The Muselet #29: Quod Erat Refutandum

“Interesting!”

This is a word you will hear me use a lot in conversation. A lot. The fun thing — for me — is that it can mean anything. It can be: “What you said is brilliant!” It can also be: “What you said seems batshit crazy!” And, since I will likely have my usual smile on my face — chances are you will not be able to tell which one it is. 

As I said, it’s a lot of fun. For me.

While my use of interesting grew organically, its ambiguity started to serve another purpose: the ability for me to withhold, or postpone judgment. I’m a slow thinker. What you’re saying may seem batshit crazy to me at first, but a few minutes, hours or even days later I may realize that in fact it was brilliant.

Responding with “interesting” leaves all paths of conversation open. If I say: “that’s insane, but please explain it to me” — forget it. I lost my chance. I smacked you in the face with judgment. When I say: “Interesting, how would you come to that conclusion?” That may lead me to learn something interesting. And this happens a lot in my experience because I don’t talk to a lot of batshit crazy people. To my knowledge.

While I just confessed to you that my utterance of the word “interesting” can mean anything, it does not mean that I can use it randomly in conversation. There are rules. It must be a reaction to a specific type of thing.

What is that thing?

The answer to that interesting question can be found in a 1971 paper by Murray S. Davis entitled “That's Interesting!: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” (freely downloadable PDF version).

It’s been almost a decade since I stopped regularly reading academic papers. I forgot how academic writing can be both interesting and paper-dry (hah). In case you don’t want to work through this 36-page piece of art — here are the good parts.

QUESTION: How do theories which are generally considered interesting different from theories which are generally considered non-interesting? ANSWER: Interesting theories are those which denycertain assumptions of their audience, while non-interesting theories are those which affirm certain assumptions of their audience.

Now, here is my meta question: do you find this interesting?

I’m writing about it. Obviously, there must be something of interest to me. But I’m not convinced if it is more than a “gotcha!”-type of interest. Is this theory of what makes something interesting going against my assumptions? Not really. It’s more that I simply never thought about it. As I read this paper, I’m like yeah, makes sense. Gotcha.

The paper does provide a framework to analyze why certain ideas may be interesting, and others may not. Or, potentially, if you’re looking for interesting ideas, how you may arrive at them. It calls this “The Index of the Interesting.”

Some examples:

  • What seems to be a disorganized (unstructured) phenomenon is in reality an organized (structured) phenomenon (or the reverse).

  • What seems to be assorted heterogeneous phenomena are in reality composed of a single element (or the reverse).

  • What seems to be an individual phenomenon is in reality a holistic phenomenon (or the reverse).

And one that potentially makes my “No More”-type posts interesting:

  • What seems to be a phenomenon that functions effectivelyas a means for the attainment of an end is in reality a phenomenon that functions ineffectively.

This is almost enough to objectively judge whether some idea is interesting or not.

However, it still lacks one dimension.

I have to apologize for this one, as I struggle to come up with a proper example here. Likely, if I had come across one, I wouldn’t remember because I didn’t find it interesting.

Therefore, let me come up with something silly:

While most people believe ants to have six legs, in reality they have seven.

Terrible example, I know. It’s also not true. However: objectively, it’s interesting. There’s an assumption, and we’re telling the audience that the assumption is wrong.

However, it’s very likely you don’t care about ants or how many legs they have. I certainly don’t. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. 

Clearly, simply contradicting an assumption is not sufficient. The idea must also be relevant to the audience. Or as the paper puts it:

Importance is the mother of interest, even if Refutation is the father.

Now you know. 

Quod Erat Refutandum. In case you were wondering what the hell that phrase means — it’s Latin for “what was to be refuted,” a play on “quod erat demonstrandum” (what was to be shown) — often used in academia, after proving something correct.

Bet you didn’t know that. Isn’t that interesting?1

1

No it’s not.