We asked Kathryn Schulz to comment on her current work and ideas that have influenced her
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
Lately I’ve found myself feeling curious about curiosity. There’s a fragment of Sappho that I’ve always loved: “If you are squeamish / don’t prod the beach rubble.” What I want to know is, why are we sometimes squeamish (or scared, or indifferent), and why do we sometimes prod? Do certain characteristics reliably pique our curiosity, and if so, why, and what are they? Is it possible to deliberately stoke curiosity – or, conversely, deliberately stifle it? Given that it has such an alarming reputation (dead cats, etc.), why is curiosity so abundant in children? And if (to propose one possible answer to that question) curiosity inspires us to explore and understand our environment, why does it usually taper off as we age? These questions matter, because while the human intellect might be an amazingly sophisticated engine, curiosity is its ignition. And, at the moment, it’s the rubble I’m personally most inclined to prod.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
These days, I’m focused less on other people’s ideas and more on how those ideas are conveyed. Specifically, I seem to have become obsessed with great storytellers. Having just written a book that’s full of stories but is fundamentally idea-driven, I find myself drawn to people who have reversed the trick: written books that are full of ideas but fundamentally story-driven. Michael Lewis might be the reigning master of this, but Dave Eggers (in What is the What and Zeitoun) and many others come to mind as well.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
I write in my book about an obscure-sounding philosophical hypothesis known (rather awkwardly) as the Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science. The gist is that since virtually all past scientific theories have proved false, most present-day theories will one day collapse as well. In other words, odds are that we’re terrifically wrong. You can extend that hypothesis well beyond science, since the great truisms of almost all domains (politics, health, technology, law, child-rearing…) are eventually dismissed as falsehoods. I accept the theory but dispute the “pessimistic” part. One of the most important ideas we can grasp is that all of our ideas are fundamentally provisional. If we can do that, we can learn to hold them a bit more humbly, and in the happy knowledge that a better one is almost certainly on the way.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
As an expert in wrongness, can I request an exemption from this question? The trouble is that I’m far too aware of the problems with prognostication. Given that the present constitutes an almost infinitely noisy information environment and that the future is by definition unknowable, the prospect of correctly connecting the dots between the two is daunting. About the only thing I can say with certainty is that no matter how bad things seem to us, a certain number of people will look back on the present with intense nostalgia. Longing for the past seems to be one completely consistent feature of the future.
Kathryn Schulz is a journalist whose freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Nation, Foreign Policy, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Schulz began her career in journalism writing for the now-defunct Feed Magazine, one of the earliest online magazines. From 2001 to 2006, she was the editor of the online environmental magazine Grist. Prior to that, she was a reporter and editor for The Santiago Times, of Santiago, Chile, where she covered environmental, labor, and human rights issues. She was a 2004 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism, and has reported from throughout Central and South America, Japan, and, most recently, the Middle East.www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/thewrongstuff.