Friday, April 26, 2013

PZ's Wonderful Exam Question

PZ Myers has just given his students a take-home exam. Here's one of the questions [It’s another exam day! ] ...
Question 1: One of Sarah Palin’s notorious gaffes was her dismissal of “fruit fly research” — she thought it was absurd that the government actually funded science on flies. How would you explain to a congressman that basic research is important? I’m going to put two constraints on your answer: 1) It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann, and 2) don’t take the shortcut of promising that which you may not deliver. That is, no “maybe it will cure cancer!” claims, but focus instead on why we should appreciate deeper knowledge of biology.
That first restriction is going to make answering the question a real challenge 'cause you have to take into account the mentality of someone who is not just scientifically illiterate but scientifically anti-literate.

Nevertheless, this is exactly the sort of thing you want your science graduates to know.


49 comments :

  1. It must be comprehensible to Bachmann? Course: failed!

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  2. A better question would surely be - make the best case possible for why Palin might be right. But then you might actually encourage thought, and what use have ideologues of such a thing.

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    1. Paling might be right on a scientific subject? What's next, there's an invisible magic man in the sky who loves us and can make us live forever in eternal happiness in a special life that comes after we don't really die?

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    2. And with that answer you would fail. The purpose of the question being to see whether you are able to divorce your rational capacities from your ideology long enough to explore some possibilities which go against your grain. As expected, you could not, and instead lapsed once again (not that there's ever been anything of sense from you to lapse from) into a rant about religion.

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    3. OK, well how about this: Humans and Fruit flies were created separately by an intelligent designer. Therefore, little or nothing relevant to humans can be learned by studying fruit flies...at least compared to studying humans directly....................is this what you were looking for?

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    4. Ok Luther, time to put up then. What's your answer to your own question?

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    5. Off the top of my head, my (one) answer would probably go along the lines of fiddling while Rome burns.

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    6. What's "burning" that needs biologists to put out the fire?

      And on the subject of Palin, I'm sure her wish to get public prayer installed into office and public school is time better spend putting out "fires", than biology research. Rick Perry did such an outstanding job getting rain to texas... might aswell just sign it into law.

      And if fires are burning so hot we can't fund basic biology research, maybe we should think about taking away the tax exemptions from religious institutions and put that money to uses other than lining the pockets of megachurch pastors. Hmmm...

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    7. Rant rant, religion, rant, religion, sky daddy, rant...

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    8. Well Luther I wonder if for the sake of the exercise that you propose you would be able to answer PZ's questions instead of pestering people with your:

      Rant rant, ideologues, rant, Rome burns, your grain, rant...

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    9. So Luther, how about you answer my questions? What's burning? Why do we need biologists to put out this fire?

      And if something's burning, can you really not think of anything that lends itself better to putting out this fire, than diverting money from basic biology research?

      You can piss and whine about it all you want, I made valid points.

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  3. How, exactly, can you explain the value of scientific research in words of one syllable or less?

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  4. Biologists study flies primarily in order to learn general biological facts that apply to other species. This only works because all species are related - by studying one human we can learn about all humans; likewise, by studying one animal we can learn about all animals. If we start by rejecting the idea that all species are related, there would no longer be any good reason to study flies (or any other model organism) - it would be like trying to learn human biology by studying rocks.

    So Palin's argument is just the logical extension of an ID premise - if ID were correct, studying flies could teach us very little and it would be crazy to sink as much money into it as funding agencies do. The whole idea of studying model organisms makes no sense if you reject evolution.

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    1. So it's hard to see why this particular Palin gem is considered more of a gaffe than anything else said by ID supporters.

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    2. I think the point of the question was to defend knowledge for its own sake and not necessarily because it relates to humans.

      Don't forget that yeast, E. coli, and Arabidopsis (plant) are model organisms. The people who study them are often not interested in learning about humans.

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    3. "How would you explain to a congressman that basic research is important?"

      True, but if I *actually* had to explain the importance of studying fruit-flies to a congressman just trying to make him understand curiosity driven research wouldn't cut it when it comes to justify financing. That's why Palin thought that "it was absurd that the government actually funded science on flies" (apparently Luther Flint doesn't get it either).

      Therefore it's important to mention organisms as models, because the reason why so many people study fruit flies is not because they have any special passion for flies but because they are powerful models in developmental and population genetics. Much of population genetics theory was developed from fruit-flies. As for E. coli, your statement is partially true. Most people don't study E. coli because they are interested in humans, but many do study E. coli because they are interested in molecular genetics per se, not E. coli itself. People don't have any particular passion for Arabidopsis either, it's just that it's a great model for plants in general.

      Doing basic science on flies or E. coli or Arabidopsis doesn't mean you are specially interested in those organisms in particular. I can do basic research in molecular genetics using E. coli and that doesn't mean I care much for E.coli itself. In fact, most people don't, it's just a model (and its still basic research). So I think Meyers is mixing up two different things in his question.

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    4. Larry: I wasn't saying it relates to humans (guess I shouldn't have used them as an example, they're a silly species anyway), I was saying that the idea of studying a model organism makes sense because the results are more generally applicable than just that organism. And it stops making sense from an ID perspective, which questions the justification for extrapolating findings from one species to another.

      If you accept ID, there is absolutely no reason to think that what is true for Arabidopsis should be true for other plants, or that one can learn general biological principles by studying one or a small number of species. So Palin may not be rejecting the idea of basic research as much as the idea that specific biological knowledge can be broadly applicable. I suspect it's a bit of both - but the point is that we cannot counter such objections (more recently we saw the same argument being made about snail research) without first knowing what motivates them.

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    5. Konrad:

      The whole idea of studying model organisms makes no sense if you reject evolution… If you accept ID, there is absolutely no reason to think that what is true for Arabidopsis should be true for other plants, or that one can learn general biological principles by studying one or a small number of species.

      Really? So the Chinese have no "reason to think that what’s true for American trade secrets (that they 'study,' then pirate) should be true for their own?" Are you saying that there is absolutely no practical use in learning how an organism is designed in order to apply that knowledge to understanding how others are?

      Your post indicates a profound limitation in the scope of your thinking…

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    6. As opposed to a profound inability to read for comprehension ...

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  5. Rumraket has posted four comments on this thread, or roughly a quarter of all the comments so far. I wonder if it's too much to anticipate that his next one will actually address the question being posed? Because, of course, he has a slam dunk reply at the ready.

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    1. I won't claim to have a slam dunk because everything is in the eye of the beholder. To someone like Luther for example, I'm sure no reply given could be satisfying. Rome is burning, apparently.

      In any case, here's my 2 cents:

      First of all it's pretty much impossible to know a priori what kind of insights might be gained by this kind of basic research. We had to start somewhere, and fruit flies are a model organism for this pupose with short generation times, much smaller and simpler physiologies to map and understand.

      Even though we don't know what we will possibly gain from doing this research, what is the alternative? To insist on staying ignorant? We have an increasingly demanding and growing world population, who will be needing developments in everything from medicine to agriculture, a lot of which is directly related to insights we can gain from doing biology.

      We can't do experiments directly on human beings for obvious ethical and moral reasons most of us can agree to, so using model organisms as an alternative is the only other option that doesn't involve just giving up and doing nothing.

      It doesn't even have to be directly health or food related(combating disease, making better crops), part of the science of biology is to try to understand life and how it works in general. This isn't just fiddling around for it's own sake(which isn't necessarily a bad thing either), this kind of research serves as the basis for a lot of more private-industry related development.

      I think someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes a strong case for basic exploratory research, though in his example he's talking about the space industry, it works just as well for other kinds of science. Private companies won't invest in "advancing the frontiers", because they can't do cost-benefit analyses in areas that have yet to be explored and mapped. So private donors (who might just be generally interested in science) has to step in, together with governments, to fund this kind of basic research. This is what basic research is about, "advancing frontiers". Every time this has been done, private industry has been able to move in afterwards and start creating business opportunities, which usually directly translates to either more jobs or products we want and need. This is true for physical and chemical engineering, or outer space, just as it is for biology and everything else.

      And last but not least, we simply are curious creatures. We wan't to know the unknown, to explore the unexplored, to figure out how the world works, from the tiniest particle to the expansion of the cosmos. And somewhere in between, there's life in all it's incomprehensible intricacies, and if we can understand life, we can maybe understand ourselves? Who doesn't want that?

      That good enough for you Andy?

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    2. I think it's a fine answer, Rumraket.

      It still, ultimately, comes down to ones own subjective opinion, however. Not a slam dunk, because there really doesn't seem to be any objective 'proof' that knowledge is valuable for its own sake. Most parents of five year olds, for example, don't necessarily believe that knowledge of where babies come from is valuable for its own sake, or necessarily better than ignorance.

      One thing I find interesting is that your last paragraph could easily be turned around to support spiritual, rather than scientific, inquiry. Some parts in the middle would need to be changed, but the initial and closing sentences could remain nearly as they are. And yet you feel that all spiritual exploration is a waste of time, at best.

      So, in other words, there is nothing that you could say to a believer that would either - a.) convince them that scientific inquiry is superior to spiritual inquiry, or b.) persuade them to just chuck all their interest in religion/spirituality and get on board with science (there are numerous people who have an interest in both, of course, but that's beside the point) - that wouldn't be based on anything other than your opinion, the opinions of others you could cite, such as ND Tyson, as well as your adeptness at changing theirs.
      There IS no slam dunk.

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    3. Andy: could you explain what you mean by (nonscientific) spiritual enquiry?

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    4. How did this become a discussion about trying to convince others about the merits of spirituality?

      My post had no such objective at all, and it countains very little of relevance I would advance in such an argument. I wouldn't even go so far as to claim that "all spiritual explorations is a waste of time", but I have to agree with Konrad that I'm not even sure what is meant by the terminology.

      I have no issue with selfreflection and introspection of any kind, people can do whatever they do in the privacy of their own lives and their own homes if they feel it gives them satisfaction.

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    5. @Konrad; 'spiritual inquiry' can mean many different things. I guess the common theme is meditation. It is more associated with Eastern religions, particularly different forms of Buddhism. Abrahamic religions tended to emphasize ritual over personal seeking, so it kind of 'went underground'. It is central to the esoteric form of the the three main Abrahamic religions, Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Sufism. Basically, it means looking to know what one's place in the universe is, with or without a text or a guru.

      @Rumraket, I only brought that up to bolster my point that the notion that 'knowledge is good for its own sake' is a wholly subjective stance, not provable, and thus not altogether different in character than similar statements one could make about ones religious beliefs.

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    6. In that case I basically agree with you Andy. I don't go out of my way to seek out and tell people what should take place in their heads. Don't get me wrong, I like having an argument, and I won't shy away from telling people what I think of their beliefs if they inform me of them, but I agree in respect to what people "should" do, is ultimately subjective. We can only try to work together and find some kind of mutually tolerable compromise if we should run into disagreements.

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    7. well said, Rumraket. I also like arguments, and see their value, but even more so the value of, as you say, trying to work together and find a mutually tolerable compromise when its achievable.

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  6. "What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant."
    -Jacques Monod

    Has anybody noticed that François Jacob died a few days ago?

    :(

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  7. From another standpoint, to what extent does the argument that 'knowledge is good for its own sake" justify all the harm that is done to animals in scientific experiments? Not just fruit flies, but lab rats, monkeys, rabbits, the dogs and chimps that were sent on a one-way trip into space, etc.?
    Is it not extremely arrogant to harm creatures without any other justification than that we desired to know as much as we could? Is the argument essentially, 'this is going to hurt, but it's for OUR own good'?

    I'd be much more interested in PZ Meyers having his students address this question rather than the one about use of tax dollars, and also interested in hearing what anyone here has to say.

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    1. It's a good question, one that I presume is usually discussed in Bioethics courses, not in other bio courses in general. There's no right answer, of course, and it depends entirely on one's personal views. It's something that changes continually as society itself changes.

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    2. That's a great question, particularly given that we already have vast treasure troves of data from which we are nowhere near extracting all of the knowledge we can. Biologists are doing way too many experiments and way too little analysis. We could easily have another half century of progress just analyzing the data that's been collected so far.

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    3. Konrad, that's an excellent point. I suspect that commerce eventually ends up playing far too much a role, and particularly where government largesse plays the decisive role. There are no doubt people whose livelihoods depend on breeding animals for the purpose of scientific experimentation.
      The necessity of the experiments themselves, to say nothing of the unnecessary misery that will result from them, become secondary factors once economics plays a role.
      It's the same in the meat industry, the fur industry, etc. In Japan it's the whaling industry, where the government keeps it afloat by subsidizing it and providing it the cover of 'scientific research'. Paychecks come to mean more than anything else. If you want to learn as much as you can about biology, it helps to begin by valuing living things more.

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  8. I like open ended thought provoking questions on exams and try to use them myself. The difficulty I have found, which makes it impossible for me to assess if this is an excellent question or not, is establishing a rubric to fairly evaluate the wide range of of possible responses.

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    1. I give the question to grad students, then see the scope of answers. I write down a few pointers of what I expected, and good points I've got from the grad students. Then, the first time I use the question with undergrads I check again the scope of answers. I don;t decide on the number of points for each answer until I have read all the answers. The only ones I mark down the first time around are mostly those answers that show that the student has no idea about what we have seen so far in the course, or if the student didn't even try ... it can be a lot of work, some students hate these questions, but the good students appreciate the mental exercise.

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  9. I think PZ's question is quite unfair.

    There is simply no way I can see that one can formulate an answer that the likes of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann will accept. Any response I can imagine is based on the premise that understanding reality is a good thing. But the religious right, as represented by Palin, Bachmann et al, rejects the very idea of an external reality that is independent of personal faith. This is what allows them to hold so tenaciously to beliefs that are flatly contradicted by evidence: That Sadam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that tax cuts to the rich help the poor, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that climate change is not occurring, that allowing gay people to marry threatens the marriages of heterosexuals, etc, etc.

    The religious right rejects science, not just out of ignorance, but on general principle. The very idea of science, requiring as it does the rejection of beliefs that are not supported by evidence, threatens and contradicts their fundamental world view.

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  10. I don't like condition #2, so I'm going tovnullify it. Is PZ going to give me an F for this? Most of us *want* our governments to make practical decisions on our behalf, not based on ideology or personal affiliations or pie-in-the-sky stuff. So, I think the best way to convince Palin and Bachmann to fund curiosity-driven research is to make the connection between the fruits of this research and technology that drives economic growth or improves the conditions of life for humans. Just because you can't predict *which* curiosity-driven research project will lead to the next big innovation, does not mean that funding such research is based on false promises.

    As an example, can you think of anything less practical than studying the mating habits of bacteria? In the 1940s and 1950s some egg-head academicians in white lab coats were studying bacteria, to understand why "transformation" worked for some donor-recipient pairs, but not for others. The phenomenon by which one species would destroy another species DNA was called "restriction". Curiosity-driven research on "restriction" led to the discovery of "restriction enzymes". It turned out that the bacterial world provided 100s of different restriction enzymes that cut DNA in different ways-- a toolbox of precise cutting tools for manipulating DNA. This enzyme toolbox enabled the biotechnology revolution that began in the 1970s-- scientists used the restriction enzymes to clone and sequence DNA. Werner Arber won a Nobel prize for his work on the isolation of restriction enzymes. His pure curiosity-driven research on bacterial sex turned into a technology revolution in just 1 generation.


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  11. Let's see if I understand your position.

    You want to convince people to support curiosity motivated research but the best way to do this is convince them that it will eventually have an application?

    Have you really thought about what you're saying?

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    1. It actually is a deceptively difficult question (If I was in PZ's class, I think I would choose to answer the other question, even though they would involve more research.)

      I fear that too many people actually see no value in simply learning as much as they can about the world around them, and see the purpose of science as nothing more than to produce new products and technologies for purchase. Certainly that is how our current federal gov't sees it. I really don't now how to convince people with such a mindset. It would be like trying to convince someone of the value of music if they believe it is useless.

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    2. Nobody says it's going to be easy. The real question is whether we even try to convince people of the value of knowledge.

      Most people who have commented here seem to think it's so hopeless that we shouldn't even attempt to make the case for knowledge. Let's not forget that every aspect of social change starts from the same position of just a few voices in the wilderness. We would never achieve the goal of changing society if we all gave up right at the beginning.

      I firmly believe that American society will eventually come to accept gay marriage, abortion, gun control, atheism, the abolition of capital punishment, and the value of knowledge. You should not abandon any of those fights just because the odds seem so stacked against you right now.

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    3. The fact that Palin, Bachmann et al may be lost causes does not mean the cause itself is lost. If it were made clear to everyone else that what the religious right is actually arguing against is the acquisition of knowledge (under the pretext of trying to protect the tax dollars of average working people), then that would be a worthwhile achievement. It's not necessary to convince the religious right that they are wrong. It's only necessary to marginalize them and render them irrelevent. It's a truly bizarre situation the amount of power these people have wielded in America, but thankfully that situation seems to be waining.

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    4. LM writes, "I firmly believe that American society will eventually come to accept gay marriage, abortion, gun control, atheism, the abolition of capital punishment, and the value of knowledge"
      These are all very different things. Using 'accept' to cover them all makes no sense. Abortion is legal in the U.S. Gay marriage is not (but it's getting there). Some states practice capital punishment, some don't (17 states plus the DoC), others have it on the books but haven't carried out any executions for years. There is no law whatsoever against being an atheist. "The value of knowledge" is almost too vague a term to be discussed in the same context as any of the others. And so on.
      If society is a reflection of its laws, then American society already accepts nearly half the things Larry mentions. If society refers to more than half its people (no reason to equate the two, but just in case), then probably all of the above, other than perhaps gay marriage, are already accepted.
      There is probably not a single person who, if asked, would answer that knowledge isn't valuable. This is a very different thing than giving ones approval to any type of experiment being able to receive federal funding.

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  12. There are two things that interest me about this.

    1) Does this represent a part of the student's overall mark? I other words if there was an answer that was not to PZ's liking would the students lose marks overall, no matter the quality of their work in actual science? Is someone a lesser scientist for not being able to explain the value of research to Michelle Bachmann?

    2) Is there a need for this question, given that the research mentioned did, in fact, get funded and carried out?

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  13. I wonder how I would answer it?

    For a start I would have to point out that if you are setting out to convince someone of the intrinsic value of knowledge it helps if you haven't gotten your own facts wrong.

    Palin's beef was, of course, that the funding was for research in another country.

    Knowing that then the discussion might focus on the international nature of science, how it is better to worry about whether or not something is good research than to worry that it is not being done on your own home patch.

    If one were to convince a Christian of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge then you might have to emphasize certain aspects of the history of science that PZ would probably not want to hear about.

    In short, I could probably put together an argument that might at least have a chance of convincing someone like Bachmann of the intrinsic value of the knowledge gained from scientific research.

    But probably not one that would earn me a pass mark from PZ.

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  14. Two discussions are going on concurrently that it is interesting to consider in juxtaposition. This post comes shortly after the one about whether or not it is, or should be, legal to teach a blatantly pro ID course at a public university in the U.S.
    Dio insists that it is unconstitutional that even 'three cents' of a taxpayers money can be used by any institution to promote any religious platform.
    Let's look at that, first. I read the course description, and it doesn't sound exactly like a "Christian" course. Jerry Coyne suspects it of being so, but it looks from its description to be a standard questioning of Darwinian mechanisms such as all ID proponents share. It doesn't look like the course ends on the last day with the teacher writing, "And therefore, Jesus" on the whiteboard.

    Then we have people here seeming to say that any amount of federal funding for scientific research shouldn't be questioned, no matter what the purpose of the investigation. This is because, "knowledge is valuable for its own sake, with no connection to how it may be used for the benefit of mankind" or something along those lines. FIrst of all, that statement is subjective and philosophical, not scientific, as I am sure everyone can agree.

    Second of all, unless the course in question is a blatant attempt to prove that Jesus walked on water and jogged with dinosaurs, then it too, is mostly subjective and philosophical. In other words, "because these peculiarities exist in biology as it is understood, we may wish to look into the possibility of alternatives to blind naturalistic forces as explanations for them."

    So how does this work, not a penny spent in support of a course that is biased toward the philosophical presumption that there may be a 'ghost behind the machine', but not a penny spared for research that conforms to the philosophical presumption that ANY knowledge is worth investigating?

    How is this going to get sorted out, and who gets to do the sorting?

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  15. What made Pain's remark such a gaffe was, it was being done to better understand a serious pest that was threatening the olive industry in California. What made the gaffe worse was, Palin sneeringly pointed out the reearch was being done in France (land of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, you know). Of course, the reason the research was being done there was because the French had extensive experience with the pest.

    Dave Wisker

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  16. I like the quote variously attributed to Feynman, "Physics is like sex. Sure you may get some practical results, but that's not why we do it". I like it because it is the truth. The truth may not work against politicians.

    The truth is, sometimes enlightened people pay us to do science. Not because they know that we occasionally do something unexpectedly useful that will make them money, even though this has recently turned out to be broadly true. No, this is a case where the journey is more important than the destination. Placing value on the quest to understand our universe, our world, ourselves, even if not a battle personally waged, transforms a society. An accountant cannot calculate a Return On Investment that will satisfy those with a narrow actuarial mindset. Instead, the answer lies in a glass of wine. If you can learn to appreciate the poetry within, you can understand. If not, we might as well make way for the Vogons.

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