The Other I

December 11, 2010

The small possibility that I am wrong

Earlier this week we watched a tv programme in which Jacob Bronowski’s daughter, now in her sixties, tried to understand her father who died ,pre tjam 30 years ago.  If you are old enough, you may remember the tv series The Ascent of Man, in which Bronowski argued that science was one of the greatest forces for good that mankind has at its disposal.

His daughter, now an eminent historian, was greatly influenced by her father and his ideals, and it was a great shock to discover recently that during WWII, he had used his rarefied mathematical ability to help allied planes drop bombs on German cities like Dresden and Berlin so as to maximize damage.  How, she wondered, did he live with this?  And what did he think and feel when he was sent after the war by the military to assess the damage of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

She discovered that Bronowski was not a man who went through life undisturbed by the decisions he had made.  In fact, she discovered and presented some gripping video in which her father faces the issue straight on.

He stands on the edge of a field at Auschwitz where the human ash of hundreds of thousands of Nazi victims of the gas ovens was dumped.  He bends down and takes the ashes into his hands and looks at them intently.  It is not possible, he said, to be absolutely sure about the choices we make.  Life faces us with dilemmas in which the moral choice is not always clear, in which doing anything or even nothing seems tainted with guilt.  But we must, he said, make the choices to the best of our ability at the time.

But we may be wrong.

We may be horribly, terribly wrong.

And then he quoted again that wrenching plea from Oliver Cromwell:  We beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to consider the possibility that you may be mistaken.  If only people like Hitler or Stalin had remembered that.  It was not science, he said, that murdered these people.  It was people who would not accept that they could be wrong.

I think this is the key to why Bronowski so valued science.  Because built into science is the unrelenting possibility that evidence will prove one wrong.

The history of science is littered with theories that have been accepted and then replaced by new theories because there is new evidence or new a new way of looking at old evidence.  Even Newton’s theory of gravity has not remained unscathed.  No scientist now believes the universe runs solely on the mechanical principles that he thought.

For science, there is always the potential for looking at things from another point of view.  There is always the possibility that I am wrong.

To live with that knowledge, not just in relation to science, but in relation to all the judgements I make, seems to me to demand great strength of character and discipline, but also to offer great rewards.

  • To be in the middle of a heated fight and to consider that there may be another legitimate point of view is not easy.  But it may save a relationship.
  • To be able to consider the possibility that someone who has done great harm may be something else besides a selfish brute who should be kept in prison for life may be the path to forgiveness, even of ourselves.
  • To be able to see something from a different point of view is the essential ingredient of creativity.
  • To believe that what seem to be two diametrically opposed ideas might somehow be compatible might reduce my bigotry.
  • Whatever else, it invariably makes life a surprise.

I have thought for a long time that the key moral value underlying science was to tell the truth – not to lie about what one saw.   But I think now, there is another moral principle just as important, just a hard to practice, and just as applicable in the world beyond science:  to always remember that I might be wrong;  that there might be another point of view that is just as legitimate, or even sometimes more legitimate, than the one of which I am so convinced.

But it’s hard work.  Maybe the work of a lifetime.



  1. I have never seen the TV program The Ascent of Man nor the recent interview with Bronowski’s daughter (was this Lisa Anne Jardine?) but the nasty thought tickles the back of my alleged mind: the video of Mr. Bronowski at Auschwitz, scooping up ashes, seems like a tailor-made photo-op. “A little to the right, Mr. Bronowski, now bend down… oh, good, hold that pose.”

    In the spirit of “I may be wrong” maybe it was not exactly staged, but this had me interested enough to look him up in Wikipedia first and think about reflected guilt later. The good part is that he appears to have been truly a renaissance man – his interest in science took him to many areas and he seems to have been known as a writer and poet besides. Wikipedia brings a segment from The Abacus and the Rose which is eminently readable and I teased myself into buying the book The Ascent of Man.

    Reflected guilt is something that is worth writing thousands of pages about, but for the purpose of a reply to the original blog, let’s just say that I don’t think it serves any useful purpose and if it is something that is instilled into the psyche from beginning, then it was left out in mine. When Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, became a person of media interest, I felt sorry for her and tried to imagine myself in her place. It did not work for me. Does it work for Bronowski’s children? I hope not, life is complicated enough without it.


    Comment by budavar — December 12, 2010 @ 5:28 pm | Reply

    • Yes, Lisa Anne Jardine is the daughter (I think there were four) who did the interview. She was not struggling with reflected guilt but rather her concept of her father. She was struggling to understand how the man whom she knew and so loved and admired and had inspired such high principles in her could at the same time have used his great gifts in the service of bombing German cities.

      The scene at Auschwitz was part of the series “The Ascent of Man.” Yes, no question it was in that sense staged. Jardine pulled it out along with an TV interview of her father and several other vignettes to try to understand how her father could both revere science as one of the greatest tools we have to make life better and at the same time use it to improve the effectiveness of bombings.

      If you ever get a chance, do watch the Jardine program. They are re-running the Ascent of Man on tv here in the UK. We’re going to try watching it. Interesting to see how it plays 35 years after the first airing which at that time impressed me hugely. Who knows? maybe it’s why I wrote The Big Bang to Now.


      Comment by theotheri — December 12, 2010 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

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