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The Value of Science

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The historic March for Science, a worldwide protest led by scientists and activists in support of the value of scientific inquiry and evidence-based policymaking, took place this past Saturday. One of the signs at the March read “I have faith in facts,” alluding to Kellyanne Conway’s notorious “alternative facts” remark. Other signs highlighted the benefits of modern technology, or the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. While I agree with the overall message of the march, we must not unconditionally extol the benefits of “scientific progress.” Focusing on the end product of science distracts us from what makes science and its methods intrinsically valuable and meaningful.

A quick survey of the history of science shows that science is not always beneficial. Newtonian mechanics and gunpowder significantly improved the power and accuracy of artillery and made them more deadly. Atomic science and nuclear physics contributed to the development of atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, countries are using artificial intelligence technology to develop Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), or “robot killers” that can track and kill human targets with minimal human supervision.

Science is responsible for racial eugenics, and the remnants of “scientific racism” persist in the ideology of white supremacy. Science is responsible for the Industrial Revolution, which led to child labor, poorer working conditions, as well as surging income inequality. Science is responsible for the creation of engines, cars, and power plants, but science is also responsible for their emission of greenhouse gases and for climate change.

It is hypocritical to focus only on the benefits of science and ignore all its harms. Science is a powerful tool that can be used or abused, and any application of science is a political act, whether it is the development of new technologies or the use of scientific knowledge for society.  I believe a stronger case can be made that science is valuable for its own sake, rather than for any extrinsic reason. Only talking about what benefits science can bring risks politicizing the subject; science itself  is and must be free from political and partisan interests.

The purest of sciences, maybe paradoxically, should be useless. Pure science is about discovering eternal truths of nature, rather than improving quality of life. Albert Einstein never intended his theory of relativity to be anything other than an exposition of the fundamental laws of nature. He dedicated his life to finding a Theory of Everything, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics. The avant-garde of physics, or string theory, is a more extreme example. There seems to be no way to experimentally confirm whether the theory is correct or not. In other words, whether string theory is correct has no effect on our everyday life.

In this idealized realm of the purest sciences, scientific theory inextricably merges with the beauty of mathematics. G. H. Hardy, the famous author of the now classic text “A Mathematician’s Apology,” counted Maxwell and Einstein among “real mathematicians,” a high praise he reserved only for those who work in areas that have “little practical value … for ordinary men.” His remark was unfortunate; five years after his book was first published, the world saw the creation of atomic bombs, the possibility of which was first indicated by Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation. But the point remains. The beauty of science owes much to the beauty of the mathematical language in which it is expressed, and mathematics is (or should be) innocent and harmless. While it was perhaps a little premature for Hardy to deride the ugliness of “useful science” and contend that Einstein’s and Maxwell’s theories were perfectly useless, string theory, with its mathematical success, has the potential to claim the throne of theoretical science.

I suspect that the argument that science is beautiful is not terribly convincing to the more practical-minded of the readers. For these readers, I shall argue that the scientific method is our best tool to dispel myths and ideologies. This is not to say scientific knowledge should always be revered and unconditionally accepted. To make this claim is to argue that scientific knowledge is absolute truth, a claim even the scientists themselves cannot rationally support. Scientific progress is impossible if new generations of scientists uncritically accepts everything that has been said in the past. Imagine if a student of evolutionary biology now still believes in the discredited theory of eugenics.  He or she is not only a morally bankrupt racist, but also a terrible scientist at best.

But as the example of eugenics has made clear, science often is influenced, if not controlled, by some ideological agenda. To some extent, this problem is perhaps unavoidable. As philosopher of science Karl Popper makes clear, scientific observations cannot be purely objective, since our interests and expectations tend to affect what we see. But Popper also argues that the scientific spirit of critical rationalism is the best tool we have for creating knowledge. The standard of rigorous critical thinking employed in science allows us to conclusively refute false theories in the past, and hopefully our knowledge system is made better as a result.

As Popper correctly points out, there is no reason why the methods of science cannot be used in other areas of our society as well. Dogmatic ideologies must be rejected because they resist the test of evidence and criticism (Popper is himself fiercely anti-Marxist because of this). It is better instead to keep an open mind and critically debate each issue on the basis of facts and evidence rather than blindly endorse any particular ideology that is most popular at a time.

The large turnout at Saturday’s march is uplifting given the dark time in which we live. But if we fail to appreciate science for its own sake, the March for Science is just going to be another case where political actors take advantage of science and the independence of scientists from political interests gets undermined. The least we can do is to start a conversation about what really makes science so wonderful.

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