On the Beeb: Lisa Jardine on Jacob Bronowski December 12, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Jacob Bronowski, Lisa Jardine, Ralph Desmarais
Update. Apparently the film is now available for a further week, through the 23rd
One position I hold on this blog is that historians need to worry less about their engagement with the realm of public ideas. The main reason I hold this position is that I think there is a tendency — albeit by no means a necessary one — to measure the quality of professional work in term of what qualities it possesses that public ideas lack, rather than against its own internal standards. Another important reason, though, is that I am generally satisfied with the quality of public presentation of science and its history. Yes, there is much that is of low quality, but nothing I or my colleagues say is going to change that. In fact, though, here in the UK, rather good history of science seems to be in the media perhaps even more often than the subject actually warrants!
Lisa Jardine, notably, seems to be a very public figure, and, in general, I am a fan. (I thought this column for bbc.co.uk, wherein she argues that history “reminds us” that real people can get hurt by things, contrary to what budget-cutting politicians may think, was a particularly superficial case for the relevance of history.) My new fun fact learned this past week is that Jardine is the daughter of Jacob Bronowski. Bronowski was a mathematician who is best known for popular television programs on science, most notably The Ascent of Man. She has just made a film about him for the BBC entitled My Father, The Bomb, and Me, which is available online here — but only until December 16th, so hurry! (I’m not sure if it’s available outside the UK.) The video below is a hopefully more permanent clip of Bronowski, which I will discuss in conjunction with Jardine’s film after the jump.
Jardine’s film is very good. I take a personal interest in it because it seems to have been prompted by Jardine’s discovery that her father did “operations research” (OR) on area bombing in World War II. (I will quibble, first off, that Bronowski seems to have been employed by the Research and Experiments division of the Ministry of Home Security, working on the mathematical theory of bombing. Such theories did not constitute what the British called “operational research” per se, because, at that time, OR was most associated with field studies and only sometimes advanced theory.) I’ve done a lot of work in this area of history, and it was pretty strange to see it handled in video (although the related issue of the statistics of bombing also appears prominently in Erroll Morris’s Robert McNamara documentary, The Fog of War).
Now, one should note that Bronowski’s involvement here should not be considered some revelation of a dark secret, contrary to what some viewers might take away from the presentation. Area bombing was rightly controversial, but as a feature of Allied policy, scientists and mathematicians quite openly participated in its planning alongside military personnel. (See on this blog my review of Randall Wakelam’s The Science of Bombing; for those interested in wartime perceptions of bombing, the Airminded blog is essential reading). Rather, it was a revelation to Jardine personally. Bronowski had, in her memory, always been a champion of science as a humanitarian force, and he had never spoken to her of this work or his postwar survey of atomic bomb damage.
Naturally, it is at this point where we wend our way back to the theodicy of science and modernity. Jardine spends much time exploring her feelings about her father’s history with warlike science. Was Bronowski a drone-like participant in modernist evil, or was he conscious of these evils as they occurred? Was he moved by what he saw in Japan, and, if so, did he feel remorse for his war work?
Beyond Jardine’s personal struggle with the question, though, the film actually does a service in bringing out the extent to which the question is more a matter of 20th-century intellectual history than it is a problem that must dominate historians’ own reading of the history of the 20th century. Far from dodging the problem to make science look good, Bronowski was an important contributor to the intellectual genre of modernist theodicy. (See, by the way, the 2009 thesis of Imperial College PhD student Ralph Desmarais on British scientific intellectuals, which discusses Bronowski at length beside George Orwell).
As noted in my post on Toulmin and cosmology and Chris’s comment on it, a large and diverse array of 20th-century intellectuals linked a reductionist scientism with the political dominance of an unreflective technocracy, leading to the incidence of evil. The Holocaust was often cited by these intellectuals as clear product of technocratic evil. This was precisely the point that Bronowski was reacting to in the clip above, as he suggested that the Holocaust was a result of a mentality that was at odds with the spirit of science. It is clear that Bronowski felt he had a deep personal stake in exploring this question, and the moving presentation of this point is one of the great virtues of Jardine’s film.
Now, the question of whether or not “science” or even a reductive “scientism” can be related to a “technocracy” that makes certain evils possible is ultimately a question that I think historians do well to abandon as a mode of analysis. The question presupposes the objectivity of science, technology, and technocracy as a legitimizing force in public life — or, alternatively, it presupposes the role of science as a peculiar source of skepticism. As I suggested in the Toulmin post, this whole framing of events seem to me to be a historical canard that downplays the historical importance of political thought in favor of casting science as either a fall-guy or savior. Far from a coherent representation of how history worked, it was very clearly a polemic used by both conservative and leftist intellectuals in history to argue for the relevance of their work in public life as a means of guarding against future modernistic evil.
I believe historians of science have a choice. We can make use of the “polemics of science” for ourselves in order to argue for our own relevance in the public sphere. It is the argument of this blog that even in the way we regularly portray historical topics not directly related to modernist evils, the perceived solution to the problem of modernist evil — i.e. a mature understanding of science and society and their combined history — is almost always present in the analysis.
For my part, I believe such a strategy comes with the price of denying the influence of these polemics in history in favor of portraying reductionism (i.e., a failure of the polemic to be sufficiently important) to be a real force in history. A better choice is to openly acknowledge the historical importance of this polemic and its terms, and to free our historiography from the need to read history according to those terms.