On Valuing the Merely Interesting


I've been contemplating whether there is a place for the merely interesting in research and teaching.

A few years ago an academic journal named The Journal of Controversial Ideas was created. It offers a platform for authors to explore ideas that traditional outlets might reject due to their controversial nature. That a merely controversial idea would not necessarily warrant academic publication seems unproblematic. We can assume, however, that this new journal is not intended to platform merely controversial ideas. The editors are likely seeking presentations of ideas that are both controversial and valuable in some way. The merely qualifier does a lot of work here and elsewhere. Take the philosopher Kant's second formulation of his categorical imperative:

So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means

According to Kant's ethics we should not treat individuals (and ourselves) as mere means but as ends in themselves. The student of ethics prematurely dismisses this maxim as "unrealistic", insofar as we must frequently use people when conducting a variety of daily tasks. While Kantian ethics prohibits instrumentalising people it does not forbid us from paying for services or asking for favours. These routine social interactions can be navigated successfully without disregarding the dignity of others. During business hours, we may use a worker as a means of obtaining some service but we should also reimburse them fairly and treat them with respect. If we were to meet again outside of that specific business context then it would be inappropriate for us to continue to treat that individual as a worker by asking them to provide that same service. In such a way we can treat someone as a means but usually not as a mere means, while — in contrast — we use an object like a hammer merely as a tool and pay it no higher deference.

On encountering the new journal I imagined a better journal might have been The Journal of Interesting Ideas. The title would itself be a more controversial gesture to the academic world, as it suggests that the existing ecosystem of journals is somewhat biased against interesting ideas. This might be a surprising claim, given that we surely expect academic journals to support and encourage interesting ideas. Writing a scientific paper that is interesting, however, is usually a necessary but not sufficient condition for it to be publishable. Most of my professional work is in science, where journals are unlikely to publish an interesting hypothesis unless it is accompanied by a sound theoretical foundation and/or rigorous attempt at experimental falsification. Scientific journals then would appear to have a reasonable bias against the merely interesting, just as they have a reasonable bias against the merely controversial. When someone advocates for more research in basic science or the pursuit of knowledge-for-knowledge's sake they usually do so in the tacit expectation that such work will be conducted in adherence with standards of rigor and therefore not suffer the fate of being merely interesting.

While the work described is [merely] interesting it is not publishable in its current form.

— A common reviewer comment in a rejection letter

I do sometimes wonder if more attention ought to be given to the merely interesting in discussions of science, as it so often provides the inspiration for scientific discovery and sustains it through prolonged periods of frustration and difficulty. Experiments yield interesting scientific facts but only after an interesting question has first been asked. There are innumerable scientific ideas swirling in the minds of scientists and echoing through the corridors of science departments, many of which might go unexplored for a variety of practical reasons. They exist in the realm of the merely interesting, relegated to coffee speculations and classroom tangents. Even in fallow periods, with a desperate lack of funding and/or personnel, it is an essential aspect of the scientist's job to become interested in something and find a means of developing that interest. A Journal of Merely Interesting Ideas could be useful in such cases.

At least in science, there is little pedagogical treatment of the notion of interestingness in the development of an idea. Students are drilled in how to conduct experiments but not how to find or identify interesting scientific questions. A student will sometimes become perplexed when I invite them to "find what interests you" in a scientific work, as if pleading with me to explain what it means to find something "interesting" in science. I am reminded of the French semiotician Roland Barthes' distinction between the studium (the set of elements in a work and the context of its presentation) and the punctum (a piercing detail in a work that moves or intrigues) in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. All scientific papers have the same basic structure and ask a typically narrow set of questions in relation to a specific problem (studium) but some papers owe their longevity to a minor detail, throwaway comment or experimental error that attracts the interest of the scientific reader (punctum). It might be unfair to expect students to be familiar with this unusual manner of reading, especially when it typically goes unarticulated.

It does not seem to me that science in any strict way depends on controversy, at least not as much as it depends on interestingness. There are — of course — famous examples of the stifled pursuit of ideas that were deemed controversial (see the Galileo affair), which compel us to protect the free pursuit of ideas and to remain cautious about unchecked institutional power. Yet, while controversy can certainly be an impediment to the pursuit or expression of an idea, the greatest impediment of all is simply to never become interested in an idea in the first instance. It would perhaps be a greater historical tragedy if Galileo had failed to become sufficiently motivated to make discoveries as he looked upon the universe with disinterest.