Knowledge Questions: How do we determine the value of knowledge? What is the purpose of producing scientific knowledge? To what extent does scientific knowledge have to have practical application for it to be considered “valuable”?
Useless Knowledge Begets New Horizons
Fundamental discoveries don’t always have practical uses, but they have soul-saving applications.
Freedom is the license the roving mind requires to go down any path it chooses and go as far as the paths may lead. This is how fundamental discoveries — a.k.a., “useless knowledge” — are usually made: not so much by hunting for something specific, but by wandering with an interested eye amid the unknown. It’s also how countries attract and cultivate genius — by protecting a space of unlimited intellectual permission, regardless of outcome…
And yet, in being the kind of society that does this kind of thing — that is, the kind that sends probes to the edge of the solar system; underwrites the scientific establishment that knows how to design and deploy these probes; believes in the value of knowledge for its own sake; cultivates habits of truthfulness, openness, collaboration and risk-taking; enlists the public in the experience, and shares the findings with the rest of the world — we also discover the highest use for useless knowledge: Not that it may someday have some life-saving application on earth, though it might, but that it has a soul-saving application in the here and now, reminding us that the human race is not a slave to questions of utility alone.
The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.
People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.
- Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
- Will the findings advance medicine?
- Will it improve our national defense?
You can download his whole document here.
Science Magazine Responds
Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists
Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.
“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”
Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club
These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.