I learned my first and biggest lesson about science in my 20s’ one night when, in bed with a new girlfriend I couldn’t get it up.
In the dark and awkward silence I wondered what happened. I hungered to explain my failure, and then noticed that what drove my need for an explanation got in the way of me finding the real one. God forbid it should turn out I’m unmanly, not really into sex, not into her.
“Please oh, please, explain exactly what’s going on,” my mind said to itself, “and please make it good, positive, and uplifting (in both senses) rather than discouraging, a setback, disappointing evidence that I’m not all I think I’m cracked up to be.”
I’ve since come to generalize this ambivalence, calling it the Curiosity Paradox:
The more urgently you need to know what’s really going on, the harder it is to know because your hopes and fears get in the way of knowing.
“I want the honest truth but it better be good.”
“God grant me one good reason for what I just did.”
Whether we admit it or not, our devotion to science shows that we recognize science is the best-ever human innovation for managing the Curiosity Paradox. At core it says to learn faster and be more productive, get over yourself. To get what you want, set aside what you want long enough to see what is. Or as Buddhists say, “Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.” We have a better chance at discovering the likely story, if we can ignore our liked story.
Do scientists set aside what they want long enough to see what is? Perhaps a few do-- nerds studying the driest aspects of physics and chemistry. But even uber-nerds have skin in their research game.
Egos are invested but it’s more than that. None of us want to discover that our investments are for naught, that we have to go back to the drawing board, that we aren’t as far along as we thought, that we expect things to be easier than they’re going to be.
You know that sigh, the weight you feel when there’s a setback. That’s the skin in the game. “I thought I was doing better than this.”
Science doesn’t rely on individual researchers getting over themselves, checking their egos at the door, having their eyes unclouded by longing. Science is a social enterprise. It’s a contest, a free market of ideas, a trial and error meritocracy in which the more accurate ideas tend to prevail in the long run.
Some scientists are stubborn egomaniacs who cling to their theoretical investments and status, real victims of the Curiosity Paradox. But because science is a meritocracy their stubbornness doesn’t end up counting for much. If their theories aren’t the best, they’ll still lose in the long run.
Science is a lot like evolution, a trial and error process that pretty efficiently weeds out the errors: Science is survival of the fittest ideas, the ideas that are most accurate, all ideas welcome and let the best ideas win.
As contestants in sciences contest, in evolution’s contest and all the other contests we experience, we have split allegiances. We honor, respect and defer to the trial and error process, but we care most about our personal entry in that contest. We say, “Let the best man win, and it damn well better be me.”
We have a good name for people who manage their split allegiance well: Good sports. And a name for people who manage them poorly: Sore losers, though we should add that there are sore winners too, gloaters who assume that their successes are permanent.
What do good sports do? They cultivate the wisdom to know the difference between when they are pushing their ideas on their merits and when they’re pushing them just to avoid disappointment, wisdom that can be expressed in a permutation on the serenity prayer.
Grant me the tenacity to promote my ideas when they’re viable, the humility to admit defeat when they aren’t and the wisdom to know the difference.
Good sports aren’t quitters. They just have the wisdom know when to quit. Think of the energy they save not flogging a dead horse just because it was their hobbyhorse. They’re wise about cutting losses and more efficient thinkers because of it. Paradoxically, the better you get at admitting you're not the best, the better you get to be.