Sunday 28 October 2012

Science is fun?


NOTE: What follows is an early draft of a section which has gone into my forthcoming book Not even trying: the corruption of real science

Doing science because science is fun? 

Committed scientists in recent decades have often justified themselves in the face of increasing careerism, fragmentation, incoherence and dishonesty by emphasizing that doing-science (being ‘a scientist’) is enormous fun – and that this is their main motivation for doing it. 


Although understandable, this is a foolish and indeed desperate line of defense. Many things are 'fun' for the people who happen to like them, but fun or not-fun, science was supposed to be about reality.

And Hitler, Stalin and Mao seemingly enjoyed being dictators, and redefining ‘truth’ for their own purposes by the exercise of their power to do so. Perhaps they found all this ‘fun’ – but does that justify them? Maybe torturers find their work fun?
Crosswords, reading romantic novels, getting-drunk, chatting with friends – all these may be fun, may indeed be a lot more fun (or, at least, easier fun) than science; but does that justify making them into lifelong careers and spending trillions of dollars on their support and subsidy?
That it may be fun does not justify science.


Plus of course science is not fun anymore: because being a minor bureaucrat and filling-in forms with lies is not fun (or if it is, then the fun is not science); planning your work in detail for the next three years then rigidly sticking to the plan is not fun; being forbidden to do what interests you but forced to do what is funded is not fun; spending your time discussing grants instead of ideas is not fun...
Real science done for vocational reasons is (or can be) fun (more exactly, it is profoundly satisfying); but pursuing a modern research career is not science and is not fun.
A modern research career may be rewarding in terms of money, power, status, lifestyle and the like, or sustained by the hope of these – but is not something done for its intrinsic fun-ness.


Of course the ‘science is fun’ line of argument is mostly trying to avoid the ‘science is useful’ trap.
The usefulness trap must be avoided because the application of science is something intrinsically unknowable. Science is about discovering reality – and knowing this may or may not be useful, may be beneficial or it might well turn out to be harmful – indeed fatal; so usefulness cannot be guaranteed.


At least usefulness cannot be guaranteed if you are being honest – although modern researchers seldom are honest, hence they often do claim that science is predictable, useful and intrinsically beneficial. 


(Indeed, in the UK, all government and government-tainted sources of funding require that a successful applicant must make the case that their research is indeed useful and intrinsically beneficial. In other words, the applicant for these sources of money must lie in order to be successful. All recipients of such resources are demonstrable liars.) 


Modern researchers also sometimes pretend that their kind of science is ‘fun’ – yet what they are doing is not science, and what they are getting ‘fun’ from is other stuff entirely: such as the business of trying to get famous, powerful, rich – enjoying the lifestyle of conferences, gossip and intrigue... 


So real vocational science is ‘fun’ in the sense of personally rewarding, but this does not justify real science; and almost all of what currently gets called science is neither real nor fun.



dearieme said...

It took me years to realise why so many of my colleagues weren't men of intellectual interests. They saw getting grants as their job: a few managed to fit in a spot of hobby science.

work said...

One of the problems of ever increasing complexity, specialization of labor, and abstraction is nearly all work is "not fun." I can kind of picture Newton having fun doing science. I can't picture the modern scientist having fun.

Almost any good pursuit gets ruined by turning it into a job.

Bruce Charlton said...

@work - agreed. And it affects almost everybody. The generation of doctors and academics who taught me, wanted to keep working and working and had to be forced to retire by statutory age limits (I know one who still turns up to the office every day, for no pay, aged 83); by my generation of doctors and academics started talking about retirement, yearning for it, in their mid forties.