On science for science's sake

In my post on justifying fundamental research, I didn’t argue for fundamental research just for its own sake. Not because I don’t buy that argument, but just because it’s a very hard argument to make well. It can easily come off as “just give me money to do whatever idiosyncratic thing I personally want to do,” which isn’t very compelling. Indeed, I’m not sure that valuing fundamental research for its own sake is really a stance you can argue for at all, not in the usual sense of appealing to data and/or logical reasoning from agreed premises. All you can do, I think, is try to persuade people that science is valuable for its own sake. Not that data and logic are totally irrelevant. But ultimately, you need to make an emotional or moral case, not a factual or logical case.

So if you want to argue that fundamental science is valuable simply for its own sake, I think you have to do it the way physicist Robert Wilson once did (and have Wilson’s way with words). Click through for a great article on a great scientist, but here’s the money quote. It’s from Wilson’s 1969 Congressional testimony on the need for a new particle accelerator (what eventually became Fermilab), in response to a question from a senator on whether the accelerator would have anything to do with “the security of the country”:

It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.

HT Brady Allred, via the comments on a related post at Jabberwocky Ecology.

2 thoughts on “On science for science's sake

  1. Pingback: Friday links | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Pingback: Answers to reader questions, part 3: what we’d say to Congress, tropical vs. temperate systems, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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