I was trolling through You Tube a few weeks ago when I came upon a segment from an old TV series called The Ascent of Man. I first saw it when I was in high school, sometime around 1975. In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski explored the evolution of human knowledge, starting with the basic anatomical and cognitive differences that separate humans from other animals and moving on to the development of agriculture, mathematics, physics, and many other areas of science and technology. Bronowski was an extraordinarily complex man; a poet, a mathematician, a biographer. He was just the one to demonstrate the development of human society through the development of science. This show gave me my first inkling that science wasn’t just about chemical reactions and the dissection of dead animals and it was all very fascinating stuff to a 15-year old nerd. But there was one episode and one scene in particular that went well beyond “fascinating”, and it affected me deeply. In the 11th episode, entitled, “Knowledge or Certainty”, Bronowski looked at the moral dilemmas that face scientists and at the morality of scientific inquiry itself. To close the episode, he stood at a pond just outside of the concentration camp at Auschwitz where the ashes from the crematoria there were dumped. Members of his family died at that camp. There he spoke of the danger we face from those who believe they have attained absolute knowledge. Not the knowledge of science, which is continually questioned and proven or disproven via evidence, but the knowledge of the demagogue, of the fanatic, of the fundamentalist. He argued that those who believe that science is a dehumanizing enterprise are deeply wrong. That a grounding in evidence and a constant scrutinizing of what we think we know are the most human of traits. And that the vilest and most de-humanizing things happen when we abandon that questioning and believe we have achieved complete certainty. He quotes Oliver Cromwell, saying “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think that you may be mistaken”.
I hadn’t really thought about that scene for years when I came across it on Youtube. But watching it again made me realize how deeply those ideas have become ingrained in me. My distrust of anyone who seems too certain and too unwilling to consider the beliefs of others stems from that scene. My impatience with much of our political discourse, in which true believers from one side scream at the true believers from the other stems from that scene. My belief in the importance of science, not only for what it brings us but for its affirmation of our humanity stems from that scene. It’s a little strange to promote the questioning of what you believe for a series called “This, I believe”. But it seems particularly applicable to our world in 2008 that we should each consider the possibility, at least once in a while, that we may be mistaken.
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