The Purpose of Science


Controversial opinion on a site with “anarchist” in the name, but I don’t think science should be commercialised and portrayed as a product for consumers. Scientific research and exploration should transcend material goals, particularly monetary ones, and should strive to reach a forever receding horizon of knowledge.

I’m not saying technologies and products that exist as a result of scientific exploration are bad or wrong – the opposite is true, as many of them are beneficial and brilliant, and it basically includes everything ever made to some extent. What I contend is that the creation, and potential marketability, of a technology or product should not be a prerequisite to investing in fields of scientific study. Further, science itself should not be used – or abused – to push support for such a product, particularly if it has negative outcomes or is associated with ulterior motives.

For the latter point, I refer to the book Merchants of Doubt, a story of science, and “science”, being used to further political or corporate agendas. Tobacco companies ran huge campaigns muddying the waters regarding the link between smoking and the various heath issues associated with it, followed by an admission their product was perhaps dangerous, but only for the smoker, not second-hand smoke. They cast doubt over the link and funded studies designed to take attention away from smoking as a dangerous activity, even if some of them were worthwhile in their own right.

A similar debate is taking place today over climate change. The science has been in for decades – humanity has had a dramatic impact on the planet, and the consequences of this are encroaching on us year by year. Equal, if not more, dramatic action is needed to change the current system, or the damage will irreversible, and it will no longer be an existential threat but a damning reality. As with the smoking example, on a much grander scale, there is a global campaign downplaying or simply ignoring and suppressing real science for political and corporate gain. Doubt becomes a product, picking at relatively unimportant “uncertainties” and faux experts, which in turn overshadows faith in the scientific method.

On the other end, where the product or agenda is positive or beneficial, I reiterate I have no particular problem with it. If the resultant item or technology helps, entertains, or interests people, then that is great and can be a good motivator for investment in various fields. But not everything will yield a material gain, nor does it have to, so to use that as the sole purpose or prerequisite limits the scope of scientific exploration. There are two very simple reasons why science should be explored and encouraged that should drive all pursuits of knowledge.

The first is the pursuit itself. Our understanding of the universe is extremely limited, to the point that there are obviously things we simply do not know, or don’t even know we don’t know. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge and a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we exist in is a powerful and worthy endeavour, even if that knowledge is of relatively insignificant importance. A particular discovery may have no real impact or implications, but it grows our collective intelligence.

The other is the natural human desire for free creative expression and work. Science benefits from the creative minds that expand and shatter the boundaries of our knowledge. People driven by this inherent trait don’t need the temptation or promise of any material gain, benevolent or malicious. They simply do the work that fulfils them and contributes to the wealth of knowledge that furthers our collective understanding of the universe.

Regardless of the outcomes that flow from it, science should be free of any and all limitations (obviously with the exception of ethical implications, but that should go without saying). Science has always been entangled with the culture and politics of the time, as the results can and do guide opinions and policy, but the more we can disconnect the research and discovery aspects from the quagmire of outside interference and influence, the more we can focus on truth and legitimate understanding.

The purpose of science should be the free and creative pursuit of knowledge to the overall benefit of humanity and our understanding of the universe.


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