On this episode I talk about the various ways that curiosity is an undervalued resource for critical thinking.
I explain how curiosity plays an important role in generating the kind of background knowledge that supports critical thinking, and why it has important and underrated debiasing properties, meaning that it can reduce many of the harmful effects of cognitive biases on our thinking.
I’m also going to talk about my personal relationship to curiosity, and how it has influenced many of the decisions I’ve made in my career.
In This Episode:
- Knowledge is not compartmentalized (3:40)
- Curiosity is a resource for generating relevant and lasting background knowledge that supports critical thinking (5:30)
- “Situational” curiosity vs “trait” curiosity (9:30)
- Some people are naturally more curious than others, but curiosity can be cultivated (11:25)
- “Partisan interest” vs genuine curiosity (14:50)
- Genuine curiosity is a debiasing agent (16:40)
- High partisan interest, low curiosity (18:15)
- My personal relationship to curiosity (20:15)
- Why I was never a “true” Academic (23:00)
- Low partisan interest, high curiosity (26:15)
- My reaction to Trump’s win (27:30)
- Why I have no ideological or political agenda (29:30)
- The one agenda I do have (31:40)
- What is possible with crowdfunding (34:30)
“Our capacity for understanding and insight is a direct function of the structure of the interconnected web of knowledge that we carry around with us, and our ability to access and navigate and manipulate the information contained in this web.”
“Curiosity isn’t just a resource for acquiring knowledge that supports critical thinking. It also has powerful debiasing effects, and in that respect it’s a tool for overcoming the distorting effects of many cognitive biases.”
“A friend of mine once told me that, for someone who is as interested in politics as much as I am, it’s surprising how little I care about politics. I think this is an apt description, and with the distinction we’ve just drawn [between “partisan interest” and genuine curiosity] I think I understand it better.”
References and Links
- The Support page for the Argument Ninja podcast (where you can become a Sustaining Member and lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
- My Patreon support page (where you can lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
- The Critical Thinker Academy
- Julia Galef’s TED talk on “soldier” vs “scout” mindsets is a variant on the distinction I draw in the podcast on inquiry driven by partisan interest vs inquiry driven by curiosity. Worth a watch:
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Play or download the mp3 file for this episode
This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 014.
Hi everyone. I am Kevin deLaplante, and I’m recording this on Monday, Dec 19, 2016. Six days before Christmas. It’s bitterly cold outside, here in Ottawa, Canada. But it’s cozy here at home. One of the benefits of working from home, you don’t have to brave the cold weather and traffic to get to work.
On this episode I’m going talk about the various ways that curiosity — genuine curiosity — is an undervalued resource for critical thinking. I’ll try to explain how curiosity plays an important role in generating the kind of background knowledge that supports critical thinking, and why it has important and underrated debiasing properties, meaning that it can reduce many of the harmful effects of cognitive biases on our thinking.
I’m also going to talk about my personal relationship to curiosity, and how it has influenced many of the decisions I’ve made in my career.
Now, if you’re just coming off of episode 013, this isn’t exactly the topic I advertised. These things change. Sometimes I go with what I’m currently thinking about, and right now, seeing how polarized the political climate is, I’ve been thinking about how different things would be if more people were, not just interest, but genuinely curious about how the other side thinks.
And I said I would give a business update too, but that’s not going to happen either, I’m going to save that for the next episode. The business situation is in so much flux right now, I don’t want to announce anything that won’t still be true a week after the episode airs, so please bear with me on that.
If this is your first time catching this show, you should know that I run a video tutorial site called the Critical Thinker Academy, which you can find at criticalthinkeracademy.com. It has over 20 hours of video content on a wide range of content related to critical thinking, logic and argumentation, fallacies, cognitive biases, and more.
I’ve been running this site for a number of years, under a number of different business models, but my goal for the past while is to attract what I’m calling Sustaining Members.
Sustaining Members are fans of my work who are willing to pledge a small amount of money on a recurring monthly basis to help me pay my bills and turn what I’m doing into a sustainable business that will let me devote all of my energies to creating new content and develop new projects, like the Argument Ninja Academy program that I’ve been talking about over the past few episodes.
If you’re familiar with Patreon, a Sustaining Membership is like becoming a Patron, and I do have a Patreon page where you can sign up if that’s your preference. It’s at patreon.com/kevindelaplante.
What I’ve been offering for the past couple of months is a deal where, if you pledge as little as $3 a month, either through the signup forms at the Academy, or on Patreon, you get full access to all of the content at the Critical Thinker Academy, including any new video courses I make, for as long as you maintain your subscription. On top of that, I’m offering an early reserved seat in the Argument Ninja training program, locked-in at the same monthly rate.
The Importance of Background Knowledge
Okay, let’s get to our main topic for this episode.
We know that critical thinking depends crucially on background knowledge. You have to know something about your subject matter to make good critical judgments about that subject.
But knowledge, relevant knowledge, is not compartmentalized in the way that it may seem when you’re in school, and you’re forced to study science separate from math and separate from history and separate from social studies.
There may be good reasons to separate subjects like this for teaching purposes, especially teaching large numbers of students all at once.
But applied knowledge, the kind you need to think clearly and effectively about complex problems or new situations, doesn’t respect these boundaries. And you shouldn’t either.
Knowledge doesn’t come in the form of unconnected facts. It comes in the form of interconnected links. It’s a network that grows and evolves and becomes more structured and articulated over time.
In episodes 9 and 10 I talked about argument matrices as a model for knowledge, a certain kind of knowledge that is important for critical thinking. But the broader concept is this more generic notion of a web or matrix of connections.
Our capacity for understanding and insight is a direct function of the structure of the interconnected web of knowledge that we carry around with us, and our ability to access and navigate and manipulate the information contained in this web, and have it inform our judgments and decisions.
Some of this can be externalized. Google is very good for this. Books can be very good for this. But the limiting factor in your ability to apply knowledge in effective and creative ways is always going to be you and the structure of your personal knowledge web.
So you need to find ways of developing and expanding this web.
Curiosity and Background Knowledge
I don’t know of any way to force this process. The only mechanism I know that reliably works to build a knowledge web that is structured to support critical thinking, is curiosity and self-directed learning that is aimed at satisfying curiosity.
This process, of tapping into what you’re really curious about, what really interests you, and initiating some kind of investigation that is motivated, at least in part, by curiosity, and that gradually starts to satisfy your curiosity — this is, for me, one of the most intrinsically satisfying experiences that human beings are capable of.
And if you allow yourself to branch off and follow digressions, because you’re curious about them, that’s good. That’s how connections are made, that’s how you grow the web.
The key here is that this web of knowledge, when it’s constructed this way, is both more highly articulated and much more accessible to you, when a situation presents itself and you need to call upon it. When you are the author of the links in this web, they’re more deeply internalized, they become a part of your representational system. They persist long after other facts you’ve been forced to learn have faded from memory.
There’s a famous study that bears on this, though I can’t remember the source unfortunately. It shows how unstable rote learning can be.
Students are taking a high school English class and they have an upcoming test on a Friday. They do a review in class, the normal test prep, students study for the test, and they take the test on Friday.
The tests are graded and recorded.
Unbeknownst to the students, when they arrive in class on Monday, they’re given the exact same test to take again.
How do you think the scores compared?
The test scores on Monday, for the exact same test, taken just three days earlier, were 30% lower, on average. Much of that information, packed into short term memory, timed just right to retrieve it on Friday, gets purged almost immediately afterward.
You can test students on the content they studied in a class one month, six months and five years after completing the class.
The amount of knowledge that is retained decays very quickly. For some students, it doesn’t take long for them to effectively return to their pre-class state — it’s like they never took the class. For many, the amount that is retained you could summarize on one sheet of paper.
The exceptions are students who continue to work and study in areas directly related to the class content, where the concepts are used and reinforced. That’s not surprising.
The other exception is students who were really invested in learning the material and found much of it intrinsically interesting. They retain more, and they retain more for longer.
Again, not surprising. We can all relate to this. We’re all nerdy experts in something, and this is exactly how nerdy expertise grows.
The lesson we should draw from this, as people who want to improve our critical thinking skills, is that we should think of this natural way of learning as a resource for critical thinking.
So, my critical thinking tip is two-fold. One, we need to find ways of cultivating curiosity about the subjects that we want to think critically about, that we think are important to understand. That’s an interesting challenge, if we aren’t naturally curious about it from the start.
And two, we need to find ways of satisfying our curiosity through self-directed learning.
The second part is much easier than the first part.
If you’re genuinely curious, it’s not hard to find ways to learn more about the subject. That’s just the way curiosity works.
But if you’re not naturally curious about a subject, or you have a preconception that the subject is boring or dry or too technical for you, that’s a harder situation to fix.
Two Kinds of Curiosity
Is there anything we can do to make ourselves more curious?
Well, here’s a useful distinction to keep in mind. There are at least two distinct forms that curiosity takes.
One is the curiosity evoked by an event that you don’t understand, that prompts you to explore and learn about it. Like hearing sounds coming from outside your house, or seeing a flash of light in the nighttime sky, or getting a gift from your secret Santa at work and wondering who it’s from, or seeing a surprising demonstration of a scientific phenomenon on television. You feel drawn to investigate these events.
In the literature this is called “state” curiosity, or “task” curiosity, or “situational” curiosity. It’s a temporary state that is evoked by an ongoing internal or external activity.
Every normally functioning person experiences this kind of curiosity, but it’s episodic — it’s triggered by events, and it eventually fades.
The other kind of curiosity is the kind you associate with people, as a character trait, a disposition that they always have. Curious George, the monkey, is naturally curious about everything. Scientists often talk about wanting to go into science to satisfy their natural curiosity about the world. We all know people who we think of as more or less curious than others.
It’s not completely indiscriminate, of course. Most people are more curious about some aspects of the world and less curious about others. My mother was intensely curious about religion and spiritual topics, and read voraciously on these topics, but not curious at all about science or the scientific view of the world.
This kind of curiosity that we’re talking about is called “trait” curiosity, or “individual” curiosity, or “dispositional” curiosity. It’s a persisting feature of a person’s mental attitude and how they engage with the world.
From a learning standpoint, it’s this latter form of curiosity that plays the bigger role in predicting whether a person will pursue an investigation over an extended period time that results in lasting knowledge.
This kind of curiosity does vary across populations, like most traits.
I would bet a thousand dollars that most of you listening to this podcast are at the higher end of the curiosity distribution; you are not a random sample.
So you and I have both had that experience of being frustrated by the lack of curiosity that your friends or members of your family seem to display in the face of something that you find utterly fascinating.
And you know that powerful feeling of connection when you find someone who matches your level of curiosity and and interest in a subject that matters to you.
Being curious, and finding ways to satisfy your curiosity, is a pleasurable experience. But even more pleasurable is sharing that experience with other people who feel the same way.
Trait curiosity can be a hard thing to change. There’s evidence for a genetic component, but early developmental conditions are a big factor too. Kids learn to express curiosity and take pleasure from curiosity, or suppress their curiosity, from parents and from peers, and from their learning environment.
So the good news is that environment can play a big role, and there’s lots of room for modeling and positive reinforcement to have an impact on the degree to which one ends up being “naturally” curious.
Another bit of good news is that curiosity is contagious in a group. If you want to learn more about politics or history or economics or philosophy, and you’re not naturally curious about these subjects, one strategy is to find a group of friends who are naturally curious and plunk yourself in the middle of them. You’ll find yourself mirroring their curiosity and their interest without even trying.
And then, you may suddenly find yourself reading long wikipedia entries on fascism or Watergate or the efficient market hypothesis or the problem of induction, not because you have to, but because you find that you’ve become genuinely interested.
Curiosity as a Debiasing Agent
I want to transition to another topic relating to curiosity. And this one is very important.
Curiosity isn’t just a resource for acquiring knowledge that supports critical thinking. It also has powerful debiasing effects, and in that respect it’s a tool for overcoming the distorting effects of many cognitive biases.
For example, there’s a whole family of biases involving group identity and how people are perceived within groups and outside of groups. Out-group homogeneity bias, for example, involves viewing people outside your group as more similar to one another, more homogeneous, than are people within your own group. And this can dispose us to stereotyping and failing to see the diversity that actually exists within those groups.
There’s also in-group favoritism bias, and out-group negativity bias. We tend to value people and traits associated with our in-group more than people and traits associated with out-groups, and we’re more willing to punish or place burdens on people in out-groups than people within our own group.
We’re all vulnerable to social biases like these. In an intensely polarized political environment like the one we’re seeing right now in the United States, and in many other places around the world where tribal thinking is being reinforced, the distorting effects of these biases are even stronger.
Now, in an environment like this, people become very interested in these different group identities. They may become obsessed with them. But interest can be motivated in all sorts of ways that aren’t conducive to critical thinking.
If I see myself as a partisan member of one of these groups — a card-carrying progressive liberal, a staunch feminist, a committed “Make America Great Again” Trump supporter, a white nationalist, a Black Lives Matter activist — then my interest can be partisan as well, motivated by a desire to take a stand, advocate for and defend my side, “understand the enemy”, and so on.
This kind of partisan interest, if it dominates our psychology, is almost always an obstacle to critical thinking, because it feeds into two important cognitive biases — confirmation bias and motivated reasoning — that make us even more prone to error, that amplify the distortion rather than reducing it.
This is not to say that partisan interest doesn’t serve a useful function, it does. But it’s primarily a defensive function, a conservative function … a mechanism for maintaining a stable, coherent identity in the face of forces that threaten to destabilize it. In this respect it’s related to the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, and our natural instinct to reduce internal stress by reinterpreting our experience in ways that remove contradictions in our thinking and between our thinking and our behavior.
Now think of how different our psychology is when our interest is driven by curiosity — genuine curiosity, which is rooted in vulnerability, a willingness to admit uncertainty and ignorance, and an openness to surprise, to having our expectations overturned. Genuine curiosity takes delight in the prospect of learning something new, something unexpected.
This is how genuine curiosity can be a powerful debiasing agent. It pushes us to see through group boundaries and to take an interest in individuals as individuals, in all their complexity and particularity.
This is the opposite of partisan interest. Genuine curiosity opens us up to novelty and to expanding the boundaries of what is known, and what is possible. But it does so at the cost of making us vulnerable to new ways of thinking that can be stressful and destabilizing.
Partisan interest is driven to minimize this vulnerability by looking for ways of reinforcing the contours of our psychological and social identities, the ones we’ve worked so hard to build.
Now, at any given time each of us is driven by some mixture of different kinds of interests. None of us are motivated solely by curiosity; that’s not realistic, and it wouldn’t be ideal from a critical thinking perspective either. Our conservative impulses are valuable to. They provide the glue that binds our identity into a cohesive whole, without which we can’t function properly.
But, with that said, I do believe that in many cases we can improve our critical thinking by cultivating and engaging our capacity for genuine curiosity.
Just it give a cartoonish example, imagine that our motivation structure is a product of two sources, partisan interest and interest driven by genuine curiosity, and that you could adjust the magnitude of these two sources of interest by adjusting knobs or sliders.
For a given person, on a given topic, there are default settings. I have a relative who has become very concerned with the threat of Muslim culture infiltrating Canada, the spread of Sharia law, and so on. She reads the same online blog sites over and over, that repeat the same threatening messages. She’ll admit that she’s afraid of Muslims, as a group — she sees them as a threat. And she gets very agitated by the topic, it brings up a lot of emotion. When you’re around her you quickly learn that it’s not a safe subject for conversation.
For this relative of mine, her partisan interest dial is jacked way high. It dominates her motivational psychology. But you wouldn’t describe her as curious about Muslim culture and Islam and Sharia law. She couldn’t tell you the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or distinguish between Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism. She doesn’t go out of her way to educate herself about these topics. Her genuine curiosity dial is set really low.
Now, if I could somehow reach into her head and adjust these proportions to something like 50-50, so that she would be equally motivated by genuine curiosity as by partisan interest, that alone would make a huge difference to her capacity to think critically about this topic. It would drive her to expand her background knowledge in relevant areas, get a sense of how different sides argue their case, and open her up to new ways of thinking about the issue.
That’s another way of thinking of curiosity as a resource for critical thinking. If I can find ways of cultivating, not just concern, not just interest, but a genuine curiosity about a topic, that mindset will, over time, make me a better critical thinker on that topic.
My Personal Relationship to Curiosity
I was going to wrap up here. But this topic is actually quite personal for me. It speaks to my identity more than anything else I can think of.
I want back and forth on whether it would be helpful to talk about my own relationship to curiosity, but obviously I’ve decided to. So here goes.
In every class I’ve ever taught, I’ve recognized students who are smarter than me. Regardless of their age. In my professional career as an academic, I was surrounded by people who I recognized as smarter, more intelligent than me. More intelligent in the sense of fluid intelligence, the kind of intelligence that IQ tests are good at measuring.
Now, I recognize that I’m a reasonably intelligent guy. Intelligent to earn an honors degree in physics. Intelligent enough to get through graduate school in philosophy, a field that prides itself on cleverness. Intelligent enough to write and publish academic papers, enough to get tenure at a top research university. Enough to earn the respect of my much smarter colleagues.
But intelligence was never a thing that set me apart from my peers or my colleagues.
What I believe has set me apart, from a very young age, is an unusually high degree of curiosity, that can be activated, it seems, by almost anything.
Curiosity manifests itself in focus and attention. When I was a kid it wasn’t hard or unusual for me to spend hours reading and thinking about a subject. I’d stay on one topic for a while, read as much I could until my curiosity was satisfied, or I’d hit a saturation point, and then I’d move on to something else.
There was no effort involved, it was a deeply pleasurable thing for me to spend time doing.
And I’d jump from topic to topic as the mood hit me. I’d start reading about scuba diving and undersea exploration, and then jump to learning about submersibles, and then about the physics and chemistry of air pressure and why people get “the bends” when they surface from underwater too quickly, and then I’d jump over to sharks, and the evolution of sharks and rays, and then to the evolution of life on earth, and so on.
All this stuck with me longer than it would have if I was forced to learn it for school, because of the way the linkages in this knowledge web were driven by curiosity. Recall the discussion we had earlier in this episode.
I chose physics as my undergraduate major not because I was especially good at math, or especially good at solving physics problems, but because the subject itself spoke to my natural curiosity, which pushed me to ask more and more foundational questions. I eventually went on to philosophy for the same reasons, not because I was especially deep or clever or good at logic, but because it was a field where I knew I could indulge my curiosity across the widest range of subjects, from the very applied to the very abstract.
In grad school, and in my academic career, I had a reputation as someone who had serious interests in a lot of different areas, and who knew a lot about a lot of different areas. I didn’t have a master plan for how to put all of this together, I was just curious about a lot of things.
This indiscriminate curiosity helped me as a teacher, and as a colleague, but it probably didn’t help my career as a researcher.
Academic publishing really demands a singular focus on a particular subject, working on problems of a particular sort. Almost all of the writing you do is aimed at convincing a small audience of academic peers that you’ve made a valuable contribution to our understanding of these problems. A true Academic, with a capital A, is someone who enjoys this process, and is dedicated to getting better at it.
I was never a “true Academic” in this sense. I was only ever interested in studying a topic, or writing about a topic, until I had satisfied my curiosity about it, at least temporarily; and then I wanted to move on to the next topic. Like when I was a kid.
But you can’t do that and have a career in academia. You can’t flit from topic to topic like a bee moving from flower to flower. You have to stick with one flower, or one variety of flower, and keep visiting it over and over. That’s how you build a professional reputation as an expert in your field.
It’s the same with teaching. As a professor you get slotted into teaching a certain small number of classes, which you are destined to teach over and over. There are many courses that you will never be allowed to teach, even if you’re interested and qualified to teach them, either because your program doesn’t offer them, or because someone else in your department already has a claim on those courses.
These are some of the reasons why I ended up leaving academia, and why I’m doing what I’m doing now. Working independently, creating courses for the Academy, and for Udemy, I can indulge my curiosity more than I ever could as a university professor.
Now, do I enjoy making the courses themselves? Absolutely. And there are two reasons. One, they’re how I get to learn what I want to learn, what I don’t fully understand yet. They’re the vehicle through which I satisfy my curiosity.
And second, remember when I talked about the pleasure of finding other people who share your curiosity? When I’m creating a video, I’m imagining some person on the other side, watching it, and either becoming interested in the same things that I’m interested, or feeling like they’ve learned something new that helps them to satisfy their own curiosity.
So the work feels like I’m sharing something valuable. I want to create opportunities for other people to experience the same pleasure that I do, when I’ve learned something new that makes me think about the world in a different way. And even though we may not be in the same room, sharing the same space, I love the idea that you and I may now be sharing a common thought, about something that you may never have thought of before, or thought of in quite this way.
In the end, I’m not interested in providing answers to questions so much as in sharing the sense of delight and wonder that I feel at the opportunity to contemplate these questions.
So, you can see how my relationship to curiosity is a big deal of me. It’s been a driver for a lot of my big life decisions.
Earlier I described a motivational psychology that has inputs from two sources, what I called “partisan interest”, and genuine curiosity. The family relative that I mentioned, the one who was very concerned about Muslims but not curious about Islam — her default dial setting was high on partisan interest and low on curiosity, at least with respect to this issue.
If I were to use this model on myself, to diagnose my own motivational psychology, I would say that I’m pretty much the opposite of this. My curiosity dial is set high, and my partisan interest dial is set low. Those seem to be my default settings, on many topics.
This isn’t necessarily an ideal motivational psychology. For critical thinking purposes, and teaching purposes, it’s pretty good, but for other purposes maybe not so much.
A friend of mine once told me that, for someone who is as interested in politics as much as I am, it’s surprising how little I care about politics. I think this is an apt description, and with the distinction we’ve just drawn, I think I understand it better.
What high curiosity and low partisan interest means is that it’s easy for me to become interested in a topic and want to study and learn more about it, but it’s harder for me to care too much about it, in the sense of being invested in which side of a debate is correct, or which outcome is preferred.
When Trump won the election, for example, my reaction wasn’t the sea of pain that my liberal friends were sharing on social media. I didn’t grieve for the Democrats’ loss, and I didn’t celebrate Trump’s win.
I had a lot of feelings, but mixed in were feelings of excitement and gratitude. Gratitude for what? Gratitude that now I get to see how this timeline turns out. I was never curious how the future would go if Hilary won, that’s the status quo timeline. I was intensely curious how the future would go if Trump won, since the future beyond this point is genuinely obscure. I felt grateful that I get to be a witness to an historical event of this size.
Now, I’m not entirely comfortable admitting this, because when there’s this much at stake, there something off-putting about taking pleasure in chaos and uncertainty. And there are political issues that really do deserve attention and concern, and we should feel strongly about outcomes, because these outcomes have real consequences for real people.
So if I feel a certain detachment from these outcomes, that’s probably good for my psychological health, because I don’t get stressed over them; and it’s good from a critical thinking standpoint, because my perception isn’t as clouded by partisan bias. But it may not be so good from an ethical standpoint, or a democratic citizenship standpoint, because sometimes the situation demands that we stand up, take a side and fight for what we think is really important.
In cases like this, I actually think it would be better, overall, if my partisan interest settings were tuned a little higher.
My Secret Ideological Agenda
I want to mention one last thing before I wrap up.
One of the reasons why I wanted to talk about curiosity, and my relationship to curiosity, is that I want you, my audience, to better understand where I’m coming from with respect to the topics that I discuss, and what broader agendas I may or may not have.
I feel a need to do this because, as my inbox will show, my work tends to attract people who have strong partisan interests, and who see me, or want to see me, as an ally, someone who might share their ideological or political mission. Or who are bothered by an agenda that they perceive in the topics that I cover, that they disapprove of.
According to some of my emails, I’m an atheist selling elitist liberal propaganda. And I’m a religious apologist and Trump supporter.
And since I’ve talked about hypnosis and seduction, I must also be sympathetic to the men’s rights movement and the anti-feminist, anti-pc, “red pill” worldview.
And, because I talk a lot about learning to think for yourself, and the value of freedom, I must be a libertarian and a critic of government regulation.
And, because I’ve talked about conspiracies and propaganda and mind control methods, I must be sympathetic to some kind of grand conspiracy theory.
I’m not surprised by this. People who make these assumptions aren’t used to hearing someone talk about these topics who isn’t also a partisan supporter of some kind.
But let me just say up front: I don’t identify with any of these labels or these agendas.
And maybe now you can see why. What I am is curious about these topics; I want to understand them, and I think it’s useful that more people understand them. But I don’t particularly care about them. My motivations are driven mainly by curiosity, not by partisan interest.
When I say that I don’t particularly care about them, I mean that there are lots of things I care about just as much. I’m just as curious about black holes and the origin of the universe as I am about persuasion techniques and cognitive biases. I’m just as curious about how I’m able to voluntarily bend my finger right now, just by thinking about it, as I am about which political philosophy is the correct one. I’m just as curious about the nature of language as I am about whether 9-11 was an inside job. I’m just as curious about how artists create their art as I am about whether there is or isn’t a God.
That’s not the psychology of a person with an ideological agenda.
The one agenda that I do have, the one partisan interest that I do strongly identify with, is this: I wish more people had the opportunity to live self-directed lives that are worthy of the rational, creative beings we are.
It really distresses me when I see people trapped in jobs they hate, or in unhappy relationships, who feel powerless before forces that seem to dictate the direction of their life. That gets me worked up, I react quite viscerally to this.
So if the content I teach can be a resource to empower people to gain more freedom and control of their lives, I’ll be happy with that.
Let me summarize the points I’ve tried to make about the ways that curiosity can be a resource for critical thinking.
First, knowledge that is acquired through self-directed learning that is motivated by curiosity is more lasting and more accessible than knowledge acquired through rote learning. So if we can find ways of cultivating genuine curiosity about a topic, that’s good for critical thinking.
Second, we can distinguish interest motivated by genuine curiosity, which opens us up to new experiences and new was of looking at the world; and what I called partisan interest, which is concerned with reinforcing the boundaries that form our identity.
We’re all some mix of different motivations, no one’s interests are purely partisan, or purely driven by curiosity. But some people’s default settings may lean more heavily to one or the other.
When partisan interest dominates our motivational psychology, it has a distorting effect on our reasoning. It feeds confirmation bias.
Genuine curiosity, by contrast, has a positive role in creating relevant background knowledge, and it has a debiasing effect, by urging us to see individuals as individuals, in all their complexity and particularity. So that’s good for critical thinking.
The caveat here is that if curiosity dominates one’s motivational psychology, and partisan interest is low, as it tends to be for me, then in my experience, this can have a detaching effect. This might be good for one’s psychological health — ask a Buddhist or a Stoic about the value of detachment — and it’s good for critical thinking, but it may not always be desirable, all things considered. Some issues are worth getting worked up about, and some causes do need defending.
What is Possible with Crowdfunding
I’ll close with a reminder that if only 5% of you listening to the podcast were to become Sustaining Members, or Patreon supporters, my financial worries would go away. I wouldn’t be rich, but I could do this work sustainably. If you want to see the Argument Ninja program become a reality, please consider becoming a supporter.
It is remarkable how the numbers from small pledges can add up. Some of you follow Sam Harris’s podcast. I’m a Patron myself, I look forward to those episodes. Do you know how much he makes from his Patreon supporters, for each episode that he publishes? About 11,000 dollars. This is from a base of around 4400 supporters, whose average pledge is less than $3 a month. 11,000 dollars per episode. Recently he’s been publishing almost weekly, eight episodes over the past two months. You do the math, he’s not hurting. I don’t begrudge him his success at all, he works hard and he’s got a big audience. For me, it’s inspiring to see how effective fan support and crowdfunding can be.
So, if you’d like to become a Sustaining Member and help support this podcast and my work, including the development of the Argument Ninja Academy program that I’ve been talking about on the podcast, you can visit the support page at
A sustaining membership can start as low as $3 per month, which will get you access to the whole catalogue at the Critical Thinker Academy, and reserve a spot for you in the Argument Ninja Academy, locked in at the same low monthly rate.
Thank you for listening, have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season, and I’ll talk to you again soon.