30 November 2012

How important exactly is science to the economy?

When US senator Marco Rubio failed to acknowledge that the Earth was billions of years old during an interview for GQ magazine, scientifically literate folks pounced. Astronomer and science writer Phil Plait took particular umbrage at Senator Rubio’s dismissive statement that the age of the Earth “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.” In a Slate article, Plait retorts (emphasis his):

Perhaps Senator Rubio is unaware that science—and its sisters engineering and technology—are actually the very foundation of our country’s economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the Universe.
Cell phones, computers, cars, machinery, medicine, the Internet, manufacturing, communication, agriculture, transportation, on and on … all of these industries rely on science to work. Without basic research none of these would exist.
And all of science points to the age of the Earth being much, much older than Senator Rubio intimates. Astronomy, biology, relativity, chemistry, physics, anatomy, sociology, linguistics, cosmology, anthropology, evolutionary science, and especially radiometric dating of rocks all indicate the Universe, and our home planet Earth, are far older than any claims of a few thousand years. The overwhelming consensus is that the Earth is billions of years old. And all of these sciences are the basis of the technology that is our country’s life blood.

Writing for the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman also criticised Senator Rubio’s view that geological knowledge is unconnected to economic strength:

Coming back to the age of the earth: Does it matter? No, says Mr. Rubio, pronouncing it “a dispute amongst theologians”—what about the geologists?—that “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.” But he couldn’t be more wrong.
We are, after all, living in an era when science plays a crucial economic role. How are we going to search effectively for natural resources if schools trying to teach modern geology must give equal time to claims that the world is only 6000 years old? How are we going to stay competitive in biotechnology if biology classes avoid any material that might offend creationists?

So far, I’m with Plait and Krugman. After all, isn’t it obvious that scientific literacy is essential for a technology-based economy to flourish? Not necessarily so, according to Slate writer Daniel Engber. Responding to Phil Plait’s article, Engber challenges the view that a country’s economy depends on an absolute knowledge of science. He writes:

What about Rubio’s assertion that the age of the Earth “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States”? That’s the claim that gave Phil Plait “a chill,” since science is “the very foundation of our country's economy.” At Forbes, Alex Knapp declares that “this economy, at its root, is built on a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It’s impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like.” If we get it wrong on Earth’s creation, these critics say, the United States will fall apart.
Will it really? It seems to me that Rubio is right. Lots of basic scientific questions have no bearing whatsoever on the nation's short-term economic growth. We can even go much further: Lots of scientific questions don’t matter all that much when it comes to other scientific questions. It’s possible—and quite common—for scientists to plug away at research projects without explicit knowledge of what’s happening in other fields. And when a bedrock principle of science does need to be adjusted—a not-so-unusual occurrence, it turns out—the edifice of scholarship doesn’t crumble into dust. DVD players still operate. Nuclear plants don't shut down.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci agrees with Engber. On his blog Rationally Speaking, Pigliucci explains why people like Phil Plait and Paul Krugman (and Pigliucci himself, initially) are wrong to believe that the kind of ignorance of (or disrespect for) science displayed by Senator Rubio is ipso facto damaging to science, or the economy, as a whole:

There is a deeper philosophical reason why Engber is right and people like Phil and myself ought to be more cautious with our outrage at the cutting of scientific budgets or at politicians’ opportunistic uttering of scientific nonsense to gather supporters and votes. Knowledge in general, and scientific knowledge in particular, is not like an edifice with foundations — a common but misleading metaphor. If it were, it would be more likely that, as Phil so strongly stated, everything is connected to everything else, so that ignoring, denying, or replacing one piece of the building will likely create fractures all over the place.
But that’s not how it works. Rather, to use philosopher W.V.O. Quine’s apt metaphor, knowledge is more like a web, with some threads being stronger or more interconnected than others. […] If you see science as a web of statements, observations, experiments, and theories, then it becomes perfectly clear why Engber is right at pointing out that quite a bit of independence exists between different parts of the web, and how even relatively major chunks of said web can be demolished and replaced without the whole thing crumbling. There really is next to no connection between someone’s opinions about the age of the earth and that person’s grasp of the state and causes of a country’s economy.

Pigliucci’s use of the ‘science is a web’ metaphor is persuasive. But before you think that he is letting anti-scientific folks like Senator Rubio, creationists and ‘alternative’ medicine advocates off the hook, Pigliucci clarifies his position on the value of science and evidence-based reasoning (emphasis his):

Still, there is an important point where Phil is absolutely correct and that I think Engber underestimates. What is “chilling” and disturbing about people like Rubio (but not people like Obama) is that they have embraced a general philosophy of rejecting evidence and reason whenever it is ideologically or politically convenient. That is what is highly dangerous.

I can see Pigliucci’s point about how science isn’t a monolithic edifice that will collapse when its foundations are cracked by ignorance and rejection of facts. I accept his argument that science is actually a web, where torn or missing threads in one part may not affect the structural integrity of the whole, or other parts of the web. Still, as Pigliucci concedes, this does not excuse anti-scientific attitudes. A country’s economic prosperity may not be entirely dependent on the scientific literacy of its leaders, but a culture that enables, even encourages, ignorance and rejection of knowledge surely isn’t a healthy one.


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