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26 February 2012

Curiosity Didn't Kill the Cat

This is a talk that I gave at TEDxManitoba on 9 February 2012. Below the video you can find the full text of the talk, with annotations and sources provided.

As a kid, I loved playing Monopoly. I was great at it, too! I was very nearly unbeatable.

I remember one game, looking down at the board and wondering how I was ever going to win. My mother had just pulled a $500 bill out from where she'd hid it between the couch cushions, my stepfather's hotels were crowding two sides of the board, and my houses on Mediterranean and Baltic just weren't paying off. How could this be? I thought to myself. I'm a smart kid. I'm great at Monopoly! But the odds were stacked against me, and the situation seemed impossible.

But that's what made me such a great Monopoly player, I guess. Somehow, I'd always pull out a win in the end. Thinking back, I don't remember losing a single game!

At some point, we all need to come to terms with the fact that maybe things didn't happen quite the way we remember them. As humans, we're just not that great at telling what's true from what we want to be true. Let's be frank: I was ten. I probably sucked at Monopoly. But I remember being awesome.

As Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella notes, "Our memories are not an accurate recording of the past. They are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases... Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them."[Source]

We're not great observers, we humans, and we tend to pay much more attention to data that confirm our preconceived notions than to details that don't fit our theories. We have a marked tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses; presumably why people like Sylvia Browne and John Edward remain so popular.

It's for this reason that independent confirmation is one of the cornerstones of science.

I'm not a scientist, but I do think of myself as a "science cheerleader". And science needs cheerleaders, for a couple of reasons.

First, because it's important for everyone to have a basic scientific understanding. Professor Art Hobson put it this way: "the most crucial decisions [in industrialized nations] concern science and technology, and in democracies, citizens decide."[Source]

The second reason that science needs cheerleaders is that it is so oft maligned. Scientific skepticism is often portrayed as cold, unfeeling; antithetical to compassion or human emotion. Those with a penchant for whimsical nostalgia stubbornly insist that life was better and that times were simpler before science got all muddled up in society.[Note]

Could it be that they're right?

Science is the quest to understand ourselves, our universe, and our place in it. Science is curious by nature, for its goal is to figure out what's really true—but for that reason, science must also be skeptical. It insists that we shouldn't simply take claims at face value, but instead we should proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence supporting it.

A series of studies conducted in the 1980s found that roughly 80% of people consider themselves above average drivers.[Source][Source] A 1987 study of Australian workers found that only 1% of them rated their workplace performance as below average.[Source] Unless I badly misremember how numbers are meant to work, it seems to me that something very near to half of them are mistaken.

The way that we see the world is coloured by many things, our own egos foremost among them. Perhaps when it comes to Monopoly games we can be forgiven if we see ourselves through rose-coloured glasses. Concern may become warranted when our callous assumption that we outperform our contemporaries affects the quality of our work or the safety of our driving.

But what about when it really counts? What if your child is sick? There are clearly many cases where we simply cannot afford to let our petty biases influence the way we see the world. And that's where science comes in.

While it's true that public support for science has remained generally high over the last several decades, and scientific literacy has been increasing more-or-less steadily, there have been some troubling developments in the popular media and in culture at large.[Note]

The image of the "mad scientist" is deeply ingrained in our culture, and probably dates to Mary Shelley's celebrated Frankenstein, in which the relentless pursuit of knowledge leads inexorably to unspeakable horrors. This idea is not a new one. Anti-science messages have been with us for hundreds of years.

Here's the problem: science is seen by many as unnatural, inaccessible, or even sinister. Scientists are widely regarded as arrogant, superior, or closed-minded.

What's the common thread here? Aside from being totally awesome, that is. Any guesses?

As unbelievable as it might seem, all of these stories are riddled with anti-science or anti-reason messages. Even in science fiction, the genre that inspired so many of the technologies and conveniences that we take for granted today, it is common to see science portrayed as sinister and destructive.

In Star Trek, a series that celebrates human ingenuity, Spock is set up as a straw man, his much lauded Vulcan logic inevitably knocked down by Kirk's emotionally driven human pluck. When it comes time to choose between thinking with your head and thinking with your heart, the message is clear: human emotion wins every time.[Note]

In Jurassic Park, the audience is shown the consequence of scientists "playing God". As in Frankenstein, disaster is the inevitable result of scientific excess.

In Lost, John Locke constantly admonishes the other characters to have faith, that they are all on the island for some mysterious purpose. And, because it's a fictional story, it turns out that he's right.

Oh, and then there was that episode of The X-Files that showed faith in the supernatural triumphing over the skeptic... Which one was that again...? Oh, right: all of them. Don't get me wrong: I loved The X-Files, but seriously—it was always a monster? Every time?

And even Scooby-Doo, a longtime favourite among skeptics of the paranormal, isn't blameless. Recent adaptations are much more likely to feature real monsters than grumpy old groundskeepers who would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids!

But perhaps the most egregious example of anti-science rhetoric in popular fiction is found in Ronald Moore's 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.

While dramatically enjoyable, the emphasis of faith over reason was a thread that wound its way through the entire series. What's worse, the final episodes first hinted then proclaimed that in a society that embraces science and technology, a technologically driven holocaust is inevitable. This has all happened before, we are told, and it will all happen again.

The series culminates (spoiler alert) with the entire human race abandoning all technology in favour of founding a nomadic hunter-gatherer society. Science fiction becomes luddite fantasy—famine, disease, and the concomitant contraction of the human lifespan be damned.

This message is getting through to the public, loud and clear. A 2001 NSF survey found that 50 percent of Americans believe "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith".[Source] I find this distressing.

From The Terminator to The Matrix to 28 Days Later, the idea that science will lead to some sort of technopocalypse is ubiquitous these days. And after all, why not? Isn't there a grain of truth to the idea?

Perhaps you might rightly scoff at Ben Stein's contention in the pseudo-documentary Expelled that the science of evolution led to the Nazi holocaust...[Note]

...but what say you when the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are laid at scientists' feet? Who can help but shiver upon hearing Oppenheimer's words? "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." How can we answer such a charge?

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden the knowledge of good and evil, but their curiosity got the better of them. According to this story, it was our thirst for knowledge that led to the fall.

Curiosity, we're told, is what killed the cat.

Knowledge can, of course, be used for good or for ill. Scientists invented the bomb—but it was politicians who called for it, taxpayers who funded it, and the military who saw it deployed. If you want to lay death and destruction solely at the feet of scientists, I don't think that you're playing fair.[Note]

"Curiosity killed the cat." How unjust!

That we should be incurious is perhaps the single most damaging message that our children receive from popular culture. Curiosity is one of the greatest assets that we as a species possess. It fuels free inquiry! It fuels innovation! Without nurturing our curiosity we risk retarding our progress as a civilisation.

Knowledge is not evil, nor is the pursuit of it. Knowledge of the way this wondrous world really works equips us to better our own situation and that of every other living being with whom we share this planet.

"Curiosity killed the cat." You would be hard pressed to find an idiom that irritates me more.

You want to know what probably didn't kill the cat? Diabetes, hyperthyroidism, intestinal parasites! For every cat killed by curiosity, I would wager that there are hundreds who have been saved by veterinary practices unknown a century ago.

Curiosity cured the cat!

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, is credited with saving one billion people from starvation. We have indoor plumbing and flush toilets, and hand-washing, and the germ theory of disease, all of which save countless lives every day. These victories aren't just victories for science; they are victories for humanity. Science wins this fight.

As for the arrogance and closed-mindedness of scientists: I find this charge frankly startling, for in the process of skeptical inquiry I see the most amazing intellectual humility. The success of the scientific endeavour requires us to admit to our human foibles and failings, our petty biases and conceits. It is only in accounting for these human weaknesses that we make progress. Science is rooted in curiosity, and one cannot be curious without being humble. To wonder how something works, first you must admit that you don't know.

So if science is so successful in improving our lives, why does science still have such an image problem? Why do people fail to understand that science isn't the enemy of nature, but merely the study of it?

It probably isn't news to you that the media has a huge effect on how we think and behave. That's what advertising is all about, after all, and study after study shows that it works, even when we think that it doesn't.

In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan laments that "Scepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment."[Source]

In a culture so steeped in irrationality, a culture that prizes faith over evidence, it can be difficult to make progress in promoting science. Right now, the greatest obstacle to the public understanding of science is the way it's presented in the media.

So what if our stories had skeptical, pro-science messages? What if they encouraged the audience to think critically, rather than just nodding along? What if the heroes of our stories weren't those who simply fought for what they believed in, but those who had the courage to ask themselves why it was that they believed it?

We have the power to reignite the public passion for learning new things. We need to teach everyone (everyone) what science is, at its core. That may sound daunting, but it's really a very simple idea: Beliefs should be supported by good evidence.

None of us are perfect, and so if we're serious about figuring out what's really true we need to understand our own biases and apply a basic skepticism to all claims to knowledge. We need to avoid the temptation to look only for the evidence that confirms what we already believe. Or, as Randall Munroe put it, "You don't use science to show that you're right, you use science to become right."[Source]

And we already have allies in the popular media.

On the front lines, I see novelists like the excellent Robert Sawyer (from whom you heard only a moment ago) and the unbelievably popular J.K. Rowling.

Sawyer is famous for stories that show rationalism triumphing over superstition. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling provides an excellent role-model in Hermione Granger, whose success is due not to some innate talent, but to hard work and a willingness to question popular wisdom.

There are musicians like George Hrab and the inimitable Tim Minchin who encourage us to be skeptical of extraordinary claims. Sara Mayhew infuses her manga with a love of science. Randall Munroe and Zach Weiner pen comics that make us laugh and make us think. We have Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson working to communicate science to people of all ages. Adam Savage, Jaimie Hyneman, and rest of the gang at MythBusters remind us how exciting it can be to figure out what's really true.

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to help.

Be curious. Question everything. Prize learning over simply knowing, because even things that we think we know can turn out to be wrong. As Carl Sagan said, "it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."[Source]

With everything that science has done for us, it deserves our support. So when you hear someone complain that science is arrogant, closed-minded, or dangerous: speak up. Because you know better.


[1] Steven Novella, "More Evidence Our Memory Stinks",

[2] Art Hobson, "Physics literacy, energy and the environment",

[3] Ola Svenson, "Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?",

[4] Iain A. McCormick, Frank H. Walkey, Dianne E. Green, "Comparative perceptions of driver ability – a confirmation and expansion",

[5] Bruce Headey, Alex Wearing, "The Sense of Relative Superiority – Central to Well-Being",

[6] National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding",

[7] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 9

[8] Randall Munroe, xkcd, "Science Valentine", (image alt text)

[9] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 16


[1] They set science and rationalism here and they set mystery and compassion there and demand that you choose between them, even though such a choice makes no sense. Science is no more a cold, unfeeling monstrosity than is a screwdriver or a pair of spectacles. Science is a tool that helps us overcome some of our inherent limitations. And yet, the idea that life was somehow better, humbler, and more existentially satisfying in some misty, bygone age is pervasive in our society.

[2] In our culture, the scientifically illiterate can get on by saying that they're just not "science people". Basic scientific literacy is very important, but ScienceDaily reports that in North America it sits around 30%. It's perfectly acceptable in our culture for a person to be scientifically illiterate, but just imagine what it would be like to have a similar attitude toward those who can't read or write.

[3] To learn more about the Straw Vulcan, I refer you to the TVTropes page that coined the term. I also highly recommend Julia Galef's talk from Skepticon 4, The Straw Vulcan.

[4] For more about the absurdity that is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, I refer you to Expelled Exposed, a site created and maintained by the National Center for Science Education. This site cheerfully exposes the anti-science propaganda behind this so-called documentary, while managing at the same time to be an enjoyable read! I doff my proverbial hat to Eugenie Scott and the rest of the folks at the NCSE for their tireless work in combating creationism masquerading as science.

[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed this sentiment well. "Scientists don't lead marching armies!" he said. "Scientists don't invade other nations! Yes, we had scientists who invented the bomb, but somebody had to pay for the bomb, and that was taxpayers, that was war bonds. There was a political action that called for it. But everyone blames the scientists! ... At the end of the day, a discovery itself is not 'moral', it's the application of it that has to pass that test." (This quotation is taken from an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberley Academy. The interivew was conducted by a rare out-of-character Stephen Colbert, and is fantastic. You can watch it here.)

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