• Kenneth Jacobs

Pure Science is the Study of Useless Things

Updated: May 9, 2020

According to Charles Sanders Peirce, science is not defined by knowing or organized knowledge. Instead, science is defined by the actions of scientists and all inquirers alike.

Science for Peirce is this:

“…diligent inquiry into truth for truth's sake, without any sort of axe to grind, nor for the sake of the delight of contemplating it, but from an impulse to penetrate into the reason of things” (CP 1.44).

This is to say that science is free inquiry, the subject of Peirce's first rule of reason:

"Do not block the way of inquiry" (CP 1.135)

Impediments to inquiry are the rules, norms, and expectations that give researchers an "axe to grind." Take, for example, pharmaceutical inquiry for the sake of industry instead of truth. And in the university setting, researchers are to "publish or perish" for the sake of job security at the expense of truth. Inquiry with an axe to grind is pseudo-inquiry, or as Peirce would say, a sham:

"Men, then, continue to tell themselves they regulate their conduct by reason; but they learn to look forward and see what conclusions a given method will lead to before they give their adhesion to it. In short, it is no longer the reasoning which determines what the conclusion shall be, but it is the conclusion which determines what the reasoning shall be. This is sham reasoning" (CP 1.57).

In order not to perish, researchers look ahead by "data dredging" for the sake of a criterion called statistical significance. Attaining statistical significance––in lieu of truth––is the sought after conclusion, and it betrays our ability to "penetrate into the reason of things" when it guides our actions at the expense of intelligent experimental design. By looking ahead researchers get ahead, but not without the costs incurred by a replication crisis, the by-product of looking for publishable conclusions.

The way forward according to Peirce is this:

"In order that science may be successful, its votaries must hasten to surrender themselves at discretion to experimental inquiry, in advance of knowing what its decisions may be. There must be no reservations" (CP. 1.57).

In other words, for truth to prevail in inquiry, the inquiry must not be biased in the least: by our own predilections, by the normative methods of a science, or by the expectation of immediate utility in any discovery. Peirce went so far as to say:

"True science is distinctively the study of useless things" (CP 1.76).

This is not to say that discoveries cannot or should not have utility. Scientific discoveries can be made useful. Importantly, though, scientific discoveries can be made useful without biasing the reasoning that led to them in the first place. A product like Gatorade, for example, is a sham because it is the product of sham reasoning. As it turns out, the sports drink industry bought the conclusions they needed to legitimize their theory of hydration for peek performance in game. The "reason of things" for Gatorade, then, is secondary. In Peirce's words:

"The effect of this shamming is that men come to look upon reasoning as mainly decorative, or at most, as a secondary aid in minor matters" (CP 1.58).

The guise of experimental inquiry is decorative and secondary when it is used to prop up sports drinks, dietary supplements, homeopathic remedies, and other shams.

The study of useless things is the study of things for no other reason besides the human impulse to inquire. The study of useless things, then, is unimpeded science. Science is susceptible to impediment, however, when researchers are given an axe to grind––when one's measure of success is an artificial "impact" factor and when science is revered for outcome over process. Worse still is when people are "...appointed to that place as the most learned man" because "...the inquiring spirit cannot say the gentlemen are a lot of ignorant fools" (CP 1.51). In other words, inquiry cannot lead "the most learned man" or woman to discovery when their learnedness biases the inquiry itself. Peirce went on to say:

"Wherever there is a large class of academic professors who are provided with good incomes and looked up to as gentlemen [the most learned man or woman], scientific inquiry must languish. Wherever the bureaucrats are the more learned class, the case will be still worse" (CP 1.51).

In today's terms, the most learned people are the most highly cited researchers, as if citation count were a faithful index for scientific discovery, its impact, our knowledge-base, its export, etc. Citation count may carry some of those significations, but not without the risk of bolstering the method of authority. Citations beget citations for reasons other than innovation on behalf of the persons cited. Citations can beget citations when the virality of a publication is a criterion for its truth and when journal editors require the "highly cited authorities" to be honored with reference––not for their scientific contributions per se, but for their citation count.