The Worth of Science
The Worth of Science
â€śThe worth of science lies in the truth and utility of scientists' theories and findings.â€?
(X) By showing that science has an inherent quality independent of science results, (Y) I will argue that such character must be recognized as potentially valuable, in order to show that (Z) although the value of science is largely judged by its utility, there is still inherent value in the scientific process as a paradigm.
Scienceâ€™s utility is a large part of what determines its value
Human beings are concerned about time. We only get so much of it before we have to leave the things we love or they leave us. This is a fundamental difference between humans and machines: the fear of loss. And logically, because of our awareness of our own finiteness and the passing of precious time, we must prioritize the things we do, and the effort we put into them.
Such is the backdrop for our inherent tendency to place some amount of value to things that are efficient or useful. We walk to school on our legs because doing so on our hands would not be as useful. We usually prefer to fund - with our limited and highly-valued money - research that seems to have potential for common or serious health problems, or research with the potential for common and serious business, entertainment, or political consequences. It is only natural that nobody has ever funded a study to determine nationsâ€™ rankings in the ability of their a random sample of their citizens to play bocce ball. Such an effort would invariably come at the expense of something that most people would consider more pressing.
Though utility is highly valued, humans have other values
It is crucial to note, however, another defining characteristic of humans: we also often place value on things that are not immediately or apparently useful.
It may be conceded that this is a largely philosophical question, and the claim that things which may not initially appear to be useful do perhaps have some non-obvious benefit that influences why we value them. One common example, is being attracted to â€śgood-lookingâ€? people, at the expense of possibly more likely genetic proliferation with a mate who is not so good-looking. Many theories have attempted to explain this sort of supposedly irrational behavior, but the leading contenders argue that genetic â€śflawsâ€? and predispositions to health and disease (our genotype) are manifested in how we look generally (our phenotype), and thus, we subconsciously select for genetically fitter mates by judging people attractive or not. Frans De Wall offers another example in his article â€śHow Animals Do Businessâ€?; in the article, De Wall describes a monkey rejecting a food reward when it views the payment as unjust (it observed its partner receiving more food); â€śto reject unequal pay â€“ which people do as well â€“ goes against the assumptions of traditional economicsâ€¦[But] in the long run it keeps one from being taken advantage of,â€? (De Waal 54).
So utility may lurk in some cases where it not entirely obvious, but there are still many behaviors that are not satisfactorily defined by utility. Suicide is perhaps the most obvious, but the work of Daniel Kahneman and Vernon L. Smith (Economics Nobel Prize winners 2002) has demonstrated that humans make many types of decisions in which they are not optimizing utility, or do so unpredictably and haphazardly (Kahneman 1). We might not routinely walk on our hands to school, but we might do it on a lawn for fun, at the expense of finite calories and potential of injury.
Such behavior, many romanticists argue passionately, is key to our humanness. It helps to explain the tremendous resources and energy devoted to painting, and singing, and arts of all sorts. It is revealed in our choices of architecture â€“ and in the establishing of religions, disestablishing of religions, and sacrifice of obvious and sure-fire attainment of resources for principles.
The Thomas Popper paradigm promotes the idea of science being done by individuals free from such non-epistemic influences (Ruse p. 15). Though a dyed-in-the-wool Popperian scientist might bristle at the thought of such irrational behavior, recognizing the phenomenon is what allows science to have worth beyond its utility.
Again, the utility of aesthetics is beyond the scope of this paper. But if we concede that, at least some time, we do at least some things that may not be in our best interest, or that we take pleasure in an action regardless of its results, we see the crack we need to open the idea of science as a candidate for aesthetics.
Science possesses such an aesthetic that qualifies it as not wholly judged by utility.
If we appreciate that part of human behavior is influenced by less-than-optimally efficient aesthetics, it is possible to recognize science - as a process, as a phenomenon - as having value, regardless of what problem the scientist is working on, and regardless of what the scientist has so far solved or not solved.
For example, in addition to non-epistemic influences, many scientists devote their time inefficiently studying obscure subjects whose relevance is certainly outweighed by some other matter that could be considered more pressing. Letâ€™s consider an astrophysicist studying the beginning of time. Though such a scientist might vaguely claim it is for the purposes of some utility, it is plausible to suggest that at least some of the appeal and value is manifested in the pure aesthetics of discovery. Just the word â€śdiscoveryâ€? is an emotionally charged word; not in a political or contextual sense, but in a more timeless sense. Indeed the very notion of discovery is almost inseparable from our identities as intelligent humans. Innovations and the quest for new methods and knowledge have existed across many cultures and many of histories. David Nye notes in his book Technology Matters, it is hard for us to imagine humankind without some form of technology or innovation (Nye 3).
Science, after all, is predominately a pursuit, often positing incorrect or irrelevant explanations. As Gary Taubes points out, quite often scientific theories and conclusions are completely wrong, and must be revised and reevaluated: â€śThere are, after all, an infinite number of wrong hypotheses for every right one, and so the odds are always against any particular hypothesis being true,â€? (Taubes p. 2). It is this pursuit of knowledge that is the core of sciences aesthetic value.
Science is a way of thinking about the world, and our place in it. It is difficult to overstate the importance of such a paradigm. Steve Chesley, a physicist with Jet Propulsion Library in Pasadena, California emphasized that a â€śscientific way of thinkingâ€?, for example, can be contrasted in many respects with a way of thinking based on haphazard superstition, organized religion, or even political democracy.
We must avoid the temptation to let our personal biases jump to â€śrankâ€? such ways of thinking. Rather, for our purposes here, we must simply realize that each of these ways of thinking has value. Perhaps one has less value than another; perhaps we even consider one to have negative value. Indeed, some critics contend that the scientific way of thinking has created or exacerbated many problems vis-a-vis God and spiritualism, authority and tradition, expectation of technological problem-solving, and so on. Those on the side of science often point out the host of human suffering that science has certainly alleviated; from fighting human diseases, to heating our homes, to allowing us to see and experience places and phenomenon we never could have seen before. In both The Corporation and An Inconvenient Truth, responsible and ethical implementation of science is identified as a key component in fighting many of the environmental problems of the future, although both movies also note that it is largely because of past science and technology implementations that we face many of our current environmental problems. Again, which side outweighs the other is a different discussion. For now, it is enough to recognize that the paradigm of thinking and acting scientifically has some amount of value.
Thus, even if a particular scientist would spend an entire year working on a project that did not yield any sort of useful result or discovery, it is still valued behavior. It is through such behavior that discovery is most likely to take place. We can imagine an analogy with classical Greek athletics; the hours spent training were not considered worthless if an athlete lost a competition. Surely, it would be more valued to train and win, but there was also an aesthetic of sport and training, independent of any given eventâ€™s outcome.
An Inseparable Blend
It is hard to imagine humans without thinking of the quest for knowledge. The utility of discovery â€“ the ability of humans to apply new types of knowledge to novel situations - is indeed one of the things that most emphatically separates us from other animals. Yet at the same time, our aesthetic nature is another one of our characteristics that identifies us as uniquely human. Science is an inseparable blend of these two phenomena; the consequences of pure scientific discovery are enormous, and hold almost unlimited potential for what humans may one day know and achieve. But also, the scientific way of thinking must be appreciated as the medium through which this discovery takes place. It is only human to appreciate the scientific struggle.
An Inconvenient Truth. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Al Gore. Paramount Classics,
Chesley, Steve. Personal Interview. 3 November 2007.
The Corporation. Dir. Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar. Perf. Jane Akre, Raymon
Anderson, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore. Big Picture Media Corporation, 2004.
De Waal, Frans B. M. â€śHow Animals Do Businessâ€? Best American Science and Nature
Writing. Ed. Tim Folger. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. P. 46-54
Ruse, Michael. Mystery of Mysteries. Cambridge, London: Harvard University
Taubes, Gary. â€śDo We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?â€?. New York Times 16
Daniel Kahneman Autobiography. 2007 The Nobel Foundation. 5 November 2007
An Inconvenient Truth