A memory from Carl Sagan’s childhood, which he shares on pages 133-34 in the book version of Cosmos:
Even with an early bedtime, in winter you could sometimes see the stars. I would look at them, twinkling and remote, and wonder what they were. I would ask older children and adults, who would only reply, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.” I could see they were lights in the sky. But what were they? Just small hovering lamps? Whatever for? I felt a kind of sorrow for them: a commonplace whose strangeness remained somehow hidden from my incurious fellows. There had to be some deeper answer.
And from the following paragraph, which, while still depressing, at least ends on a positive note:
I asked the librarian for something on stars. She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained, and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book–the right kind of book.
Sagan’s career went just fine from there. But how many young would-be Sagans of all disciplines have had their growth stunted by social pressure put on them by other people’s lack of wonder?
In my own native discipline, the layman’s instinctive dismissal of the economic way of thinking is a public tragedy. I feel a twinge of sadness every time someone turns down Bastiat’s enticing invitation to see the unseen, or waves off Adam Smith’s invisible hand, without giving it a second thought (or, often, a first).
The opportunity cost of incuriosity may be even larger than Dawson and Seater suggest in their recent paper, which is a per capita income roughly triple what it actually is today. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle public policies aren’t even worse than they already are.
A little bit of simple curiosity would go a long way towards making the world not just a more interesting place to live, but a wealthier, safer, and friendlier one.