Why Scientific Curiosity is more important than Scientific Knowledge

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“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Albert Einstein said these words, and many iterations have since been written and spoken. It can be a frustrating experience. Read one book and you have six more added to your reading list as follow-ups. Read one article and your computer screen fills with 12 more tabs from related links you clicked. While frustrating, this is how we learn and excel both personally and professionally. It is a mindset to be embraced.

Curiosity precludes knowledge

“The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer there is no need to gather any evidence about it.” — Richard Feynman

Many people think of being smart as an accumulation of knowledge. Knowledge is good, but if all we are focused on is obtaining enough knowledge for a specific goal, we are limiting our potential. Furthermore, we may be setting ourselves up for failure if we adopt a narrow viewpoint. When comparing scientific knowledge with scientific curiosity, the latter stands out as the far more valuable quality. Yes, being curious is better than have a brain stuffed with information.

The truly curious cat (Photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash)

Curiosity and knowledge complement each other

Scientific curiosity is not limited to formal scientists in a lab. It applies to everyone. It is our desire to ask “why” and learn. Instead of compiling a plethora of facts and calling it quits, we must constantly attempt to learn more. You will never have it all figured out. Even if you do aspire to be among the most well-versed in your field or you like being the smartest guy at the party, maintaining a strong level of curiosity will only help.

Richard Feynman, a world-renown theoretical physicist, points out knowledge and curiosity are closely related: “with more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still.” Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, writes about the importance of curiosity in her book. She explains how research shows curiosity is correlated with creativity, intelligence, improved learning and memory, and problem-solving. I can think of worse things to be correlated with.

Conversely, curiosity and punching people in the face with facts do not work together

Curiosity is the desire to learn more, to always question. Curiosity is not about garnering just enough information to drop knowledge — also known as fact punching — on your friends and colleagues. Someone who studies enough to fulfill a confirmation bias is hardly exercising genuine curiosity. They are simply seeking a way to prove themselves right. As soon as they are satisfied that they have enough information to prove a point, the search ends.

Curiosity is wanting to know both sides of the argument. As Charlie Munger, the long-time business partner of Warren Buffet said, “I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” Munger’s hunger for knowledge is nearly insatiable. And the topics are not pigeonholed to topics he is already well-versed in. To be curious, we must-read. Munger expressed, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.”

Being curious means being a student forever. You don’t need to rack up six figures of debt to expand knowledge and wisdom. You simply need a desire to learn and the understanding that you will often be wrong.

Don’t stop reading and learning (Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash)

Strong beliefs, weakly held

No tool or belief is undroppable. After reading that, your brain is likely to bring to the forefront a host of rebuttals. Look across professions and you will see the “gold standard” does not stay gold forever. Sometimes it is a result of technological expansion while other times it is improved efficiency or new techniques. Then there are the “well I’ll be damned; the earth is round” type of moments.

Strong beliefs, weakly held is a mindset developed by technology forecaster and Stanford University professor Paul Saffo. Essentially, it is standing firm behind your beliefs and convictions, but being willing to immediately adopt a new belief in the face of sound evidence and logic. It is not being indecisive or lacking conviction, but rather being curious and seeking the best stance on a position.

This is a challenging proposition. When unchecked, emotion trumps logic. It takes effort to combat the confirmation bias, theory-induced blindness, and the availability heuristic. If you commonly fall victim to these biases, it will not improve overnight. Furthermore, no one is immune to bias. We must simply develop a keen awareness for when they are misguiding our thoughts. Taking the stance of curiosity and being willing to be wrong will allow us to more easily adopt Saffo’s framework.

It’s all About perspective (Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash)

Doubt and curiosity: the perfect marriage

“It is our capacity to doubt that will determine the future of civilization.” — Richard Feynman

Doubt is uncomfortable. Doubt is often viewed as a sign of weakness. Doubt means we are not smart enough to know the answer or did not work hard enough to find out the truth. These beliefs are untrue.

In reality, doubt, along with curiosity, are the two most important qualities to excel intellectually. Sure, you can find plenty of stubborn, successful people throughout history. But those individuals severely limited their potential by failing to recognize the power of doubt and curiosity.

Feynman often discussed the importance of learning outside your field of interest: “It’s not right to pick only what you like, but to take all the evidence, to try to maintain some objectivity about the think — enough to keep the thing going — not to ultimately depend upon authority.” We expand our perspective when we broaden our learning. Again, this requires effort, but I promise it is well worth it.

Prove yourself wrong

You can certainly have success by sticking your head in the sand and adopting a narrow viewpoint, but the potential will be limited. In his book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, Ellenburg writes, “Believe whatever you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear.” By arguing the opposite side, by rigorously reviewing the data that refutes your viewpoint, and by genuinely listening to an opponent and seeking to understand their viewpoint, we can develop a more complete understanding and limit the impact of our biases. Ellenburg drives home the point when he writes, “For if you really understood what’s keeping you from disproving the theorem, you very likely understand, in a way inaccessible to you before, why the theorem is true.”

We can all benefit from more curiosity in our lives.

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