The Curious Case Of The Missing Curiosity

Why is it that despite all the wealth of information available at our fingertips, most of us seem content to be knowledge-lite?

Image credit: Dragan Todorović, Flickr

I have to admit I was an odd child. I learned to read and write early on, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was that I watched adults and they seemed clueless to me. I listen to them talking and for a while I wondered if they were hiding things from me, pretending to act dumb while I (and presumably other children) were around and only engaging in serious matters when we little ones were absent or asleep in our beds.

But this seemed an unlikely hypothesis, and it certainly wouldn’t account for the huge number of cigarettes they were smoking and the excessive amount of hard liquor they were drinking. Nor would it account for those atrocious horn-rimmed spectacles that even as a child I knew to be a major crime against aesthetics.

I was an annoying little boy, always asking “why?

Growing up in a pre-Internet age, in foreign countries often lacking even reliable electricity and water supplies, no local library was available to me so I devoured whatever came to hand. When I was five my parents bought a series of books designed to satisfy children aged six through twelve. I finished them in less than a week, unhappy with their simplicity and restricted vocabulary.

I was no prodigy; merely insatiably curious.

Turns out, though, that being curious is very much a minority taste.

In fact, most people hate curious children. There’s even a folk-phrase to dissuade us from asking “why?” and we all know it: curiosity killed the cat. Turns out, society prefers us not to ask questions but simply to accept what we’re told and leave it at that.

Teachers often loath curious children, especially when they acquire knowledge far beyond the boundaries of what’s supposed to be “age appropriate.” When I was nine years old, the class I was in was given an assignment: prepare a talk on something that interests you.

One boy gave a talk about his dog. A girl gave a talk about a trip she took to Cape Town. Another boy talked repetitively about how to make a really good catapult and kill birds with it.

I gave a thirty-minute exposition, which I illustrated on the blackboard, on how jet engines work (using heat to expand air and thus produce thrust) and how lift is generated by means of a pressure differential between the top and bottom of an aerofoil wing.

Absorbed in the topic because I was genuinely enchanted by the physics, I failed to notice the very black stare our teacher was bestowing on me. Her attitude to me during the subsequent two-hour detention made it abundantly clear to me that knowing things was bad.

That attitude puzzled me fifty-two years ago and it puzzles me to this day. We live in a world of extraordinary information, all of which is the product of people who’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of extending our knowledge of the universe in which we briefly exist. No longer do we have to be content with banal stories about gods and goblins, kings & queens and the inevitable intrigues of power, nor a tedious recitation of the follies of history.

Now, for the first time in our evolutionary history, we can actually learn about reality. And that is amazing! It’s an enormous privilege to be alive during this time.

How could we not want to absorb as much as humanly possible? How could we not be enchanted by cosmology, fascinated by cellular and molecular biology, moved nearly to tears by the elegant concision of mathematics, or be at least somewhat interested in economics, evolutionary psychology, history, anthropology, and be gripped by evolutionary biology?

Turns out the answer to that rhetorical question is: very easily.

Turns out, most of us don’t care. In fact the average person knows more about the characters of dozens of ephemeral TV series than about anything else. If we ask a friend to name the characters of a US sitcom and they’ll reply without hesitation. If we ask a million people to explain who Paul Dirac was and talk about his contributions to quantum mechanics, we’ll get at least 999,999 blank stares.

In my twenty-seven years in the USA I asked over a thousand people to name two great scientists from any era. Everyone said Einstein. Not one person was ever able to name a second scientist.

No one knows how the everyday magic they rely on actually works. Who understands how a computer chip works? Or even an automobile transmission? Who’s got a clue about post-translational modification of proteins, or why it matters? Who knows anything about cosmology? Who understands why isn’t it worth getting terrified when the media sensationalizes yet another “potential” viral epidemic? Who understands even the most rudimentary implications of evolution?

All these questions are generally responded to with a blank stare and a shrug.

Why should we care?

The problem is, when we don’t know anything we have no way to filter what we’re told. If someone tells us “essential oils” can cure ailments, why shouldn’t we believe them? We know nothing of biochemistry and nothing of the etiology of diseases and so anything seems plausible to us, especially if it has a nice label and costs a lot of money. We can add to the essential oils scam all the other bogus “health” treatments that reliably part the naïve from their money: detox foot baths, special herbs, fad diets of all kinds, healing crystals, chakras, auras… the list of nonsense is endless and is devoutly believed by millions.

Because we don’t know any better.

And we don’t know any better because it apparently never occurs to us to expend the effort necessary to acquire factual information. There’s no time! There’s a game on, or a new series to binge-watch, or a Pilates class to attend, or an email to answer, or a text to send, or an InstaSnap status to update.

If ignorance simply meant that millions of us are parted from our money in exchange for fraudulent products and services, that would be fairly harmless. The problem is, ignorance means that we make low-quality choices across all aspects of our lives: what we eat, who we vote for, whether or not we exercise or finish our course of antibiotics or allow our children to be vaccinated or are terrified by what we are shown on the news…

Everything overwhelms us and we have no capacity for rational decision-making because we know almost nothing at all.

Today nearly everyone in the USA (and unfortunately in an increasing number of other countries) is fat, sick, stressed, and afraid because we don’t know enough to make better decisions for ourselves. We get worked up over things that don’t matter and ignore things that are very important indeed. We live like corks bobbing up and down on waves of media sensationalism, passively drifting because we lack the knowledge to do otherwise.

Ignorance isn’t bliss: it’s misery.

So why aren’t we all curious about the world around us? Why don’t we all feel that deep desire to know and to understand? Why aren’t we all feasting on the banquet of knowledge that lies everywhere around us? Why are we so often content to let precious hours slip by staring at canned entertainment that teaches us nothing of value and adds no meaning to our lives when instead we could be discovering reality in all its wonder.

Why aren’t we all truly curious?

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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