On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part II)

(Follow up to Part I)

To lead into the explanation of the second thought that my Galileo thermometer inspired, let me present my attempt (and this is the keyword :-)) at a monochromatic expression of some conflicting ideas related to it:


The most prominent feature that you will tend to notice is the crescent moon, looming large near the Alaska horizon. Aside from perhaps the lesser-known story of Linus Pauling (as told in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, which I highly recommend), I know of no better case study in societally impactful science than that of the U.S. moon landing.

It’s common knowledge that the Apollo program cost literal billions of dollars, so one can hardly fault the citizens who would have expressed indignation at this investment of their taxes. In hindsight, of course, the mission seems to have been worth it. Beyond the “that really makes our species look cool” factor and pure national solidarity the moon landing generated, the conveniences it spawned — from water filters and satellite-facilitated communication to ArterioVision and hearing aids — are impressive and often life-changing.

However, as I hope two details of this drawing illuminate, this sort of argument in favor of publicly funded research has its problems. Before we consider those, there are more immediate objections that come to mind. Most crucial to the theme of this mini-series of posts, we may fairly ask which criteria a research endeavor must meet to qualify as so likely to benefit the people, that our government ought to fund it. Well-directed investigations into cancer and CVD (diseases both severely detrimental to people’s well-being and expensive in terms of health care costs) cures are easy enough to justify, but how could anyone have foreseen the fruits of Pauling’s or NASA researchers’ inquiries?

That’s not a rhetorical question. If we honestly could not have predicted how useful some lines of natural questioning would prove, can we take any examples of ultimately quite beneficial research as adequate evidence of likely improvements other research might provide? This doesn’t appear to this writer a solid foundation upon which to build future investments of public resources, at least without a well-tested theory of initially useless utility. All of this is evident irrespective of how successful the moon landing was for humankind in fact.

Further, the suggestion that many life-improving inventions would not have arisen without the impetus of the space program may involve a flavor of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy. That is, just because NASA yielded great societal utilities, this does not necessarily mean society could not have otherwise achieved greater utilities with the resources invested in NASA. Maybe this is a testament to my ignorance of the debates argued among legislators back in the 1960s, but there seems to be a large burden of proof on those who would claim that the aforementioned technologies (and Space Race morale) outweigh the good that could have been achieved charitably or through direct infrastructure, with those funds. Indeed, with the exception of satellites, none of these advances obviously require space travel in principle.

Hence, the disheveled home of a poor individual that lies not far from our young astronomer, who delights in the inspiration of the moon, blissfully unaware of the pavement of poverty with which the road to that rock has been built. Here I have taken the, ahem, artistic liberty of getting my point across with a term coined in a work of fiction I am currently revising. In my last update, my short video introduced a not-exactly novel yet disturbing idea — that the intrusion of increased automation into the workforce might multiply the economic burdens of most members of society. The “Go away Org” graffiti on the house shown above alludes to a similar but distinct consideration. Supposing that technology produced (by some time in the not-too-distant future which is this scene’s setting) exoskeletons capable of eliminating many of the inconveniences of the organic body, social selection against those without the wealth to possess them would surely arise. Why hire the average human who has to sleep eight hours a day?

If this all seems too pessimistic, the second of the details I mentioned vindicates the moon missions somewhat. Notice0 the small but unmistakable lit-up spot on the moon besides its naturally brightened crescent. This is, consistent with the time period, a sign of human civilization on the moon. Such colonization is also an idea that has floated around in greater minds than mine before, but I think it’s worth pondering nonetheless, for the practicalities of this for people’s well-being are substantial. All else being equal, the moon has no natural disasters. Think about that, and the lives that could be saved after leaping the hurdles of cosmic radiation and terraforming for food sources.

Regardless of how the debate settles, the implications are somewhat demoralizing either way. The avid astronauts may declare, “Can we put a price on freedom from ignorance?” Yet their critics can just as easily retort, “On freedom from poverty?”

Once again, the fog doesn’t seem much clearer than when we started. I do intend to pursue more precise answers, and to share them if I find anything particularly intriguing, but as I have said before, I don’t think the power of identifying the pertinent questions themselves (independent of the answers) should be underestimated.


Why Artificial Intelligence Matters

A few months ago, I entertained the notion of discussing the implications of AI for social justice on this blog. Well, in the following video, I do just that. It’s not the longest or most thorough video anyone’s done on the subject, by a long shot, but for what it’s worth, I figured my readers would find it at least somewhat thought-provoking.