“Science” as Curiosity-Stopper

Imag­ine that I, in full view of live tele­vi­sion cam­eras, raised my hands and chanted abra­cadabra and caused a brilli­ant light to be born, flar­ing in empty space be­yond my out­stretched hands. Imag­ine that I com­mit­ted this act of blatant, un­mis­take­able sor­cery un­der the full su­per­vi­sion of James Randi and all skep­ti­cal armies. Most peo­ple, I think, would be fairly cu­ri­ous as to what was go­ing on.

But now sup­pose in­stead that I don’t go on tele­vi­sion. I do not wish to share the power, nor the truth be­hind it. I want to keep my sor­cery se­cret. And yet I also want to cast my spells when­ever and wher­ever I please. I want to cast my brilli­ant flare of light so that I can read a book on the train—with­out any­one be­com­ing cu­ri­ous. Is there a spell that stops cu­ri­os­ity?

Yes in­deed! When­ever any­one asks “How did you do that?” I just say “Science!”

It’s not a real ex­pla­na­tion, so much as a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per. It doesn’t tell you whether the light will brighten or fade, change color in hue or sat­u­ra­tion, and it cer­tainly doesn’t tell you how to make a similar light your­self. You don’t ac­tu­ally know any­thing more than you knew be­fore I said the magic word. But you turn away, satis­fied that noth­ing un­usual is go­ing on.

Bet­ter yet, the same trick works with a stan­dard light switch.

Flip a switch and a light bulb turns on. Why?

In school, one is taught that the pass­word to the light bulb is “Elec­tric­ity!” By now, I hope, you’re wary of mark­ing the light bulb “un­der­stood” on such a ba­sis. Does say­ing “Elec­tric­ity!” let you do calcu­la­tions that will con­trol your an­ti­ci­pa­tion of ex­pe­rience? There is, at the least, a great deal more to learn.1

If you thought the light bulb was sci­en­tifi­cally in­ex­pli­ca­ble, it would seize the en­tirety of your at­ten­tion. You would drop what­ever else you were do­ing, and fo­cus on that light bulb.

But what does the phrase “sci­en­tifi­cally ex­pli­ca­ble” mean? It means that some­one else knows how the light bulb works. When you are told the light bulb is “sci­en­tifi­cally ex­pli­ca­ble,” you don’t know more than you knew ear­lier; you don’t know whether the light bulb will brighten or fade. But be­cause some­one else knows, it de­val­ues the knowl­edge in your eyes. You be­come less cu­ri­ous.

Some­one is bound to say, “If the light bulb were un­known to sci­ence, you could gain fame and for­tune by in­ves­ti­gat­ing it.” But I’m not talk­ing about greed. I’m not talk­ing about ca­reer am­bi­tion. I’m talk­ing about the raw emo­tion of cu­ri­os­ity—the feel­ing of be­ing in­trigued. Why should your cu­ri­os­ity be diminished be­cause some­one else, not you, knows how the light bulb works? Is this not spite? It’s not enough for you to know; other peo­ple must also be ig­no­rant, or you won’t be happy?

There are goods that knowl­edge may serve be­sides cu­ri­os­ity, such as the so­cial util­ity of tech­nol­ogy. For these in­stru­men­tal goods, it mat­ters whether some other en­tity in lo­cal space already knows. But for my own cu­ri­os­ity, why should it mat­ter?

Be­sides, con­sider the con­se­quences if you per­mit “Some­one else knows the an­swer” to func­tion as a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per. One day you walk into your liv­ing room and see a gi­ant green elephant, seem­ingly hov­er­ing in mi­dair, sur­rounded by an aura of silver light.

“What the heck?” you say.

And a voice comes from above the elephant, say­ing,

Some­body already knows why this elephant is here.

“Oh,” you say, “in that case, never mind,” and walk on to the kitchen.

I don’t know the grand unified the­ory for this uni­verse’s laws of physics. I also don’t know much about hu­man anatomy with the ex­cep­tion of the brain. I couldn’t point out on my body where my kid­neys are, and I can’t re­call off­hand what my liver does.2

Should I, so far as cu­ri­os­ity is con­cerned, be more in­trigued by my ig­no­rance of the ul­ti­mate laws of physics, than the fact that I don’t know much about what goes on in­side my own body?

If I raised my hands and cast a light spell, you would be in­trigued. Should you be any less in­trigued by the very fact that I raised my hands? When you raise your arm and wave a hand around, this act of will is co­or­di­nated by (among other brain ar­eas) your cere­bel­lum. I bet you don’t know how the cere­bel­lum works. I know a lit­tle—though only the gross de­tails, not enough to perform calcu­la­tions . . . but so what? What does that mat­ter, if you don’t know? Why should there be a dou­ble stan­dard of cu­ri­os­ity for sor­cery and hand mo­tions?

Look at your­self in the mir­ror. Do you know what you’re look­ing at? Do you know what looks out from be­hind your eyes? Do you know what you are? Some of that an­swer Science knows, and some of it Science does not. But why should that dis­tinc­tion mat­ter to your cu­ri­os­ity, if you don’t know?

Do you know how your knees work? Do you know how your shoes were made? Do you know why your com­puter mon­i­tor glows? Do you know why wa­ter is wet?

The world around you is full of puz­zles. Pri­ori­tize, if you must. But do not com­plain that cruel Science has emp­tied the world of mys­tery. With rea­son­ing such as that, I could get you to over­look an elephant in your liv­ing room.

1 Physi­cists should ig­nore this para­graph and sub­sti­tute a prob­lem in evolu­tion­ary the­ory, where the sub­stance of the the­ory is again in calcu­la­tions that few peo­ple know how to perform.

2 I am not proud of this. Alas, with all the math I need to study, I’m not likely to learn anatomy any­time soon.