About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, March 07, 2011

So, what’s science good for?

by Lena Groeger
Thanks Massimo for inviting me to join the conversation at Rationally Speaking! I'm quite excited to be here.

To start off, I'll tell a little story about a trip I took this fall with my NYU classmates — an overnight trip to Brookhaven National Laboratory. Even though it's just an hour and a half from New York City, Brookhaven feels like some sort of 1970's sci-fi alternate reality set against a quaint suburban backdrop (with lots of Canada geese). It's got facilities with names like Space Radiation Lab, Synchrotron Light Source, and Laser Electron Accelerator Facility. As we tour the various buildings, I start to feel just slightly overwhelmed by all this grand epic-scale science happening in every corner.
Then we arrive at the STAR detector at RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. I won't even try to pretend like I can explain what RHIC is, but it has something to do with crashing ions together, liberating quarks and gluons, and possibly replicating the microseconds after the Big Bang. At least, that's as much as I scribble in my notes.
At the very end of our tour around what I can only describe as a convoluted multi-colored three-story eyeball, physicist Les Bland takes a few questions from our (at this point somewhat bewildered) group. It's not too long until the inevitable question chimes over from somewhere in the back: “So what's this all good for?”
Bland pauses for a few moments before giving a very simple reply: “Questions of our existence are worth answering.” He explains that in his mind, we have a responsibility to try to understand the world at its most fundamental level. Why? Because we can.
I think the question and his subsequent answer exemplify a distinction in our usual understanding of why we do science. Either it's (a) useful for society, leading to practical applications and new technologies, OR it's (b) valuable for its own sake, because the pursuit of knowledge is something worthwhile regardless of the practical value of anything we discover or learn.
There are of course many variations of (a) and (b). Science training leads to the cultivation of applied and profitable skills, so we do science because we'll get a job. New clean energy and information technologies let us compete in the global market and spur economic growth, so we do science because it increases national profit (à la Obama's recent State of the Union address). Medical advancements are often accidental byproducts of the pursuit of knowledge, so we do science because we never know when we'll discover the next penicillin. Or, in line with Bland's previous answer, humans have the capacity to learn about the world they live in, so we do science because it fulfills our natural potential.
What I don't hear much in this Useful/Its Own Sake discussion is a third factor, one that seems to get overlooked in the haste to divide by two. And that's the value to the person — the habits, the values, the character that a person develops by actually doing science. The ability to think critically, exchange ideas, imagine alternatives, ask questions, invent new possible worlds and go on speculative adventures, present reasoned arguments and retain a healthy dose of skepticism and doubt; these are all deeply scientific and deeply formative values. You become a different person with scientific training, and we do science because we value that kind of person. Science is not only bridge-building (usefulness and technology driven) and knowledge-building (adding to the pile of facts we know about reality) it is also people, character, and citizen-building.
Of course, science doesn't necessarily have to produce those qualities. When usefulness is the premiere value to all scientific endeavors and progress is measured by test scores or economic gain, many of the humanistic dimensions of science fall by the way side. In her recent book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum worries about precisely this problem, but in the context of the humanities and the arts. She argues that these subjects are valuable because they develop abilities crucial to the health of any democracy, and to the creation of a decent world culture and global citizenship. She chooses to focus on the humanities because they are under the most immediate threat from the cost-cutting measures of many schools and universities, in some cases downsized or eliminated entirely.
But I would argue that many of the traits she holds up as exemplary — critical thinking, imagination, curiosity — apply to the sciences as well. The name of the discipline is ultimately much less important than the values and qualities developed through the process of learning and thinking, whether reading a great novel or observing the stars through a telescope. If we really are in the crisis Nussbaum warns us of, it is not because of a lack of the humanities per se, but because (a), the Useful view, is becoming the metric of worth for all subjects. But, there is much more to science (and the humanities) than practicality and “impact.” At its best, the exploratory, inquisitive, and wonder-inducing practice of science can be just as beneficial to a flourishing individual and a democratic society.
So I'd add to our list of why we do science: (c) it’s valuable for the people who do it, because it changes the sort of person they become.
At this point, I'm still standing in front of RHIC, staring off into the immense jumble of blue pipes and orange wires that will perhaps someday unravel the beginning of the universe. The rest of my class is now marching over to the Center for Functional Nanomaterials. I better catch up.


  1. A very nice first piece, Lena. As a scientist, I agree completely with you, science builds character and teaches you that certainty is an unproductive position and a dangerous one, it teaches you that intellectual discourse is not for the faint of heart or for the thin-skinned, and it should not be. When you data gets ripped to pieces and thoroughly questioned, it teaches you humility and diligence. I have had many bumps along the road, but I consider myself so lucky to have had the opportunity to train as a scientist and to make science my profession. I get paid to think critically, what more could I have asked for?

    Good luck with your column, Lena, I will be a follower for sure.


  2. If anyone thinks science is not worthwhile, let them try ignorance.

  3. I like the Nietzsche-esque take on the scientific mindset you present. Have you read "The Gay Science"? For him, 'science' wasn't merely the 'hard' or applied sciences, but any serious, rigorous study - which would include, I presume, many disciplines in the humanities. In fact, the title of his book implies a hybrid character of the scientist as artist, or vice versa.

    That book has one of the best critiques of knowledge - or at least the 'value' of knowledge, and 'truth' - out there. And for Nietzsche, 'value' was always considered in the context of value for the individual.


  4. I think an interesting distinction to make is between the psychological motivation of scientists, the rational policy justification for the allocation of resources to science, and the usefulness of science to satisfy human needs or desires. Crosscutting the above categories, another further distinction is between immediate or ultimate usefulness (e.g. quantum physics or cosmology may seem to lack any useful application but in fact many have emerged from those fields of research, all not foreseen or foreseeable at the time of the original research or discovery).

  5. I would agree that science develops critical thinking abilities--what profession doesn't--but I think the author trivializes Nussbaum's point, and thereby expresses what I thing is a dangerous viewpoint. There's a crucial difference between the general critical-thinking abilities cultivated by the professions in general and the critical capacities developed by the humanities. Beyond the fact that all humanities fields develop a historical awareness that is essential to a critical perspective in the fullest sense--something not necessarily found in science--most humanities graduates are trained to produce critical writing of some kind: e.g. historical, literary, and philosophical writing; that is they are trained and educated to pursue projects that exist for the sole purpose of changing negative aspects of the world through criticism.

    While of course science does much to improve the world, it is cumbersome and ill-prepared as an organ of social and political criticism. The projects science workers work within are generally chosen and funded at a high level within a top-down hierarchy. Importantly, this means that the general population of science workers have little socio-political critical capacity. Note that in many case that when scientists do want to be critical socio-politically, they exercise skills they learned in their humanities classes.

    I say the author's attitude is dangerous because it trivializes (devalues) what is really our culture's only arm of critical think in the fullest sense. Imagine if all the people who are supposed to be critical of our society were employees of the military, of pharmeceutical
    companies, of the government, who haven't read history, literature, or philosophy since college.

  6. Hector said: "I think an interesting distinction to make is between the psychological motivation of scientists, the rational policy justification for the allocation of resources to science, and the usefulness of science to satisfy human needs or desires."

    I agree. However, while I think there needs to be a rational justification for the allocation of societal resources to science, I'm not sure there needs to be any objective justification for people to practice and engage with science. I mean, do we ponder the objective justifications for music and art?

  7. Michael,
    my point was that Lena's post did not make a clear distinction between those different levels of analysis (or viewpoints). You may abstain from "pondering" individual inclinations towards science, arts or other pursuits, and you may also be totally indifferent to problems linked to the allocation of resources, but still be interested in the psychological (or sociological) underpinnings of a scientific inclination (I remember an extremely insightful essay by Max Weber, "Science as a calling", parallel to his other essay on "Politics as a calling", where sociological explanations are sought). This psycho or sociological approach is not chiefly about judging or approving of such motivations but about studying their nature, origins and consequences. On the other hand, as resources are unfortunately always scarce, allocating resources (at the societal or personal level) is always a problem: if you are an enthusiast of Ancient Egypt culture, but find there is not much money to be made in Egyptology (supposing money is an important point for you), you may decide not to take a PhD in Egyptian Studies after all. This does not mean you cease to like ancient Egypt, nor does it mean it is not important, and it means even less that studying the Pharaohs is not worthwhile from a variety of viewpoints: it only means that you (or your potential grant givers) regard that subject not as a first priority at the moment (be that judgment objectively justifiable or not, whatever that means).

  8. I remained thinking about Michael's suggestion that " there needs to be any objective justification for people to practice and engage with science. I mean, do we ponder the objective justifications for music and art?". That argument, methinks, rests on one implicit assumption that science, music or art are indeed worthwhile, so that we do not "ponder" their justification because we see them as justified in advance. To see how that is so, just replace science, art or music for some other (more debatable) human pursuit, such as business greed, or casual sex. If one abstain from justifying art or music, why not abstaining from justifying (or condemning) the pursuit of riches, or a relentless pursuit of promiscuous sexual relations, or cannibalism?
    And then "justifying", in practice, is always relative to some alternative. A young person, for instance, at some point may have to decide whether trying to become a violinist or, say, an accountant or a geologist; "we" may abstain from justifying one choice or another, but the youngster in question can't: the decision has to be made somehow, and it's his/her call.
    And then I "ponder" also what kind of "justification" is discussed here: regarding morals, economic profitability, degree of conformity to one's deepest feelings or wishes, or conformity to our family's aspirations and needs, or conformity to social respectability, or to some imperative logically deduced from some set of axioms or Kantian categories, or what? Each interpretation of "justification" may lead to different conclusions about the same choice made by an individual.

  9. Hector, do you look for the last turtle in the pond before you decide to enjoy the presence of the one that chose to swim to the surface for your viewing pleasure?

  10. @Lena Groeger
    Benissimo - I have a tear in my eye.


  11. Baron, I'm afraid I don't know how to respond to your cryptic question unless you clarify your meaning.

  12. Science is simply the best tool to give you the most accurate model of matter, energy and their interactions and hence the greatest control over them.

    Some people want the accurate model, some people want the control. Some people want both, but all of them come to the well of science to drink.

    I read about scientific subjects because I have that desire to know. Clearly many do not share that desire and who am I (or anyone else) to tell others what to want? For those who don't want to know and who don't want greater control then science would indeed be a collection of useless facts.

    I would say that the methods of science give one discipline of necessity, but as far as character building goes I don't think that argument is supported. Science is a tool. The hand that holds it decides how it is used. It is evolution, gestation, genes and environment which determine desire. If you wanted to develop a virus to kill everyone on the planet science would be your best tool for the job. Just like it was for the development of nuclear weapons.

    Also the Sum Total of Human Knowledge (SToHK) grows by the moment and consequently the percentage of it that one person can holds shrinks. Given that fact perhaps people can perhaps be forgiven for focusing on just those things which affect their lives.

  13. Hector, justification is another word for reason, and reasons, like the proverbial turtles, go all the way down. To where it seemed you were headed.

    Even if we could, we shouldn't have to go that far to reach a turtle we can take a stand on.

  14. Great piece Lena, esp. the "...because we can".

  15. As a scientist, I don't think I agree at all. Practicing excellence in pretty much anything trains your ability to observe important details and understand their relevance. I don't think molecular genetics trains a careful, logical and discriminating mind any more than serious study of political science or cabinetry.

    People who are trained to think critically and pay attention to details in one part of their lives tend to do it in others too - whether they're scientists or not.

  16. Hector babbled:

    "If anyone thinks science is not worthwhile, let them try ignorance."

    Because, and let's face facts here, the only two options are either science or ignorance. Those two options are A) exhaustive and B) mutually exclusive.

    Well *said* Hector.

    We should let Massimo know that since he's not long dabbling in science, he's shifted to dabbling in ignorance instead.

    Or would you, perhaps, care to retract your ignorant comment?


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