February 26, 2008

Unproductive work

James Higham rightly points to some ludicrous research investigations- into whether men and women differ evolutionarily in the ways that they perceive colour or into the ways in which owning a cat reduces heart disease or an over consumption of marzipan leads to death- in one of his latest articles. I do agree with James that there are some areas of research, particularly in the humanities that I don't understand, but it is worth remembering that research that often looks useless can turn out to be anything but. Much research activity in the sciences and arts that has looked useless in the past actually turned out to be very useful in the end. One of the inventors of chaos theory for example, used to love taking planes to random places, just in order to look out the window and sketch cloud formations. Fractals, an underlying part of current mathematics, were invented in 1917 before they could ever actually be used or tested. Research is a fairly hit and miss activity and an anomaly, which seems trivial, may be a way into a subject which leads eventually to the discovery of a new way of thinking. Take the cat research that James laughs at, he might well be right to laugh at it, but say that I generated through that a way of understanding companionship to have physical and neurological results which ultimately saved people's life and enabled us to understand the human organism in a better way, would he be laughing then?

I am not saying James is wrong to question all this, just its worth bearing in mind the ways that research can often be productive even when to an outsider it seems stupid or perverse. There are every day things which once established- say the chemicals inside marzipan and what it is that kills a human being when over consumed- that can help us in solving other more inaccessible problems. Going from a different angle, often elucidates things that others don't understand and its always worth asking why a certain piece of research is being done before rejecting it immediatly.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

it is worth remembering that research that often looks useless can turn out to be anything but

I knew there had to be an answer to that post. :)

Anonymous said...

Some research just states the bleeding obvious though - like eating too much makes you fat...