Saturday, August 21, 2010

scientific humility

My earlier interest in the role of science resurfaced when I looked at the ideas of E. O. Wilson.  He combines a depth of understanding with an ambitious and sweeping approach, making use of powerful quotes and sources along the way that make his works a pleasure to read. Wilson elevated the discipline of sociobiology, which he saw as bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences in a new and revealing way.  Gould, another scientific giant, denounced Wilson's approach, when applied to humans.  The conflict between these two is interesting.  When I encounter unresolvable conflicts like this, my tendency is to want to side-step the problem and approach it from a new angle.  (Dawkins and Dennett have weighed in on this debate, though I have not read their conclusions yet.)  Since my interest is in the role of science in changing our perception of the world, I remembered PZ Myers once hailed Jacob Bronowski as a particularly articulate popularizer of science.  And indeed, he is: 
"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. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. 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."
Source: Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, Episode 11: "Knowledge or Certainty"  (text or video)
Earlier, in his 1951 book The Commonsense of Science, Bronowski wrote: "It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests".  Bronowski and Wilson were trying to do the same thing, they were trying, in Wilson's words, to show the consilience of knowledge, though they do it in different ways.  Wilson's critics believed he did not give due acknowledgment to the role of culture in explaining behavior, his approach was overly simplistic ("greedy reductionism"), and his conclusions on human nature were not entirely correct.  Gould was aware that not only genes but also developmental constraints influence evolution – any explanation for human behaviour would inevitably be pluralistic in content.  Wilson provides a materialistic explanation for the unity of knowledge that, for a variety of reasons, not everyone accepts.  Bronowski provided an explanation for the unity of knowledge that roots it in our ethical sensibilities, and is far less controversial. 

What I find most interesting about the extended quote above is that Bronowski, in humanizing the subject, turns a popular assumption of the role of science on its head.  The most important role of science isn't to provide us with knowledge, it is to tell us that we do not have knowledge (any claims of knowledge must meet rigorous criteria), we do not have knowledge when often we suppose we do, and to show us why this is so.  Science is the best tool we have for eliminating certainty.  A dictatorship, like those during WWII, aspires to absolute knowledge and power - any doubt of its authority must be eliminated and prevented.  Honest science cannot proceed under such constraints with artificial limitations imposed upon it.  It depends on the freedom of ideas, so to Bronowski, the flourishing of science is the best hope to preventing future tragedies of the scale that had occurred in WWII.  He does not believe they would have occurred if the people, and the leaders, were to ask themselves if they could be certain they were right, in light of the terrible cost of being wrong.  The same effect results from science as can result from philosophy, rationalism, realism, and critical thinking.  Science, the application of critical thinking to everyday human activities, is the antidote to the power of propaganda.  Science does not make us arrogant, it can only humble us.

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