The Consequences of Curiosity

by Alexis Takahashi

Planets, moons, and stars against a purple tinted backdrop of outer space. Illustration by Alexa Fishman

July 19, 2017

I was nine years old when I caught the itch. My parents had no explanation for my sudden affliction that drew me away from normal childhood activities and instead had me scouring library books on Haley’s comet and asking for telescopes, even writing rap lyrics in praise of Nicolaus Copernicus. I had become hopelessly addicted to information, plagued with the chronic condition that beleaguers most budding scientists: curiosity.

Humans are terribly curious creatures. We stray far from the things that directly provide us with food, shelter, or reproduction in order to tinker and ponder how the world works. Famous scientists from Albert Einstein to Carl Sagan have hailed curiosity as the saving grace of humanity and urge society to cultivate this inquisitiveness in our students. Whether it be that Wikipedia wormhole you went into about elephant seals or lofty questions about our place in the universe, we’re taught that the pursuit of all knowledge – even knowledge for knowledge’s sake – is an inherent good.

It was not always so. Although curiosity is now widely heralded as the cardinal virtue of science, before the 17th century curiosity was considered a vice. Eve’s inability to resist the apple from the tree of knowledge condemned humanity forever with original sin. When Pandora opened the box bestowed to her by Zeus [1] it unleashed death and all the evils of the world. And we are all familiar with the fateful end for the cat who was too curious. But with the European scientific revolution, curiosity became quickly embraced as the engine of knowledge and power.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” – Albert Einstein

Curiosity-based inquiry can provide people with possibilities for self-care, self-expression, or self-realization. I, like many of my fellow space nerds, drew great joy out of gazing up at the sky, that quick rush one gets when you peel back a layer of mystery and uncover a new truth about the world around you. But these pursuits of intellectual pleasure should not be the foundation of scientific enterprise.

I once asked a paleontologist about what he thought about the role of curiosity in his own work. He said that the point of human civilization was that once we’re at the point where we can feed and house and generally care for ourselves, then we could do the real interesting stuff like make art, create beauty in the world around us, and do things like curiosity-based inquiry.

We have obviously not achieved that utopic vision yet. When curiosity-driven inquiry begins to take priority over community-driven inquiry, we are privileging the self-gratification of the elite over the lived hardships of our most vulnerable. If you are a passionate architect who spends their whole life building grand architectural pieces that only the top 1% can afford to live in, what kind of world have you helped build?

“Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer  [2]

Curiosity-based inquiry often masks the very real consequences of scientific research. Some black spots in the history of science clearly evidence that our need to know cannot justify all our knowledge exploits: the Nazi experimentation on humans, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the nuclear weapons testing on the Marshallese are just a few examples. They demonstrate the ways that the processes of science can cause active harm to the populations being studied.

Sometimes the ramifications of curiosity-driven science are more insidious. For example, a computer scientist getting funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study cybersecurity is – directly or indirectly – contributing to the project of state-sponsored mass surveillance. When I’ve asked some of these scientists if they have any reservations about how the military plans on using their work, they often express a general disinterest in the applications of their research. To them, that funding agency is just a means for them to pursue their interests – or curiosity – and they are not culpable for any negative ramifications of that work.

Once we move beyond the assumption that ‘all knowledge is good’, we are faced with the challenge of reflecting on our research questions and situating them in the world at large. Or to put it another way, we must develop a curiosity about our own curiosity. Here are some framing questions to begin putting our scientific practice into a research justice framework[3]

  1. Why are you interested in the topic of your research?

Despite the common notion that science takes place in a social vacuum, our identities and lived experiences deeply inform the questions that we ask, or the direction of our curious gaze. [4] And often, the things that we are curious about are the things that affect ourselves and our communities. Before we can look at the research itself we have to look at ourselves, who we are as scientists, and how we are positioning ourselves in relation to the subjects of our interest.

  1.   What are the potential applications of your research (in the short and long term)?

Although the impacts of applied research are more obvious (weapons development for example), basic research also lays the foundation for future applied research. The particle physics research of today is the atom bomb of tomorrow.

  1. Who is most likely to benefit from these applications? Who is most likely to be harmed?

Will someone be profiting from your research? Who? Does your research increase or decrease existing systems of inequality? For example, if you are researching a new therapeutic, will it be accessible to the poor? Or will it be available only to the very rich? Does your research help preserve or subvert the status quo?

  1. Who is funding your research and why are they funding it?

Every funding agency has an agenda that guides their research priorities. Is their agenda an ethical one? How might your research success be used by your funders? (Hint: If your research is being funded by the Department of Defense, it’s probably not something particularly wholesome).

  1. Are there ways to shift your research to make it more sustainable, or more inclusive of low-income, queer, disabled, or communities of color?

Self-reflection is only the first step toward a more accountable science. Once we uncover these ethical minefields, we must continue to push our research in ways that are more community-centered, more transformative, and more socially just. Engaging your research in this way should not be a one-time exercise, but an iterative process that takes shape over one’s whole academic career.

“Scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” – Richard Levins

When science is grounded in the pursuit of public good, new possibilities emerge. Dr. Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, is the researcher who discovered the lead present in the water of Flint, Michigan through a community-initiated science project. “Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.”  [5]

Edwards knows that taking up projects such as these has consequences of their own: alienation from scientific peers, loss of academic prestige, difficulties finding funding. But to not take up this challenge is to practice a science lacking in moral courage. “Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.”


[1]In the original mythology it was actually a jar, but Pandora’s Jar doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
[2] Robert Oppenheimer was a scientist at Los Alamos Laboratory, head of the Manhattan Project, and often known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’.
[3] Charlotte Cooper also has a Research Justice framework that can be found here.
[4] If you haven’t already, read Sophie Wang’s Science Under the Scope comic series.
[5] The Water Next Time: Professor Who Helped Expose Crisis in Flint Says Public Science Is Broken


 

 

Alexis Takahashi is a writer, activist, farmer, and ramen connoisseur. You can follow her at @atak91