33 min read

Cultivating Wonder

Cultivating Wonder

If you spend any time with small children, you've probably found yourself frustrated by the relentless "why" questions they tend to ask. Sure, sometimes they do it just to annoy you. But there is undoubtedly a force that propels them to want to understand how reality works. And too often we grownups fail to nurture it, and our institutions, such as families and schools, rather than cultivating this desire, end up stifling it.

Science is a continuation of this very same quest for understanding that drives us as children. And this desire to understand causation is what psychologist Frank C. Keil considers the definition of wonder.

Frank is Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Yale University, where he is also a member of the Cognition and Development Lab. After his BS in Biology at MIT in 1973, he went on to get his MA in Psychology from Stanford in 1975 and PhD in Psychology from University of Pennsylvania in 1977. Keil has published extensively on topics concerned with many areas in the development of cognition and language. He has written two books on aspects of conceptual development. He has served as president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and has received numerous awards for his scholarship, including the Boyd R. McCandless Award from the American Psychological Association (Developmental Psychology), the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health, and the Ann L. Brown Award for Excellence in Developmental Research. His recent work focuses on how children and adults grasp the causal structure of the world around them and how they cope with explanatory gaps. His latest book is Wonder: Childhood and the Lifelong Love of Science (MIT Press, 2022).

We often use the word wonder to mean something like awe – when we're wowed or dumbstruck by something unexpected. That's not what wonder is, says Keil. Nor is wonder mere curiosity – it isn't simply wanting to know something we don't happen to have an answer to at the moment. Rather, it's a relentless questioning, a seeking for answers to questions which only open us up to new questions, because reality is endlessly wonder-provoking.

How does wonder work? What facilitates it? What obstacles get in the way? And how do we cultivate it in the face of such obstacles?

We discuss these questions and more in our conversation, which you can watch or listen to below. An unedited transcript follows.

Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts: iOS | Android | Spotify | RSS | Amazon | Stitcher | Podvine

Interview Transcript

Brandon: Frank, thank you so much for joining us. It's such a pleasure. It was such a pleasure reading your book, and then now to have you on the podcast.

Frank: Well, thank you for having me. I love the projects you've been working on. So, it's really a pleasure to talk to you.

Brandon: Great. Let's talk about what wonder means. How would you define it? How is it different from awe and curiosity? Those are two other words that people throw together?

Frank: Yeah, it's important to keep that apart the sense that — I mean, wonder's had various senses over the years. Sometimes it's very, pretty close to awe. Sometimes it's quite different. I see it as — I propose to use it as a much more active sense of really wanting to know what lies beneath, trying to find out, asking questions like why and how, what if.

Awe can sometimes be seen as standing back and going, "Oh, wow. Isn't this beautiful?" Almost kind of a more dumbstruck passive mode. So, I very much want to get the notion of engagement in question and asking and exploration. Curiosity can be about facts. I think wonder is more about mechanism. Why does this work? Why is it this way? So, if you're just curious about what the batting average of Ted Williams, that's not so interesting to me. I want to know: why he was able to do that? How come we could see the seams on the baseball and stuff like that?

Brandon: That's great. So, what attracted you to this topic? Why did you set out to write this book? What did you find along?

Frank: A bunch of things. I think I was surprised to learn just how much of whatever we can think of as question asking and wonder-like behavior seem to crash when the kids hit elementary school. They're going up to asking sometimes wonder every few minutes, these fourth graders. Four-year-olds, sorry. Then they hit school. Some classic studies document that sometimes they will ask one or two "why" questions a day or none. It's as if it gets completely stifled. Now, I don't think it's on purpose. I don't think people turned to this. But what happens is a convergence of negative factors. Many teachers underestimate that children can understand deep, abstract things and causal kind of arguments. So, they just give them facts. But they don't want the facts. They want to know why those facts exist.

The huge pressure in many countries towards standardized testing and assessments reinforces that fact-based kind of litany that press on teachers with large classes to get results. It makes it very hard for them to have engaged discussions with kids. I talked to someone about the Finnish revolution in schooling, which resulted in a lot more wonder kind of activity. So, I think it's totally doable. But I was concerned about that.

Then I noticed that there are some people who are lifelong wonderers, which is amazing. Richard Feynman is a wonderful example, and Jennifer Doudna in the genetics area. These people, if you read their biographies, they just couldn't help or know how the world works from the moment they're born practically. And they never stopped. Their hunger was so strong. There are some wonderful cases in history. Thomas Young is this polymath back in the 18th century, who discovered everything from physics, to music, to life insurance. It was an incredible pattern. These people went on their deathbed. They just want to know more. That's what they care about. Nothing else matters. Then my own self, I thought there's joy in learning about things. I said, why is it so fun?

Brandon: Yeah. So, was there anything you discovered as you were putting the book together that surprised you, that you didn't expect?

Frank: A few things. One thing I'm actually working on more now is the mechanism, a coaching desert I call it — the way in which the world is becoming less obvious to children, how it works. My 1963 Triumph Spitfire had zero transistors in it. It didn't have a radio. A comparable car like a Mazda Miata convertible has something about three billion transistors. Everything is encased in blocks or silicon. You can't tell what the hell if it works. You talk to undergraduates. They have no idea. Now they might say they know code instead, but they don't really know code. They know how to use it.

So, I worry that the most revealing, interesting things about how things work in the world are disappearing a bit. I'm trying to get a better handle on it. So, that surprised me. I was surprised at how wonder is so powerful new kids. I didn't realize how much it certainly spurts before any schooling starts and how it surges. Then I was really surprised to have it shutdown.

Brandon: Right. Well, I'd love to follow up on a couple of those things as we go through along. Let's talk about the — I guess one of the core things that you argue here is that, what we're wondering about fundamentally is causal mechanism. That really is what children, as well as scientists, the scientists we talk to, we find that that just across the countries that we studied — it was some 70 plus percent of scientists. For them, what they find beautiful about science is the ability to grasp the inner logic of systems or the hidden order behind the patterns they see. That seems to be, from your work, it suggested that this is just a natural extension of what we're drawn to as children. What are causal mechanisms and what draws us to them as children?

Frank: Well, we were surprised because we've done some work around the detail driven kids are to understand mechanisms. If you do a magic trick to a young kid, they want to call behind and pick apart the device into how the hell you did that. They like not consume more than facts. They don't want to stir shyness. They just really want to know why and how. The reason why they do that, it gets much better payoff. It gives them more inductive power. If you know something about mechanism, well, I can figure out what else has the same mechanism. Too much more powerful insight. They prefer experts in a mechanism or experts who know facts. This is before they go to school. They've learned this is a very powerful tool towards figuring out what the world is like. I don't know if they're awe mechanisms. I think they are like the ones that are like clockworks, the ones that they can almost visualize. I think that maybe because we're sitting on top of a spatial system, it's very evolutionarily old. So, that's why things laid out kind of spatially.

Interesting question about this when we get into the sciences is, some people in the areas of physics think there's no such thing as cause in the basic physics. It's just equations. Bertrand Russell once started that. But he changed his mind later. And so, I like to think it's very hard to think without cause. I think we really like to see things having effects and then cascading downwards, and looking at the branching architecture if that's what it is, to cascade.

Brandon: Right. What are the factors then that you found that facilitate this sense of wonder, this sense of drive to understand causal mechanism?

Frank: Well, the help, if you're a parent or a teacher or just another adult, is to listen to the kids and ask them open-ended questions. Do not ask them how many x, y. Ask them, "I wonder how this works? Or what if we did this? Or what do you think this would be?" Get them to think and generate longer responses. If you say, "How many legs does it have," versus, "I wonder why spiders have these many legs and other animals don't? Why are five digits so common across so many different vertebrates?" These are the questions at work. But asking simply to report back facts or just say how cute that is, that doesn't get them engaged. So, open-ended conversations.

Photo by Michał Bożek / Unsplash

All of us have enormous gaps of ignorance. The more you wonder, the more you know. When you're talking to a kid, you're not stuffing knowledge in their head. You're sharing inquiry with them. You're not the same status. You know more than they do about a lot of things. But you're both wondering together. I think that's very important. When I interact with my granddaughter, I always like to disclose my ignorance and say, "I don't know it. Let's figure this out." I think that's very important to realize that everyone is in the same boat. It is the same enterprise.

Brandon: Right. How much do you think the repression of wonder is a result of our particular school system? I think of people like Ken Robinson, who argued that really our schooling model is largely designed to create foot soldiers for the industrial revolution. We want compliant workers.

Frank: Yeah, I know that argument. It's the sort of corporate tech school assembly line models. I don't know if that's awe that's going on. I think there are some pretty liberal principals and teachers who wouldn't endorse that at all. But I think they still fall into the same kind of trap, which is they are at a school where they have a lot of kids. They have these mandates to get certain kinds of performances to other kids. Those performances, despite all our national recommendations from panels that you want to look at causal beliefs and mechanism, the tests are almost always fact-based tests. The document is in the book. The assessments they have to train these kids for are not the ones that they care about. And so, of course, it's going to get stifled. A poor teacher doesn't have the time in the class to engage in a back-and-forth conversation, to call inside a kid's head and jointly co-wonder. First of all, she just dumped there an alternative kid.

Again, I don't think it's because they have this negative view of a wonder. I think they just can't get it. They have no time or opportunity. And they underestimate how much kids can do this. We have done a lot of studies showing that, when asked what they think kids can learn, they greatly underestimate it. We did one study where we showed kids a seven-minute video that was designed to teach adult technicians how to take apart and assemble and repair a diesel engine. We asked teachers could you show this to a kindergarten. Would they get anything out of it? So, the question would be stupid. They adored it, and they learned all sorts of abstract principles, the way to do it in certain ways or to make it work. But you can actually engage them in surprisingly abstract things, even before they can speak.

I'll tell you one study we did that engaged in all this. Imagine you see a display of objects. Let's say, it's a bunch of blocks all scattered around the table. A screen comes up, and a ball rolls behind the screen. The screen comes down and the blocks rolled neatly stacked. Infants are very surprised at that. How can you create order or disorder with just a ball? But if the other thing happens, if it goes from an ordered array to a disordered array, they're totally okay with that. Through a whole bunch of studies, we've shown that they know before they can even speak. The only intentional agents, goal-driven agents, can create order or disorder. It's like entropy understanding. Now, how they get this real? We're still trying to figure it out. It's now been replicated in several labs. So, we know it's real. But that's very abstract, hard for even adults to articulate, but present well before they can speak. And so, that kind of orientation and abilities, that we need to recognize more and nurture them.

Brandon: And it seems to fly in the face of a lot of common wisdom around privileging concrete versus abstract learning among young children, right?

Frank: Right. That's a myth. There's a lot of reasons people believe that kids go from concrete to abstract, but there's no good evidence for it. If anything, they're more abstract than they are concrete. Because they can't necessarily do it. They need to go to medical school, do all the diseases and all the germs and microbes. But some of the broad principles of healing and curing can be mastered much younger.

Brandon: Yeah, it's been such a fascinating read. I mean, when I think of moments in my own schooling, where I think it was really incentivized to memorize stuff. I think I did very well in science as a student, but it was largely just regurgitating facts, and formulas, and so on. I think you win prizes for those things. Then it becomes a self-reinforcing incentive system. And so, when I came across a physics and math teacher who actually was a model for the kind of wonder-fueled science that I see among many scientists now that I'm studying, I just found him to be a crackpot. I thought this guy is very strange. He seems to see mechanisms that drive everything. We watched a movie, and he would want to explain why this particular thing moves in this way and seem to have this love for seeing those patterns and processes.

Frank: There's a tricky part to this, which is kind of like Richard Dawkins once talked about learning to play the violin and why it's painful at first. But you get this great work at the end. It's good to memorize some things, because it gives you a platform to think with. If you don't memorize your timetables and your addition tables, you don't get to see the structure of mathematics beneath. You'll get to see how — math is all about structures. It's not about doing processes. There's an incredibly rich architecture, and you can't see it if you have no sense of how the numbers are laid out. That means you have to memorize some stuff.

I hate just memorization, but I don't want to have kids think that there isn't. You need to get through some slogging to get to the good stuff. And so, the great teacher makes that clear. Let's just play this game. Let's get this. Not painfully. But once you get those facts in place, then you start to see how interesting it is to have that. If you don't have some shared knowledge base, it's much harder to engage in productive discovery.

Physics teacher
Photo by Tra Nguyen / Unsplash

Brandon: Right. So, adequate description seems really important, too, right? Not just looking for explanation but also laying out. Here are things. Here's how things are structured and ordered.

Frank: Yeah, but not too much detail. Again, there's always a question of digestible chunks. You don't want to overwhelm them. You want to give them enough to give them the pivotal point and use as a platform. Not too much. Because you can always revisit it.

Brandon: Right. So, one of the things I want to talk about, obstacles to wonder. Again, among the scientists that we're studying. One of the things that keeps coming up is stories of scientists who started out their PhD programs really fueled by wonder, really wanting to know how certain things worked. As they certainly climb the career ladder, they get caught up in the pursuit of chasing after grants and the publish or perish pressure that they're facing, we hear from people that scientists today have much less agency and autonomy in pursuing the kinds of projects, say, at the postdoc level than they used to 50 years ago. Then we have scientists telling us that, "The sense of wonder that I had when I started really has been beaten out of me by the pressures of the system."

Frank: It's a big issue. It's also sadly not equally distributed. If you're a faculty member at most medical schools, all your salary comes off grants. So, that means you cannot even afford to feed yourself unless you're getting grants. Now, the grants aren't always available, aren't always in your area of interest. They might be in some topic that's very applied and not really what you care about. But you got to keep turning those grants. Usually, two or three.

I've heard of schools where the lab walls are literally on wheels. And as your grant income start shrinking, the walls start shrinking in and going to other people. That's very bad. But even in places where you have a full-time salary — like I fortunately have had the pressures ramping up evermore to look at your productivity and developing a portfolio of publications. The conservative approach is to work in one topic and really get deep into it. Don't take too many risks. I think that's unfortunate, because the excitement is taking the risk in trying something crazy and finding it works and be willing to fail. That's very high stakes today.

One of the things that's happened is I think we talked earlier. Everything is metricized now. You can look up. When I started out, I had no idea how I was doing. I was just pursuing ideas. But now you can look up and see how many people are citing you. There are scores of how productive you are. Everything is out there. It has a very different flavor. One of the scary things I've learned also, which I think they incentivize us, is you're expected as an investigator to market yourself. I heard a story recently, which blew me away, about a very hotshot molecular biologist who has been recruited by numerous schools. Some of the places asked him, "How are you managing your public portfolio? How are you doing your Twitter releases? How are you doing your Instagrams?" Because we know that's important. I do the skills here to really rock out at the front. I thought that's the last thing you want. I mean, I don't like that. Because I feel like, how would I know that my stuff has really have an impact? Is it because of the science, or because I'm a good PR specialist? I think that is corrupting as well.

Brandon: Now this is a really serious issue. I wonder, in your own lab, have you found ways to help your team sustain their sense of wonder in the face of these pressures?

Frank: I wouldn't say I do it perfectly. But one of the things that's very important to me is that my students to have ownership of a project. So, I've actually never said do a study three in my grant. I have a research assistant who's paid to do that. Even those, I tried to get some ownership feeling. So, what I often say, what do you care about? What do you like? We brainstorm. I say, I don't resonate with any of this. Then maybe I suggest they work for someone else in that project. But I'm ridiculously ADHD. So, I'll pick up on any interest in almost anything. In fact, I rarely publish more than 5 to 10 papers on a topic because I just get so bored. So, I welcome new ideas all the time. I tell them, "I want you to become better at this and know more about this than I would assume. I want you to own it." I think that's very motivated. We try to do a lot of means by always asking, why should we care about this? Why is this interesting? Why does it matter? Not because someone else published something, we have to replicate it. That's the last reason I wonder. Sometimes you have to get started. But that shouldn't be the primary motivation. You should say, this is just plain interesting. There's a hole here that needs to be filled. Because without it, we can't really tell the right story, the full story.

Brandon: Well, it leads me to think about the relationship between wonder and something like humility, which seems really important for the current challenges in science like the replication crisis and, again, the pressure to over inflate your claims and so on in order to get funding.

Frank: I did some work with Templeton Foundation which really is in humility, intellectual humility. I think there's only — there's a set of different brands. I don't think you want the intellectual humility. That means you're intimidated. You're not willing to be daring and bold. But at the same time, as being daring and bold, you have to admit your ignorance. Admit that others might know more than you. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't speak up. I've been in groups where the younger career people would don't dare speak out for fear that they might get screamed, or it's just not appropriate.

I want to hear what they think. I think humility is so important in terms of recognizing that you might be wrong, or be willfully ignorant, or there are experts you need to speak to. But it's equally bad to be humble if it's paralyzing, if it means, "I'm just not good at this stuff. It's hopeless. I can't understand it. I should just be subservient and let the big guns tell me what to do." You should always be willing to try out your ideas and see what they think of them. I think there's a — true wonder in my sense has a boldness to it and adventurousness to it while still realizing that you might be incredibly fallible and wrong.

Brandon: Do you find that any qualities are required in order to persevere in the face of failures, in the face of being wrong? Because it can be incredibly discouraging for a lot of people to pursue a line of inquiry when success isn't forthcoming.

Frank: I understood individual differences much, so I don't know for sure. But I do think there's a pretty good literature suggesting if you focus on extrinsic factors as opposed to intrinsic factors. This goes back 50 years. So, I want the fame of being a big professor or have a big salary. Forget that. But if I want some of these big external factors, to do this, you'll almost always be unhappy. What he, I said, I want to satisfy my urge to know why. I love unfolding this kind of structure that's going here. It's so cool to share in thrill discovery and high five that I finally just figured this out. So, to focus on those factors is important. Some people need to look guidance to see that's what really matters. Unfortunately, a few people want to go into research in academia, because a lot of it is a prestige. That's the last reason they want to go.

Brandon: One of the other things that struck me about your work is how wonder can lead to an increased appreciation for the beauty of the world, which is one of the things that most of the scientists we talked to say. You're right that science adds delight, not debasement to our appreciation of nature. It reminds me of a story that Feynman. He tells about an artist friend of his who complained that, all of you scientists, you don't even know how to appreciate the beauty of a flower. You reduce it, the way that kids complain about the rainbow sort of thing. Feynman said that that's nonsense. Because I understand the deeper mechanisms, I can appreciate the inner workings of nature, of the flower.

Frank: I talked about it at some length. Mark Twain has a similar kind of quote, and Dawkins talked about it in the whole book. Keats has this famous poem where he talks about how you destroy the beauty of rainbow. But I think it's a mischaracterization of Keats. Keats is actually a science freak.

Brandon: Right. I didn't know about that until I read you.

Frank: I think you can make anything boring by being drawn about it. That's true of literary criticism. I think anybody who wants to drill deep without thinking about the broader picture can make things boring. And so, scientifically analyzing something without no stepping back and appreciating all that you see can be terrible. But that's just because it's done badly. I've never seen — what makes a rainbow less beautiful to note that how it's composed of light frequencies? I think I totally blew my students here when I explained to them there are no bands in the real rainbow. It's all imposed by our visual system. This is all a bias that we're seeing, a kind of event. They balk at that. They say, how could this — they're so real. I said, "No, they aren't." That doesn't make it less cool. It makes it even more impressive. And so, I think that's going be a question about it. I think science, if presented like, "You're wrong. Here are all the details I'll show you wrong," that's not the right way to think about it. This explains why you appreciate it and why it's interesting.

Photo by eberhard 🖐 grossgasteiger / Unsplash

Brandon: Is it possible for learning to ever diminish our sense of wonder, like whether you could lose your sense of the fascination with a mystery of something once you know how it works?

Frank: I guess. I've never had that experience. I'm trying to think of what would be such a case. Well, here's an interesting example. But I don't know if it's definitive. Baseball players are remarkably good at catching fly balls, professional baseball players. Now, if you do the physics of it, it's incredibly hard because it's not just a parabolic trajectory. The actual trajectory of a fly ball is start like a parabola. Then air effects increase on the foot straight down. So, if they're doing the math in real time, it's a mess of differential equations, which nobody thinks.

What you find out they're really doing is they're keeping an angle of regard on the ball at the same angle. If it's at 32 degrees, let's keep it at 30 degrees. They're catching it. They might say that demystifies it, makes it boring. I think it's cool. But some people could say that, "Oh, I thought there's incredibly a complex calculation. That's all they're doing." But I think it's amazing. So, part of it is perspective. I think there are times you can find something be so deflationary. Say, this beautiful, wonderful thing was really just explained by a trick that someone used, and that might make it less interesting. I think that can add elegance to it.

Brandon: Again, this is, for me, it's filling me with more sense of wonder around those individual differences to why some people are disillusioned, I suppose, with this sort of knowledge. Others are actually spurred to learn more, to keep with fascination.

Frank: I would look more to experiences they've had and less towards something about how they're made up. I think that it's such a universal Descartes of us. There's obviously going to be differences in your first experiences. But I've never seen anybody who couldn't, in a conversation that intrigued. I teach a course or a seminar, I started doing wonder a couple of years ago. I tell these kids how many things they think they understand, and they don't. Because I did a lot of work on illusions of understanding and how incredible cool it is to learn. That to make presentations each week about something they know nothing about. One year, they do a live presentation on what happens during spring, about how the songbird's brain gets bigger, about certain flowers that come in early in the spring and have ways to break into the frost. Just a million different things. They all agreed that as they watched that spring occur, it was the spring or summer. It had more richness and beauty and enchantment than they ever had before because of what they knew. It's like going into a room in technicolor and dynamic, as opposed to a static black and white image. It really had that feeling. I keep on using the analogy of it. It's giving a better lens on how to see the world. It's not telling you exactly what's there, but it's making everything richer and more powerful. Who would not want that?

Brandon: Yeah, to be able to see things more clearly.

Frank: And deeper. And see stuff that other people can't see.

Brandon: You mentioned illusions. And so, I want to ask, can wonder ever be seductive, misleading, kind of draw us—

Frank: It can. It can be weaponized if you constrain it, if you don't have what I call "free-range wondering." If you tell people, I want you to wonder on the best way to destroy, to compact uranium into a bomb, that can be the largest deal. That's not the kind of problem-solving wonder that I'm thinking about. I think it loses this question. Because, again, it's got a strong, external motivating force on it. There are certainly cases where people have used claims of wonder to go the wrong way. But I honestly think if you're really honest to yourself and say, "Did I really think about this in the fairway? Did I really weigh the evidence and the sources," you're not going to do that?

But one of the things that I said I talked about towards your new book is sitting on this airplane flight with this guy who was denying climate change. He destroyed me because he knew so much physics. But the one thing I forgot to ask — and I always regret this. I hope I get to see him again on the plane flight someday — is what would it take to prove you wrong? Because people who are agenda-driven are more likely starting a religion or a dogma. They don't have anything to say. That's the critical thing. As long as they can tell you, then you're going to have a real discussion. I do that all the time with my undergraduates. I say, "It's fine to tell me something you believe. But if you want to have a discussion and argument with someone, you have to tell me how this is potentially. You'll be amazed how often that's something you have never thought about.

Brandon: Yeah, that's really crucial at some point. I think Adam Grant, the psychologist, at Wharton, makes around - part of what he says it is to think like a scientist is to be able to have the conditions under which what I'm saying, what kind of evidence would disprove this point, or this theory, or this hypothesis?

Frank: Yeah, I think it's 1,000 times it's looked threatening, but it's also exciting. I actually don't mind at all being proven wrong. I've had a number of studies where I've had things turn out just the opposite of what I thought, and they actually blew me away. That's cool. There's more to look at.

Brandon: Well, threatening is an interesting word. Because that's, again, it seems to hold — we've had stories of scientists who tell us that they essentially were told you can't publish this, because this is going to — no one who runs this journal will publish it because it threatens their established paradigm, and so forth. And so, they're often risks that are at the level of career. But they're also then existential risks for people who, if something turns out to be true, that threatens their sense of identity.

Frank: It's happened. I've seen that happen. It's happened to me. I had a brilliant graduate student. I won't go into details, beyond saying that he discovered something that challenged the entire orthodoxy of an error. He had to go through a surge of rejections until he's just overwhelmed the reviewers with evidence. And now it's become a major funding. He had such persistence and diligence. He was willing to be proven wrong, but he just kept marching for more evidence. But a lot of kids were equipped that would have said that, I couldn't get up on these reviews. I cannot stand this. So, it does require some — you need an alliance. You need this one mentor. It can be so important. They say, look, you're doing everything right. You may be wrong. But so far, they've been supporting you. Keep at it.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale / Unsplash

Brandon: One thing I want to ask about is how to improve trust in science. One of the things that struck me when I read your book was you talked about how strict objectivist views of the truth are more likely to encourage unquestioning dogma, which is often associated with strong feelings of tribalism. There’re ways in which it struck me, that science is presented to the public that can be dogmatic, kind of finger wagging. That, at least in the United States, seems to lead to a lot of rejection of science and scientists. We don't want this moralistic perspective, et cetera. I wonder, are there ways to cultivate wonder and the sense of the beauty of understanding?

Frank: We've done some work on arguing to win versus arguing to learn. I think that's where our Scientific American piece on this where we talk about, how that makes it more objectivist attitude. If you go into a discussion with another colleague and your goal is to beat them, the truth starts to matter less. You tend to objectify certain things as being the key points to win on. If you're going with an open-mind and you're saying, "I really know what's going on here. Let's argue," and you're willing to be proven wrong — in fact, you might be excited about to be proven wrong — that is a very different mindset. And dogma is much less likely to emerge.

But in the legal system, that's just what you're supposed to do. But unfortunately, these kids are often seen as what you're supposed to do in the science. It should never be able to do in the science. You're never trying to win. The truth should win. You should be trying to learn through an argument. That's why good lab meetings are always argument. Our way of arguments all the time, a lot of things. But they're never in terms of trying to win. It's trying to figure out what's going on. You said this. But what about this? How can this handle this? And it's back and forth.

Brandon: Do you have then implications for how public communication of science might look different if we use that approach?

Frank: I think you should always make it clear that we're fallible, and that we're trying to figure things out. I think we should try to invite people to be participants in scientists and help us. Look at the data yourself, inviting the learner not to drill to do that. I think we should tell them, ask about mechanism. Don't just look at facts.

I think climate change is a fascinating example. It is extremely hard to understand what the climate change model is. It takes some extra faith to believe it's as devastating as it appears to be. Because if we look at the details, you can't do experiments in the Earth. You can only do sort of models. Then you'd be somebody's competition models. It could get very complicated. So, I believe it because I've talked to enough people. But it is a bit of a leap of faith. It makes you uncomfortable. I wish I could have a more concrete feel about the greenhouse effect and how it's working and stuff.

So, I think you have to tell them to — when they present the work, that they're fallible. And then hope that the silly algorithm-driven social websites don't blow it up on you. One of the things that's happened, of course, is that these social media websites pick on the most extreme versions of your views. People then polarize those. They're driven to work that way. That's what gets the most clicks and the most ads. And so, I found that there is something as aggravating pressures out there that are hard to combat. But I think you should never try to oversell your findings.

I always hate it when someone says something they were simply like too much. You have to find a level that configures the audience but I think shows you're able to illustrate. There's complicated, and there's more to learn. The whole COVID crisis is such an interesting example of not really managing the information right. I will give a lot more written about that. So, I don't want to pronounce myself with authority at all. Because it's pretty clear to me. It attempts to be over simplified. And so, it makes certain statements. People have lost trust. I don't know how they should message it better. This is not an easy topic to go through.

Brandon: Yeah, it seems as attention. Then this is around that humility question, which is on how do you assert something with some confidence while also saying that this is fallible? This is what we know to the best of our knowledge, but it could change tomorrow.

Frank: Yeah, I think you have to decide and say this has been pretty successful. I'm not totally just throwing this up here. But you're on the wrong occasion. I think Fauci tried it pretty well, but he got battered. If you were to put into qualification, no, you have to give me a stronger message. So, there's a lot of debate now about whether we're pushing vaccines. It's so hard. It sort of undermined the credibility. Believe me. I'm very pro-vaccine. But there are questions that you should always be questioning. How many boosters do you need? How much? Do the hybrid shot really works? Now, what's really going on here? People think, well, the public can understand this. It's too complicated. So, we'll have to simplify. But when you do that, you run the risk of boring.

Brandon: Right. Yeah, that's one of the big challenges, I suppose. We were asking scientists in terms of their own ideas as to what it would take to improve trust in science. We wondered whether communicating the sense of wonder, that even the beauty of science could help. We were surprised a lot of them said, no, it won't help. Because people are going to come to your findings. Whatever set of facts you present, no matter how beautiful, they're going to come to them with their priors. And if they confirm what these people already are committed to, then they'll be happy to accept you. And if they threaten their priors, they won't accept.

Frank: I agree with that. I think that wonders move to a solution, unless it's linked a bit to mechanism. It's hard for a charlatan to make up mechanism. People who make claims, if you say, well, that's really interesting, how does that work? Then it gives you some glib starts. But what about this? It's hard to invent mechanisms that work coherently all the way down. Most of us are holes in our mechanistic models as I talk. But the holes are sound reasonable to make sense. You don't have to know a lot. I wouldn't go pull this off. But I'm always amazed that I could talk to someone. There's nothing I know nothing about. I could tell whether they know what they're talking about by inquiring them.

The other thing to do is look at our source. We've done some work on this empirically. People often think you need multiple sources to validate a claim. What they never see — this is amazing — is that if all those sources got it from one prior common source, which is often the case, it's totally corrupted. And so, we've done experimental research, and they never take that or rarely take that step one further back. So, teaching them to look at the original information, see if it's really diversely collected or whether they are all sourcing the same. Unfortunately, network news is doing that more and more. They're just clip stuff off the web. And so, it's all going back to the same single reporter standing on some corner like it was a rumor, rather looking from different sources.

Brandon: Let's talk about how to cultivate wonder. I mean, in the closing chapter of your book, you've got a number of tips. Are there things you would recommend? Let's start with, say, children. The things you would recommend that parents do.

Frank: Yeah, listen to them and do the open-ended questioning. Talk to them in ways that invite a conversation. Be partners in the conversation and make sure it won't ignorance. It's the joy of co-discovery. You're not equivalent. You know more than I am, but you still don't know a lot. Say, let's figure this out together, to earn the respect sources. Show your genuine pleasure in learning things. That's one thing.

Two, try to make the world more apparent to them. It's easy to take something apart, do sell, look and see what the innards are like. Don't try to hide them. Assume that complexity is never a hindrance, something overwhelming complexity is fast in its own right. They might not know how big a piece works, but they'd like to see it. They'd like to see, "Oh, my God, look at this. So that is like, I have no idea." Or sometimes the opposite. And so, I think those are some obvious things to do at the family level.

I've seen, in some family's dinner, it becomes a really central area to discuss something fascinating. It's hard to do in our most critical excellence, to have a ton of day where you sit back and say, did you see that thing about whatever? I'll give an you example. The Webb Telescope's recent discoveries that the universe has trillions of galaxies, each of which has trillions of stars. I know a very senior cosmologist who says, "I'm still just blown away by the fact that this is so much vaster than I ever conceived." And yet, we may be the only place where there's life. It might be wrong. But so far, that'd be like .01% of all of reality has life. That's a staggering thing to learn. And so, that's a great conversation with your kids to have. I wouldn't say we always did it. All three of our sons went on the sciences in various forms. So, I think we've got them more intrigued. They're not always doing research, but they all were science majors. I think I like all the world would have that kind of orientation. Not that I think science is everything. But it's so much fun.

Satellite in orbit
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

Brandon: Yeah, what about at school for teachers who are getting pressured by having to produce results at the testing level, and so on? Are there other things that they can do in spite of the pressures they feel?

Frank: It's hard. One of my sons actually taught for America, in New York City. He was a high school science teacher, a middle school science teacher. He had run things on weekends at people's homes in the neighborhood and had done things for health. And so, there was not enough time in the classroom to do it all. He's now a doctor. He said medical school is nothing compared to teaching for America for two years when he taught at school. It was so much work. It was incredibly rewarding. He got his kids inspired. So, you can do it. I'm not sure if you can do it during the class hours, if there are mandates that you have to honor as well. Fellows done it, but through an extraordinary change in their whole culture. It took them 10 years. That's a long section of my book that I go into. I can't really go into detail here. But it's not so you can choose overnight.

Brandon: Yeah. Finally, for scientists, those who are currently feeling that they're losing their sense of wonder, is there anything that you might advise them? Or what can they do again in that current climate?

Frank: Ask them why they're doing this in the first place. Why are they going into the field? Remind them. Hopefully, the original motivation was more wonder-driven. Then point out that that's going to be the only ones. Not everybody can make it in the sciences and secure a living. Certainly, they'll have to be in some other discipline and still enjoy. I mean, you have to be realistic at some point. If there are very few jobs, and if the things just haven't fallen your way, or your equipment broke down or whatever, maybe you're going to have to leave the field as a basic bench researcher. Hopefully not if that's your passion. But don't do something you hate just because you think you need to go up the ladder. That's never a good recipe for a future.

Brandon: Yeah. Great. Frank, any closing thoughts, big takeaways that we haven't touched on from your book that you want our listeners and viewers to keep in mind?

Frank: I think, in the end, I've written a number of books. But this was by far the most personal book. Because I've learned so much more about my own self and how much I enjoyed asking questions. I'm getting older. I'm feeling this almost impatience to use every minute to learn more. I devour books about science across all the disciplines. Because there are so much to learn but so little time. It's interesting to see people who are truly polymaths who have that feeling all the time, this hunger to know.

I think it's satisfying the same way. And I use this analogy. You go into a new park. You want to know how the park is laid out. You want to see all the opportunities there and what the future is. I think just realizing how rewarding this is, and it doesn't cost anything to be a consumer of this. Not to be just the researcher. That can cost a lot. But to enjoy the fruits of science and to see the world more originally and deeply.

I had cataracts removed about a year ago. Suddenly, the world popped in color and Christmas like it hadn't before. It's exactly the same thing. Learning some stuff through wondering suddenly makes the world pop. It comes alive in ways it didn't before. That never stops. I'm just reading on Mukherjee's latest book, The Song of the Cell. I've been trying to understand the immune system. Oh, my God. That is the most complicated — I still don't quite get it. I don't have a hand on it yet. But I'm dying to figure out a way to talk about it and think about it, what I can manage. And so, until you attain that, that's just rewarding itself.

Brandon: Yeah, fantastic. Frank, it's been such a pleasure. Again, reading your book was such a delight for me. It's even more delightful to have you here.

Frank: Well, thank you for reading it so carefully. I'm glad you liked it.

Brandon: Yeah, you're welcome. Great.

If you found this post valuable, please share it. Also please consider supporting this project as a paid subscriber to support the costs associated with this work. You'll receive early access to content and exclusive members-only posts.