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Do we really need science? On its surface it seems like a silly question, but you might be surprised how often the typical scientist or science communicator encounters it. Heck, you yourself might even ask yourself that very same question every once in awhile.

The question tends to crop up especially when something “silly” hits the news in a big way. People don’t necessarily want to dismantle science, but want to constrain it. Just get rid of the useless stuff, and focus on the scientific pursuits that can lead to productive ends. After all, it’s our taxpayer money. Shouldn’t we get a say in how it’s spent?

Fair point. Taxpayers should know what they’re spending their hard-earned money on.

But the entire point of science is that we have no clue what we’re doing. That’s the whole point of research - to learn new things. And part of that journey is that a lot of scientific research appears to be completely, utterly useless and devoid of meaning.

I think that impression is largely a problem of science communication, not science itself. Research is rarely done “just for fun” - scientists are actively engaged, every single day, in trying to understand how the universe around us works. They’re not really interested in wasting time or money when they could be busy making a name for themselves by uncovering new understandings of the world.

Research that at first blush appears silly is almost always designed to study something more more fundamental, but in perhaps a nonintuitive way. And we never know what ramifications and implications research might have, within a discipline and outside of it.

Physics, chemistry, biology - all of it - rests on core tenets and theories, which can be poked and prodded and studied and examined in a variety of ways. Every piece of research - silly or not - increases our understanding of the universe.

Which is the entire point.


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