Sagan, Occam, and the Muse of Curiosity

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December 16, 2016 by libroshombre


“All About Words: An Adult Approach to Vocabulary Building” is a solid additional to any bathroom’s library. Mine, for example, includes “A Guy Walks Into a Bar: 510 Bar Jokes,” “Toilets of the World,” “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” and, naturally, “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Perusing “All About Words” led me to ponder, “diffidence: not having faith in oneself.” There’s so much fake news being pandered these days, some personal uncertainty is understandable, but consider Carl Sagan, one of our age’s sages, who wrote about “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World.”

Foremost among Sagan’s determination tools are acquiring independent confirmation of the facts, not getting “overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” developing all possible hypotheses that can explain things, and, when faced with two hypotheses that explain things equally well, applying Occam’s Razor and choose the simplest. My wife might want to apply Sagan’s tests to my recent theory that I make wonderful decisions, thanks to my messy desk, curious nature, night owl tendencies, and knowledge of library catalogs.

Messy desks “promote creative thinking and stimulating new ideas,” according to a recently published University of Minnesota study. Psychologist Kathleen Vohs noted that a clean desk “leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity.” However, their research also found that “being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: creativity … Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights … Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe … making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people’s behavior.”

Several years ago explained “Why Night Owls Are More Intelligent Than Morning Larks.” The article by Satoshi Kanazawa described how the sleep cycle, or “circadian rhythm in mammals is regulated by two clusters of nerve cells” which are in turn regulated by genes. “(H)umans, unlike other mammalian species, have the unique ability, consciously and cognitively, to override their internal biological clock … Humans can choose to be night owls or morning larks.” Kanazawa cited a hypothesis that arose from international ethnic studies “that more intelligent individuals are more likely to be nocturnal than less intelligent individuals. An analysis of a large representative sample of young Americans confirms this prediction … more intelligent children grow up to be more nocturnal as adults.”

Moreover, Douglas Rice, author of “The Curiosity Manifesto: a Call to Live a Curious Life,” wrote an online article titled “Boring Is a State of Mind: How Curiosity Diminishes Monotony” in which he posits “there is a muse for curiosity … When you’re exploring your world, there is a mystic force that shows up to fill your encounters with excitement. But … the muse of curious people only shows up after they start searching,” something librarians spend their lives doing.

For dealing with “the explosion in options in all areas of modern life,” an article in titled “Making Decisions” listed a slew of considerations suggested by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice.” Schwartz says so many decisions face us daily, it’s easy to feel “tapped out” and experience “decision fatigue.” Being hungry, depressed, or sleepy can all make deciding harder, so wait until you’re refreshed and focus “only on the factors most important to you.” Simple common sense. Looking up Schwartz’s book at our library (we don’t own it) from home led to a new discovery: a brand new catalog interface at our library.

Named “Enterprise,” like the starship, a single search, say for “dogs,” on this catalog retrieves not just books, but also e-books and other materials. It also uses “fuzzy logic” to correct those pesky common typos that derailed catalog searches in the past. Such a catalog’s a good tool to possess in this age of information overload, allowing you to find solidly reliable information in a nonce.

imgres-6.jpgAs newsman Jim Lehrer said, “If we don’t have an informed electorate we don’t have a democracy. So I don’t care how people get information, as long as they get it.” But I’d add, “and get it right.”


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