Essays and discussions

The Price of Knowledge

I've recently heard a discussion on the BBC programme Newsnight on the new International Space Station. The argument coming from a representive of Christian Aid was that the money being spent on the space station (~$40 billion) could be much better spent on Earth. I, personally, don't subscribe to this view. I really think that this is just trying to make us feel guilty about spending money on something academic rather than practical. A well made point that another person taking part in the discussion was that at Halloween, people would buy fireworks and just watch them and that they had no practical value. So why didn't he make us feel guilty about buying those too? the space station may not be practical on it's own, but it will be a learning experience for humanity. The problems in the Third World are politicial and could, in my opinion, be solved quite easily with enough politicial will and without the need to divert funds from the space station. I am not an economist, so I could have very well been talking out of the back of my head there, so feel free to emailMailto icon me to correct me if I'm talking rubbish. This pretty much summarises my attitude towards science and politics. I believe in knowledge for it's own sake without needing a practical application. If we only researched areas that had direct practical applications, we'd still be in the dark ages. I would estimate that a very large percentage of the advances in science that have ever occurred when researching something completely different or as an eventual result of research that seemed totally impractical.

However, why should we stick only with practicalities? The whole field of, for example, astronomy appears to be totally impractical and yet is fascinating. This is pure knowledge for the sake of knowledge - at the moment, at least...

Knowledge is an end unto itself, and shouldn't need to be justified. Someone will always say that money could be diverted from science into things like hospitals or schools. But are we really willing to sacrifice our desire to learn for the mundanities of life - for causes that could, with a little effort, be solved relatively easily? I'm not saying that schools and hospitals aren't deserving - of course they are - but money is always scarce and science is an easy target. Especially projects like I've mentioned, "impractical" projects and projects relating to space especially, are vulnerable to this kind of siphoning, and I suppose that it depends on one's perspective on life whether or not you agree with me.

– February 1999

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