Monday 12 July 2010

Bronowski's habit of truth (now lost)

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) invented the term 'the habit of truth' to describe the fundamental and distinctive ethic of science: the main foundation upon which was built the success of science in providing the means (knowledge) for mankind to shape the natural world.

Bronowski emphasized this, since it was (and is) often imagined that science is a morally neutral activity. But although scientific knowledge is indeed morally neutral (and can be used for good or evil) the practice of science (including being a scientist) is indeed a moral activity - based on the habit of truth.

He argued that for science to be truthful as a whole it is not sufficient to aim at truth as an ultimate outcome, scientists must also be habitually truthful in the ‘minute particulars’ of their scientific lives. The end does not justify the means, instead the means are indivisible from the end: scientific work is ‘of a piece, in the large and in detail; so that if we silence one scruple about our means, we infect ourselves and our ends together’.


The idea is that – to be successful in terms of the test of shaping the natural world, scientists – scientific communications - must speak the truth as it is understood. Indeed, I think it likely that the social structure of science is at root a group of people who seek truth and speak truth habitually (and if or when they cannot be truthful, they are silent).

Bronowski perceived that societies which abandoned, indeed persecuted, the habit of truth – such as, in his time, the USSR and Nazi German – paid the price in terms of losing their inability to perceive or generate the underlying knowledge of reality which forms the basis of shaping the natural world. (Note – these were societies which had the habit of truth in science, and then lost it.)

This declining ability to shape the natural world was concealed with propaganda, but such concealment could only be temporary since the cause of the decline was strengthened by every attempt to deny it.


Having grown up under the influence of Bronowski (for good and for ill) and also this distinctive morality of science, I have witnessed at first hand the rapid loss of the habit of truth from science: at first an ecapsulated loss whereby scientists continued to be truthful with each other (that is, truthful in the sense of speaking the truth as they see it) while lying to outsiders (especially in order to get grants, promote their research, and to deflect criticism); the situation degenerating swiftly to the final surrender whereby scientists are no longer truthful even with themselves.

At the same time I have seen hype (i.e. propaganda) expand from being merely a superficial sheen added to real science in order to make it more interesting to the general public, to the present situation where hype defines reality for scientists (as well as everyone else) – where propaganda is so pervasive that nobody can know what – if anything – lies beneath it (there is, indeed, no ‘beneath’ since by now hype goes all the way through science from top to bottom).

At the end of his life, Bronowski saw this coming, in its early stages, and wrote an essay entitled The Disestablishment of Science about the need for science to be separated from the state. This was necessary, he argued, because the morality of government and the morality of science were so different.


As understand it, Bronowski’s major distinction is between government’s focus on ‘expediency’ or direct short term capability – which is substantially power over human behavior by propaganda and coercion plus already-available and useable technology; and science’s indirect generation of long term capability – which is substantially the result of greater knowledge leading to greater efficiency (more power per person).

“the hidden spring of power is knowledge; and more than this, power over our environment grows from discovery.”

Bronowski assumed that enlightened self-interest (i.e. long-termism) would be a strong force to maintain the independence and honesty of science against its erosion by short-termist government expediency.

This assumption was indeed crucial to Bronowski’s philosophy – which was atheist and utilitarian. He needed to believe that humanity needed to be and *would be* rational, sensible and far-sighted in its self-management; that humanity sought capability as a primary aim (not as an accidental by-product) and he also need to believe in the ‘democracy of intellect’: that humanity was intrinsically unified in terms of their motivation and capability, so that science was basically comprehensible to all (or the mass of) humankind and that the primacy of the habit of truth was also a universal aspiration.

The decades have made convinced me that Bronowski was factually wrong in several of his key assumptions, and this explains why the kind of rational ‘humanism’ Bronowski espoused has proven powerless to arrest the decline in the habit of truth and has indeed been a major collaborator in the erosion (the apparatus of hype and propaganda is staffed mostly by rational humanists, and justifies itself and its activities using rational humanist reasoning).


At root, as I understand it, Bronowski’s validation of science was power: the increased power it gave humanity, which was undeniable in terms of the vast and cumulative reshaping of the world which could be seen from the industrial revolution onwards.

Bronowski hoped that this power would be disciplined and moralized by the discipline and morality which itself generated the power: that is, by science. So his vision was of a society based on science becoming organized according to the morality of science, and thereby sustaining that science upon which it depended.

For Bronowski, science was therefore validated by the power it created, and power as an aim was validated by (long term) domination (i.e. in the long term the most scientific society would also be the strongest).

As an auxiliary justification of this seeking after power, Bronowski brought in an ethic that mankind’s deepest desire and ultimate destiny was the perpetual expansion of power, hel claimed to see this in the shape of history (the ‘ascent of man’).

This was indeed a moral principle for Bronowski – but in order to avoid the obvious problems of tyranny and aristocracy, he also needed to believe that the conditions for generating science (and power) were intrinsically ‘democratic’ – that in the long term the diffusion of power, the perpetuation of freedom, were two sides of the same coin of society becoming scientific in its mass.


From Science as a Humanistic Discipline:

“…science as a system of knowledge could not have grown up if men did not set a value on truth, on trust, on human equality, and respect, on personal freedom to think and to challenge, [… these are the] prerequisites of to the evolution of knowledge.”

My perspective is that ‘men’ did not value these things, but scientists did – but that they are indeed prerequisites.

Mass scientific competence and the dispersion of political power among citizenry were assumed to be linked phenomena – and mass education in science (including the morality of science) was therefore the basis of both power and freedom.

It now seems to me that Bronowski was wrong about the wellsprings of human motivation, and was engaging in wishful thinking concerning the basis of viable human societies. He grossly underestimated the intrinsically human oriented, short termist, selfish, nepotistic character of human nature; and failed to see the rarity of mathematical and scientific modes of thinking.

Far from being universal, the scientific way of thinking and the habit of truth is so rare in human history and across human societies as to look like a local and perhaps temporary ‘sport’ rather than a fundamental property of mankind.


Bronowski was also wrong about the hoped-for tendency for the desire for power intrinsically to regulate itself in a long-termist fashion, and I regard his installation of power seeking as a primary virtue as an instance of Nietzschian moral inversion – rather than an insight.

After all, the secular scientist (or humanist), for all his virtues, is very often a prideful egotist with an insatiable lust for status; and when he subscribes to an ethic of power he will often tend to justify himself as an instrument for the betterment of the human condition.

But the past decades have certainly confirmed that Bronowski was correct about the consequences of abandoning the habit of truth. Bronowski would have been utterly appalled at the pervasive, daily, habitual dishonesty of researchers (especially the leading researchers) in the largest and most dominant world science: medical science.

And as for the Lysenkoism of Climate Science… he might have been darkly amused at the defense of pervasive, deliberate, fundamental collusion and lying on the grounds (perfectly accurate!) that this was statistically *normal* behavior in modern science.

Because the world did not heed Bronowski’s warnings in the Disestablishment of Science, and the outcome of science becoming dependent on government funding has been wholly in line with Bronowski’s direct predictions.

As he wrote in Science as a Humanistic Disicpline: “… science is cut off from its roots, and becomes a bag of tricks for the service of governments.”

“A bag of tricks for the service of governments” – what a perfect description of a major, mainstream modern ‘science’!