Are Merkle trees useful or just a legacy of the white paper?

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The bitcoin white paper discusses using merkle trees as a method for pruning the blockchain for lightweight verification. Indexing provides a more practical method of achieving a lightweight node, and pruned nodes cannot be shared between full nodes because they introduce trust. Each block contains a merkle root rather than a hash of the transactions list, which introduces a performance overhead when verifying blocks. Are Merkle trees useful to Bitcoin or just a mild design inaccuracy?