Saturday, November 17, 2012

Science and Utility

We are often asked, "Why do you work on this topic? What use is it?"

More often than not, scientists are flummoxed how to entertain these queries. Sometimes we cringe.

On some levels, the question is valid. Especially in the context of We cringe at these questions because we have asked this to ourselves many times. And the reasons we come up with are not really satisfactory to ourselves and hence we make a bad job of answering those when someone else feels the same way about our research.

For example, I have asked myself this...a thousand times: What good is understanding what goes on in a wasp society when our own society is so ridden with problems? So what if wasps have a conflict-free succession?

Having no answers, I still find it surprising why such questions are asked only to scientists. By this logic, anything that is not useful from an antropocentric, utilitarian point of view is useless. Modern art. Rennaissance art. Fiction. Music. Plays and films. Eiffel Tower.

Why aren't these questions asked to other professionals? Because I believe the society doesn't associate utility with their creation. Their creation is the end point and its usefulness if any is an added bonus. Science on the other hand is supposed to be instrumental in progress and alleviation of problems and hence looked upon from a very different angle.

There is an extra problem associated specifically with ecology. The moment you say I am a scientist, people ask you about the subject. You say ecology, and they know what you do. This instant connect is a boon and a bane. Boon because they are instantly interested. Bane because they instantaneously think they know what is it that you do. Worse is, some people think they can take a call on whether it is useful or not, whether it is interesting or not. Utter astronomy or astrophysics instead of ecology and people will give you the required leeway coz it is understood that astro disciplines are pursued more as an interest rather than a useful subject.

One thing I believe people miss out on when they meet a scientist is that we are full of curiosity. We want to know and unearth. About how's, why's, and other w's. We want to know the truth, if I may say so. If a philosopher or a theologist is given freedom to pursue truth without the watchdogs lunging at every step asking him to explain the utility of his work, so should be a scientist, I believe.


Rathchakra said...

You make valid points, however, it's possible that the inquisitiveness from the one asking could (rarely) also be same as "...a scientist is that we are full of curiosity".

Although I agree in most cases it could be laden with skepticism and cynicism. The only time the question is valid if the work the scientist (or for that manner a theologian, an artist or anyone else) is doing is funded publicly. And I must say the scientists score highly when responding to publicly funded research than any other field. So three cheers to that.

P.S.: This reads like your first "This I Believe" essay.

A said...

I agree with you on that some people are genuinely interested in what I do and are curious to know the details. I have also realised that people need some getting used to the unconventional line of inquiries, which is understandable. So in my case (and I am sure in others' too) once you are a bit more senior, bit more knowledgeable and people around you are a bit more used to unusual words and questions (and species!), it becomes easier and more interesting.

About being answerable: The question is valid in some ways and not valid on some other counts. The public is not funding me directly as a person. If a party is genuinely interested, I will genuinely explain my research and underline points that might be interesting. But if you are gonna questions me like an accountant keeping tabs on my money, my response will be terse and to the effect that they should take it up with the government. BTW, none of this ends in our pockets. Just as I can not ask a teacher or a doctor or an engineer employed with the state about the humongous amounts they make as compared to the efforts they put in, they can not ask me.

PS. After typing the last sentence, I thought the same too!

Rathchakra said...

- " BTW, none of this ends in our pockets" Yes.
- "Just as I can not ask a teacher or a doctor or an engineer employed with the state about the humongous amounts they make as compared to the efforts they put in, they can not ask me."

You/I/We "can" ask - we are completely entitled to ask, you/I/we choose not to ask is a different topic.

A said...

When I was talking abt them, I was not talking about entitlement but the practicality of asking that question. It doesn't help.

Rathchakra said...

Right, hence the " different topic" remark!