Is 'what is this good for?' a question to be discouraged?

Larry Moran posts a response to my response to his earlier post on the advisability of putting ethical discussions into science classes. Careful fellow that he is, he's decided to stick to a single issue per posting, so he starts with "the relationship between science and technology and where 'ethics' fits in". Larry opines:

Part of what we need to do as science teachers is to make sure our students understand the difference between science and technology -- between the uses of science and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. ...

The goal, as far as I am concerned, is to convince students that knowledge for its own sake is a valuable commodity regardless of whether or not the knowledge can be applied to the betterment (or destruction) of Homo sapiens.

In other words, Larry feels it's quite proper to draw a stark line between knowledge and its use, and that the claim that "scientific knowledge and technologies are value-neutral and it is only the ways that they are used that make them 'good' or 'bad'" is a defensible one. I'm not necessarily ready to go to the mat on this one, but I should note that the reason I'm less sure about the hard distinction between knowledge and its use than I once was is Philip Kitcher's discussion in Chapter 12 ("Subversive Truth and Ideals of Progress") in Science, Truth, and Democracy. There, Kitcher examines the claim that knowledge is always better than ignorance to see whether it can be defended with a solid argument, and he suggests certain kinds of knowledge that in the knowing might turn out to be bad for us. It's a challenging chapter and definitely worth a read.

However, for the purposes of this discussion with Larry, I'm prepared to set this worry aside. (Also, I'll set aside the objection that the generation of knowledge may well have costs that in certain instances outweigh the value of the knowledge generated.)

The more interesting point Larry raises is whether questions about scientific knowledge put to use (technology) are questions that ought to be encouraged or catered to in the context of a science class. Here are his line-by-line responses to my post:

However, when students learn a particular bit of knowledge or a particular analytic technique, it's natural for them to wonder, "What do you do with this?"

This is, unfortunately, true, My goal is to change students' minds so the question doesn't always pop into their heads whenever they learn something new about the natural world. I want them to appreciate the value of curiosity-motivated research and the value of knowledege for its own sake.

To the extent that people teaching science want to encourage their students to see it as something with relevance beyond the course in which they're learning it, talking about real-life applications of science can be a good thing.

But that's the problem! I do not want to encourage students to always be thinking about relevance. I want them to learn about evolution, for example, even if you don't use it directly to make a new drug.

I'm very sympathetic to Larry's worry here -- as a philosopher, how could I not be? -- that students aren't grasping the beauty inherent in a coherent model of a piece of the world, in a piece of knowledge that is valuable primarily because it satisfies our curiosity. Teachers get burnt out on the "What are we ever going to use this for?" question almost as rapidly as the even more discouraging "Is this going to be on the test?" For us, knowledge scratches a particular kind of itch. It distresses us to think that our students might not have that itch. Thus, maybe our teaching ought to be directed at making our students feel itchy -- helping them see what's cool about the knowledge we're trying to convey even if we table all questions of how the knowledge might be applied to solving various practical problems in the real world.

On the other hand, even if the discussion is restricted to the science content, the "What is this good for?" questions are already part of the storyline in many courses. We teach students about the more refined models that came to replace the earlier and clunkier ones, models that are good because they make better predictions or have clearer connections to empirical data or other useful models. We teach students about particular experimental techniques that are good for answering particular questions or adjudicating between different accounts of what's going on in a system. Organic chemistry students have to learn a truckload of reactions that are good for producing this kind of compound from this kind of starting material in this set of conditions.

A laundry list of isolated facts is not the kind of thing the students want to learn, nor the kind of thing the science teachers want to teach. What keeds the facts from being isolated -- what imposes a coherent structure where they're connected to each other -- almost always involves a storyline about what various bits of the knowledge are good for.

The trick, I suppose, is to keep the students focused on that question within the bounds of the discourse about the knowledge and its production -- at least as long as the students are taking a biochemistry class, rather than a biochemical ethics class.

At least, Larry is arguing that this kind of policing of boundaries is desirable. Is it? He says,

Let me emphasize that I am reluctant to bring up these "ethical" issues because the downside is worse than the upside.

I take it he means the pedagogical downside -- the tendency to draw students away from the questions that are self-contained within the subject matter and worth caring about in their own right as cool pieces of knowledge. Larry is hypothesizing that such cultivation of the students in the direction of the questions that interest the scientists will have better results, not only from the point of view of educating future scientists but also from the point of view of educating future citizens of the world. That this is part of the aim (and, I'm willing to bet it's an aim widely shared by science educators) is clear from Larry's response to my parenthetical:

(Don't forget, the students who see the beauty of the scientific knowledge itself are probably the ones who will, in the not so distant future, have to motivate the larger significance of the research they want to undertake in order to secure grants to fund that research.)

My long-term goal is to educate society, including politicians, so they will fund basic science for the sake of knowledge and not for the sake of "relevance." I start with my students. If I succeed, then at some point in the distant future scientists won't have to bullshit their way through a grant proposal in order to cater to the false notions of what science is all about.

So, will the approach of science-for-its-own-sake in the curriculum achieve the results Larry hopes for? I think that's an empirical question. Someone with deep pockets ought to fund a controlled study wherein students are set up in "pure science" sections and "relevance" sections during their education, then tracked for a few decades after their out of school to see what the outcomes are.

Mr. Gates? Mr. Soros? Recent lottery winners? Let's talk!

One little response to Larry's comments on my grant-writing claim: I'm inclined to agree that B.S. is not something we want to be a necessary part of requesting and securing funds to support scientific research -- whether research aimed at solving a well-defined practicaal problem or research on the basic questions about which scientists are most curious. However, there's a difference between overselling the likely applications of a piece of research and pointing out its relevance to things non-scientists might take to be important as well. And, pointing out the relevance of a line of research is important for the simple reason that scientists come to non-scientists asking for money. It would be lovely if the people controlling the research funds (and the tax payers whose money provides those funds) were already sold on the idea that building scientific knowledge is a good thing in its own right. Surely, getting more people to come around to this way of thinking seems to be part of what Larry would like to accomplish. However, even if everyone agreed that scientific knowledge is to be cultivated, the research that makes this happen wouldn't always get prioritized ahead of the other practical things for which tax dollars must pay. Pointing out relevance isn't so much admitting that knowledge can't be good just to have as it is showing additional ways our society benefits from having that knowledge beyond just getting smarter.

Finally, Larry closes with these comments:

If you really want to teach ethical reasoning then you need training in ethics. This probably means a degree in philosophy or at least hanging out with philosophers for several years.

I don't want to chase away the scientists who might want to hang out with the likes of me, but is it really the case that scientists who are themselves ethical practitioners of science are unable to teach their students anything useful about the ethical use and conduct of science? To the extent that this is true, what's up with all the scientific training programs where there isn't a formal ethics component at all, let alone one overseen by a credentialed philosopher? Are you folks in need of more help than you let on?

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I take a pragmatic view of knowledge. I contend that utility is the reason we have curiosity about the world, and thus, some practical use for knowledge, however distantly realized, is the only reason to study the world. In the case of cosmology or some other area, that long-term benefit may not be realized for generations, but you never know. The idea that somehow, sometime, someplace that knowledge will be used for something is the basic justification for it.

As to the funding of research by the government, I am definitely on the side of utility. No scientist should expect taxpayers to fund his or her pet project simply because they love knowledge for its own sake. It's a lovely and poetic idea, but egotistical to expect others to share that feeling.

The answer to the many excellent questions is this: team teach. One of the best courses I ever took was called the Age of Newton at UCSB. It was team taught by a scientist, a mathematician and an English prof. That combination worked well to place Newtons' discoveries in a context and to celebrate them in poetry!

I'm fascinated by the "what is this good for?" question and I'm going to need some more time to digest the ideas here. A related matter I bring up with my students is a philosophical difference between science and engineering. Engineering is not controversial because its products either work effectively (or effectively enough) or they do not. Meanwhile, science is an attempt to offer a true description of reality. So, when my students ask me "what is this good for?" I ask them if they care about truth. I have yet to meet a student who answers "no."

What is this good for?

An excellent question. what's the most effective way of figuring out what it's good for?

I reckon all the really cool stuff about science is the way in which seemingly boring stuff ends up being very useful in a context that seems totally inane.

For example, geology students finding their way around the periodic table for the first time generally have no idea that the lanthanides are some of the most useful elements to geochemists. So explaining HOW the boring bottom row than most people have never heard of is used to determine the source depth for basalts is fun, precisely because it is so counter-intuitive.

I agree with Mark P: even the most mundane, or esoteric "knowledge" that is rendered by science will have at some point, some predictive, or manipulative utility. A clearer "view" of reality has, in itself, pragmatic value.

"Of what use is a newborn baby?" This discussion came up in my UCITE seminar on Tuesday. Though knowledge is a good thing and knowledge for knowlege's sake is cool, even a person such as myself who believes this can find retention difficult without some sort of framework to hang it on. Relevance is the framework on which we hang knowledge and abstraction comes later.

By William the Coroner (not verified) on 25 Jan 2007 #permalink

The problem of basing NIH funding on the utility of a scientific knowledge is that it is limiting and narrowing scientific explorations only to those projects that our limited knowledge can grasp at the time of the application for funding. If we had in 1952 the ability to predict the utility of the knowledge of DNA stucture , molecular biology would be far ahead of where it is today. In other words, if a scientist were to apply for an NIH funding in 1952 proposing to crack the human genome based on Watson & Crick's model for 10 million dollars, the reviewers of the proposal would laugh and throw it to the waste basket. As we all know, it took more than 40 years and billion of dollars to achieve it. It is naive and rediculous to think that we can predict utility of knowledge before we have it.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 25 Jan 2007 #permalink

Heres my ethical dilemma. The world faces the possibility of nuclear terrorism and the possibility of nuclear way, though on the surface not as dangerous as it was pre-80's, is still with is.

Fundy Fanatics bear most of the blame we are told. Religion is the problem!

But who is building the nuclear weapons? Scientists.

Now Richard Dawkins tells us most scientists are atheists, so why would they be doing this. It can't be for religion, they are atheists. Why? Power and Prestige no doubt.

There is a crude but effect swipe passing around the Net.

"Fundies only imagine the end of the world, scientists make it possible."