Hauntingly on target for the current administration in the White House are the words of Jacob Bronowski, the scientist-philosopher who brought us his popular television series, The Ascent of Man, just thirty years ago.
He spoke the following words to the camera while standing in the human ashes at Auschwitz:
“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 that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts - obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.
It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is 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.”
Then, returning home, he stated:
“We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power...that distance can only be...closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.”
Watergate, and Vietnam were in the air as Bronowski spoke of science and civilization. Bronowski provided valuable perspective having lost family in the Holocaust, and having walked the ruins of Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bombing of that city in 1945. Bronowski worried about the direction we were taking toward pseudoscience as well as the integrity of science and government- the very problems we have right now.
Some in the White House today believe that they “have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality.” Why, God even talks to them. The administration’s “absolute knowledge” has been the basis of many of their claims, including: the weapons of mass destruction, the Hussein-al Qaeda link, the Hussein-9/11 link, and the evidence for the uranium from Africa to Iraq. Such “absolute knowledge” ensured that the Iraqi people would welcome our solders and establish a secular democracy. Such knowledge never existed. This “absolute knowledge” now provides for the Bush “faith-based” missile defense, to be deployed prior to testing. It appears that this sort of pseudoknowledge is a key ingredient for much of what the present administration has set itself to do. With such “knowledge” the road to Baghdad is becoming our road to Auschwitz. A road paved with arrogance, dogma, secrecy, ignorance, lies, and a “deliberate deafness to suffering.” The suffering shown so starkly in the haunting photos of the torture at Abu Ghraib.
The administration’s patterns of behavior are counter to the core elements of our constitution: justice, liberty, church-state separation, religious freedom, freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and privacy. These were placed there, in part, as bulwark against such political dangers as theocratic rule, deception, and lies. It seems the administration is the most secretive in our history. With such secrecy, it will not be easy for the people to plumb the depth to which we have been deceived.
The “absolute knowledge” of Bush and company is also central to the erosion of the integrity of science in the US. Leading scientists now see a pattern of distortion and suppression of science by top political appointees of Mr. Bush. This pattern involves a number of federal agencies and is corrupting the practice of good scientific counsel in government. Many areas of science have been impacted. They range from air pollution to reproductive health, and from drug development to stem cell research. The practice of international science is also taking a beating with mindless restrictions on the travel of scientists and science students. America has long been “science-central” for researchers across the globe. This has always been to America’s great benefit. But now America is becoming less hospitable to the international scientific community.
Government and science were once secretive activities controlled and funded by kings and cardinals. Being the political leaders of their day, they understood that knowledge is power. The Scientific Revolution and the American Revolution changed all that. It is no accident that the leaders of both these revolutions were strongly linked. In some cases they were the same individuals. Jefferson and Franklin considered themselves scientists. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are rational agreements to keep information, indeed knowledge, free to all the people. Modern science is also done in the open, published for all to see. It is open to examination for accuracy, error, and truth. Our form of government and our science are self-correcting processes. They are both designed with the idea that we are fallible and that there is no absolute knowledge.
Corrupting the truth, corrupting government, and corrupting science have much in common. Such crimes are done in secret, and are done with lies. The current administration is doing this with considerable zeal. What a tragedy if we choose lies, dogma, secrecy, and superstition. They are the cobblestones for the road to Abu Ghraib, the road to Auschwitz, the road to hell.
Near the end of his television program, Bronowski stated “We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.” This means, contrary to Mr. Bush, that we think with our brains, and not with our gut. That we use introspection, that we have doubts, that we change our minds, that we admit error, and that we tell the truth. These are critical human values. These are the values vital to the best administration of our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our science.
Mr. Bush, you might be surprised to learn that Bronowski, an agnostic Jew, chose your favorite philosopher, Jesus Christ, as a primary hero of that "age-old conflict between intellectual leadership and civil authority." This is the very conflict that I write of here, today. Well, Mr. Bush, what would Jesus do? You might find his “tortured ghost” at Abu Ghraib, and ask him. You might also find the ghost of Jacob Bronowski, still standing in human ashes, beseeching you to think it possible that you are mistaken.
Michael Gilmore (firstname.lastname@example.org), a physicist who has worked on the space program, is a
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society.