The virtue of mundane arguments*

Let me expand on an idea I started a couple posts ago, namely that the mundane is always sacrificed for the sexy.  Put another way, all discussions about science inevitably require grand claims.  Consider the delicious symmetry between the science studies crowd and natural and physical scientists.  The latter group insists that biochemistry and supercomputers are the only ways to solve cancer and global warming.  And how do the social scientists respond?  By stressing that these approaches prevent us from solving cancer and global warming!

Don’t get me wrong.  These problems need to be solved, and I’m glad everyone devotes so much energy to them.  But it’s quite strange that all of our arguments have to be framed by such superlatives.  There’s no space to make a simpler point that in the end is probably much closer to the truth.  Physicists can’t say that we focus on numerical solutions not necessarily because we believe it’s the best or only path forward, but because we enjoy that type of work.  Conversely, the science studies crowd does not (as far as I know) point out that the (mild!) hypocrisy of scientists’ exaggerations is intrinsically wrong.  Rather, they string together a series of tendentious links that are very hard to prove.  If the benefits of basic research weren’t exaggerated, then (maybe) we’d spend more on socially relevant research, and then (again maybe) we’d make better progress on solving cancer and global warming.  There are too many hypotheticals here for my comfort, and this argument is no less convoluted than the ones often made in defense of basic research.

We really shouldn’t have to justify everything in terms of majestic solutions to big problems.  Many scientists simply like basic research and they should be allowed to say that.  And we can disagree with scientists’ exaggerations for  the rather boring grounds that the arguments are bad on their own terms and undermine honest debate.  Cancer shouldn’t have to be part of the picture.

It is true that personal motives alone cannot compel public action.  We’re understandably wary of basing policy on something as whimsical as subjective preference.  But my very basic reading in political theory tells me that at its most fundamental level, democratic politics was designed to resolve the empirical fact that people simply care about different things.  And thus we shouldn’t have to justify everything we care about entirely in terms of the common good.  Public discourse suffers if everyone tries too hard to cloak the true reasons for their actions.  These reasons, however mundane and ordinary, must be part of the picture.

* In my never-ending desire to prove my lack of originality, I’d like to credit Kammen and Dove’s wonderful article for inspiring the title of this post


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