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PZ Myers: "Science is not Important"

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.

  1. Jesse    3526 days ago    #

    Great post, Andre. You state very eloquently the point I’ll be trying to make over Thanksgiving dinner with my family next week.

    “So, Jesse, what have you been working on?”

    “I’ve been studying the optical properties of carbon nanotubes and the transport properties of graphene.”


    “Because I find it incredibly interesting and satisfying.”

    “No. I mean, what’s that good for?”

    Our reasons for doing research may not be the same as the public’s reason for funding it. Fortunately, scientifically interesting problems are often technologically useful as well.

    On the other hand, I think it is important to emphasize that technology evolves in unpredictable ways, not according to some roadmap drawn up by the NSF, the DOE, or any other acronym or company. What seems esoteric and irrelevant today could very well be the basis of useful applications we can’t yet envision. General relativity is my favorite example of this. Einstein didn’t have to speculate about applications in GPS to justify his research into the properties of spacetime, yet this extremely useful technology is dependent on his work. (You have to go beyond Newtonian gravity to get the necessary precision.)

    We should not be ignorant of the practical applications of our work, but research should not be restricted to projects for which the practical applications are easy to see.

  2. Andre    3525 days ago    #

    Jesse, yes I totally agree. There’s a difficult balance to be struck. Fortunately, I think we can have it both ways. Carl Sagan could make science wonderful, but he also knew how to convey its importance. It’s too long to quote, but I’m thinking of a passage from Demon Haunted World. If you go here and search for “you are,” without the quotation marks (but don’t forget the comma!) you’ll find the start of the passage I’m thinking of.

  3. Alex Palazzo    3525 days ago    #

    Shouldn’t the answer be “because it is important and beautiful”?

  4. Connelly Barnes    3525 days ago    #

    Much of science I don’t find beautiful at all. I majored in physics, and I know physicists are partly responsible for this “beautiful” nonsense. But look at quantum mechanics — one of the ugliest theories in existence. I’m glad people are working on quantum gravity, just so we can get rid of quantum mechanics! I think a lot of science is ugly, but I’m still interested in it just because of curiosity.

    One can distinguish the act of science from the act of marketing. People can do science for whatever reasons pleases them. Marketing has to be done by appealing to audiences.

    (Perhaps ultimately, information theory will make it impossible to distinguish science and marketing. The argument being, there can only be so much information density in space, and only so much energy to power science, so science can only rigorously progress so far, before curiosity will drive people to invent quasisciences to fill in the gaps. Interestingly, it won’t be science then, because theories won’t be testable, and will only be subject to personal preference.)

  5. Andre    3525 days ago    #

    Well, I suppose sometimes it is special kind of beauty!

  6. rpg    3525 days ago    #

    Rather worryingly I find myself, for once, agreeing with PZ Myers.

    I never got into science because it is useful: rather it satisfied a natural curiosity. It does feed my aesthetic soul. And I’ll be writing about this elsewhere, soon.

    And ‘important’ is a non-word. It is as abused as ‘good’, or ‘novel’. It has become meaningless. Every little bit of science has become ‘important’, and the laity are sophisticated enough to realize that we just say our little brick is ‘important’ because it’s how we get funding. We should be saying ‘We do this because it’s beautiful, it’s fascinating, and we want to find out how stuff works just because it’s there.’

    It’s a very human reason for doing things.

  7. Massimo    3524 days ago    #

    I am not sure I would go very far down the road of “science yields a lot of useful gadgets” either. It is unfortunate that, this day and age, in order to be funded scientists have to make often unrealistic, wild promises of dazzling applications and possible multi-billion dollars spinoff companies.
    For one thing, let’s face it, those applications might be there, but more often than not they aren’t. Science is mostly about failure. Making promises and not delivering renders the public suspicious and hostile toward us.
    More importantly, there is something truly dismal about pursuing science exclusively or mainly in light of possible technological benefits. And, no, it is not about the aesthetic pleasure alone either. The educational component is very important. Society stands to reap tremendous benefits from the presence of a scientifically literate public and work force.

  8. Andre    3524 days ago    #


    I really think we need both. I do science because it’s fascinating and I want to figure things out, but I also like the idea of invention and that’s just as much a part of being human as the desire to understand.

    Certainly saying simply “this work is important” is pretty empty. It all depends on how it’s worked into the larger story. After all, “this work is beautiful” or “this work is fascinating” is no better unless the reader is actually convinced that it’s true.


    Totally agree, we need to make the case for all of those things, while trying to avoid over-hyping incremental progress. I’m not recommending making false promises.

  9. Ben    3483 days ago    #

    Contrary to Connelley, I find quantum mechanics to be incredibly beautiful. So mathemtatically elegant, counterintuitive, and useful all at once.

    But I agree with the above posters that the answer needs to be “both.” We can’t give the impression that science is just a game with high-tech toys, but we also can’t let it be seen as a dry utilitarian pursuit. We have to show both the use and the beauty of science, in education as well as in the media.

  10. rpg    3461 days ago    #

    This inspired me to write something… here

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