Monday, April 28, 2008

Science Leads You to Killing People?
My freshman year in college was when I decided I wanted to write about history and science. In the spring semester of that year, I was taking the second half of Owen Gingerich's celebrated Science A-17 (The Astronomical Perspective) as part of my core curriculum. Gingerich, who most recently authored this little gem, was an indefatigable lecturer. Alums from his former years would show up on the day he gave his lecture on Newton, just to see a guy in his 50s climb onto a home made rocket and blast himself across the stage to demonstrate Newton's Third Law.

One of the requirements of the class was to view some documentaries during selected week nights in the Science Center. And sometime during that semester, I saw three or four episodes from Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man. There was one episode I will never forget, and fortunately someone posted it to Youtube.

It bears watching again in light of the hideous comment made by Ben Stein, as he's doing the media tour for Expelled.

Ben Stein minced no words in his interview with TBN: 'Science leads you to killing people.'

No, it's actually something else that leads to killing, and Brownowski was far more eloquent:




I like to think that one of the reasons Stein's movie is bombing (it plummeted over 50% this past weekend, according to Box Office Mojo), even among its carefully targeted audiences, is because the large number of Christians out there, Evangelicals and Catholics (and Mennonites like Professor Gingerich) and other denominations, who go to work every day as doctors, nurses, technicians, school teachers, pharmacists, geologists, botanists, and engineers of all stripes, who utilize science every day of their working lives to help people from all walks of life, are frankly insulted by the claptrap peddled by Stein.

This clip is for them and all people of good faith and good will.

UPDATE: Derb weighs in.

9 comments:

SFMatheson said...

Wow, I'm so glad you posted this. I, too, remember watching The Ascent of Man, and then Cosmos, and though I was just a kid I could tell there was a big difference. I especially remember this astonishing closing sequence, now that you've made the immensely important connection with the sickness of ID and Expelled.

Perfect! Many, many thanks.

John Farrell said...

I'll never forget sitting in Science Center B with a bunch of other freshmen--and when the frame rate slowed in that last shot with him and the mud in his hand, everybody gasped.

You just can't forget that image. "In the bowels of Christ..."

Darwin said...

Wow.

That really was the golden age of the British TV documentary, which Civilization and Ascent of Man and Connections all coming out within a few years. Brilliant stuff.

And a very important message. A great deal of what people label as "atheistic science" is the result of science advocates who lose that fundamental sense of always being "on the edge of error".

Deuce said...

Stein's "science leads to killing" is just dumb, but I don't think Brownowski's account of what leads to killing is much good either.

The Nazis' problem wasn't that they were too sure they were right. Was the typical Nazi necessarily more sure of his beliefs than, say, the apostle Paul was of his? It seems fairly obvious to me that the root of the problem here is the content of the beliefs rather than one's certainty in them. For the Nazis, the content of their beliefs were (among other things) that there was no objective moral order and that Jews were the cause of society's woes.

Perhaps if someone has evil beliefs, like the Nazis, then a lack of certainty could prevent them from acting on them, but the opposite is also true. Being wishy-washy in right beliefs can cause you buckle in the face of opposition when you ought to take a stand.

Although more Christianity-friendly personally, Brownowski's reasoning sounds a lot like that employed by Andrew Sullivan when he refers to Christians as "Christianists" for not being abject relativists like himself, or when he shrieks about how awful the Pope is for thinking he knows the truth and not turning Christian doctrine into some kind of voting process.

As for Derb, it seems to me that watching a movie ought to be a prerequisite of reviewing it in a magazine, even if you think it's a "blood libel on our civilization".

John Farrell said...

Hi Deuce,
Was the typical Nazi necessarily more sure of his beliefs than, say, the apostle Paul was of his?

Good question. I would say, yes, big time, because he had the backing of the state. St. Paul worked in constant fear of arrest and persecution. But that's not really the point. Only Hitler and his immediate clan had to be dogmatic, ignorant and arrogant--and they were--in order to bring about the horror. That's the real tragedy.

Re: Derb. If I were doing it for NR, I would have seen it. And he should have. (But he may have my problem, which is the damned thing isn't even showing within 50 miles of where I live.) However, I see no reason to differ with his essential point: "...the creationists have been morally corrupted by the constant effort of pretending not to be what they are. What they are, as is amply documented, is a pressure group for religious teaching in public schools."

Deuce said...

Good question. I would say, yes, big time, because he had the backing of the state. St. Paul worked in constant fear of arrest and persecution.

That seems entirely backwards to me. Doesn't acting on your beliefs in the face of constant fear of arrest and persecution require more conviction in the truth of those beliefs than acting with the backing of the state?

The typical Nazi was more sure of his personal safety, Paul more sure of his beliefs.

As for Hitler himself, being more inquisitive and doubtful may, or may not, have prevented what he did. But even there, I don't see a good case that the cause of the Holocaust was dogmatism per se. A leader with an unquestioned, dogmatic belief in the sanctity of human life wouldn't have spawned a Holocaust, I reckon.

The whole thing sounds to me reminiscent of the rationalist attempt to blame human evil on lack of "enlightenment thinking".

And finally, while I think that examining one's beliefs is generally a good thing, the French Revolution is pretty good evidence that being skeptical of everything isn't itself a safeguard against murder.

John Farrell said...

Doesn't acting on your beliefs in the face of constant fear of arrest and persecution require more conviction in the truth of those beliefs than acting with the backing of the state?

Sure it does. But the point is that the typical Nazi didn't have to question a thing. All he had to do... was his job--which in this case was liquidate people based on the directives of the state. When Bronowski says the holocaust was caused by ignorance and dogma he's not talking about how dogmatic the rank and file soldiers were (as far as they were concerned, it was follow orders or else). He's talking about what happens when people in the highest positions of authority rule by dogma. If Hitler (and Stalin and Mao) didn't rule by dogma, I don't know who did, wouldn't you agree?

Deuce said...

He's talking about what happens when people in the highest positions of authority rule by dogma. If Hitler (and Stalin and Mao) didn't rule by dogma, I don't know who did, wouldn't you agree?

Actually, I think a better case can be made that dogmatism was a primary factor in the disasters of Stalin and Mao than it was in the case of Hitler.

The Communists had a very particular, testable theory about the arrow of history and human destiny, and about the utopia that would result if they accomplished certain tasks. The theory was disconfirmed when they carried out those tasks and just ended up making life miserable for everyone instead of ushering in a utopia. And yet, instead of questioning their assumptions in the light of disconfirmation, they dogmatically redoubled their efforts and made things even worse.

Hitler's scapegoating of the Jews didn't really depend on a particular theory about them (except that they were mostly intelligent, successful, and influential - all true). If he had questioned himself more, it may have prevented the Holocaust, or it may not have, but I don't see why it would have per se. Keep in mind, his beliefs were formed over a number of years of reflection.

His problem was that he was psychotic and evil, he was influenced by a number of evil ideas in his day, he rejected the transcendent, and he placed no value on human life and so had no compunction against indulging his resentments. I doubt questioning himself would have solved any of that (unless it caused him to consider the transcendent and thus gain an appreciation for human life).

I don't think it's correct to say that the Nazis' main problem was ignorance, either. Perhaps they were philosophically ignorant (in that they rejected knowledge of the transcendent), but not otherwise. The various scientists under the Nazi regime weren't, on the whole, misinformed or less knowledgeable than scientists elsewhere. They just supported an evil regime. And eugenics wasn't factually mistaken, (stopping the breeding of undesired elements does in fact tend to work) it was evil.

Now, I'm not saying that Hitler wasn't dogmatic. I'm just disputing the notion that Hitler's dogmatism was the primary explanation for his atrocities, as Brownowski seems to suggest.

Some people look at the "scientific" basis of the Holocaust and, in simplistic fashion, conclude "science is bad and leads to killing people". Brownowski seems to be trying to respond to this by saying "No, the real problem was a lack of scientific thinking!" I think both are off base. The line between good and evil runs through the human heart, and both the inquisitive and dogmatic can end up being monsters, or inspiring monsters.

John Farrell said...

The Communists had a very particular, testable theory about the arrow of history and human destiny, and about the utopia that would result if they accomplished certain tasks. The theory was disconfirmed when they carried out those tasks and just ended up making life miserable for everyone instead of ushering in a utopia.

Indeed. Lysenko, btw, is a notorious example.