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Curiosity Makes a Comeback

President Obama Understands Its Importance

Visualization of keywords in Obama's inauguration speech. SOURCE: many eyes Visualization of keywords in Obama's inauguration speech.

The inaugural address by President Barack Obama has been sliced and diced and probed for meaning by journalists and academics whose business it is to perform examinations on such oratory. The near-term verdict is in: the speech, while a good one, did not leave behind a phrase that will echo through history, a phrase the match of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear…” or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

Yet Obama’s use of a single word toward the end of his address was riveting. The word is “curiosity.” Obama had not used the word before in a major speech, yet here it was in his inaugural, teamed up with iconic words of Presidential inaugural addresses: “Our challenges may be new,” Obama said. “The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history” (emphasis added).

The word curiosity had been used only once before in a Presidential Inaugural Address—by William Henry Harrison in March 1841. Harrison referred to “the gratification of the curiosity of speculative statesmen,” what we would call today “idle curiosity.” The other values that Obama cites as “upon which our success depends” were used repeatedly by his predecessors: “hard work” or a variation (8 times), honesty (6 times), courage (10 times), “fair play” or a variation (4 times), tolerance (5 times), loyalty (4 times), and patriotism (21 times). These old and true values, President Obama said, are the quiet force of “progress,” a word used 33 times by presidents beginning with James Madison in his first inaugural address when he noted “the progress of manufacturers and useful arts” in the young republic.

So why did Obama include “curiosity” in his listing of “old-fashioned values” essential for progress? Did he plug it into the list because he understands the importance of scientific curiosity, of open inquiry into the how the natural world works? Much has been made of his intent, as he put it in his speech, to “restore science to its rightful place.” The word “science” appears in 15 inaugural addresses preceding Obama’s, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s second inaugural address. The last president to use the word was Richard Nixon who noted the nation’s “enormous strides in science and industry and agriculture” in 1969.

Clearly Obama understands that progress depends on ideas as well as virtues. Ideas are generated and translated into useful objects and processes through the process of innovation. To the extent innovation occurs, it is in part because curiosity is granted free rein. In his first weekly address as president, Obama called for tripling the number of science fellowships “to help spur the next generation of innovation.” Science, innovation, and curiosity are inextricably bound.

In a recent book entitled The Stem Cell Dilemma, my coauthor and I describe how Leonardo da Vinci, when a young man wandering among the Tuscan hills after a fierce storm, came upon the mouth of a dark cave. As he stood in front of it, he was seized by the question of what to do—to explore or to retreat. “I had been there for some time, when there suddenly arose in me two things, fear and desire—fear of that threatening dark cave; desire to see if there was some marvelous thing within.” As we wrote, in all of history up to that time “fear tended to overcome curiosity about what was inside the cave, what lay beyond the darkness” (emphasis added).

Da Vinci, the man who British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark called “the most relentlessly curious man in history,” entered the cave, symbolically making a clean break from the medieval order, “from a world influenced by things unseen to a world influenced by things seen and understood through careful observation.” Soon he would turn his attention to explorations of the human body, revealing through his anatomical drawings things revealed for the first time despite the social and religious taboos surrounding human dissection.

Ever since, scientific curiosity has been part and parcel of our understanding of progress, especially economic progress. And economic progress, with its corollary of a rising standard of living, has moral consequences, as Harvard political economist Benjamin M. Friedman argues in his book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. With economic growth comes “greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.” With economic stagnation comes hardened attitudes toward openness and mobility, the desire to retreat into the past, and the search for scapegoats.

It is surely unfair to compare da Vinci with his polar opposite on the “curiosity” spectrum, former President George W. Bush. But if we are to understand why Obama’s interest in science, discovery, and innovation resonates with so many people, it is in part because he succeeds arguably the most incurious of all American presidents. At the very outset of Bush’s presidency in 2001, Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein observed: “As his lackluster academic record indicates, he lacks intellectual curiosity and is impatient with the play of ideas.”

By the end of his first term Bush was being dubbed “Incurious George,” single-handedly resurrecting the words “incurious” and “incuriosity” from the lexicographical grave and sending them to the top of an index that monitors words and phrases that appear in the news media. One wonders how Bush’s legacy might fare if he had been, say, even mildly curious about possible sectarian difficulties following the invasion of Iraq, the capability of the federal government to respond to a natural disaster of unexpected size, the strength of critical joints and ties propping up the nation’s financial infrastructure, or the possible consequences to innovation and global competitiveness of quarantining some fields of scientific endeavor. We will never know.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that Obama’s use of “tolerance and curiosity” is apt in the context of progress because these values are “notoriously associated with the adventurous, with those who seek out the new and the novel.” With his emphasis on progress, Obama clearly broke with the recent conservative past going back to Ronald Reagan, in Dionne’s view.

I don’t think of curiosity as an old-fashioned value but rather as a time-honored mental trait, a desire to know something more than what is readily apparent. In the realm of science and technology, the free play of curiosity may shed new light on something poorly understood with the possibility of changing things forever. That’s what happened to Isaac Newton as he was examining a glass prism in 1666: “Comparing the length of this coloured Spectrum with its breadth, I found it about five times greater; a disproportion so extravagant, that it excited me to a more then ordinary curiosity of examining, from whence it might proceed” (emphasis added).

I have no proof, but I wonder if Obama quite intentionally debuted “curiosity” in his list of old-fashioned values responsible for progress because we are going to need a lot more of it in the years to come to move beyond our economic and political impasses—as Newton might have put it, to see the light. Honesty, hard work, courage, fair play, tolerance, loyalty and patriotism—these old and true virtues will be necessary to do the heavy lifting, of course. But we have to be able to explore our own mental terrain and feel free to ask questions based on what we find.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama cannot be accused of lacking intellectual curiosity. And unless early signs are completely misleading, ideas will get greater play in this White House than at any time since the John F. Kennedy observed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

William Hoffman is founder of the Minnesota Biomedical & Bioscience Network (MBBNet.umn.edu) and coauthor of The Stem Cell Dilemma: Beacons of Hope or Harbingers of Doom? (Arcade Publishing, 2008).

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