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Thursday 3 December 2015

The Value Of Nothing

Or, What's The Point Of Knowing Useless Things ?

It's not the greatest movie ever made, but there is at least one valuable scene in Kingdom of Heaven :

We might, perhaps, say the same about knowledge. Not knowledge of any particular topic, but knowledge in general - and more than that, understanding and wisdom.

There are some who claim a monopoly on truth - that their theory trumps that of mainstream science and that conventional research is nothing but a waste. They utterly fail to understand that progress without disagreement, without permitting and encouraging the exploration of the other point of view, is impossible. Worse, they insist that anyone who disagrees with them must be a closed-minded fool, and fail to appreciate the massive irony of the situation since their own theory has produced no tangible consequences whatsoever. That their precious idea might be dismissed by so many people because it is simply wrong never enters their darkest dreams.

I have dealt with such notions at great length here, here, here, here, here and also here. This post is a bit different. I'm not going to look at why people are wrong to assume science is dogmatic. Instead I'm going to look at a particular and very widespread type of dogmatic thinking and its consequences.

There are those who believe that we should concentrate only on researching specific topics : tackling climate change, curing cancer, superconductivity... things with obvious, immediate and above all practical benefits. Who cares about some distant galaxy ? What possible use is knowledge of the mating habits of flamingos ? One of my grandmothers couldn't see the point in spending so much money on the Cassini mission. Even my own mother, who in most other respects I will proudly defend as one of the wisest individuals you could ever hope to meet, doesn't think we should bother with space colonization "until we've solved the problems on this planet".

Well mum, I hope you're reading.


Technologies which do have direct social benefits are by far the easiest way of selling the value of pure, blue-skies research. Unexpected developments certainly do happen, and the consequences can be literally unimaginable until they actually occur. You're reading this thanks to the internet, partially developed during research into particle physics. Twenty years ago the net was mediocre at best. Today, it's probably impossible to calculate its contribution to the global economy, let alone the societal changes it's brought about. Think about that next time you want to say, "this research can't possibly produce anything useful". You're not psychic, you twerp.

Sometimes, science does not so much improve the economy (though it certainly does do that) as it does transform it out of all recognition. Can you imagine the world without modern medicine, electricity, fertilizers, disinfectants, mass transit, or telecommunications ? It would be, in that famous phrase, nasty brutish and short.

And yet in part because people fail to think statistically and take the long view, there is a belief that "chemicals" are bad for you, that anything "natural" is more beneficial... a damn stupid idea that takes all of three seconds to disprove.

Snake therapy : because acupuncture is too mainstream.
But I digress. Sorry. Anyway, while it's true that not all major technological breakthroughs have occurred as spin-offs from pure research, many have. Many that have occurred through more deliberate projects have still relied on theory developed through pure research. Even the value of spin-off discoveries from scientific endeavours is impossible to calculate - yes, even from the space program we should apparently ignore until we've solved everything down here.

It is true that for poor counties, developing a space program should hardly be their first priority - just as it might not have been sensible for them to have developed programs of world exploration back in the Middle Ages. But for those who can afford it, the riches up for grabs are almost literally beyond imagining.

Leaving aside the highly dubious issue of whether we can or will ever solve all the social problems here on Earth, space exploration is a means to improving life here on Earth - not an excuse to avoid its difficulties.

No, don't do that research ! Do this research instead !

OK, maybe the method of spin-offs isn't the most efficient method possible of making those practical technologies. This is very hard to prove. We already have - indeed have always had - a mixture of public and private research, sometimes focused on practical goals and sometimes on blue skies projects. But because of the interplay between the theoretical development (which is largely the province of pure research) and the practical development (which is often done by companies) it's extremely hard to judge if things could be made more efficient or not.

The problem with the idea that we should only focus on  "important, practical" research is that I have neither the interest nor the ability to solve medical problems. Non-scientists sometimes seem to think that "science" is some generic discipline, and that if you can do one sort of science you can do another. This is like saying that if you can row a boat, you can drive a Formula One racing car - or that you'd want to drive a Formula One racing car.

Medical problems bore me. Chemical reactions are incredibly tedious. Atmospheric physics leaves me cold. And to be honest, there are even huge sections of astronomy that leave me yawning. I'm just not interested in them, and I'm not going to become interested in them just because someone else thinks they're important. They are important, but that doesn't mean I want to research them any more than it means I want to become a pilot, an ambulance driver, a fireman or a policeman or any of the other very important professions available. We all have the right to pursue happiness.

(And while we're at it, how often do you see astronomers saying, "You mid-level accountants should stop being accountants and concentrate on fighting cancer ?")

So if all you're interested in is the economics, you can stop reading. Science's contribution to the economy cannot be overestimated. Prioritising specific areas of research is an incredibly arrogant approach, because you cannot possibly know which area will generate an unpredictable spin-off or discovery that might be important elsewhere. And sometimes those spin-offs, like the internet, are quite literally invaluable.

But while the technological benefits of science are innumerable, there are other reasons for pure research which are harder to sell but, perhaps, even more important. The great Arabic philosopher Al-Biruni summarised it thus :
"The stubborn critic would say : 'What is the benefit of these sciences ?' He does not know the virtue that distinguishes mankind from all the animals : it is knowledge, in general, which is pursued solely by man, and which is pursued for the sake of knowledge itself, because its acquisition is truly delightful, and is unlike the pleasures desirable from other pursuits. For the good cannot be brought forth, and evil cannot be avoided, except by knowledge. What benefit then is more vivid ? What use is more abundant ?”


If there's one inescapable lesson from astronomy, it's that we are small. No, not small. Pathetic.

Or rather, astronomy should be a humbling and character-building
experience. I, for one, can't stand character-building experiences.

Not just in space, but in time. Not only is our pale blue dot nothing more than a speck of dust, but we've inhabited it for only the briefest moment. To think - or rather, to be certain - that we are the pinnacle of creation or that the Universe was created especially and only for us is an act of monumental, breathtaking arrogance. To the Universe, were are nothing.

And yet while our total insignificance in the face of this vast, cool and unsympathetic cosmos demands our humility, and probably also means we shouldn't take life too seriously, it doesn't mean we have to cow down in fear or be stupefied into inaction.

So what's the value of astronomy ? Nothing ! Everything. If you don't think humility is an important lesson, then I can't help you.

So should we stop there ? We already know the Universe is unimaginably big and incomprehensibly old, what's the point of studying the boring details ? Well, we also know that most of the Universe is (most likely) made of a material about which we know almost nothing, we know an unknown force is driving its expansion, there are places in the Universe where time stands still, where mountains can't grow a millimetre high because the gravity is so strong, planets where it rains sulphuric acid and moons that tear themselves inside-out, we suspect that ours is not the only Universe and there might, just might, be connections between other realities, and we have absolutely no clue if we're alone in all this or if there are hordes of other intelligences waiting to be discovered. So, should be stop there ? Or shall we keep going, and find out how deep the rabbit hole goes ?

All we are is a kilo or so of warm blood-soaked goop sitting inside a skull. It is entirely possible that the true nature of the Universe is forever beyond our comprehension. But if we'd given up trying because the magnitude of the problem seemed too vast, we'd still be swinging through the trees.

To slightly modify an earlier quote of mine :
The thing is though, the real universe is full of giraffes, exploding stars, Scarlet Johannson, worlds covered in methane, pandas, stars so dense they slow down time, and cabbage. We can only survive in a minuscule region of space barely five miles thick, on top of a rock hurtling around an almost 100,000 mile-wide ball of plasma, and we think this is normal. Anyone who thinks astronomy is nothing but escapism should have their head shoved into a telescope until they realise just how dreadfully, pitiably small the so-called "real world" is.
Although teaching everyone to be humble, to step back and remember that they're just another stupid ape, is something an awful lot of people would do well to remember, there is perhaps another aspect of knowledge which is even more important. To really understand the value of knowledge, you must first be aware of the price of ignorance. But there is one final pragmatic concern I need to address first.

Won't someone please think of the children !

Specifically, the starving children. How, one might ask, can we afford to spend money on space probes when there are people dying of starvation in the world ? Is our "humility" really worth that much ? It's a legitimate question. I've already hinted at the answer, but just in case it isn't clear, let me spell it out more clearly.

First, research has produced the farming techniques which are so essential to modern life : fertilizers, pesticides, harvesting technologies, etc. Second, food production has been growing over time, and yet there are still starving people in the world. That alone proves that it isn't about prioritizing the wrong research or that money is being spent on the wrong areas - the problem of starvation is political. Science is responsible for generating greater food production, better medical care, and longer lifespans - bringing those benefits to everyone is the mandate of politicians, not that of researchers. Scientists are in no more a position to affect political change than anyone else.

And again, how many astronomers do you see saying, "You mid-level accountants are just a waste of resources and we should give all your money to starving children" ?

Thirdly, the specific charge that money is being "wasted" on frivolous research like geological and space exploration. Yes, in principle, you could stop spending money on rockets and spend it on food instead. But it makes no sense to pick on astronomers or geologists. Neither are particularly well-paid (except possibly privately-funded geologists who discover oil or valuable minerals). And the cost of the space program, even in America, is utterly dwarfed by other costs :

America spends less than $20 billion on NASA annually, but over $600 billion on defence. What's more sensible - scrapping NASA completely, or "slashing" the defence budget by 3% ? Privately, Americans spend more on tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs, treatment for all those drugs, gambling, and even pizza than they do on space - and this is by far the largest space program in the world. Anyone who's genuinely concerned to solve social problems would do far better to cut down on junk food, booze and drugs than scrap the technology-generating space program. That, at a stroke, would simultaneously prevent a lot of health problems and free up money for the needy.

So pure research with little or no obvious practical benefits costs very little, doesn't prevent us from solving more urgent problems, and in fact offers solutions to such problems provided we have the wit to use its unintended breakthroughs correctly. And it teaches us humility, cautions us against arrogance, and warns us that our most deeply-held views could be overturned at any moment. Perhaps most importantly of all, we should remember what happens in a world without such free-thinking inquiry.

The Demon-Haunted World

There are some mistaken beliefs about the medieval world that refuse to die - they never believed the Earth was flat, for example. They did think it was the centre of the Universe, but not because they believed it was the most important place. Actually it was partly tradition and partly a curious way of emphasising human mediocrity : neither close to heaven or hell, or as Terry Pratchett put it, "the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape."

Yet they did have some truly weird ideas. They didn't believe in parabolic trajectories : they thought that arrows kept going in a straight line until they ran out of energy. They thought the equator was uncrossable because of a ring of fire around the world. And they also believed in evil spirits, witches, and demons.

Science is the means by which we exorcise this demon-haunted world, as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it. We have no fear of crossing the equator any more, or that lonely old women might turn us into frogs or eat our children. We aren't afraid of fairies or goblins or werewolves or dragons. We don't throw human faeces into the street and we don't try and bleed people when they're unwell, or drill holes in their heads, or give them something to bite on while we saw their legs off. And we don't enslave people on the grounds that they are sub-human.

It's a shame about the dragons though.
That is the price of ignorance, and it's a high one : a world of magic and miracles, rituals and superstition. When knowledge is not required, there is no check or limit on stupidity. Even in modern times, there is no limit on how stupid even very intelligent people can become - but the safeguard is that we no longer have a handful of intellectuals trying to solve problems, we've got thousands.

When you insist that something isn't worth knowing, you allow truth to be replaced with doctrine. "No, of course the other side of the world isn't inhabited, how could anyone have crossed the ring of fire at the equator ?" You don't know what the world is really like unless you check. The ancient Greeks didn't believe in atoms because the space between them would be a vacuum, which "obviously" couldn't exist. The truth is that there is absolutely no compunction for the Universe to be what a blood-soaked lump of goop thinks it should be.
You could say to the Universe, this is not fair. And the Universe would say, "Oh, isn't it ? Sorry." - Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times
If you think some piece of research is "obviously" wrong or useless without having studied it, you are a moron. You are here at the behest of the Universe, not the other way around. You do not know the truth because your intuition tells you it. You have the right to your opinion, but fortunately for the rest of us your opinion doesn't count for turnips unless you produce actual evidence.

Even when knowledge doesn't produce direct, tangible results, it can still bring great benefits. Knowing that earthquakes are natural phenomena hasn't helped us predict them yet, but we no longer fear them as the will of the gods. We aren't sacrificing people any more whenever catastrophes threaten. Sometimes, knowing what doesn't work is at least as valuable as knowing what does.

This, then, is the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake : preventing ignorance and all its terrible consequences. Knowledge isn't a an impenetrable shield against fear, because humans are irrational, but it's is a pretty effective one nonetheless - and a damn sight better than the alternative.

Clarity Without Certainty

"Knowledge" is a loaded term. Actually what it's really all about is not knowing facts, but thinking. Simply thinking. "I think this is true" rather than, "I know this is true". Knowing facts is only the beginning - being able to derive Maxwell's equations in your sleep won't help you one bit to be compassionate. But it is a vital first step. Facts lead to models about how the Universe works, allowing you to make predictions and therefore the really interesting part : choices.

I recently attempted to explain to someone that science doesn't claim a monopoly on truth, that it simply tries to get the best information available at the current time. They were quite unable to understand that science does not - almost all of the time - deal in certainties. It only deals with the most likely explanations given the available evidence. Emphasis on "most". Science can't tell you what the correct decision to make is, but it can help you (and only help you) make the best decision possible at the time.

Certainty can even be dangerous. Frank Herbert once wrote that, "Knowledge is the most perfect barrier against learning." Actually, it's certain knowledge. What science provides is not unchangeable knowledge, it's information. Without evidence to disprove it it's as unyielding as stone. With firm evidence against it melts away like... umm... butter ? Yeah. Slowly, and it's quite sticky, and some people would rather it didn't go at all, but ultimately it's gone.

There have been many martyrs who believed in the certainty of their cause. One of my long-standing heroes is Socrates, the philosopher who died not for knowledge but for the right to think, to question, to admit ignorance where it exists and not proclaim false certainty, in short - to doubt. Doubt, in moderation, is not a weakness - it is the most potent weapon available in the arsenal of human intelligence. It is the force that has taken us from an era in which we were certain that we should bleed people who were half-dead into one in which the only certainty is that we can create better and better treatments. It is the means by which we improve ourselves and the world around us.

And so I ask again : what is the value of learning useless information ? What worth is there in learning for the sake of learning ?


  1. Oh yes ? And did he use a snake ?

  2. Excellent. Rhys, the snake therapy image link is down. (at least from my office...)

  3. Excellent. Rhys, the snake therapy image link is down. (at least from my office...)

    1. Thanks - I've saved the image and uploaded it directly to the post.

  4. This is going right to my handy list of "I would respond to that but Dr Rhys Taylor did it already (and probably better) (and with pictures)" links.

    Great timing also, this one entry is going to see use very soon :)


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