"Frivolous" research in science

My blog has been languishing for a bit, so I hope to bring it back and be a bit more active.

Someone recently made a comment that they thought that there was a lot of “frivolous” research in science. They said “I don’t really care how big the universe is. I am not happier because of that knowledge. My life is no better, nor my parents or my future children.[…] For me, in the end I don’t see how it benefits humanity. I would much rather see that time and intellect spent on pursuing ways to improve global living standards, protect the environment, create a better education system, etc…”

My response:

There are several things I could say about this. People are notoriously horrible at predicting which lines of intellectual pursuits will yield real practical results (i.e. direct benefits to humanity). For example, in the late 1800’s there was some work done on some pretty obscure mathematical concepts in wave mechanics. At the time there were very few practical results foreseen from this work, if any. However, it later became the foundation for telecommunications, which arguably makes up the bulk of the global economy today. There are many examples like this. That’s why it’s always good to have basic research funded well, even if it seems frivolous at the time.

Knowledge matters, no matter what it is. Your example about how you don’t care how big the universe is, for instance. Let’s look at a couple of contrasting beliefs, and their consequences to things like protecting the environment, something you state is important. Person A believes that the world was created specifically for humans, 6000 years ago, and that this creator is making sure things are going along well for his followers (i.e. granting miracles, giving guidance, etc…) Person B believes that the Jesus is going to come again in this lifetime, and the world will end in glory. Person C knows how big the universe really is. This means that person C realizes that 1) the Earth is a relatively small place and 2) there isn’t anywhere else we can go if things get messed up here. Which person do you think would be most willing to make difficult decisions to protect the environment for the next, say, 200-300 years?

There are benefits to “frivolous” science. One benefit is in critical thinking, no matter what the topic. Another benefit is the philosophical placement of humans in the grander scheme of things. This can have direct *practical* effects on humanity, and its future. On any topic, truth beats untruth.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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