In this episode, “Curiosity Snobs” Russ Roberts and Ian Leslie Talk about Leslie’s book, Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it, How parents can help kids be curious (ask questions, provide things to be curious about), and how puzzles like Wordle are different from puzzles like the beginning of the universe.

Leslie said that one question that inspired him was, “Why are some people? insideCurious?” and I find myself responding that everyone is curious about most things. Even children who ask 40,000 questions a year run out of things they want to know at some point. How my brain grew, where I was before I was born, and why I am. Can’t wear mermaid make-up all the time. To focus on things like “curiosity” and “conflict”, Leslie must turn away from many other topics. Roberts’ various changes in guests and EconTalk topics also take away from other infinite possibilities. .

One exchange I particularly liked:

Russ Roberts: “It’s the mysteries that are interesting to me, you suggest, because they’re bottomless, there’s always more to discover, but for some people it’s a source of endless frustration. ‘Why do I need to know about it? Tell me something I know.’ understand.’

Ian Leslie: Yes. That is true. But, I think it’s ultimately deeply satisfying; And not just in terms of fiction or art, I think that’s how scientists think about their field of investigation. They think of them as mysteries, not puzzles. They’re not thinking, ‘Well, 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 continue for a long time and won’t be resolved with one more piece of information. And, that’s why they love it: they’re fascinated by mystery.

Much of what researchers and academics do is turn big mysteries into small, solvable puzzles. How did the ban on French cambrics in England in the 18th century affect the cotton market from India? It is a riddle of the larger mysteries of nature and the causes of the wealth (and poverty) of nations. The scientific method and the Enlightenment increased the number and quality of puzzles and the people involved in them.

Much of the conversation is about teaching and learning, including thinking about the relationship between knowing things (the geography of Europe) and knowing how to think about things (such as the causes of World War II). Your memory gives you material to think about and this is part of why good early education is so important for children.

Both Roberts and Leslie are fans of open-ended seminars (hear more about this Here with Jenna Hitz), because it encourages a kind of exploration that is different from listening to an expert lecture. And much of what a good education should contain reminds me of a favorite quote from Adam Smith:

The great secret of education is to direct vanity to right objects.
(TMS, Section III.: Self-Command)

Although many may disagree with this (I, for one, want to re-read Agatha Christie Murder on the Orient Express than re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Hercule Poirot is as interesting as Jay Gatsby and in better company) the episode clearly earned the EconTalk tagline, “Conversation for the Curious.”

Leslie is on EconTalk once before Talking about his book conflict. He has a substack called the ruffian That you can sign up. He must have been an early adopter as his first post was made on August 27, 2017. You can read a recent, unlocked (free) post here: https://ianleslie.substack.com/p/creating-thinking-deciding.

In the meantime, what we want to hear you This took away from the episode. We hope you’ll take a moment to consider one or more of the following prompts:

1- Leslie Curiosity projects a rosy view of change as mostly positive and good. How true do you think it is?

2- Roberts and Leslie both expressed skepticism about trusting academic studies but both believed that knowledge could be acquired and that the acquisition of knowledge improved many people’s lives. What kinds of processes or frameworks should people look for in curiosity-based searches?

3- The city and the stranger are presented as “engines of curiosity”. Jane Jacobs would agree, as we learn from Janet Buffon. But cities often have serious challenges with issues like violence and disease and poverty. Does curiosity necessarily create conflict between those who value it and those who do not? (Maybe we’ll have to read Leslie’s other books to find out…)

4- Speaking of conflict, Leslie suggests that curiosity and judgment often collide. When you are curious, you refrain from judging. When you’re actively judging, you don’t engage in the same kind of open-minded curiosity as when you’re not. Is he right about that? Can one be judgmental and curious at the same time? If not why not?

5- A young girl who reads Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (or, perhaps worse, watching one of the many quite glamorous movie versions) could be forgiven for wanting to be more Like Daisy Buchanan. This is, perhaps, not the transformation that Roberts and Leslie would likely encourage, and yet it is part of curiosity and empathy. How can curiosity be directed to the right object? Roberts and Leslie discuss the importance of reading literature and empathizing in a completely positive way but have they missed concerns about inappropriate empathy? When is empathy bad?

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