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Science Is Useless

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Then John Henry, he said to his captain,
He said "A man ain't nothin' but a man,
But if you bring that steam drill round, I'll beat it fair and honest,
I'll die with that hammer in my hand—
But I'll be laughing, 'cause you can't replace a steel-drivin' man."
Johnny Cash, "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer"

In a competition of science and technology versus simple hard work, science and technology will almost invariably lose. Since science usually finds an easier, faster way to achieve something, it is therefore "cheating" and far less honorable than honest sweat and effort. Thus, no matter how much a scientist researches, experiments and innovates, he will never achieve what someone else can with good old practice and hard work.

This trope arises because of two main reasons:

  1. Hardly anyone in the audience knows much about Real Life science.
  2. People are always eager to believe that anything they don't understand couldn't possibly be important.

If there's any fair justification for this, it's when the scientist is operating only on booksmarts and theory, or using an untested prototype, and thus lacks the experience necessary to win. Perhaps after lessons learned the first time, a series of rematches would actually go in the scientist's favour from then on. Because of the attitude behind this trope, this rarely happens. The scientists concede defeat to the "superior" people who have bested them and disappear from the story for good, unless their wounded pride convinces them to later return as a villain.

This is not quite the opposite of Hard Work Hardly Works, because The Gift beats both hard work and science, and science may actually be given a fair shake by being represented as the hard work it is. But for hard-workers, science is the lowest spot on the tropic totem pole.

Note that this trope applies equally to scientific or technological methods that are explicitly cheating or explicitly allowed. It doesn't matter if the "scientific" competitor is illegally using steroids, or legitimately pitting man against machine as the whole point of the competition.

Whenever this trope shows up, the ideological basis for the conflict is usually Romanticism Versus Enlightenment, with the Romanticist good guys taking on the Enlightened scientists.

Further, there are two different flavors of this trope. If the point is to stress the importance of hard work, then the technological/scientific opponent is presented as an intimidating Goliath that the plucky underdog must struggle to overcome. This can be done fairly enough - after all, hard work IS very important.

But if the point is, instead, to deride technology or science as unworthy of human effort and manly men, the opponent is presented as a total joke and the hard worker wins easily. In this version, science is little more than a strawman, forgetting that science is hard work, requiring considerable intelligence as well as lengthy and difficult procedures to create anything useful. Not to mention all of the dirty, unglamorous, dangerous, and sometimes gross field work involved. See also Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards for a comparison between hard work (warrior) and science (wizard): yes physical hard work works for you personally, but in the end science (with a lot of educative hard work) makes Human Civilization achieve incomprehensible feats such as dropping nukes on your head. Yet rarely if ever is the hard work of the science-user shown on screen, making them seem like arrogant know-it-alls who may have read a book or two, but never got their hands dirty.

Related to Magic Versus Science. May involve Squishy Scientist, Dumb Is Good, and Rock Beats Laser. May be related to Reed Richards Is Useless (when superscience is useless at having an impact on the wider world). See also the physical equivalents Technician Versus Performer (where The Gift overcomes intense training) and Good Old Fisticuffs (where simple fists beats flashy kicks). Often the logical result of Science Cannot Comprehend Phlebotinum or even Science Is Wrong.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In the Crush Gear Turbo manga, the final match is Kouya against Heinrich. Heinrich is trained to perfect his Vander Geshtpenst technique down to patterns with aid of machines and trains with help of cardiographs, etc. Kouya nonetheless beats him at his own game. Subverted that the ultimate cause of Heinrich's loss is that he lost his cool upon his theoretical moves being countered by someone who barely perfected it. It is highly implied that, were he to keep his cool, he'd have won in a battle of stamina attrition.
  • Amino High School in Eyeshield 21: whilst they have turned themselves into impossibly large-muscled superhumans using a variety of advanced methods, the Devilbats win in part because they've just returned from their Training from Hell, "the Death March." Subverted in that it's explained why they lost: the Amino team may be juiced-up and muscular, but their minimal training left them with poor endurance and a mediocre grasp of football fundamentals compared to the Devil Bats.
    Hiruma: It's not that your sport science is wrong. It's just that you can't win with just that.
  • Averted in Hunter × Hunter. The World's Strongest Man faces a newborn Ultimate Life Form, but his hundred years of experience and training barely manage to scratch his opponent. So how does he get rid of the monster? He makes himself and the enemy blow up with a low-cost nuclear bomb.
  • Pokémon: The Series:
    • Ash is up against a trainer who constantly statistically analyses all the Pokémons' abilities and uses it to direct his Pokémon in battle. While this serves him well for a time, when battling Ash, the weakness is exposed that when the battle gets too fast, he can't focus on both his Pokémon and his laptop at the same time (this plus the fact that Ash's Pokémon starts giving off "impossible" numbers).
    • Ash battles his Pikachu against the Cubone of an Insufferable Genius from the Pokémon Academy. Due to type advantage, Cubone is immune to Pikachu's electricity, but Ash is able to beat it by battling with trickery and speed. The genius is taken back by this idea, having fought her Pokémon mostly in simulators and never seen a Pikachu win without electricity. Ironically enough, she berates her junior for relying solely on type advantage beforehand when while he beats a Starmie with a Weepingbel in a simulator, he loses against Misty, and in turn, Misty loses against the girl's Graveler.
  • The baking contest between Kazuma Azuma and Shigeru Kanmuri in Yakitate!! Japan. Shigeru is a Harvard graduate majoring in food science, whereas Kazuma is the Genius Ditz, who works mainly by intuition and random inspiration. Kazuma wins, of course.

    Film — Animated 
  • Averted in Paul Bunyan. A normal man challenges Paul to a contest where he and Paul are given a set time to chop and transport to a central location as much wood as possible to demonstrate the then-new chainsaw, using a train to send the wood back. When it's all over, the entrepreneur beats Paul (albeit by a very narrow margin), prompting Paul to retire, figuring that, with new technology allowing anyone to be as efficient as himself, he and his ways have become obsolete.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Rocky IV: Ivan Drago is given steroids, computer monitors and high-tech work-out equipment to show his superhuman development. Rocky trains with farm equipment in a barn. In spite of being physically inferior, Rocky wins the day through heart. This is a bit of a case of Science Marches On, as strength-training machines such as those used by Drago have been revealed to be inferior to Rocky's old-fashioned free weights.
  • In Shaolin Soccer, the monks use their supernatural kung fu techniques against Team Evil's American steroids and high-tech training. The monks can only barely hang on, but ultimately pull out the victory with the unbeatable combination of two powerful techniques.
  • In Soldier, veteran super-soldier Sergeant Todd is pitted against a group of genetically engineered uber-soldiers. Todd loses to the new soldiers in purely physical contests, but when it comes to the battlefield, he slaughters them all single-handedly using his superior tactics (read: any tactics whatsoever) and cunning gained from years of experience. The General Ripper in charge of the new soldiers is so completely convinced of their superiority that he ignores the sound advice of his second-in-command, who wisely points out that the harsh environment of the battlefield is negating the advantages the soldiers have in both conditioning and firepower. The entire fight is completely pointless, and the commander is simply showing off his new 'toys'.
  • In Twister, The Rival is almost totally dependent on his weather-tracking technology to find and rate tornadoes while the heroes use their gut instincts and, more importantly, their past experiences with giant storms. However, he had simply taken the heroes' technology and gotten corporate backing — all the concept and experiments behind it had been done by the heroes, who were better scientists than he was.

  • The legend of John Henry is an Older Than Radio example, but here it's an Unbuilt Trope. Steel-driving man versus steel-driving machine — man wins, but dies soon after. Even the mightiest of steel-drivin' men would have to kill himself to barely beat out modern machinery. Man might win the moral victory, but machinery wins the long race.

  • In the Left Behind series, science ultimately proves to be useless, particularly against the Bowl Judgments during the Tribulation when medical science couldn't figure out how to deal with the outbreak of sores upon those who took the Mark of the Beast and worshiped his image.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • This was true for a time in the quest to build a computer that could consistently beat the world's best human chess players (such as IBM's Deep Blue, which famously lost to Kasparov). Memory and processing power marched on, however, and modern chess engines can be run on a smartphone and are essentially unbeatable by human opponents.
    • Go was our salvation for a while, but in 2015, AlphaGo by Google finally ended human supremacy. Eventually, in 2017, their latest version went 60:0 versus Go masters.
  • Statistician Nate Silver was attacked by conservatives during the 2012 elections when Silver predicted that Barack Obama would win reelection over Mitt Romney. Predictably, this was because people didn't understand the basic math Silver used and published. Most conservatives settled for calling Silver's methods "scientific gobbledegook", claiming he was biased and skewed the results, and then responded by releasing their own "unbiased/unskewed polls", which showed Romney winning by a large margin. Of course, Silver correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, while his critics were mocked.
  • Sabermetrics, the "empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics" was hilariously considered to be the work of "heretic madmen", who "mulled over punch computer card, analyzing every single hit". It was not accepted by the community for many years, until Bill James started releasing his Baseball Abstracts in 1977, giving rise to a fresh subculture, and after "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" was published by Michael Lewis in 2003, coincidentally just a few months before Bill James started working for the Red Sox, a team who, coincidentally, won the World Series just a few years later. The book itself was an instant classic, as everyone loves a story about undervalued underdogs (the Oakland Athletics in this case) and their manager (Billy Beane) who use their skill and knowledge to defeat teams composed of people who cost more. The strategy behind the game had changed so much that the New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians, and the Toronto Blue Jays hired full-time sabermetric analysts. As the announcer in the Simpsons parody (of the film version of the book) MoneyBART put it, "It [was] a triumph of number-crunching over the human spirit!"