Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, March 20, 2014

more on knowledge and value

The tl;dr version of this post: In late capitalism, “Useful Knowledge” can take care of itself, and does. Let’s concern ourselves with other things.

In my earlier post on the value of knowledge I said I would return to some questions raised there. About some recent academic research Aaron Gordon had said, “Two questions come immediately to mind: Why would anyone study these things, and why would anyone pay someone to study these things?” I spoke to the the first question in that post, and will return to it here; then I’ll get to the important stuff.

Let’s consider this recent story from the New York Times:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation....

That personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles some in the science establishment. Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries — for a jumble of popular, feel-good fields like environmental studies and space exploration.

Please read the whole article, which treats vitally important issues.

And now let’s perform a thought-experiment. Read this list of 20th-century scientific discoveries and ask yourself: How many of them would have happened under the kind of funding regime American science is headed towards — or rather, that is already largely in place? (Those philanthropists may be funding their pet projects more directly now, but they’ve been giving to universities, with plentiful strings attached, for a long time.) Or consider something not even on that list — perhaps because it separates mathematics and technology from science: You want to talk about “esoteric”? What could possibly be more esoteric than David Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem? And yet it was Alan Turing’s answer to that problem that gave us digital computing — a result that no one could possibly have foreseen.

I think this thought-experiment, coupled with the NYT article on science, suggests to us a few points:

1) No one knows, and no one can know, what the future uses will be of the knowledge people are discovering, or want to discover, today.

2) Knowledge which is obviously useful, especially in the widespread sense of “potentially lucrative,” will always, in a free-market or mostly-free-market system, have its patrons.

3) Therefore it’s reasonable for society to sponsor institutions and scholars that work on the apparently esoteric, on the same principle that pharmaceutical companies pay for research into new drugs. Very, very little of that research makes its way to market — but what does pays for the rest.

All that if you want to make a largely economic, use-oriented case for the value of the apparently esoteric.

But I don't want to make that case.

In Auden’s greatest poetic achievement, the sequence Horae Canonicae, he writes with wonder of the incomprehensibility, the unpredictability, the wholly gratuitous nature, of vocation — of obedience to a calling. “To ignore the appetitive goddesses ... // what a prodigious step to have taken.”

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

For Auden, there is nothing more delightfully and distinctively human than this obedience to an inexplicable desire to learn, to study — a desire that in some can suspend our habitual animal obedience to appetite — including, I would like to note, not just the appetites for food and sex, but also for economic security and social prestige. To heed this call to an utterly non-utilitarian studiousness is a mark of civilization in an individual — and also in a society, which, if it can afford it, should create and sustain institutions in which such studiousness can flourish.

So, to the question of whether anyone in our tremendously wealthy and astonishingly wasteful society should pay people to study the body temperature of the nesting red-footed Booby (Sula sula), I say: Absolutely. Take the money out of the athletic department’s budget if need be. And when you’re done paying them, build a freakin’ monument to them.