Why Are Scientists Wasting Time When They Could Be Curing Cancer?

When a scientist does something like genetically modify a fruit to make it seedless, create a cement mixture to keep roads from being worn out by seasonal changes, or finds new information on insect pollination, the public reaction is predictable. A tiny fraction are interested, while most people don’t care. But then there are the many others who begin to ask the question that it seems everyone has asked at some point: Why are scientists wasting their time on trivial matters when they could be doing something important like curing cancer? It’s what I call the “worthless scientist question,” and I’ve heard it enough to warrant an answer.

The Real Argument

When you look back a hundred years from now and think about humanity’s major scientific accomplishments, I’m sure you’d agree that cube-shaped watermelons won’t be high on the list. The steam-engine and penicillin may be there, but we could certainly have lived without such rectangular sustenance. So why are there people who dedicate their lives to such things? Why don’t the brilliant minds of science use what they have learnt for the good of society?

Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle makes a funny argument here:

You ever heard that science thing? If you put a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump out; but if you put it into cold water, and you heat the water up, the frog won’t realize and it’ll die.

Or to put it another way… scientists have got a lot of fucking time on their hands. “Shall we have a go at curing cancer?” “No. I’m going to see how many fruit pastilles it takes to choke a kestrel.”

If we are going to pay taxes for researchers to study something, we should expect it to be useful to society. Most people would probably agree that more research grants (i.e., lots of money) should go towards researchers in medicine than entomology or ornithology. And scientists should be less concerned with the trivial matters of fluffy social sciences and start getting serious about things that will propel us into the future. After all, their lives may one day depend on it.

The Defense

Who are you to say that someone else’s career is unworthy of dedication? And for that matter, what have you contributed to medicine, or to science in general?

We live in a free society, and we decide what we want to do. (Or, for some of us, our mothers decide.) If a researcher wants to research something that you consider trivial, why not just research it yourself instead of complain about it? The answer is obviously “I don’t want to” or “I don’t know how to.” And that’s okay.

Or, at least, it should be.

Maybe you think that scientists are already smart, and therefore more qualified. Then go educated and make a difference yourself! No scientist woke up one day and suddenly knew their profession. They learned about it, which means you have the same power to do so as them. In fact, I think the only ones who could ask “Why don’t scientists try to cure cancer?” are other cancer researchers. But still, it wouldn’t be a good argument.

People are passionate about various things, and in order to do good research, most people have to love what they research. Some like bugs, some like fruits, some like cancer. No topic is for everyone, but the thing that makes science great is that everyone contributes to our ever-expanding body of knowledge

Asking “what have you contributed to society?” is a completely unfair and misleading question when asking researchers of different fields. It’s easy to see that researchers like Paul Offit – who invented a vaccine for the Rotavirus – contributed to society, but if medicine is your only measure of societal value, then how can we explain the LHC – the world’s most expensive experiment? Also, you can’t measure arts on the same scale as science. For example, Shakespeare has been given a lot of credit for not only arts and theatre but also linguistics and the study of culture. Would you ignore those feats by arguing that he did not directly contribute to science?

Or what about other scientists, such as archeologists. Is it really such an important thing to know that a fossil is a million years older than we thought? Perhaps not right away, but it’s not supposed to be. There are two types of research, and it’s important to distinguish them. Applied research is done to specifically fix a certain problem. Pure (or basic) research is done simply to gain new information, regardless of how it’s used in the future. Most researchers don’t even think of the way their studies might be used in the future; but the rest of society all egregiously take for granted the information they read in textbooks. Where do you think all that information came from? Most of it was from pure research.

Besides, it’s also the market that drives the demand for jobs. Sure, it may be trivial to know some of the results that psychologists find from their research, such as what colour evokes what emotion when we see them on TV. But then you hook someone up to an fMRI machine and call it “neuromarketing,” and all of a sudden huge marketing firms are interested enough to pay massive amounts of money to find innovative ways to advertise.

If you took the worthless scientist question to its logical extreme, you might get a society full of doctors. What if we all became doctors in specified fields? We would all live until we’re 190, throwing out the conventional wisdom or work, relationships, and of course, the mid-life crisis. But will we be happy? No, because not everyone wants to be a doctor.

The Bottom Line

If you value freedom, you can’t argue that scientists should research the one thing you so happen to support. And if you ever feel the itch to complain that they’re wasting their time, it would be best to remind yourself of your own contributions to that cause, whatever it is. If you are indeed an avid contributor, then perhaps your complaints are valid – but the only ones who ever seem to complain are those who haven’t done anything to help. Perhaps that’s because researchers, more than laypeople, understand the importance of gaining basic knowledge as well as the application of science to help people with specific problems.

So research on, scientists. There are no greater pursuits in life than the ones you are passionate about.

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