In Defense of Useless Knowledge

Apollo 17 lunar landing, 1972. Photo credit: History Rundown.

We live in a practical culture. Some within that culture are critical of basic research — research that often takes place in universities and institutes, and that targets knowledge without immediate practical application. Their view is that such research is a luxurious waste of time and money since it often addresses topics that are abstract, esoteric, and, well, impractical. A recent story on NPR’s daily news show, “All Things Considered,” took aim at this view by highlighting a study published in the journal Science that suggests a strong link between basic scientific research and practical inventions.

Researchers scrutinized the relationship between 4.8 million U.S. patents and 32 million basic scientific research articles, each of which had been cited at least once in other work. They found that the basic research reported in 80% of the articles played some role in the development of a patent, and that 61% of the patents relied upon at least one of the 32 million basic research articles. Thus, it turns out that basic research — at least of the scientific persuasion — is generally not a luxurious waste, but is, in fact, quite practical, albeit indirectly so.

However, this kind of response to the disparagement of basic research is inadequate, since it implicitly accepts the disparager’s premise that unless basic research has practical value it is valueless. That premise is false. It is also dangerous since it undermines basic research in the humanities, the practical value of which is typically much harder to see than that of basic scientific research.

When we say something has practical value, we typically mean it yields or gives rise to (“is the means to”) some other thing that we value. For example, a toothbrush has practical value insofar as it helps us avoid gum disease and tooth decay. Avoiding gum disease and tooth decay, in turn, is good because they can reduce the quality and (ultimately) the length of our lives. As this example shows, a chain of reasoning about the practical value of something often bottoms out in some claim about the value of survival, or avoiding pain, or producing pleasure.

But, we might ask, what practical value do those have? Answer: none; they are useless. We don’t want pleasure or avoidance of pain because of some further good thing they get us. Rather, we just want them because of what they are. To use a technical term, I would say they have “final” value for us — value deriving from what a thing is and not what further good things it gets us. (Some would call this “intrinsic value,” which I don’t think amounts to quite the same idea, but I will leave off defending this distinction lest it seem a luxurious waste.) The point in all this is that if we want to say that anything has practical value, it seems we must also assert that something has the different kind of value that I have called “final.”

But, now that we have final value on the table, why not think much (most? all?) successful basic research also has it. After all, not only are human beings sentient animals — feeling creatures that value pleasure and the absence of pain — we are also, as Aristotle implied (and as the medievals stated), rational animals. We are curious, thinking beings that value the having of knowledge for its own sake — because of what it is, and not merely because of what more it gets us.

Space exploration is an excellent example of our rational nature in action since it is one of the few fields of basic research that can still inspire wonder in most of us. Why did we go to the moon? And why do we continue to send probes hither and yon, throughout and beyond our solar system? To some extent practical considerations motivate us. But, we began our exploration, and continue at least in part, because we want to understand what it’s like out there. We are curious. We just want to know.

Does my argument entail that we should indiscriminately fund basic research? No. Does it entail that we should ignore practical implications when deciding which research to fund? Emphatically, no. But, I do think it ought to make us more cautious than we typically are in our evaluation of basic research of all kinds — especially in the humanities. If we insist on measuring the value of knowledge by its practical implications alone, we risk discarding not only knowledge with less obvious practical value, but also the rich tradition of useless knowledge that has final value alone.

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