What makes an idea interesting?

Note to future self…

Today I came across the work of Murray Davis. Specifically I got the chance to read his 1971 paper titled “That’s Interesting” and I found it fascinating. The paper tries to shed light on why some theories and theorists gain notoriety while others don’t. Davis argues that what makes an idea interesting is that it challenges a weakly held believe of ours. In his own words:

“There is a fine but definite line between asserting the surprising and asserting the shocking, between the interesting and the absurd. An interesting proposition [is] one which denies[s] the weakly held assumptions of its audience. But those who attempt to deny the strong held assumptions of their audience will have their very sanity called into question”

This makes intuitive sense but the implications are profound because it means that interesting ideas are not necessarily those that are closer to the truth. In other words, people (specifically scholars) might be incentivized to craft ideas that are interesting but not necessarily accurate. This is misalignment of incentives is particularly obvious in the context of PopSci content, which is the main delivery mechanism for how scholarly research reaches the masses (specially adults).

I am particularly troubled about this realization because I crave this sort of bite-sized content that makes me think a little but in reality the author does most of the legwork for me. In PopSci books the literature is summarized for me, points are made in a coherent manner(mostly) and I just have to sit there and absorb it while occasionally reflecting on its implications.

I am not a full-time academic so I don’t have the mental bandwidth to do research on topics across a variety of fields. I rely on popular science authors to serve as a filter and a packaging system. I am not saying that I will be fully skeptical about everything that I read now but it definitely leaves me wondering if there’s anything I can do about it? Read less psychology books? Focus more on logic? Hard to say. I will mull over this and see what I can come up with.

Now back to work…