Two observations about science and scientists

First observation: I often hear someone defend their field of research by saying something like “hey, its not useful today, but someday someone will figure out a use for it.” Most recently I heard a budding choice theorist use this defense (and I wasn’t even attacking his field, he was just being defensive). I generally agree with this line. Further, I think some things are just interesting in themselves and don’t have to ever be “useful” for us to want to know more about them.

This argument is made for science as a whole or for a particular field, but the opposite case is usually made against individual scientists. Scientists, its argued, should stick to their own fields; venturing out isn’t useful. I’m in a math class this quarter that doesn’t, in any way, touch on my research. Several people, including the budding choice theorist, have wondered why I’m bothering taking the class.

Second observation: science and the generation of knowledge, it is well understood, should be an objective and fact-driven process. Of course, I agree with this sentiment, but people often confuse this idea with the one that individual scientists themselves should be unemotional and unbiased.

In both cases, I think the role of individual curiosity in science is being underplayed.

11 thoughts on “Two observations about science and scientists”

  1. Not to mention that the physical world doesn’t confine itself to the neat little categories that we draw all over it with language. “Cross-training” can be ridiculously useful; sometimes we gain amazing insights into one phenomenon after having seen it in an entirely different realm.

    Chemistry and biology didn’t put food on anyone’s table until a couple of decades ago. Electricity was a parlor trick until very recently. Astronomers are going to look stupid right up until we hijack a doomsday asteroid and make a space station out of it (the Luna 2 Day Spa, of course).

    These are fine practical examples, but I’m with you on the curiosity thing. Next time someone doubts you, just remember what Snoop said.

  2. What’s a “choice theorist”? You mean like the early Hal Varian or something?

    As for the point here… I think it should be your choice what you do with your own time and money. The issue is, I think, if it makes sense to use taxpayer money for things that look a lot like make-work programs for the brilliant, white collar welfare of sorts.

    If Prof. X wants to do a feminist-Marxian reinterpretation of classical Greek texts and publish that as a 5000 page thesis, fine, prof. X should do that out of his/her own pocket.

  3. Unfortunately, I don’t think the “just interesting in itself” defense works well in applied micro talks. Maybe it’s because there really always is a policy implication even if it’s a stretch. At the same time, it is frustrating that such policy implications are often exagerated to please the policy-happy folks.

  4. Gabriel, should we not support research in cosmology? Would you consider Stephen Hawkins as being on the dole?

    Jason, I think that’s because lines drawn between data points aren’t interesting in and of themselves. We like to hear stories about the underlying data generating process. These stories aren’t always about policy. Its hard to get a satisfying policy recommendation from Levitt’s abortion and crime research, but its neat none-the-less.

  5. “We” mischief. :-( I think “we” should do what each of us decides. I might finance research on cosmology or intercultural underwear studies for that matter, if given the choice, but I won’t force my choice on you.

  6. There’s no positive externality you’d let a benevolent dictator (“we” being the most benevolent of dictators) finance to its efficient level? I’m the first argue the government can be terribly inefficient, but surely the cost of government isn’t so high that the efficient number of interventions is zero.

    I hope not, because I really like Stephen Hawkins… and I’m kinda partial to the internet (nee arpanet).

  7. This is a long story, too long for comments… but strictly connected to what you’re saying… government is about large, long-term fixed costs, not about opportunistically picking what’s efficient, at the margin.

    Regarding “we” as benevolent dictator, there are conflicts of interests between “us”. Out of the several notions out there in normative land, I find none satisfactory. This includes the Pareto restriction, the idea that 1$ of my surplus is somehow equally worthy to 1$ of your surplus, or that weighing individual rankings into a “social ranking” has anything to do with the political process or with what I want in life. — But maybe I’m just crazy here.

    The world is so screwed up right now that the inefficiency from not optimally financing external effects is peanuts. We’re far too burdened down by pure, political rents in comparison, IMO.

    I like S.Hawkins too, the same goes for the Internet. But what you’re saying is a bit like this… You shoot me in the hand and give me a carrot and then, when I complain, you point out that you gave me carrot so I should shut up.

  8. “The world is so screwed up right now”

    Isn’t it also about the least screwed up that it’s ever been? The space race was by all accounts a cold war pissing contest, but the dividends are famous.

    When I was in grad school, another student griped about the price tag for the Spirit rover, which had just successfully landed on the surface of Mars. I did some quick math in my head, handed them two quarters, and said “I’m buying out your tax contribution to that project. Don’t complain about NASA spending for the next couple of years.”

    Yeah… they didn’t think it was funny either.

  9. “Out of the several notions out there in normative land, I find none satisfactory.”

    Well, just because its hard to talk about these things doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    “We’re far too burdened down by pure, political rents in comparison, IMO.”

    This is an empirical claim. I know the estimates for trade restrictions put inefficiencies around 1 or 2%. Without some measure of social welfare, how do you get to this claim?

    Also, personally I’d find the change in utility from a shot in the hand to be substantially greater than the change from consuming a carrot. Its not clear the transaction would be Pareto improving. Maybe your point was that its hard to make interpersonal utility comparisons? :-)

  10. No, I’m confused. I used to have huge, pointless posts on related matters. So I’ll quit now, while I’m not too behind. :-)

    I’m aware of Stigler’s (among other people) estimated about the impact of State-granted monopoly priviledge and concluding that it’s no big deal, but I don’t buy it. The world is full of rents. You can see it at the micro level. Are you paid your reservation wage? Because I know I’m not.

  11. I finally looked it up… Prescott&Parente estimate the effects of monopoly power at a 2/3 reduction in output, keeping inputs constant. (The Barriers to Riches lecture.) Their story is much more plausible than Romerian or Aghionic model, IMHO.

Comments are closed.