Google for more curious types.

Why Aren't You Curious About What Happened?

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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"You suspended Ray Rice after our video," a reporter from TMZ challenged National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell the other day. "Why didn't you have the curiosity to go to the casino yourself?" The implication of the question is that a more curious commissioner would have found a way to get the tape.

The accusation of incuriosity is one that we hear often, carrying the suggestion that there is something wrong with not wanting to search out the truth. "I have been bothered for a long time about the curious lack of curiosity," said a Democratic member of the New Jersey legislature back in July, referring to an insufficiently inquiring attitude on the part of an aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who chose not to ask hard questions about the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal. "Isn't the mainstream media the least bit curious about what happened?" wrote conservative pundit Jennifer Rubin earlier this year, referring to the attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

The implication, in each case, is that curiosity is a good thing, and a lack of curiosity is a problem. Are such accusations simply efforts to score partisan political points? Or is there something of particular value about curiosity in and of itself?

The journalist Ian Leslie, in his new and enjoyable book "Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It," insists that the answer to that last question is yes. Leslie argues that curiosity is a much-overlooked human virtue, crucial to our success, and that we are losing it.

We are suffering, he writes, from a "serendipity deficit." The word "serendipity" was coined by Horace Walpole in a 1854 letter, from a tale of three princes who "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." Leslie worries that the rise of the Internet, among other social and technological changes, has reduced our appetite for inadvertence. No longer have we the inclination to let ourselves wander through fields of knowledge, ready to be surprised. Instead, we seek only the information we want.

Why is this a problem? Because without curiosity we will lose the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. We will see unimaginative governments and moribund corporations make disastrous decisions. We will lose a vital part of what has made humanity as a whole so successful as a species. (The overleaf quotes Albert Einstein: "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.")

Leslie presents considerable evidence for the proposition that the society as a whole is growing less curious. In the U.S. and Europe, for example, the rise of the Internet has led to a declining consumption of news from outside the reader's borders. But not everything is to be blamed on technology. The decline in interest in literary fiction is also one of Leslie's villains, for reading literary fiction, he says -- citing studies -- makes us more curious.

Moreover, in order to be curious, "you have to be aware of a gap in your knowledge in the first place." Although Leslie perhaps paints a bit broadly in contending that most of us are unaware of how much we don't know, he's surely right to point out that the problem is growing: "Google can give us the powerful illusion that all questions have definite answers."

Indeed Google, for which Leslie professes admiration, is also his frequent whipping boy. He quotes derisively Google co-founder Larry Page to the effect that the "perfect search engine" will "understand exactly what I mean and give me back exactly what I want." Elsewhere in the book, Leslie writes: "Google aims to save you from the itch of curiosity altogether."

But, in blaming Google, Leslie perhaps mixes cause and effect. Google is responding to a market for knowledge in which the demand has taken a narrowly instrumental course. The deeper problem is the lack of serendipity to which he elsewhere refers. Even when we do understand how little we know, we tend to seek out sources that will fill us in. What we do a good deal less than we used to is simply stumble upon knowledge and ideas.

Somewhat nostalgically, he quotes John Maynard Keynes's justly famous paean to the bookstore: "One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon's entertainment." If only!

Citing the work of psychologists and cognitive scientists, Leslie criticizes the received wisdom that academic success is the result of a combination of intellectual talent and hard work. Curiosity, he argues, is the third leg of the triad -- and a difficult one to preserve. If not nurtured, it will not survive: "Childhood curiosity is a collaboration between child and adult. The surest way to kill it is to leave it alone."

Education, he warns, is often conducted in a way that makes children incurious. Children of educated and upper-middle-class parents turn out to be far more curious, even at early ages, than children of working class and lower class families. That lack of curiosity produces a relative lack of knowledge, and the lack of knowledge is difficult if not impossible to compensate for later on.

Although Leslie's book isn't about politics, he doesn't entirely shy from the problem. Political leaders, like leaders of other organizations, should be curious. They should ask questions at crucial moments. There are serious consequences, he warns, in wanting not to know.

He presents as an example the failure of the George W. Bush administration to prepare properly for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. According to Leslie, those who mocked former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for his 2002 remark that we have to be wary of the "unknown unknowns" were mistaken. Rumsfeld's idea, Leslie writes, "wasn't absurd -- it was smart." He adds, "The tragedy is that he didn't follow his own advice."

All of which brings us back to Goodell and the Christie case and Benghazi. Each pundit in those examples is charging, in a different way, that someone in authority is intentionally being incurious. I leave it to the reader's political predilection to decide which, if any, charges should stick. But let's be careful about demanding curiosity about the other side's foibles and remaining determinedly incurious about our own. We should be delighted to pursue knowledge for its own sake -- even when what we find out is something we didn't particularly want to know.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net