For All Practical Purposes

It’s a fundamental problem in science: what good is knowledge if it doesn’t solve a problem, make an improvement, or otherwise provide clear and actionable guidance to society? Commonly, politicians and the media don’t understand how small-scale or unusual projects contribute to a greater pool of knowledge, deeming them wasteful, impractical, and out of touch. One well-known example is Sarah Palin’s dismissive comment about research on fruit flies. Whether experiments with fruit flies contribute to autism research or tree survival or turn out to do nothing at all, such comments provoke the ire of scientists and anyone educated enough to know how the modern research system works. One study on fruit flies likely won’t cure any diseases, but the findings it produces might be of some use to someone someday who will cure a disease. The purpose of the modern institution of science is to uncover patterns and produce data to support theories about how the world works, and every bit of data helps. There are even outlets for discussing the importance of negative results, with the hope that one researcher’s failure or unexpected outcome might help another.

Don’t think this emphasis on practicality is a new phenomenon. It might seem like societies of the past welcomed theory over practice: the ancient Greeks revered Plato and Socrates, the early moderns had their mystics; even the mid-twentieth century welcomed the Einsteinian theory of relativity (which might explain motion in the universe, but it won’t help you get to work on time). Before science was called “science,” it was called “natural philosophy,” which conjures up more images of men gazing at their navels than of telescopes and electric cars. But as far back as 1676, the fictional character and namesake of this blog Nicholas Gimcrack satirized what many people thought were the flaws of scientists: “I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practice,” Gimcrack, who hates the water, tells his audience. “I seldom bring anything to use; ’tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate end.” He echoes the scientists in Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 work of utopian fiction Blazing World: the Empress, concerned about the practical applications of looking at a flea under a microscope, asks them “whether their microscopes could hinder their biting, or at least show some means how to avoid them? To which they answered, that such arts were mechanical and below that noble study of microscopic observations.” Did Robert Hooke actually think observing fleas was more noble than preventing their bites? Perhaps, but he also may have thought, “Men have tried for millennia to fight off fleas; I’d rather keep them close and learn their secrets.” In any case, Cavendish made the assumption that microscope-gazers had their eyes on the wrong prize. The first scientific society hadn’t existed for even a decade before people began accusing it of having goals that were either too lofty or too lowly.

Drawing of a flea from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

It’s easy in retrospect to view this wariness as ignorance. As it turned out centuries later, microscopic knowledge of fleas and plants led to the discovery of why diatomaceous earth can in fact prevent flea bites. How silly of you, Margaret Cavendish. But, of course, we don’t view seventeenth-century critics of the perpetual motion machine or alchemy as silly — they were right all along about those futile pursuits. But it’s not really about whether a particular view is ultimately vindicated: I’m not a historian of science, but I’m sure one will tell you that viewing individuals as “right” or “wrong” is not a productive way of analyzing the past. Decisions about what is or is not practical should not be made immediately or lightly. Despite our growing body of knowledge, we don’t yet know everything.

It might seem, then, that we should welcome all new ideas and potential projects, focusing on the gathering of knowledge itself rather than its practicality. Abraham Flexner in 1939 eloquently extolled the usefulness of useless knowledge. Today, the Ig Nobel prize celebrates weird achievements in science that seem at first glance to have zero practical benefits but really might just be new and unusual ways of approaching problems. Proponents of these unusual approaches take the position of Vannevar Bush, who in 1947 cited the positive societal impacts of penicillin, radar, and synthetic materials and called for the funding of all kinds of studies, even the ones that don’t seem to have immediate practical applications. However, this seems to most people (especially those holding the purse strings) like an idealistic argument: funding every new idea might eventually produce revolutionary innovation and lead to a more knowledgable and creative populace, but doing science costs lots of money, and there isn’t enough money to go around. It is impractical for organizations and governments to fund every research project that occurs to anyone, which is why scientists must submit grant requests to explain, to some extent, the big-picture ramifications and potential benefits of their projects. This system is deeply flawed and highly politicized, but it is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

No single study exists that can explain all of human behavior, all of the human body, all of the natural world, or all of the existing universe. In the meantime, we have to negotiate the successes, the retractions, and the failures of the scientific field and glean insight from bits and pieces where we can — and eventually maybe the weird bits might not seem so weird.

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