Brain Pickings

The Dark Side of Certainty: Jacob Bronowski on the Spirit of Science and What Auschwitz Teaches Us About Our Compulsion for Control

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“Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible… We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

Richard Feynman memorably argued that the chief responsibility of a great scientist is to remain uncertain. “It’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance,” Stuart Firestein asserted in his wonderfully poetic TED talk on why ignorance rather than knowledge drives science. And yet the toxic belief persists that science is about our insatiable appetite for knowledge, power and, ultimately, control over the world.

In 1973, a year before his death, Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, and science historian Jacob Bronowski captivated the world with his pioneering BBC series and companion book of the same title, The Ascent of Man (public library), tracing the development of human civilization through science, from flint tools to alchemy to quantum physics. Celebrated as one of the first works of “popular science,” it bears Carl Sagan’s succinct and perfectly descriptive one-word blurb: “Superb!”

In this excerpt from the eleventh episode of the series, titled “Knowledge and Certainty,” Bronowski addresses with goosebump-giving poignancy the most dangerous extremes of our counterproductive compulsion for control and our quintessential discomfort with uncertainty:

There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false.

Look for yourself.

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.

When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible…

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

In the preface to The Ascent of Man, which is a magnificent and incredibly important read in its totality, Richard Dawkins captures Bronowski’s singular gift for weaving science and culture together:

Who more than Bronowski weaves a deep knowledge of history, art, cultural anthropology, literature and philosophy into one seamless cloth with his science? And does it lightly, effortlessly, never sinking to pretension? Bronowski uses the English language — not his first language, which makes it all the more remarkable — as a painter uses his brush, with mastery all the way from broad canvas to exquisite miniature.

The full documentary is well worth watching as well. Complement it with Richard Feynman on the universal responsibility of scientists.

Thanks, Scott

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