by Andre on 23 November 2008
This Wednesday evening I went to see PZ Myers talk about science blogging at a the Kelly Writers House here on campus. It was a nice place for a talk and PZ was entertaining and interesting. But he did say one thing that I’ve heard from quite a few scientists that always bothers me.
He was discussing how professionally written press releases are often a source of frustration for scientists because they emphasize the wrong points or overreach when discussing the significance. That’s often true, and at some point hearing that every bit of incremental progress could help cure cancer is numbing. His advice to press release writers is to replace “important” with “beautiful” because that’s usually the real story. He doesn’t study zebrafish development because it’s important but because it’s beautiful. That’s a big part of the day-to-day motivation for me and I think for most scientists, but it’s only part of the story. Science is important, and all those seemingly incremental results are important the same way each brick in a building is important.
How far down the road of “science shares more with art than engineering” do you want to go? Our society supports the arts because they provide beauty and insight and enrich our lives. We support science because it is inspiring and lets us reach beyond ourselves to see and understand things that didn’t seem possible and because it provides tangible advances that improve the quality of our lives. Those benefits are worth a lot to people. The National Endowment for the Arts has a budget of around $150 million. The National Science Foundation has a budget of around $6000 million. The response to Sarah Palin’s imbecilic attack on fruit fly research would not have been half as effective if it had been only that fruit flies make beautiful experiments possible.
I wouldn’t have the chance to do science for the sake of beauty if it wasn’t also important and scientists and press release writers shouldn’t be afraid of saying that.