Why We Learn

Before we get too smug about the past century of scientific progress, note that scientists developed the theory of special relativity before developing a consensus on the existence of the female orgasm.

Scientific inquiry into sex didn’t begin until the 20th century, and until the 1950s remained at the extreme fringes of biology, medicine, and psychology. Participants were nearly impossible to recruit. Many researchers completed their studies with prostitutes, research assistants, spouses, and, when necessary, themselves:

“Rather than risk being fired or ostracized by explaining their unconventional project to other people and trying to press those other people into service, researchers would simply, quietly, do it themselves.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

Measurement instruments were even more difficult to acquire. Mid-20th century researchers like William Masters and Virginia Johnson built their own makeshift penis cameras to get a better look at the action:

“The dildo camera unmasked, among other things, the source of vaginal lubrication: not glandular secretions but plasma seeping through the capillary walls in the vagina.”

Mary Roach, Bonk


Here’s the thing: The Hubble telescope recently photographed a galaxy 13.8 billion light years away, literally looking back in time to the formation of the universe. It is very likely that we will develop 3D-printed human kidneys for transplant before we develop a complete model of the mechanics of human insemination.

We are taught to view technology as the bottleneck for understanding the world around us. If only we had more engineers and data scientists to build the gadgets and crunch the numbers, we’d usher in our age of abundance.

We could build a machine to perfectly record and analyze every detail of human sexuality, and we’d still be screwed without thousands of people willing to strip down and jump in, without governments and universities willing to fund the studies, without teachers and parents ready to broach the subject. Until we de-stigmatize human bodies and everything we like to do with them, we’ll never fully understand or heal them.

For our most important human problems, technology is not the bottleneck.

The bottleneck is people willing to talk frankly, to act shamelessly, to share generously.

The bottleneck is culture.


Bonk, by Mary Roach, is a frank, generous, and hilarious look at history and science of sex.  Check it out here.

Why We Act

Interest is asking questions. Care is attachment to a specific answer.

So when Chuck Klosterman confesses, “I don’t think being interested in something and giving a fuck about about it are remotely connected,” he also describes the ideal state for a journalist: inquisitive and unbiased.

In fact, it’s enlightening to locate our personal and professional lives along these two dimensions: interest and care. Consider these the four quadrants of curiosity:

1. Not interested, don’t care: We are ignorant of these topics. Everything we are easily convinced about falls here. For most, this includes plate tectonics, foreign tax law, the sex lives of the elderly, and plot of the Entourage movie. Common professions of people that don’t ask questions and don’t care about answers: hitmen, political lobbyists.

2. Not interested, but care: Here we hold strong opinions, but don’t have the time or courage or curiosity to question what we believe. Usually includes city planning, contemporary fashion trends, superior pizza locations, how cell phones work, our cholesterol level, books that we buy and don’t read. Common professions of people that care without interest: people more successful in school than out of school, terrible journalists, unsuccessful investors, bad spouses, unethical academics, bloggers.

3. Interested, don’t care: These topics elicit neutral questioning. We ask, and we keep asking, because we’re not partial toward any particular answer. Includes the worlds of astronomy, non-applied (pure) mathematics, neurotic cat behavior, and combat. Here we meet ethical scientists, empiricists, platoon leaders, photojournalists, taxi drivers, strippers, successful investors, and people more successful out of school than in school.

4. Interested, and care: Ugh. These are the topics that inspire passion within us. Exhausting, ideological passion. We research obsessively. Each answer inflames or revolts us. We know every scrap of trivia, and when we run out of questions we invent hypotheticals. We know we’re right; we must be. After all (we say smugly), we ask the most questions. These are our zealots, nerds, bodybuilders, annoying students, fiction authors, and people who want to create new schools.

Every idea, every event, every subject, every app, every meme, every possible conversation, every person we meet, every history and every future fall somewhere along these two dimensions for you.

And should you be dissatisfied with any of these, consider moving to a new quadrant.

Why We Talk

Abstinence-only sex education is empirically, ethically, catastrophically harmful.

And yet in typically Puritan fashion, American schools also teach abstinence-only writing. Writing, teachers and textbooks insist, is solely for the purpose of impregnating the reader with information. To dabble in the meandering self-pleasure of wordplay; to tempt our reader with theoretical tangents; to tickle, twist, and tease meanings – this, we learn, is deviancy.

They shame us with red marks over the paper.

Virtue, they tell us, is keeping our sacred audience in mind during the whole process. Grace, treating words with economy rather than promiscuity. Clarity! Directness! No seed spilled on the ground!

In this context, it is little wonder that so many adults leave school writing and reading like bashful nuns, inexperienced in the art of prose-making. Fumbling for words with the lights out. Proud of their large vocabularies, no idea how to use them.