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"The value of science"

Accompanying its survey of the universe, the Economist has voiced its opinion on "the value of science." Sadly, it's disappointing.

The Economist, in concluding (it's a short piece), addresses the question of "why the world's taxpayers should pay for [scientific knowledge's] discovery." The Economist presents two arguments, one for those who believe in God and another for those who don't. Those who do "should be sufficiently awed by His creation to want to understand it properly." And those who don't? They "should be even more awed that something as vast, ancient, complex and interesting as the universe could come into existence spontaneously, and result in the evolution of beings who are able to contemplate it and debate its origins."

Ugh. If being awed were truly good cause for levying taxes, governments should subsidize screenings of The Lord of the Rings and Everest. And those aspects of science that the Economist is so awed by aren't even scientific issues — they're philosophical. Appreciating them depends more upon one's philosophical sensibility than scientific acuity; further advances in modern science are hardly likely to alter a taxpayer's awe of the universe.

And, as if that weren't enough, it seems to me that, if anything, science strips out that awe of the universe, replacing the mysterious and unknown with the transparent and explicable. Wouldn't the universe be even more awesome without our scientific insights into it? It's true that our current scientific theories indicate that certain vital conditions were just so at certain critical stages of our universe's development (and our own evolution), but the scientific picture of this development makes it seem not awesome so much as amazingly fortuitous. To me, at least. I'd be more awed if it turned out the universe was in fact beyond mortal comprehension, not the other way around.

So, why is science important, or valuable, or whatever? Well, to be honest — bear with me here — I don't think it is, not any more so than any other creative or original human endeavor. It's incredibly useful, sure, and helpful in building all sorts of nifty toys. But is scientific knowledge somehow inherently valuable, purely for its own sake, in a way that other knowledge isn't? Why should it be?

(I feel compelled here to mention a quote by Steven Weinberg, from his book The First Three Minutes, which was mentioned in "The End of Everything", an article in the New York Times this past Tuesday: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Not exactly a point in favor of any inherent value to understanding science for its own sake.)

I confess, however, I have no real argument about the value of science, one way or the other. I sympathize with the editors over at the Economist, presuming, as I do, that they also must have struggled with this question. Science, in its various forms and incarnations, is the most useful and the most important of all human pursuits. But the universe, as far as I know, has yet to assign an ultimate value to any mortal endeavor, and we each must console ourselves with whatever satisfaction we may gain from those pursuits that we deem worthwhile.

January 5, 2002 9:45 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer


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