Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Creativity's Origins

Political arguments about funding research programs always feature at least one naysayer who ridicules the very idea: "you want taxpayers to fund research about the migratory behaviors of owls?!?" Well, yes. I am certainly hesitant to dismiss the proposal on grounds of my own ignorance -- that I can't see where it might lead does not mean it will lead nowhere. Norm Geras makes the point:

For profoundly instrumentalist reasons, society should sponsor all research, across all the full range of humanities, arts and social sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering ... I resent pronouncements about the supposed well-springs of practical, technological research being made by people ignorant of that research, how it is done, and what ideas it draws upon. By placing any limits on the potential sources of those ideas, such people risk damaging the very thing they claim to be supporting - economic development and technological progress.
As a matter of historical fact, we don't know what line of 'useless' or 'impractical' research is going to yield profound downstream benefits. To pick a famous example, no one presented a unified research proposal that led directly and intentionally to the internet. It emerged from disparate and unrelated lines of research intended to solve a variety of discrete problems.

This truth applies at the level of government funding of research, and to the considerably smaller scale of individuals. People (not just kids) learn from play, which involves the free-form exploration of ideas and guesses. Anyone who thinks he knows where the next great idea will originate is fooling himself. There is no accounting for the source of the imaginary spark, and there is no limit to the human ability to appropriate and synthesize pre-existing knowledge -- even from trivial sources -- for the benefit of current problems and problems yet unarticulated.

1 comment:

mikesdak said...

A fair number of scientific discoveries came from research into something else. Penicillin was an accident. Viagra started out as a blood pressure medication. Even aspirin is being used in ways not originally considered. That's the big attraction to research; not knowing what you may find.