Why basic research matters II: John Sivell

Currently, we hear a lot about the value of research that focuses on a manifestly practical application. This argument seems to reflect the tradition of high-level technical education that began in the period of the Industrial Revolution, and plainly there is much to recommend it. But there is also a risk in presenting this perspective: we need to avoid underestimating the complex evolutionary development of core insights that can and do have a world-changing practical impact on daily life.

I work in Linguistics, a very interdisciplinary domain that is usually homed in the Humanities. This matters to me, because I sense a general undervaluation of Humanities research and education. I trust that that misperception will eventually fall back out of fashion.

I am concerned, however with a more lasting bias against encouraging the kind of non-linear, intellectually rich environment that can foster new ideas and discoveries and even lead to practical applications. New understandings emerge quite unexpectedly, and virtually never in a predictable way.

To get a sense of the value of pure intellectual exploration, consider the very old philosophical tradition to view the world in terms of contrasts. In the early part of the 20th Century, that underlying theme surfaced in the form of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s brilliantly simply concept that human language could be effectively explained as a system of contrasts, so that by focusing on langue (language as an abstract system) rather than parole (individual language codes) it would be possible to understand psycholinguistic and philosophical characteristics of communication that would not be remotely so apparent to scholars concentrating just on English, French, German, and so on. That leap forward has driven the development of thinking in Linguistics and in Communication Studies.

At about the middle of the century, American mathematician Claude Shannon advanced another type of system relying on opposites: this time, a mathematical theory of electronic communication in which patterns of contrast had the capacity to provide the redundancy necessary for overcoming interference from noise on the line. His work is one of the key foundations for the communications revolution that led to the digital world on which so many of us rely today.

Unquestionably, Shannon’s discovery is a veritable poster child for practically applicable research, and it might even be taken as a foil for Saussure’s fascinating but essentially impractical line of thinking.

Shannon himself does not mention Saussure, but he does refer admiringly to the work of Norbert Weiner on cybernetics. And semiotician N. Katherine Hayles links not only Weiner with Saussure, but also Saussure with Shannon. Of course, such a circuitous provenance definitely does not constitute a tightly-linked chain of direct influences, but perhaps this is exactly the point. While curiosity-based research, scholarly thinking, and education may or may not trigger any immediate practical outcome, the constant value of such efforts is that they flow into the exciting intellectual environment in which all sorts of thinkers and researchers operate.

It is evident that Saussure himself was simply curious about language; he clearly had no intention of presenting a theory that might be commercially profitable. But by the time Shannon – who did have commercial applications in mind – came onto the scene, Saussure’s theory was ‘in the air’: available to Shannon as a very useful concept. Shannon may not even have been aware of Saussure, but he surely was aware of Saussure’s ideas.

In fine, Shannon did not work in a bubble entirely isolated from other intellectuals. And that, surely, is the major take-away from this example. The distinction between what is or is not ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ research or education depends very much on how narrowly and superficially one decides to view the matter. Using a term from another perhaps ‘impractical’-looking linguist, Michael Halliday, it is a question of delicacy, the degree of finesse with which definitions are framed: too little delicacy, and everything flows into everything else and informative categorizations become impossible; but too much, and the sledgehammer of oversimplified precision fractures the very pattern one initially set out to clarify.


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