The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, by Abraham Flexner, with a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf. Princeton: University Press, 2017. 93 pages. ISBN 9780691174761. Sacred Heart University Library: Q126.8 .F54, 2017

This little book is a classic –it was an essay in Harpers in 1939, and achieved iconic status during the war because of Flexner’s association with Albert Einstein and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It is still worth reading, especially now with a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Leon Levy professor at the Institute, a mathematical physicist and string theorist.

The entire point of the essay is that useless knowledge is not useful yet –with all things, it is a matter of time. The period 1939-1945 was a spectacular demonstration of this truth: in 1939 an obscure article appeared in Physical Review, “The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission” on the exact day that World War II began in Europe (September 1). The previous year Alan Turing completed his Ph.D. dissertation, Systems of Logic Based on Ordinals at Princeton University, and Institute mathematician Johann von Neumann wanted to hire him as a postdoctoral assistant, but Turing returned to England. By 1945 esoteric nuclear fission had resulted in two atomic bombs, as well as Turing’s Bombe, a mechanical computer to decipher the German Enigma code, made possible by logic based on ordinal numbers. In both cases that useless knowledge did not remain useless very long.

Flexner freely admits the waste and appearance of waste of a great deal of speculation and experiment, because exactly where the another critical insight will arise is never clear and cannot be predicted. “To be sure, we shall waste some precious dollars.” It “looks prodigious. It is not really so. All the waste that could be summed up in developing the science of bacteriology is as nothing compared to the advantages which have accrued from the discoveries of Pasteur” and many others. “Science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest. Gradually other streams swell its volume. And the roaring river that burst the disks is formed from countless sources.”

The critical factor for Flexner (and for us!) is spiritual and intellectual freedom, and a narrow market ideology can threaten this as surely as any other. “An institution which sets free successive generations of human souls is amply justified whether or not this graduate or that makes a so-called useful contribution to human knowledge.” Flexner is deeply aware that market-driven economy can crowd out exactly what nourishes the market. In 1939 Flexner’s reflection has “a peculiar poignancy. In certain age areas –Germany and Italy especially–the effort is now being made to clamp down the freedom of the human spirit.” Mutatis mutandis, now we see this spirit alive in China, Hungary, Russia, and maybe in the utter refusal of science and truth by some in the United States. The real enemy is the person “who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings, as its wings were once spread in Italy and Germany, as well as in Great Britain and the United States.” What comes around goes around, especially fear as practiced by some politicians.

Dijkgraaf writes in the prologue, “Supporting applied and not-yet-applied research is not just smart, but a social imperative.” And yet, “our current research climate” increasingly is governed by imperfect ‘metrics’ and policies.”

Driven by an every-deepening lack of funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil, and ever-shortening time cycles, research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed toward conservative short-term goals that may address more immediate problems but miss out on the huge advances that human imagination can bring in the long term.

Nicholas Carr made the case in 2010 that as the Internet encourages rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of often unconnected information, humans are losing capacity for reflection and concentration (a point also made abundantly by Cal Newport’s 2016 Deep Work). Research skewed by current factors of money, turmoil, and the refusal of truth will miss engagement with deep questions –and remain in the shallows without even the awareness that depths exist.

What does this have to do with a private teaching university? We certainly have no funds for research and little time away from the metered productivity of publication, teaching, and departmental governance. Just those priorities can inadvertently obscure the truth that no one really knows where the next scientific discovery, cultural insight, or social movement will come from. Here is as good as anywhere.

The point of Flexner’s essay still holds: major advances invariably come from the most obscure corners. Who knew that nearly incomprehensible physics papers by a Swiss patent office worker would still be cited and proven correct more than a century later? We sell our students short is we cave into pressure simply to prepare them for a job at the neglect of their minds and their spirits. Do our skewed metrics just get in the way? Will they learn the deep respect for truth, and that truth is possible, that is the basis of any real thinking?

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