Friday, June 25, 2010

When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?

What follows is some comment on an article by Simon Jenkins.

The content of said article is the usual hackworthy guff about how “science” is the new Stalinist religion and how “science” has eaten up so much of the curriculum for itself and how “science” needs to justify the huge amounts of money spent on “science” and why "science" needs to explain why that money should be spent on “science” rather than on the arts or anything else and how scientists only care about money.

Maybe if I was at a dinner party with someone making the various points Jenkins expurgates in his article it would be worth my time laying out exactly why he is wrong. Given that I'm not and I suspect anyone reading this will be smart enough to join the dots themselves I will restrict myself to a general commentary. So here are a few points I think relevant, but I honestly don’t have the energy or inclination to elaborate further:

Education in the disciplines of engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology cost more ceteris paribus than education in the disciplines of English literature, media studies, philosophy, maths, history, and art. This is because in order to learn the scientific subjects properly you need to spend a certain amount of time at a lab bench studying how the universe actually fits together. The bits of the universe you study generally have to be prepared by paid lab technicians and – as well as possibly being costly in and of themselves – often require the interplacement of similarly costly apparatuses to observe and analyse said components of the universe at a finitude of observation greater than that of the human eye.

As it isn’t obvious that education in scientific subjects is in fact less valuable than that in other disciplines – both in terms of the return to society and to the individual to be educated – I see no reason why university physics departments, for example, should be required to justify their greater expense when it is clear that this is a product of the nature of their discipline.

If it were the case that physics was obviously of equal societal and individual utility to (say) English literature then we might be in a position to suggest that maybe fewer people should study physics, as it costs more to no greater reward. The fact that there is a strong argument that physics does in fact have greater societal utility than English literature suggests that maybe the directors of university finances indulge the greater monetary demands of the physics department. [The argument goes like this: economic growth is good for everyone, education is also good for society, but education that leads to economic growth is better, you don’t need to have an English degree to write a bestselling novel (which generates economic growth) but you do need an engineering degree to build a better method for manufacturing microchips (which also generates economic growth].

Then there is Jenkins’ weird obsession with the idea of “science” vs. “arts” or “science is the new religion”. I honestly don’t know how to respond to this nonsense because I don’t perceive “science” to be in competition with “arts”. They are both avenues for expressing what it is to be human, whether that expression is the search for truth without or within a particular human being. It just so happens that the positive economic externalities of science are greater and could not be tapped without a certain level of direct support.

Finally, the reason we fund “blue sky” research in physics, biology, and chemistry, is that we don’t know what may have value until we find it. In studying the universe in all the ways available to us we gain a deeper understanding. And when it comes to science, in terms of Michael MacIntyre’s distinction, we can persue both the goods of excellence and the goods of effectiveness. A deeper understanding of the universe has intrinsic value in and of itself, as well as instrumental value.

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