How Convenient

You have to love the dudes who decide that curiosity is a vice after they’ve gotten theirs. You know, it was fine for Stanley Fish to be so intellectually curious that he’s been the dean of a university and written eleven books and gotten himself a gig writing for the New York Times.

But now that he’s firmly ensconced? Well, now’s the time to sit around and ponder what a vice curiosity is and how decent people don’t have it.  Especially not any whippersnappers that might be coming up and after anything that Fish has.

Seriously, I cannot believe, sometimes, that this kind of stuff gets published.  In a major American newspaper, which relies on people be curious about what happened yesterday in order to stay in business, publishes an article about how God hates curiosity?  That struck no one there as strange?

And I’m almost embarrassed to quote you this part:

Griffiths builds on the religious tradition in which curiosity is condemned because it distracts men from the study and worship of God, shackling them, says Augustine, “to an inferior love.” But curiosity can also distract men from secular obligations by so occupying their minds that there is no room left for other considerations. These men (and women) fail to register the pain of animals subjected to experiments in the name of knowledge, pay no heed to the social consequences of their investigations, and take no heed of the warnings issued in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (not to mention the myth of Pandora and the Incredible Hulk).

Seriously. Not considering that animals feel pain during experiments is not a failure of too much curiosity. It’s a failure of too little. And notice how he has to throw in the “(and women)” there part so that he can condemn Pandora! Not that he’s bothered to consider women in any other context in the piece.  He doesn’t even blame Eve for being curious about eating the apple.  And his list of things we must heed warnings from?  Don’t get me wrong. I’m a literature person.

But to view every piece of literature that can vaguely be construed about being about science that Fish is aware of as a morality tale? An allegory that can be given one to one correlation to real life? And from which we can draw real life lessons about curiosity?

Right, because drawing lessons about unchecked power before Fish has achieved it is inconvenient. Wait for him to get it and then we’ll get a thoughtful discussion in the New York Times about how wanting unchecked power is probably bad and anti-God.

9 thoughts on “How Convenient

  1. This is such a violent misreading of…well, pretty much everything… that it’s hard to know what to do with it. He’s a Milton scholar — the central fault of Satan is not curiosity, but pride. Curiousity (and gullibility) leads to the fortunate fall, which Milton concludes is the mechanism that preserves both free will and salvation.

    Just not getting this argument at all.

  2. It strikes me over and over again that not only do we not have a meritocracy in this country, we seem to have some kind of faux meritocracy, where only the people who are sure that they’re better than the rest of us rise to the top, whether that’s demonstrably untrue or not.

  3. Wow, that’s basically an anti-science diatribe dressed up with scholarly words, with biological science being especially bad, apparently. And I find it disgusting that he characterizes scientists – or anyone else driven by curiosity – as so amoral that they care about nothing but their search for knowledge. This bit makes it sound like we science-loving types are essentially sociopaths:’

    <blockquote.They have no power of self-control because they have no allegiance — to a deity, to human flourishing, to community — that might serve as a check on their insatiable curiosity. (Curiosity is inherently insatiable; its satisfactions are only momentary; there is always another horizon.)

    While that may be true of the mad scientist characters in the 19th century SF-esque novels we apparently should be using for moral guidance, it’s not true of most real living breathing scientists. Good grief, scientists are human beings who care about other human beings, whether they believe in a deity or not.

  4. Do not love Mr. Fish and his hideous out-of-context authoritarian reading of the literature. He seems to be unable to distinguish pride from curiosity. Even my first-year comp students can do that.

  5. Am I misreading? It seems to me Fish is talking about the kind of unbridled curiosity that leads to creating cats that glow in the dark, for example, as Korean scientists have done. The kind of curiosity that leads to seeing if an atom bomb can be created. But then, I’m an old lady.

  6. the kind of unbridled curiosity that leads to creating cats that glow in the dark

    and what’s wrong with cats that glow in the dark, if i may ask?

    Green Fluorescent Protein — a gene originally taken from either deep-sea bioluminescent fish or fireflies, i forget which — is commonly used in genetics experiments. that’s because (1) it’s fairly easy to connect it to some other gene whose function you want to study, (2) it seems to be pretty harmless when inserted into most test-case organisms whether animal or vegetable, and (3) it’s very easy to see when and where in an organism it’s being active, just turn off the lights.

    nobody creates glow-in-the-dark cats just to see if they can create glow-in-the-dark cats. we already know we can do that. these days, folks create glow-in-the-dark cats (and mice, and a bunch of other critters) specially designed to glow when and where some other biological function is at work, so that we might learn about those.

  7. The declassified records make it clear that the scientific community pretty much knew that an atom bomb could be created and had a fair idea of what it would do if detonated. That’s one of the reasons that the project received such an enormous amount of money. This was not speculative research, but applied.

    Given the historical context of the A-Bomb’s creation, I can see why a nation in a global war with powerful foes and unreliable allies would move forward with the A-Bomb and perceive it as a strategic necessity. However, it wasn’t an exercise in curiousity that led to its use against civilian populations. Nope, once again, power — not curiousity — was the culprit there.

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