Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What science is for, part one

The January 16 issue of Science News features an opinion column by Eric D. Isaacs, whose author bio describes him thusly:
In May 2009, University of Chicago physicist Eric D. Isaacs took the helm of the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Earlier in his career, Isaacs spent 13 years at Bell Laboratories, where he directed semiconductor and materials physics research.
In it he outlines his take on "corporate research centers" (such as, completely coincidentally, Bell Laboratories) as "engines of discovery." And he wants the government labs to fill this same role.

Of course in theory I'd be more behind government science labs than corporate ones, but that theory is unfortunately the liberal myth of a government that truly represents The People, one that is not a ruthless murderous imperial juggernaut. So in reality I'm pretty damned opposed to that. But what I want to discuss now is this statement of Isaacs's's's's'ses: "If science isn't looking like a good career, young people won't sign on."

Now, it's entirely possible that this is in large part true. I'm not interested in discussing the quantitative accuracy of the statement. What bugs me is the just-so tone of the guy, the sense that "science has to be profitable or no one will want to do it" is a natural law rather than a lamentable state of affairs that should be changed. It reminds me of the justification for copyright on intellectual property, that the possibility of lingering profits is an "incentive" for people to create art. Go ahead, call me a hippie, but I think human expression should be the inspiration for creating art. If we could only change the structure of our society to remove the horrendous restraints on the human mind and the human body that the profit motive forces upon us, we would see a flowering of art such as the world has never seen, copyright be damned.

The same goes for science. While it is true that most scientific advancement in our society comes from corporate and military needs, this is not a good thing. It is not the scientific progress in itself that is bad (more on this in part two), but rather the reasons for it and the applications of it. If more people were going into science out of the love of discovery, and, more importantly, able to stay in it just for the love of discovery, rather than compromising themselves and their work in search of money, it's a good bet that our scientific advancement would be more focused on expanding our knowledge and our quality of life, both intellectual and physical* (and I mean genuinely improving, not just making more comfortable), rather than on destroying the lives of the many for the profits of the few.

Interestingly, a wonderful quote from the issue of Science News immediately following is what I will discuss in the part two.

*Incidentally I suspect we might also come back to understanding that these are not opposing aspects of life but rather one inseparable thing.


Soj said...

I like your take on "l'art pour l'art" turning into "les connaissances scientifiques pour les connaissances scientifiques" :P

I will have to disagree with you on this though: While it is true that most scientific advancement in our society comes from corporate and military needs...

If you're going to frame it by quantity then yes, almost everything from french fries to architecture to the dresses worn at weddings come from our "corporate and military needs". People spend the majority of their waking hours servicing "corporate and military" needs so yes, by bulk, most human endeavor occurs within that framework.

But if you break it down into what's produced of QUALITY then you can see there's absolutely no correlation between "corporate and military" scientific achievement (in your words "advancement") versus independent, self-discovery l'art pour l'art style.

Everything from "sticky notes" to lasers to radioactivity was an "advancement" based on le science pour le science ;)

Anonymous said...

a tho't on the teevee: all the cop shows on (plus "24", et al) reinforce the link b/n science & militarized authority. but don't tell the viewers that not even the FBI, much less your fat southern sheriff, has all that crap on that vegas forensics show. any deployment of rationality at all the does not buttress such authority is ipso facto "deviant."

adi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
almostinfamous said...

given the content, shouldn't this post be titled 'Who science is for, part the first'?

Ethan said...

Soj--given the nature of science, findings are findings and facts are facts. It's how we apply those findings--and what facts we go looking for, in what order, with what priority--that is influenced so heavily by military and corporate influences. So I will agree with your disagreement and yet still stand by everything I said, although I could probably (as usual) have phrased it better.

Anon--an explanation for why our technocratic society is so able to deny climate science and evolutionary biology? Could be.

almostinfamous--given the content of part two, the distinction between "what" and "who" is fictional. Maybe.