts: And so, we look forward to that book and maybe we'll talk about it.
Ian Leslie: Oh, yeah. I would love to. But I have to write it first.
Russ Roberts: Oh, darn. My guest today has been Ian Leslie. His the book is called Curious. Ian, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Ian Leslie: Thank you so much, Russ.