I do not claim that scientists, because they are scientists, are more honest or broadly educated than politicians. But in the realm of science, the honesty system operates much more strongly and rapidly than in the realm of politics, mainly because this system typically involves anonymous review of scientific work before that work is made public, and it does not involve public decision-making or voting by a diverse electorate. If you are doing experiments on the sex life of some tiny worm and try to publish your results, then an anonymous but well-educated scientist will scrutinize your methods, including your experimental design, your statistical analysis, your rationale for doing the project in the first place, your interpretations of the results, the extent to which you have taken existing knowledge into account, and even the quality of your writing. All this review does not necessarily make you an honest person, but it does tend to pick up flaws in your thinking and mistakes in your actions. But if you go to a cocktail party filled with attorneys and elected city officials, the main question you are likely to be asked about your research is: “Why is this kind of stuff important?” The question really means: “Why are you spending time and money, maybe even tax money, on this kind of activity, and why do you seem to be so interested in sex?”
There may be a thousand good reasons why you are studying the sex life of obscure worms, but these reasons probably involve the fundamental nature of science itself. The worms could, potentially, become a model system for the study of hormone action at the cellular level, thus serving to help explain developmental anomalies in humans, livestock, and companion animals. The worms might be extraordinarily beautiful creatures under the microscope, thus quite attractive to students who in turn could easily become internationally renowned scholars studying an important global human affliction but who remember fondly their carefree undergrad days back in the lab when all they had to talk about was worm sex. The worms’ reproductive biology could easily shed light on the origin of sex itself, or the evolution of pheromones, both subjects of enormous interest to the scientific community. Pheromone action, as you might suspect, also could be of substantial interest to the cosmetics industry. When a scientist hears that another scientist is studying the sex life of obscure worms, then all of the possibilities mentioned in this paragraph usually come to mind because scientists typically understand how science itself works on a grand scale. But politicians, like their constituencies, rarely get past the issues of time, money (especially tax money), and sex, although sometimes, if not often, there is a hidden disdain for people who would spend their lives studying microscopic creatures with no immediate economic importance.
In our example of the worms, politicians’ focus on time, money, sex, and utility is not necessarily stupid, evil, or dangerous, although it has the potential for being all three. In the previous paragraph, I’ve actually revealed all the reasons why in order to remain economically competitive in a technologically competitive world, a nation needs to have a strong, healthy, broad, and active scientific enterprise. Flourishing scientific activity, sustained largely by curiosity about the natural world, breeds scientists, models, new ways of studying nature, and new applications of existing technology. Thus it is the human resources that are of prime importance to a highly developed nation, not the discoveries themselves. Given enough human resources engaged in research, techniques for studying heretofore mysterious aspects of nature will be developed and the discoveries will be made. Furthermore, breadth of research interest tends to produce transferable technologies, a critical factor in sustaining a technology-based economy.
PIECES OF THE PLAINS, along with other Janovy e-books, is available on all e-readers.
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