Why Is Science Important? And Why Is ‘Why Is Science Important’ Important?

What’s the point?  Of anything?  Does anything in your life actually bring you lasting good?  Money?  Financial security?  Working all day to afford stuff that you never have time or energy to appreciate anyway?  Family?  People to remind you that you’re getting always always getting older and that your existence will only really be remembered for a couple of generations anyway?  Unless you happen to achieve historical immortality, in which case you’ll just serve to remind the future how backwards and quaint your lifestyle was.  And ultimately history is just the sum total of a brief spark of human existence that’s going to end in big fiery oblivion anyway, the sum total of everything ever being annihilated faster than you can say ‘why did we bother?’

On the other hand, there’s things like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQbhtZzHsbE.

Now, that sudden burst of nihilism isn’t any reflection on my current state of mind.  I’m fine.  In fact I’ve just made really buttery pasta so I’m pretty darn good.  Instead, it’s a reflection brought to mind by a video I watched recently.  Alom Shaha is a teacher at a London secondary school, and I’ve stumbled across his film – and accompanying website – ‘Why is Science Important?’ (http://whyscience.co.uk/).  It’s one of those simple-but-effective projects, based around collecting answers to that question from anyone with anything to say, including teachers, students, and even a few sci-lebs*.  The answers provide varied and insightful reading (my current favourite being:  ‘Why is Science Important?  Because I like cake’ from Rebecca Nesbit), but as noted by Shaha in the film, they largely fall into somewhat traditional categories:  science is essential for technological progress, science is an instructive method of pure thought, without science WE’LL ALL DIE, that ilk.  The old divide is apparent – science-as-making-useful-stuff-happen, and science-as-making-curious-folks-happy.  The ‘practical’ and ‘rarefied’ science distinction, as it’s known in some quarters.  This distinction crops up in numerous debates, whether pedagogical, political, or pedantic.   The actual way it makes it appearance, as with everything, varies by pretext.  But my goodness it’s everywhere.

So let’s get sociological brownie points by examining Shaha’s pretext.  His is a largely school-based mission.  It stems from the primal fear of teachers, of that student who neatly side-steps complete bafflement at a topic with the piercing remark: ‘what’s the point of all this?’  The student’s aim in this attack is to bring about an alternate universe, in which the teacher stands in silence at a complete loss for ideas.  Then, concluding that the student is indeed correct and that their appointed swathe of the curriculum has been finally exposed as pointless, teacher declare the class over for ever and instigates that most beautiful thing, a life of eternal educationless playtime.  The answers on the website provides defence against this onslaught – practical titbits for the object-obsession of youth, rarefied stuff to speak to the curiosity of youth.  But this school conversation starts from a premise – what’s the point of all this? – in which one party is unconvinced of the importance of science.  But this can be turned on its head.  We can start from the premise that science is clearly important.   Many people, across the entirety of human history, have devoted entire lives to it.  They’ve suffered for it, some have even died for it.  And even those who haven’t contributed directly have still spent valuable free hours trying to follow the latest developments, or shed-tons of money out of a desire to see allow latest developments to happen.  For these, science has been self-evidently important and it hasn’t needed to justify its importance thank you very much.  So, if we step out of Shaha’s tumultuous classroom setting and into a more academic context, we can ask the same question differently.  ‘Why Is Science Important?’ now means:  we know science is important, so what does that tell us about how we rate importance?

Basically, we’re confronting the issue that ‘important’ can mean a lot of different things.  Drawing all those out could take some time, and my lovely buttery pasta’s going cold.  But despite science’s predilection for assigning universal overarching generalisations to things, it can actually also remind us how completely personal and non-generalisable things like ‘importance’ are.  Dan Haybron’s The Pursuit of Unhappiness** combines psychology with philosophy and politics to show that simply assuming things like ‘the pursuit of material goods’ or ‘comfort and security’ are important to everyone is actually a really really bad idea.  And the incredible ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photo*** (a visual spectacle sufficiently beautiful to affect me, and I’m the kind of person who only goes into art galleries when there’s no other coffee shops nearby) reminds us that ‘importance’ really isn’t universal.  The universe at large is actually a big cold empty place.  The concept of ‘importance’ doesn’t really make sense cosmologically.  Even the unquestionable importance of simply surviving (surely that’s important to everyone, right? Right?) was made all questionable by Darwinism in the 19th–20thcenturies and advances in medical technology (and thus, medical ethics; consider life support machines) in the 20th-21st.  Basically, trying to generalise and extrapolate ‘importance’ in an objective, scientific, universal fashion doesn’t work.  Importance only means something on an individual level. So when we try and say to someone ‘science (or whatever) is important because…’ we’re always going to hit the problem that what is self-evidently important to us might mean very very little to someone else.

So in many ways science reminds us how complicated asking about importance actually is.  Thanks for that, science.  But thinking about the question in specific relation to science also throws up another interesting point.  How is asking ‘why is science important?’ any different from asking ‘why is poetry important?’ or ‘why is sport important?’.  As I discussed in my post on Sciences vs. Humanities many moons ago, it’s actually not that easy to distinguish science’s good points from the good points of other subjects.  But that’s one of the funky things about asking ‘why is science important?’ – the answers help to draw out what comes into people’s minds when they think particularly of science.  I don’t think many people would answer the question ‘why is poetry important?’ with ‘because I like cake’ or ‘because without it WE’LL ALL DIE’ (although feel free to prove me wrong, I’d be interested in the thought process).  In answering the question, people have to draw on what they think science is, what it does, how it connects with people, all that jazz.  It forces people to focus on what they think is special about science.  These answers don’t need to be watertight, they don’t need to be uniformly agreed on.  They’re interesting simply because they give us insight into why people want to make science happen.

Shaha’s site highlights something important, and that’s the breadth of this whole issue.  What ‘science’ means to people is very broad.  What ‘important’ means to people is very very broad.  We can simplify this whole thing by making categorisations, like the old practical/rarefied one.  There’s certainly some use in broad brushstrokes like these.  But investigations like Shaha’s can also provide us with fine-tuned, more personal answers, which might better speak to people’s individual conceptions of ‘important’.  Someone might not relate to the excitement of particle physics, but that doesn’t mean we should jump straight to the ‘but it might bring us useful things’ line.  They might, for instance, relate to the intellectual excitement of being the first to build a machine so utterly awesome.  A nice diversity of answers to the question ‘why is science important?’ can provide points of connection between people – whether the teacher and the student, or two hoary old physicists who’ve unknowingly always held very different conceptions of science.  It can even help us relate to historical characters, or share the curiosity of people living very different lifestyles.  So on the one hand, we can get practical value out of asking everyone why science is important – we can find common ground between the science enthusiast and the science avoider, an essential first step in public understanding of science.  But also, in asking ourselves the question, we learn a lot about what we value.  And that’s some interesting self-discovery in its own right.  Especially when, as in my case, the answer turns out to be penguins that want to be tickled and really buttery pasta.   I’m still not entirely sure what that means.



* = My new word for science celebrities.  It’s going to be everywhere soon, so make sure you’re using it before it’s cool.

** = I mentioned this a few posts ago, and since then I’ve found a greatly shortened version of the work on his website – http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1071822.  I know, I’m just too good to you lot.

*** = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_blue_dot. Go to the very end of the article to get a couple of paragraphs of Carl Sagan at his beautiful best.


No books to recommend this week.  Have another cute video instead.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOwLtahtmHg


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