Sunday, January 28, 2007

Daniel Holz nationalizes cosmology

Daniel Holz has joined Cosmic Variance as its seventh blogger and the first thing he announced is that

because the people have paid for it. ;-) A poem from the MTW telephone book of GR (see below) is used as an additional piece of evidence. In his enthusiastic celebration of the comprehensibility of the Cosmos, Dan mentions that an average U.S. taxpayer contributes about $70 for basic physical sciences a year. While it's less than what the average E.U. citizen annually pays for the Kyoto protocol, it is a nonzero amount of money.

Still, I would recommend to be more careful with these overly transparent strategies to get more money and public support - something that cosmologists clearly like to do and they are good at it. ;-) Cutting edge science doesn't really belong to the public and typical people don't even want to own it. The key scientific insights haven't always been found as a result of some government's spending. And even if it were so, there was no contract that would imply that the discoverers lose their rights. Moreover, a typical taxpayer thinks that a typical cutting edge theory is wrong.

Special relativity was found in the patent office and the key insights of general relativity were settled at the Charles University in Prague - its German section - where Einstein was paid for different things. Isaac Newton was born to rather wealthy farmers and didn't have to rely on the redistribution of resources too much either. Finally, a nonzero amount of money is now coming from rich sponsors such as Fred Kavli or Mike Lazaridis.

More importantly, I think it is crucial to know that the public financial contributions to science can't mean that the public has the right to directly determine the outcomes of the research. As long as the research is science, such a direct influence can't exist regardless of the amount of the money. These facts imply that the taxpayer is paying the money because he or she assumes that the people who are paid know what they're doing and their work moves our cognitive horizons further than ever before, at least in the long run.

The taxpayer may see that something is richer about our present culture and science in comparison with the past, and it is only this very vague feeling that should be enough to think that the investment is a good one.

They pay this money even if they don't understand the science themselves - and even if it looks illogical or useless to them. These are very subtle issues because there are certainly many examples of items in the budget where the money is wasted. The whole budget for science is hopefully not an example but some of its smaller entries might be. In reality, it is impossible to reliably distinguish which of the investments are good and which of them are bad. Such decisions can only be made by real people who are never perfect.

But even though no one is perfect, some people are still more likely to make wiser decisions about a particular question than others and I think that everyone, including the taxpayers, should try to accept this fact. It is nice to thank for funding but both the scientists as well as the taxpayers should realize that the fact of funding of pure science can't directly influence the outcomes.

And that's the memo.

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