Egregiously Stupid Arguments Against Science For The Sake Of Science

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the founders of an international charity based on the idea of empowering youth into social activism. I’m sure that they are both absolutely wonderful and saintly Human beings.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that in spite of whatever other virtues the pair of them might have, their latest “friendly rant” against ‘useless’ science is profoundly illiterate, and actually really, really stupid.

Quoth the Kielburgers:

As non-scientists, we’ve been casually observing a trend for some time that we’d initially dubbed: the baffling research phenomenon. There are strange advancements in the field of neuroscience (brain scans of freestyle rappers). There are seemingly meaningless medical discoveries (itchiness is as contagious as yawning!). And parents, brace yourselves for this sociological breakthrough: your teens have “mixed feelings” about accepting your friend request on Facebook.

Research, to us, should involve science for the betterment of humanity, or at the very least, science for some discernible point. Hasn’t that been our deal with science since the Enlightenment? The pursuit of reason and the betterment of humankind?

Now of course, I have been a persistent and vocal opponent of the principle of assigning things value based exclusively upon their immediate functional utility; but I think that you can make a case, given the sheer amount of misery in the world, that the greatest part of our resources, as a species, should be directed towards alleviating human suffering. For the sake of argument, I will concede this point.

So then: accepting that the sole motivating factor behind all scientific research should be the edification of Humanity and the amelioration of the Human condition, I would ask the Kielburgers: what streams of research do you suppose would allow us to do that best?

Before you answer, I would ask you to consider the fact that pretty much all modern technology is based around (what at the time seemed like) purely academic turn-of-the-century speculation as to the the precise nature of light. And that, of course, is how research works: some streams may be useful; some streams may not; but the salient point is that you cannot know which is which until after you research them. I mean, it’s easy to denigrate neurological analysis of freestyle rappers…but how do you know that the data learned in such studies will not be useful (for example) in treating mental illnesses fifty years from now? Life is not like a game of Civilization; science and technology do not progress along neat, well-defined linear trees whose entire outlay is known from the dawn of time. In real life, doing science involves getting your hands messy and maybe even occasionally wasting time and resources on complete dead ends. That’s just how it works.

But the Kielburgers go on:

We still haven’t eradicated polio in all parts of the world. Or malaria, for that matter. Or yellow fever. Every day, people die from vaccine-preventable diseases. Maternal death rates are frighteningly high in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, treatment for mental illness is stuck in the Dark Ages. It’s this disparity between Western research and stunted medical advancements the world over that’s so striking.

They are right of course; we haven’t eliminated polio in all parts of the world. We do, however, have a safe and effective polio vaccine. Understand, I don’t mean to sound cold, but this being the case, it sounds an awful lot like the problem here isn’t scientific in nature so much as it is one of distribution. That is to say, it’s mainly a question for politicians and economists.

They also seem to have difficulty recognizing obvious potential applications even when they are staring them directly in the face:

Knowing that teen gamers perform virtual surgery better than actual doctors does not seem all that vital. New research out of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that teens who played video games daily outperformed medical residents at simulated, gaming-style surgery tasks. Something to do with hand-eye coordination.

No? You can’t see how a revelation like that might be useful in, for example, devising better surgical training procedures?

That’s not to say, of course, that the authors are necessarily completely wrong about everything; what they really seem to be railing against (reading the subtext) is not so much science itself as it is the unpardonable largesse of first-world countries which allows them to shower money on seemingly-frivolous research projects even while billions of people around the world live in extreme poverty. And I agree with them on this point. But what I don’t understand is why they fix their crosshairs upon science funding rather than the millions of other (far more appalling examples) of frivolous largesse. I suspect that what it boils down to is a misunderstanding of what science actually is: their reasoning appears to be along the lines of:

  • People in Africa don’t have enough vaccines.
  • Vaccines were created by scientists.
  • Therefore the problem is with science.

As a final note, I might point-out the irony of the fact that their position is essentially the same as that of the people on the Right who think that scientific funding should only be allocated to projects with apparent market value. They are substituting Humanitarianism for profitability, but unfortunately it doesn’t change the fact that pursuit of specific goals is simply not how science works. And shackling all researchers to the directives of some kind of central planning agency (as both proposals would seemingly implicitly require) is almost certain to kill scientific progress dead in its tracks.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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4 Responses to Egregiously Stupid Arguments Against Science For The Sake Of Science

  1. n8chz says:

    This reminds me of Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards. It also reminds me of what Davis and Hersh referred to as “mathematical Maoism.”

    • I’ve never heard of Mao’s policies on scientific research before, but they hardly surprise me given what I know of the man. I would guess that they worked just about as well as everything else Mao did during the cultural revolution…

  2. Lindsay says:

    Yes, this is what I think as well.

    About the only thing I would differ with you on is that getting vaccines and medicines to poor countries might have a technical component, in that you could come up with cheaper ways to synthesize whatever the active ingredient is in hopes that that might bring down the cost, or other alternative syntheses that could be performed on-site, in possibly unfavorable conditions (i.e., faulty or nonexistent electrical grid, absence of temperature control etc.).

    Those are access-related problems that scientists could tackle.

    But yes, I can’t help but marvel at the incuriosity of people who don’t see a point to neuroscience. Really, guys? We stand on the threshold of maybe finally starting to understand just how we think, and you’re going “meh” at it??

  3. David Yerle says:

    It’s a typical non-scientist short-sightedness to look at a piece of research and deem it “useless” without much thought. Actually, most scientific research may be useless in the long run, but we will only get something useful if we pursue as many lines of research as we can and let the future decide which ones were worth pursuing.

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