Scientific rationale: convenient little white lies?

Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it quipped Richard Feynman. The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer1 provides a similar, albeit less memorable quote, when describing his early work on water slabs (aka snarks), which had relevance to both military and pollution issues: such practical matters did not interest me. I found snarks fascinating, even beautiful in their own right. The introductions to many scientific papers, however, are framed in terms of practical results. Hence the rhetorical question implied in the title: are the rationale we as scientists publish convenient little white lies, simply a way to validate undertaking the science that we find personally interesting and intrinsically satisfying?

Look at a paper completely outside your field. Better yet, page through a copy of Science or Nature. Articles in these journals are meant to represent cutting-edge, societally relevant, high-impact science. Nevertheless, many papers still come across as dense, dull, and esoteric. Presumably this is how science as a whole appears to outsiders. I’d bet, however, you would be hard-pressed to find scientists who honestly consider their own work dense, dull, or esoteric.

Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. A corollary of this second Richard Feynman quote, maybe or maybe not one he intended, is that nothing is interesting with only a superficial knowledge. Perhaps that’s why it is often difficult to convey the importance of scientific research to non-scientists or even just scientists in a different field. Especially research that lacks direct, relatable relevance such as curing disease, limiting pollution or eliminating poverty.

Four years ago, before starting my PhD, I’m not sure I could have named a single reason that anyone should care about freshwater in the Arctic Ocean. However, an overarching aim of my PhD was to better understand and quantify the freshwater flux out of the Arctic. This system has links to current socio-economic issues such as climate change, ocean acidification, and the extent of habitats of anything from algae to narwhals. The links are tenuous, but they are a better selling point to most people than the real reason that I consider my work interesting: I simply get to spend my time being a scientist and everything that entails.

Being a scientist is a sweet gig2. I get paid, or at least funded when I was a grad student, to (i) continually learn about what I’m interested in, (ii) visit many places that I might not otherwise ever see, and (iii) have the satisfaction of solving specific problems that no one has solved before. In many ways, science is simply a grown-up version of the puzzles, riddles, and other mathematical games I would play around with for fun as a kid. Indeed, this is partly why I became a physical oceanographer: so that I could spend my time exploring intriguing fluid mechanics processes.

Physical oceanography has, on the whole, immediate and obvious links to climate. Consequently, many individual papers are motivated by their relevance to climate change. I’ve often wondered how physical oceanography would have developed as a scientific field if climate change were not an issue. Would there be fewer papers and fewer oceanographers? Would the field move toward questions related to other societal issues such as fisheries? Or would things not change except that our scientific rationale would simply be rephrased into a, perhaps more honest, pure quest for knowledge.

I didn’t become an oceanographer to help slow climate change or save the world. If that was my main motivation, my time would likely be better spent encouraging grass-roots movements, educating others, or exploring engineering solutions to the problem. Indeed, pure scientific research is arguably an inefficient way to solve specific pressing problems. Let’s continue with the climate change example: We’ve known, or at least suspected, since Arrhenius’s paper 130 years ago, a warming of 2°C based on estimates of carbon burned. The past few decades have given us a much better idea of the exact consequences we can expect, but the overall prediction hasn’t dramatically changed despite a huge increase in the sophistication of the models we’re using.

Recent scientific studies are making it harder and harder for the public to ignore climate change, certainly a crucial outcome. But I wonder whether in terms of person-hours, more could be achieved if climate scientists dedicated their time in other ways. An extreme example is Andrew Weaver3, currently the leader of the BC Green party, who evidently decided that more could be achieved by becoming a politician than sticking with pure scientific research. Be clear, however, that I’m not stating that there’s no need for scientific research, nor am I putting up my hand to become a politician anytime soon.

Pure scientific research is an efficient way to develop technology and save the world when there is not a specific problem to be solved. A famous example is the laser, a now ubiquitous technology, that was dubbed at the time of its invention as a solution seeking a problem. As for saving the world, Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot provides two excellent examples: the recognition of a possible nuclear winter arose from the results of a Mars mission, and the discovery that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer came from scientists studying Venus’s atmosphere. Even seemingly mundane methods can lead to important results. To quote Ebbesmeyer again: As I collected them [datasets of washed-up flotsam], I had no idea that this data would prove critical to unravelling the world’s gyres: I just followed my fascination with all things afloat. Indeed, Sagan aptly summarises by stating You never know where science will take you.

Even lacking application, scientific research is extremely important. For example, a country’s scientific output makes a large difference to how it is perceived. (Surely a much more noble way to compete than, say, who has the biggest arsenal.) Or simply consider the extreme of a world with no pure scientific research. Imagine having no idea that dinosaurs ever roamed the earth, that seven other planets orbit the sun, or even why an object knocked off a table falls to the floor.4


1. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is known for, among other things, tracking rubber ducks and Nike shoes across the ocean as described in the biography Flotsametrics and the Floating World.
2. Being a scientist is an especially good deal now as a post-doc, where my salary hardly seems to reflect my comparatively minimal responsibility. But apparently it remains a good deal even as a professor.
3. A talk I attended by Andrew Weaver a few years ago inspired some of this article.
4. I’m sure there’s many people who could happily live their lives without such knowledge; this article is not written for them.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

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