Does the pursuit of pure science make sense in a world of scarcity and strife? With so much poverty on the planet, why spend vast sums of money on, say, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to replace the Hubble at the end of the decade and observe the first stars and galaxies in the universe; or the Terrestrial Planet Finder, whose mission is to detect other habitable worlds—discoveries that, however astounding, can bring no tangible benefits here on this barely habitable world called Earth?
I'd prefer to argue that pure science needs no extrinsic justification—that to seek knowledge for its own sake is among the grandest of species-affirming human endeavors. Unfortunately, beyond a rarefied community of professionals and enthusiasts, such a view can seem self-indulgent and elitist, possibly irresponsible, and can even generate ill will among those who, by choice or necessity, have other priorities.
The usual rationale for spending public monies on scientific projects large and small is that they have the potential to make our lives longer, healthier, safer, happier, more productive, more pleasant. That science, even "pure" science, can strengthen democracy and promote public participation in the political process, both in the United States and throughout the world, is hardly ever mentioned. It should be. Scientific literacy energizes democracy, I suggest, and this is an important ancillary benefit of the promotion of science. Can this proposition be defended? I'd like to try.
I'll start with an observation. In general, countries that have stronger sciences have stronger democracies. And in countries where science has little strength and scientific ways of thinking have no apparent impact, governments tend to range from undemocratic to totalitarian. This is quite obviously correlation, not cause—and even if cause, the direction of the causation arrow is unclear. A democratic country might foster science, perhaps as a second-order effect of the prosperity and high literacy conventionally coincident with democracy, just as logically as a scientific country might foster democracy.
A lack of even rudimentary scientific understanding cuts great swaths across the planet's population and thereby threatens the global community by exacerbating inequalities and fomenting resentment. The rewards of science are distributed unevenly, straining social relations within the United States and widening the gulf between developed and developing nations. Knowledge is power, and whenever segments of a society, or entire countries, are separated from it, disenfranchisement and disaffection are often the result.
Just as advanced science and technology have begun to flourish in almost every corner of the world, antiscience currents are flowing faster, too—fed by a curious confluence of individual alienation, religious fundamentalism, extreme environmentalism and even elements of postmodern scholarship, with its tendency to view scientific research as affected by cultural bias. One sees close ties between the absence of scientific appreciation and the presence of demagogic intolerance—but even so, this is still correlation, not cause.