A couple months ago I was a bit too glib in some of my writing on basic research. From my comment on Ryan’s blog:
I think it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable for scientists to [exaggerate our benefits]. Every other special interest group does so. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Some would even say that healthy democracy requires special interest groups.
In the back and forth that followed, Ryan criticized this attitude as blithely accepting an outcome with potentially harsh consequences. More money for genetic maps and global climate models may mean less for research on racial health disparities and adaptation. The mundane gets sacrificed for the sexy while the public continues to believe in utopian promises, a meme that the science studies folks have pretty much beaten to death.
All of this is of course true. Scientists do unreasonably favor basic research over short term need, and surely many important questions remain unanswered as a result. I should not have so readily acquiesced to the current, imperfect state of affairs. Lives are at stake after all. And so we must push against scientists’ false promises, and we must highlight the opportunity costs of basic research.
But in making such arguments, as the science studies community so often does, they themselves ironically neglect more mundane and less sexy ones. Yes it’s true that more biochemistry won’t necessarily lead to better health. But it’s also true that those making this claim forgo logic and evidence for anecdotes and sloppy reasoning. What most bothers me is not our ineptitude in solving cancer and global warming. It’s that the lobbying done in my name brings with it distortions and half-truths that contradict the very qualities I allegedly embody. How can we honestly advocate for better science education and data-driven decisions while also promoting the deranged belief that basic research is the source of technology?
Such carelessness is unbecoming of people who supposedly value reason and evidence. In the end, potential negative consequences shouldn’t be the only reason to resist scientists’ exaggerations. Protesting blatant hypocrisy is also a good reason. In my view it’s reason enough.
“How can we honestly advocate for better science education and data-driven decisions while also promoting the deranged belief that basic research is the source of technology?”
You’re coming across as glib here, even suggesting some of the same carelessness you’re upset about in others. Deranged? What’s your evidence? Simplistic, sure. Incomplete, right there with you. Deranged? Can’t agree. The interwar period in scientific research and technological development could lead some to assume basic research led directly to the technological advancements of the 40s and 50s.
I’m also not persuaded by assertions that scientists’ promises of their research are intentionally overblown. If there’s proof, then they need to be called on it. But if they’re making an estimate of when they think certain things will happen, it needs to be treated as a prediction rather than a promise. If they can’t predict well, then they shouldn’t be funded, but I wouldn’t consider that to be fraudulent behavior.
Thanks for your comment. My language was too strong…I’ll try respond in greater detail later tonight.