More on Twentieth Century Science

From Daniel Lemire, a reflection on the prestige accorded to certain professions. I copied out a section from Daniel's post, and highlighted something relevant to my cocktail party theory of twentieth century science.

I think that Matt’s decision might be hard to understand—at least, his departement chair feels the need to explain it to us—because he is putting into question the very core values of our society. These core values were explored by Veblen in his unconventional book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that we are not driven by utility, but rather by social status. In fact, our society pushes us to seek high prestige jobs, rather than useful and productive jobs. In effect, a job doing research in Computer Science is more prestigious than an industry job building real systems, on the mere account that it is less immediately useful. Here are some other examples:

  • The electrician who comes and wires your house has a less prestigious job than the electrical engineer who manages vague projects within a large organization.
  • The programmer who outputs useful software has a less prestigious job than the software engineer who runs software projects producing software that nobody will ever use.
  • The scientist who tinkers in his laboratory has a less prestigious job than the scientist who spends most of his time applying for research grants.

It is abundantly clear that conptemporary science values less useful activities in and of themselves. What I want to know is: did this change? Were the scientists of the past forced to work on utilitarian pursuits because of necessity, or have scientists simply started to value different things?