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Scientific Values: The Sense of Human Dignity


Jacob Bronowski's Science and Human Values was an accidental pickup. It grabbed me in a vise-like grip within 2 pages, and remains one of the top 10 books I've ever read. It's a literate and lyrical tour de force that takes us from the similarities between great art and great science ("The Creative Mind") to the practice of knowing and science's great gift ("The Habit of Truth"), to the ways in which these things have shaped our society, and answered the questions born in Bronowski's 1946 experience amidst the ruins of Nagasaki ("The Sense of Human Dignity"). In this excerpt, all the points he has been making so beautifully begin to come together:

"The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice.

Science is the creation of concepts and their exploration in the facts. It has no other test of truth than its empirical truth to fact. Truth is the drive at the center of science; it must have the habit of truth, not as a dogma but as a process. Consider then, step by step, what kind of society scientists have been compelled to form in this single pursuit. If truth is to be found, not given, and if therefore it is to be tested in action, what other conditions (and with them, what other values) grow of themselves from this?

First, of course, comes independence, in observation and then in thought. I once told an audience of school children that the world would never change if they did not contradict their elders. I was chagrined to find next morning that this axiom outraged their parents. Yet it is the basis of the scientific method. A man must see, do, and think things for himself, in the face of those who are sure that they have already been over all that ground. In science, there is no substitute for independence.

It has been a byproduct of this that, by degrees, men have come to give a value to the new and the bold in all their work. It was not always so. European thought and art before the Renaissance were happy in the faith that there was nothing new under the sun. John Dryden in the 17th century, abd Jonathan Swift as it turned into the 18th, were still fighting Battles of the Books to prove that no modern work could hope to rival the classics. They were not overpowered by argument or example (not even their own examples), but by the mounting scientific tradition among their friends in the new Royal Society. Today we find is as natural to prize originality in a child's drawing and an arrangement of flowers as in an invention. Science has bred the love of originality as a mark of independence.

Independence, originality, and therefore dissent: these words show the progress, they stamp the character of our civilization as once they did that of Athens in flower. From Luther in 1517 to Spinoza grinding lenses, from Hugenot weavers and Quaker ironmasters to the Puritans founding Harvard, and from Newton's religious heresies to the calculated universe of Eddington, the profound movements of history have begun by unconforming men. Dissent is the native activity of the scientist, and it has got him into a good deal of trouble in the last ten years. But if that is cut off, what is left will not be a scientist. And I doubt whether it will be a man. For dissent is also native in any society which is still growing. Has there ever been a society that has died of dissent? [JK: Actually, yes. Discuss.] Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.

Dissent is not itself an end; it is the surface mark of a deeper value. Dissent is the mark of freedom, as originality is the mark of independence of mind. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. No one can be a scientist, even in private, if he does not have independence of observation and of thought. But if in addition science is to become effective as a public practice, it must go further; it must protect independence. The safeguards it must offer are patent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance. These values are so familiar to us, yawning our way through political perorations, that they seem self-evident. But they are self-evident, that is, they are logical needs only where men are committed to explore the truth: in a scientific society." [JK: emphasis mine]

More next week, as we tighten the link between science and liberty. That isn't discussed enough, and it's clear these days that many people on the left and right have no real clue about this aspect of science, or indeed what science really is. I'm running these pieces by Feynman (Science & the Beauty of a Flower | Uncertainty & The Open Channel), Bronowski, et. al. because the beauty and values that science brings in its wake is a big part of the modern age's good news.

I'm hoping that as you read things like this, it will help you understand why our civilization is worth cherishing - even worth fighting for.


Great catch! I'm putting together a freshman course about scientific revolutions for the upcoming fall semester, and I'd been considering Bronowski as one of the readings. I think you just convinced me to make it REQUIRED.

Mike Anderson
University of Texas at San Antonio

I just saw a Dilbert cartoon which exemplifies this deal. Of course Dilbert is an engineer not a scientist but close enough. The TRUTH is key.

The manager tells Dilbert tthat when meeting with a customer you must not tell the customer how stupid his idea is. Dilbert says that he can't help himself. Under such circumstances his head wants to explode. The manager says: stifle yourself. So in the meeting with the customer the customer asks the manager what is wrong with Dilbert's head. The manager says ignore it.

You can't do good engineering or science without commitment to the truth. If plumbers are not taught as well as PhDs neither our theories nor our plumbing will hold water.

Truth is the key. Honesty must prevail. It must be recognized. It must be honored.

In America, fortunately, engineering failures rarely come about without warning. They come about, mostly, when warnings are ignored.

"If truth is to be found, not given, and if therefore it is to be tested in action, what other conditions (and with them, what other values) grow of themselves from this?"

Truth is not hiding. It has been given. It is there as plain and clear as the sun and the moon and the paths they move in. Truth does not need to be found; it waits to be recognized. There is a difference. With experimentation we test the clarity of our recognition rather than the validity of truth.


Truth is not given. It must be found or invented.

The key is the reality check.


The reality check is vital. But the reality check does not establish truth; it confirms the accuracy of our recognition and perception. Atoms and stars exist without our awareness or invention. They do not hide nor are they lost, so they don't need to be found. Science tests the clarity of our recognition rather than the validity of truth.

Of course truth has many definitions these days. A lot of people do invent their own private truths. Doctors call many of them "insane".


Brownowski was a pivotal influence in my mental and ethical development. I saw "Ascent of Man" in high school. Read several of his books later. I would make Science and Human Values required reading in all high schools.

Bronowski has always been one of my heroes. I remember vividly the final scene in one of his episodes in the Ascent of Man. I believe it was about Mendel and Darwin

It was in front of Auschwitz or one of the other death camps. he stood in front of a stream, as I remember small enough for a man to skip over. He pointed out that the ashes from the ovens left the camp along this stream. He then, quite shockingly, stepped into the stream fully dressed in a gesture to bear witness, to what had happened there. Then then he said the problem was that men had believed that they had discovered God's view and found out in the most horrific of manners that no man had God's view.

I am not a religious person. But I would say that,
Truth is Manifest, Anticipating Revelation

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