Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Science and society – some musings

The following thoughts occurred to me after reading this post by Sunil in which he was talking about explaining to his non scientist friends what he was doing in life. Before I launch into my spiel, a disclaimer: I am talking about how things should be or must have been rather than how they actually are or were, in a sense, a rudimentary model for human society that misses a lot of the complications that are there in the real version.

Scientists are the highest (or lowest, depending on how you draw the arrows) in the societal food chain. The way to understand this statement is as follows. Each able bodied human being has a two fold existence. One is his or her existence as an individual and in this avatar, his or her primary quest is one’s own happiness. The second is as a part of the collective structure that is the society. In this role, each person has to fulfill a function in the society. For performing this function, the person derives remuneration for sustenance and may be other things as well. In each case, the function performed benefits other human beings by making their life better. For example, the farmer provides food. The electrical lineman outside my window is ensuring that everybody in my building has uninterrupted electricity. The clerk at the bank this morning was making the process of handling money, the chosen denomination of resource in today’s world easier for her customers. The computer engineer techie friend that we all have writes codes to improve the function of the computer so all other things in the world that rely on his code’s ability to function may run more smoothly in the future.

Note that in each of the activities mentioned above, and in any case you can imagine that is outside basic science, the turn around time before your action benefits the society ranges from a day to a few months to at most a few years (this might be the case for people in the R & D departments of industries for example). But a scientist is different. His or her role in society is to take the frontier of human knowledge forward. Of course eventually this process will result in the improvement of quality of life of human beings. But the time scale over which this happens is several human life times, not just a fraction of one. So as far as a normal person is concerned, we are not contributing anything useful to him, for he usually lacks the ability to see beyond his nose.

Next, note that each person fulfilling a useful function in the society contributes a portion of his or her remuneration to a common authority (a geographically varying government of some form). The sum total of all such earnings is directed towards things that enhance the common good, for example infrastructure (roads, schools, airports etc.,), health care and safety and oversight organizations. And more importantly for the purpose at hand, it is from this “common good” money that we scientists derive remuneration to sustain ourselves and the resources to accomplish our research goals.

Once upon a time, when the world was simpler, it was not necessary for every Tom Dick and Harry to have the ability to see beyond his nose. The ruler of the land controlled the resources and had the ultimate say in how these resources were spent. And as long as the ruler was far sighted, he made allowances for philosophers and scientists to live off the state’s income and hence ensured that there were some people thinking about the things that the majority of the others were not. In the present day, things are complicated. And there are two reasons for this. One, now most of the world is a democracy. So in principle, every one of the Toms, Dicks and Harrys mentioned above has a say in how the money is spent. This would not in itself be such a problem if the only thing in question was remuneration for sustenance of the scientist. We all know that as far as pay checks go, a grad student in a science department makes less than the janitors in the same department and a full professor in an academic department at the end of his career has a salary comparable to a techie at the start of his. And we, the scientists, have no right to complain. Monetary benefits are something we will readily sacrifice for the privilege of being at the forefront of human knowledge and being afforded the ability to do what we love day in and day out.

So that brings me to the second problem complicating things in today’s world. The frontier of knowledge is advanced enough that questions can no longer be answered by using stuff other people threw away like Lord Kelvin did or Benjamin Franklin did. The outlay for experiments run from hundreds of thousands for some sophisticated bio-tech problems to billions for the particle accelerator experiments necessary to push the frontier of fundamental physics forward. And with such amounts in play, it reasonable for anybody to ask why the resources of the society have to be spent this way when there are millions of people that don’t even have enough for sustenance.

Now, I am not disputing the fact that money needs to be spent on the scientific questions. Human society cannot function by choosing one priority for a generation. It can only progress by making strides in all the dimensions of its existence (you can dispute this theory and I know I have to justify this better, but perhaps in a later post). I am saying that in today’s world scientists have to take the role of outreach more seriously. Every person needs to understand and acquire the scientific mindset and realize the wonders and power of knowledge the way we scientists do. It is the absence of such outreach initiatives on our part that gives rise to biblical interpretations of evolution or claims that quantum mechanics cannot be right. And when I say outreach, I don’t just mean the systematic activities that are being undertaken by the scientific community. I also mean everyday interaction between a scientist and a regular person, my techie friends, my grandmother, my neighbor, my cab driver. It is our responsibility towards society that we step down from our intrinsic (and in my opinion entirely justified :)) “holier than thou” stance and try to reach out.


Sunil said...

outreach is very, very important, and while most of us communicate well with our peers, we do little to talk to the "greater public at large". Science blogs are a good start in that direction....

So...you do distinguish yourself from a "regular person"???

Your point about democracy is a good and important one (for months now, I've been mulling a post on democracy and science). But, in a democracy, there will always be a voice for scientists or proponents of science. If it were say a monarchy or dictatorship, science will all be at the hands of one person...the ruler. If that person is "enlightened" and wants to support knowledge, (s)he might. But it could (and historically has) easily cut the other way.

good post.

CuriousCat said...

Hey Sunil, I distinguish myself from a regular person not in the sense that I am better, I know I am not, only in the sense that I know more. And of course you are right about the coin landing either way in a non-democracy of any kind.

PS: I had these thoughts when I saw the tone of some of the comments to your post..

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You think good. I agree with your line of reasoning, partly because I never even studied math after Cls X.

I regret that. We should all understand more about how the world works. Robert Pirsig or not.


CuriousCat said...

Thanks J.A.P, means a lot coming from you.