Timothy Sandefur comes back to the show to talk about John Bronowksi. Bronowski had a wide array of interests. He invented smokeless coal and was a friend to Leo Szilard, the inventor of the atomic bomb. In fact, he led the mission to assess the aftermath of the atomic bomb in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was not much this famous scientist, philosopher, and poet didn’t do and Sandefur was the first author to write a biography of him.
Who was John Bronowski? Why was Bronowski a socialist? Should politics stay out of science? What scientific research was conducted by the Nazis?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Tim Sandefur. He’s the Vice President for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, where he oversees the institute’s legal staff, and also holds the Clarence J and Catherine P Duncan Chair in Constitutional Government. He’s the author of many books, ranging from constitutional law, to regulation, to a biography of Frederick Douglass. His latest is, The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski: The Life and Ideas of a Popular Science Icon. Welcome back to the show, Tim.
00:34 Timothy Sandefur: Thanks for having me back.
00:35 Aaron Ross Powell: A book about a scientist is rather outside of your usual topics. So, how’d you come to write about Bronowski?
00:43 Timothy Sandefur: Well, it’s actually a long story because I first discovered him when I was a freshman in college through the book version of his 1973 television series, The Ascent of Man, which I read it and I was just enraptured by it. And so I started reading everything I could get my hands on by him. And then I finally discovered a copy of the video, of his documentary and watched that. And I enjoyed it so much that in my senior year of college, I decided that I should try and write a biography of him. Nobody had done so at that time. And so, I thought I would take this on. And I had no idea, of course, even how to write a book at all, let alone how to write a biography, let alone to write the first biography of somebody, which is very difficult ’cause you have to come up with a timeline to begin with. So since then, it’s been 20 years. I’ve been kind of pecking away at it a little bit here and there as time goes on and getting more information either through libraries, or interviews. And finally, at long last, it’s done.
01:43 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned doing… Writing the first biography. And so just… I’m curious, what goes into that? How do you… ‘Cause I can see… If you’re writing a biography of someone, there’s lots of people, a lot to cover. You can just grab a whole bunch of books, read them, and then maybe follow the notes to the original sources. But what’s the process of doing the first‐of‐its‐kind biography?
02:00 Timothy Sandefur: Well, the first thing is to find interviews and short articles about him just to try and come up with with a rough timeline, and then to find what libraries in the world have collections of papers, either of his own or of friends through his lifetime. And so a lot of the research consisted of asking libraries around the world to make copies and send them to me, of letters and other things in their collections, which fortunately, in our modern world, we have lots of research institutions that are able to do that. It was amazing because I started this project before Google Books, or YouTube existed. [chuckle] And I discovered when those came about, it was amazing how much more quickly research could be done. I could find what books I needed to look up at the library, I could find video interviews and things like that. But I will say, one thing that I’ve really learned from this project is to be skeptical of biographies.
02:51 Trevor Burrus: Interesting.
02:52 Timothy Sandefur: Having gone through this project, to see how much of biography writing consists of speculation, guess work, I did my best in some cases to figure out what exactly was going on. But it’s guess work, and it really was a revelation to me, as far as reading biographies is concerned.
03:12 Trevor Burrus: Especially a biography of someone from 500 years ago or 1,000 years ago, much less someone who didn’t die that long ago. So what was it about, The Ascent of Man, that was the first thing that grabbed you? And that’s what I knew Bronowski from. My dad had that series on VHS, and we watched it a few times. What was it about that, that grabbed you?
03:32 Timothy Sandefur: Well, let me say, I think, The Ascent of Man, is the greatest documentary ever produced, certainly at the time that it was made. What happened was, in 1973, David McCullough, who was in charge of the BBC’s documentaries at the time, wanted to show off color television, which in 1969. And so he produced a series called, Civilization, which is a history of art. In 1973, they produced as follow‐up, The Ascent of Man. And it’s a 13‐hour series that is supposedly on the history of science, but is really about so much more. It’s really Bronowski’s philosophical statement. It’s the summation of his entire career, which was very broad. He is a real renaissance man, a scientist, a philosopher, a poet, a playwright. And so he manages to put it all into this one great statement of his philosophy that he called, Human Specificity. The reason it’s relevant, I think, to libertarians is because Bronowski was trying to articulate a philosophy for the post‐World War II era that would be rooted in universal human principles of individual rights and peace that would create a world in which people would be free to learn about the world and to live their lives in peace and safety, free from the horrors of World War II, in which he was so personally involved.
04:57 Timothy Sandefur: So The Ascent of Man, aside from from being such a great film, one of the most amazing things about it is how much of it is extemporaneous. With Civilization, the first version… The first series that came out in 1969 with Kenneth Clark, that was entirely scripted and Bronowski… Clark is reading the entire script off of cue cards. You can see his eyes go back and forth while he’s talking. It’s a fine series, but it’s… That presentation, you can recognize your being read to. It’s very dull. Whereas Bronowski, they pointed the camera at him, and he could just talk. He was such a fantastic speaker that they could just point the camera at him. And for instance, the last episode is almost an entire hour‐long monologue by him just speaking off the cuff and it’s riveting.
05:40 Trevor Burrus: So, Bronowski was a libertarian?
05:42 Timothy Sandefur: No, definitely not. Bronowski was… Let me retract that a little bit because I remember, when I interviewed his widow, Rita, I said, “What was his political views?” And she said, “Oh, he was a socialist.” And I said, “Really? I thought there was a lot that he said that certainly was in common with libertarianism.” And she said, “Oh yes, he was a libertarian.”
06:01 Timothy Sandefur: So Bronowski was one of these British socialists from the post‐World War II era that you encounter a lot, people like George Orwell, for example, who although economically, they believed in, what you and I would probably call, a massive welfare state and government regulation and oversight of major industry. He was not a Marxist, in the sense that he very much rejected class… The analysis of class warfare, or historical inevitability, or those sorts of things, which he regarded as basically mysticism. So he was a version of socialists that actually has quite a lot in common with libertarianism in the sense that it’s supposed to be about individual freedom, liberating people to make the most of their personal gifts, which these Fabian socialist thought would come about by government welfare distribution and rational, centralized economic planning. And one of the great achievements of Friedrich Hayek was to show that that was literally impossible to plan out an economy that way.
07:06 Timothy Sandefur: Ironically enough, Bronowski, himself, was in charge of a major planning effort because shortly after World War II, the socialist government of Great Britain socialized the coal industry. And for 10 years, Bronowski was the Chief Scientist at the Central Research Establishment of the National Coal Board. And his job was to basically create smokeless coal, which was mandated by environmental laws, and then also to contribute to other kinds of planning in order to rationally plan the coal industry. It was, needless to say, a complete failure for exactly the reasons that Friedrich Hayek had predicted.
07:45 Aaron Ross Powell: This connection between the individual rights and the universal statement of rights for man and science, can you speak more to that? Because a lot of the times, when particularly scientists try to do philosophy or derive philosophical principles from scientific priors, it doesn’t work out all that well. The philosophers tend to have a field day picking it apart. So how is he doing it?
08:13 Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, and I think philosophers did that to him, too. A lot of the established intellectuals of Great Britain had scorn for Bronowski throughout his life and would laugh at him behind his back. And I think really unjustly so, ’cause I think a lot of his philosophical work is quite valid. Bronowski was like one of these figures like Karl Popper, who saw a deep connection between science and political freedom and individual rights. In the wake of World War II, Bronowski started meeting with Julian Huxley, who founded UNESCO. And he, and Julian Huxley, and a bunch of other British intellectuals were trying to plan out what came to be a plan for a think tank. Think tanks were a relatively new idea at the time. And what they wanted to do was create a think tank that would not only do scientific work, but would fashion a philosophy and try and affect people’s personal values and teach them a secular philosophy of individual rights, which they saw as rooted in socialism, that would prevent another catastrophe on the scale of World War II.
09:21 Timothy Sandefur: During World War II, Bronowski had worked on helping to plan the area bombing of Germany and Japan and, of course, had witnessed the devastation of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, personally. And so he really thought that the world needed a philosophy that would prevent that kind of a catastrophe from happening, and he thought that it was rooted in science. And so, in 1953, Bronowski spoke at MIT. He was a visiting professor there, and he gave a series of lectures that was later published as his book, Science and Human Values, one of his best books. And in it, he first really articulated his philosophy of, you and I might call it, scientific humanism, which was the idea that the pursuit of science had embedded within it certain philosophical values. Primarily, the discovery of truth, the discovery of the reality behind appearances and that to accomplish that, we have to act in certain ways so that the normative values of things like honesty and dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, are sort of embedded in the practice of science. Once we choose to discover the world as it is, we are necessarily mandated to behave in certain ways.
10:38 Timothy Sandefur: Now, one of the things about that is that that eliminates the whole is‐ought gap. It’s long been thought that you can’t derive values from the world as it is. And Bronowski rejected that, wholeheartedly, that to discover what is in the world, we ought to act in such a way that truth can be discovered was the basis of his ethical beliefs. And that is a sort of existentialist approach that was not uncommon at the time. What I think is really interesting is how much that parallels arguments that were being put forward by people in the law. Lon Fuller, who made a very similar argument about law, that in order to accomplish the work of a lawyer, you are required to act in certain ways that include honesty toward the court, avoiding perjury, all these sorts of things that are embedded in that, which by the way, Fuller, himself, acknowledged in his book, The Morality of Law. It’s also similar to the writings of Hannah Arendt, and I would argue even of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was trying to argue for a universal secular morality that among other things, would have avoided a repeat of World War II. And she rooted it in this choice to live as a human being, she said, was the basic choice from which all other morality flowed. Now, one of the big differences between Bronowski and Rand is, other than the capitalism, obviously.
11:58 Timothy Sandefur: One of the differences is that for Bronowski, he never really explains why we should choose to pursue science, that’s what philosophers call, the meta‐ethical question. Bronowski never really addresses that. So we don’t really know how he would answer that question. He seems to think that the commitment to discover the world as it is was the foundation for a morality that would include respect for individual freedom and particularly, freedom of speech and dissent.
12:26 Trevor Burrus: Well, I could see this going the other way, though. We could take someone who believes that scientific truths can be derived and then moral values and purpose, to some extent, can be derived from that, could turn that into a totalitarian type of regime, where that there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way and science takes a large role in deciding the aims, and goals, and purposes of the state and maybe even of your life. But he…
12:52 Timothy Sandefur: That’s right. And that was a criticism that was levied against Bronowski quite strongly during his day. That was the argument that was being put forward by, what you and I would call, the Conservatives of his time period. And that was a preoccupation of episode 10 of The Ascent of Man, which is generally considered his finest writing and his finest moment as a public intellectual. In episode 10 of The Ascent of Man, you really see Bronowski’s… His… The full spectrum of his gifts are brought to bear on just this question. It’s supposed to be the period where he’s talking about the period of science from about the 1930s to the end of World War II, some of the discovery of the physics behind the atomic bomb. Now, Bronowski’s best friend was Leo Szilard, who invented the atomic bomb. He and Szilard worked together at the SOC Institute in Sandiego, California. And Bronowski had been the head of the British mission that was sent to assess the effects of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he tells this story, this horrific story about arriving in Nagasaki in the evening with his teammates.
14:02 Timothy Sandefur: They drove in in Jeeps, and they were driving through this forest. And it was only when they heard the music coming from the battleships anchored in the harbor that they realized that what they thought was a forest was actually the twisted skeletons of the buildings that had been obliterated by the atomic bombs. And the horror of seeing that kind of devastation changed Bronowski’s life forever. And so he, in this episode of The Ascent of Man, he’s reflecting on that, as well as telling the story of the discovery of the bomb. And the episode starts out with a blind woman feeling the face of this man and telling what she thinks he looks like. And she says… She says, “He’s definitely not English, his face is more round, like a continental European, possibly Eastern European.” She says, “The wrinkles on his face,” she says, “are wrinkles of agony, of misery. At first, I thought they were scars.”
15:01 Timothy Sandefur: And then Bronowski starts off his narration and talks about how there is no one God’s eye view of the universe, that science can reveal to us the truth about things, depending on how we ask these questions, but there’s no one single truth to be discovered and implemented in life. And he proves this by showing this man’s face and what it looks like under different wavelengths of light, what it looks like under a microscope, and then he even blows up a giant paper mache copy of it and shows you what it looks on radar. [chuckle] And this is to make the point that there is no single truth to be implemented in the world.
15:33 Timothy Sandefur: He then goes on to tell the story, not only of atomic physics, and the discovery of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, but of the advent of World War II, and so forth, and the bomb. And the climactic moment takes place at Auschwitz, and it was filmed there. Bronowski had never been to Auschwitz before. And he arrived, with the camera crew and he told them, “There’s no way that we can do this twice, we’re gonna have to do this in a single take, ’cause the emotion is so strong.” So they said, “Okay.” And they start to set up the camera, and when you watch the final version, you can see that they had no idea what he was going to do. At one point, the camera man has to quickly back up because Bronowski moves in a way they didn’t expect. And he gives this very eloquent speech about: People say science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers and that’s false. It’s dogma and ignorance that does that. Science always has this embedded principle of intellectual humility, of recognizing that we can’t know the absolute truth about the universe and that’s what we need to be committed to.
16:30 Timothy Sandefur: And, I’m paraphrasing, but the actual speech became something of a classic. In fact, it’s quoted without attribution in an episode of The West Wing, when the dying former president leaves his advice to Martin Sheen, playing the President, in the form of a letter. And when he reads it out loud, it’s that speech from The Ascent of Man. [chuckle] So in any case, Bronowski was often accused of believing just that, that science could discover the truth and not be implemented. Wouldn’t that be totalitarian? And his answer is: No, that intellectual humility and respect for other people’s freedom to choose is kind of based in science, as he understood it.
17:09 Aaron Ross Powell: What about freedom to choose stuff that is anti‐science?
17:15 Trevor Burrus: You mean like vaccinations?
17:16 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that or… So it’s one thing to say, “We need epistemic humility to… Because we don’t know ultimate truth and we’re all trying to move towards it.” Or, “Epistemic humility and the rights and kinda tolerance of other behavior that goes along with it is the way that we approach that truth.” But lots of things that lots of people do don’t seem to be aimed at moving in the direction of ultimate truth. Or they seem to be based in outright rejection of even if we don’t know ultimate truth, we know a handful of sub‐ultimate truths and people aim in very different directions from those. How do you account in this particular view of toleration and humility and rights for justifying people going in the opposite direction that science and Bronowski thinks we should be going?
18:09 Timothy Sandefur: He never really addressed that subject precisely, that I know of. But I think his answer would have been: People have that right but then at the same time, being a believer in rational economic planning, I think he would have, nevertheless, probably curtailed it in some ways. You mentioned vaccines, for example. I think he probably would have said that it’s acceptable for the state to mandate vaccines. And he would have said, because it’s the right… It’s simply the right… Correct answer.
18:36 Trevor Burrus: True, yep. [chuckle]
18:38 Timothy Sandefur: And whatever concerns we might have about that, I think Bronowski recognized that that wouldn’t really solve the problem anyway. Forcing people to be rational, obviously, is not gonna accomplish anything. So he very much put his effort into the idea of educating the public. And this was a very big preoccupation of his career. In 1946, he made his first broadcast on the radio in a presentation about the atomic bomb. And it was such a success that he became, very quickly, a public celebrity, spokesman for science. On a television show… First a radio show then a television show called The Brains Trust. And he became such a celebrity in Great Britain as a spokesman for science that he even is mentioned in a Monty Python routine in the exploding penguin, when this penguin appears on top of the television and the two ladies are talking back and forth. And one says, “Why is there a penguin on top of the telly?” And the other says, “How do I know? I’m not Dr. Bloody Bronowski.”
19:35 Timothy Sandefur: So he became a huge name in Great Britain. In the United States, unfortunately, The Ascent of Man had premiered like a year after he had died. So right when he was on the cusp of becoming a major celebrity in the United States, he was already gone. So that didn’t happen for him. But that would have been… What I think have been his answer is that: Forcing people to do it isn’t gonna accomplish anything. It has to be done through public education and it’s a responsibility of scientists, in particular, to go out there and teach the public, not just the findings of science, but the techniques of science and the rational, secular mindset that underlies science, and that the future of the human race depends on their ability to achieve that. He was especially concerned, in the late ‘60s, with the rise of the hippie movement, which he saw as a proto‐fascist movement. Bronowski thought that the hippies were basically along the same lines as the pre‐Nazi movement that he had witnessed personally in Germany in the 1930s.
20:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Can you expand on that a bit?
20:37 Trevor Burrus: Fascist hippies?
20:37 Aaron Ross Powell: ‘Cause that’s… Many of us have our problems with hippies. But that’s not typically a…
20:42 Timothy Sandefur: Yeah.
20:42 Trevor Burrus: I like the phrase “fascist hippies,” we should put that in the band name column, too, just as a band name.
20:47 Timothy Sandefur: That would be a great name for a band. But Bronowski was very concerned about it for just that reason, he thought that the hippies were an anti‐rational, anti‐progress, pro‐tribal, pro‐primitivist movement, and that that was precisely what he had seen in the early wave of what became the hippie… Or, the Nazi movement in Germany. Bronowski, all his life, saw this sort of conflict, this perpetual conflict between, on one hand, the traditionalist perspective that believed that man should not change the values that he had come to know through religion and tradition, and on the other hand, this belief in progress, scientific planning and discovery. And I suspect that he discovered this in his own family life. His father was an orthodox Jew. His mother was an atheist member of the Communist party. So I think that he saw that clash not only in history, but in his own personal life. But, of course, he certainly saw it during the Spanish Civil War, and then World War II. And then he saw it reviving again in the 1960s that the hippie movement was a reactionary movement against technology and progress and in favor of basically tribal primitivism, and that it was only a short step from there to burning books and destroying the scientific progress of man.
22:14 Aaron Ross Powell: We’ve mentioned the atomic bomb a handful of times and how much of an impact that had on him. And you said that he was especially witnessing the destruction of it, he was horrified at the destruction. But what were his thoughts on the morality of dropping it in the first place? ‘Cause you can imagine a situation where you’re horrified by the destruction of it, but still think maybe it was necessary.
22:36 Timothy Sandefur: He came over, the course of his life to, I think, change his mind on this. And shortly after the war, Bronowski was of the view that dropping the bomb was the correct thing to do. Or rather, let me back up and say, he thought planning and designing the bomb was the right thing to do. And he was horrified, obviously, by the fact that it had been used, but that he… But he said in 1953, as part of the Science and Human Values lectures at MIT, he said, “Science has nothing to be ashamed of, even in the ruins of Nagasaki, that the fault lay with those who insisted on causing the war in the defense of a philosophy that was anti‐reason, anti‐science and anti‐progress and that they bore the blame for the devastation that followed.”
23:22 Timothy Sandefur: But that was before he met Leo Szilard. Szilard is a fascinating figure. Szilard was a Hungarian scientist, who was one of these renaissance men also. He wrote books in the humanities, he invented information theory, as well as the atomic bomb. And he, I think, influenced Bronowski, in that, he told Bronowski the true story, that he had actually written the letter that Einstein signed that was sent to FDR to start the Manhattan Project. And Szilard was of the view that the bomb should have been tested somewhere in the view of the Japanese government so that they could see what was going to happen and spare civilian lives. And by the end of his life, I think Bronowski had come to be of that view, that that’s what ought to have happened. Building the bomb was a necessity because the Germans, they thought were on the cusp of creating the bomb of their own and that they could have, if not won the war, could certainly have done a lot more damage in the process. And so he thought that was right. But as far as using the bomb, by the end of his life, Bronowski regarded it as a war crime.
24:25 Trevor Burrus: Now, we’ve been… It’s kind of funny. All the things that this guy did, from television documentary, to philosophy, to doing the Coal Board. What was his actual background? What was he actually trained in?
24:38 Timothy Sandefur: He was a mathematician. He went to Cambridge in the late ‘20s, and he was trained as a geometer, actually. Multi‐dimensional geometry was his particular skill. And this came to really bear on science in 1950 when he was asked by a friend to try and help him prove that Australopithecus africanus was a relative of human beings. This was a skull that had been discovered that is similar to Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis. And Bronowski found a way of doing this by coming up with a multi‐dimensional measurement of the shape of the teeth in the skull that he was able to show was much more human‐like than gorilla‐like. And that helped other… Scientists today believe that the Australopithecus africanus is a human relative for just that reason. That technique, what’s called multivariate analysis, is still frequently used today. So that was his background.
25:41 Timothy Sandefur: But at the same time that he was studying mathematics, he was also really into poetry. And he became best friends with some of the most famous and important poets of the 1930s in England. Particularly, William Empson, who’s most famous for his book, The Seven Types of Ambiguity. And Bronowski and Empson co‐founded an undergraduate poetry magazine at Cambridge together that published some of the young students’ work. These people went on to become very famous and important poets, including Kathleen Raine. And he became friends with people like TS Eliot. Bronowski, on one occasion, was visiting Eliot in his office and Eliot said to him, “Hey, there’s this new poet. You ought to look up this guy named, WH Auden.” And Bronowski said, “Oh, I just finished publishing a review of his book in a magazine,” and rather irritated Eliot.
26:29 Trevor Burrus: [chuckle] But also, he disagreed very strongly with some of Eliot’s poetic philosophy.
26:34 Timothy Sandefur: Very much so. Eliot was one of these reactionary traditionalist proto‐fascist types that I was mentioning. And so yeah, Bronowski had strong differences with him. And I suspect Bronowski didn’t know where else to turn though, so he became really interested in surrealism and Dada and things like that. It’s just very fashionable in that day.
27:01 Trevor Burrus: Now, with his belief in science, would he have been a big proponent, I guess, having experienced, at least the aftermath of the Manhattan Project. Would he have been a big proponent of having the state fund science, run science, take charge of scientific endeavors? And also, what about things like the space program, or science for science sake? Just pursuing discoveries no matter the cost.
27:27 Timothy Sandefur: This was a major preoccupation of the later years of Bronowski’s life. And in 1970, he presented a speech that became the most controversial thing he ever wrote called “The Disestablishment of Science,” because this was during the Vietnam era. And Bronowski had, by that time, become friends with Leo Szilard and he was very concerned about the moral responsibility of scientists for the destruction and havoc that was being caused by the scientifically designed weapons systems and things like that. And so he presented a paper that argued that scientists need to separate themselves from government as much as possible, basically conscientious objector status for scientists in the Cold War.
28:11 Timothy Sandefur: Now, there were quite a few who disagreed with this, mostly Teller was the most famous one who was designing the hydrogen bomb. But Bronowski respected the perspective of those who thought that they did owe a moral duty to work in scientific research on behalf of their governments. He just thought that there should be a way for scientists to opt out and refuse to work in war work. So his solution that he came up with was, “Well, all the governments should get together and take all the funding that they currently do for science and put it into a single pot, and the scientists will decide how to divide it up. It shouldn’t be up to the governments to decide what research to do. It should be up to the scientists.” This was an idea that I think he got from Leo Szilard, who had proposed something similar a few years before. And the problem is, is he’s crazy but he’s…
29:00 Trevor Burrus: Yes, I see some conflict of interest there. [chuckle]
29:01 Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, not only… Yeah, it is. And in fact, that’s why the socialist member of Parliament, Anthony Wedgwood Benn accused Bronowski of essentially calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat with this proposal, because it would inevitably have to be that the scientists would have to deal with the same kind of bureaucratic problems that government already has to do. You would have the same public choice problems. Buchanan and Tullock point out that whenever the government is in the power of redistributing wealth among demanding constituents, then they’re going to experience lobbying and these sorts of things, which means that the result will not necessarily be the most efficient. And so, the same exact thing would have happened, if Bronowski’s idea had ever been passed. Now, it was rejected at this conference that he spoke at, he was being booed and shouted at from the audience by these radical scientists because it wasn’t left wing enough. They were upset that Bronowski wasn’t calling for the overthrow of capitalism. So it’s ironic that it was considered too conservative an idea at the time. It was a hopeless effort on his part.
30:04 Timothy Sandefur: On the other hand, you can certainly sympathize with that. Bronowski really wanted to see some way of getting the politics out of science, which by that time, he had been working… He had already worked, for a decade, at the National Coal Board and he’d been very frustrated by how politics had controlled his research there. He did find the invent methods of making coal with… Usable coal but with less requirement for mining coal, which upset the coal miners unions and was never implemented for political reasons. So he was very frustrated by political control over science. It’s just he never found a solution for how do you deal with that? And of course, libertarians would say, “There is no solution.” As long as the government is in the power of redistributing wealth, it’s inevitably going to have those bureaucratic strings attached.
30:52 Aaron Ross Powell: This just makes me think of… It was just in the last week or so, there was a… It was an op‐ed in one of the newspapers from I think the CEO of Palantir, was it? About not… Feeling like we can’t… If government asks us to do something for it, who are we to decide, we being technologists in this case, we could say if we’re scientists, “Who are we to decide to say no to it, if this is the democratically elected… ” Which strikes me as a terrible position.
31:22 Trevor Burrus: Terrifying, too. [chuckle]
31:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Terrifying, but this is very much still a live issue.
31:27 Timothy Sandefur: And this dilemma was very much on Bronowski’s mind after the Klaus Fuchs incident, when Fuchs turned over atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and was caught doing it. And the way I put it in the book, is there’s this kind of dilemma. On one hand, Bronowski thought that Leo Szilard had done the right thing to turn over atomic secrets to the allied governments in World War II. But on the other hand, he thought that Fuchs had done the wrong thing to turn that information over to the Soviets. And the explanation… I think that’s a rational position, but Bronowski really struggled with explaining it. His position has to be ultimately that democratic governments are morally more worthwhile than totalitarian governments, but Bronowski had struggled with exactly why that was. And I think he came to the view that totalitarian governments were simply incompatible with science because they didn’t allow for freedom and dissent and things like that. But he never quite articulated it as thoroughly as he could have, I think.
32:22 Trevor Burrus: So the idea there being that… This kinda reminds me of music, where if there’s an art to science… If you read about being a composer under the Soviet regime, for example, it definitely was a little bit a control… You wanna think that music is about being free and expressing yourself, but if you express yourself in a way that did not glorify the Soviet empire, you might end up in the Gulag so it’s like music is impossible. Free music, music from the heart is impossible to the totalitarian regime, is that kind of what you think he was saying about science in a totalitarian regime?
32:56 Timothy Sandefur: Exactly, exactly. In fact, his symbol of this was Trofim Lysenko, the infamous Soviet geneticist, who was a quack, and rejected the idea of genes, who thought that you could transform winter wheat into summer wheat by exposing it to heat, for example. Throw back to the pre‐Mendelian view of genetics, and of course, Stalin loved him, and so put him in charge of Soviet science, and he went about and saw to the murdering of his scientific opponents and with resulting disaster in the Soviet Union. Now, there’s… On this subject, there’s a fantastic book I read not long ago called “The Heavens and the Earth,” by Walter McDougall, which is a political history of the space race in the United States. And it makes a lot of these similar points that the space race in the ‘60s was really the pattern of central planning that we’ve been living with ever since. It was the first implementation of the idea that progress was the responsibility of government planning, rather than the free market. And it was… You had literal five‐year plans. And the President of the United States stands up and says, “I say that by the time the decade is out, we should put a man on the moon.” What is that, if it’s not a Soviet‐style five‐year plan?
34:14 Timothy Sandefur: And I think that kind of thing was really on the minds of a lot of people at times. Eisenhower famously warned about the military industrial complex. That’s what he was talking about, and that’s what Bronowski was concerned about, that science was being monopolized by government to the point where you could effectively do no research that was not within the demands of political authorities. And to a large extent, we do have that.
34:40 Aaron Ross Powell: But at the same time, it worked. The five‐year plan, did… We did put a man on the moon.
34:46 Trevor Burrus: That’s what they want you to believe in that.
34:50 Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, that’s right. And again, Bronowski, being a socialist, did believe in central planning. So I think there’s this tension. He wanted central planning to be democratic so that it was dedicated to the pursuit of peace. Eisenhower’s famous “Atoms for Peace” campaign that thought that we could use nuclear power to make the deserts bloom, which indeed we could do if we had the will to do so. I think that was Bronowski’s desire. And he had a real tough time with the tension between that and the political control that would inevitably follow from such an arrangement.
35:25 Trevor Burrus: Now, it seems like that… You have this documentary… This book documenting, The Ascent of Man. And so, Bronowski was very interested in human progress and how it comes about. Did he view it as inevitable, in the sense of just putting people together under the right conditions, and they will ascend, so to speak, or was it something that had to be nurtured, and controlled, and fostered, in some way?
35:47 Timothy Sandefur: Oh, definitely the latter. Yeah, definitely the latter. In the last episode, he says, he’s very concerned, he says, “I’m very concerned about this loss of nerve in Western civilization and this retreat from science into mysticism and the hippie movement,” and things like that. He says, “If we do that, progress will continue but it will continue in other places. It won’t happen here. If we want Western civilization, as we know it, to have a place in the future, then we have to cultivate this philosophy of questioning, and debating, and skepticism, and secularism, and individual rights,” and these sorts of things. Which by the way is… There’s another documentary called “The Day the Universe Changed,” that came up after Bronowski’s death that makes this point equally well. This was a perspective that was very strong, and you still find it among the scientific speakers today. I think you find that it’s among Dawkins, for example, today. But Bronowski was very concerned that, no… He says, in that last episode of The Ascent of Man, he says, “We have been given no guarantees that Egypt, and Assyria, and Rome were not also given.”
36:58 Trevor Burrus: Also Carl Sagan, who wrote, The Demon‐Haunted World, was very concerned about the rise of irrationality and anti‐science movements, too, which…
37:07 Timothy Sandefur: A fantastic book. In fact, that… I believe, if I remember right, Bronowski’s name is mentioned in the first sentence of that book.
37:13 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but that makes sense though, because we have scientists who write books about how important science is, which seems a little kind of self‐serving.
37:22 Timothy Sandefur: Right. [laughter]
37:24 Trevor Burrus: Artists are like, “What would happen if civilization… If people aren’t making art? Civilization depends on art, and scientists depend on science,” and go back‐and‐forth on these things.
37:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that’s the…
37:34 Timothy Sandefur: And the part of that that’s relevant to libertarians is that… And Sagan makes his point in, The Demon‐Haunted World, that it’s not just scientific discoveries themselves, it’s the mental thought processes of science. So scientific method, it’s skepticism, the ability to figure things out from cause to effect, and things like that. Part of that essentially depends on political freedom. So, an artist, I can see saying, “Great art essentially depends on political freedom,” because as you said earlier, if you have government bureaucratic control over art, then you’re going to have dreadful art that doesn’t even rise to the level of art. And you and I would agree with that. We would say, “Not only art and science, but every human activity to reach its full greatness does depend essentially on political freedom.”
38:20 Aaron Ross Powell: But how far does that extend? So, an artist… We can say, “Yeah, great art might depend on freedom, and artists are going to use that freedom to create all sorts of art, some of it quite good, some of it quite bad, most in the middle, somewhat mediocre.” But a terrible piece of art, the worst that it does is makes the artist look bad and offends a whole bunch of people or just makes them wish they were somewhere else. But a terrible piece of scientific research has the potential to do extraordinary widespread harm.
38:54 Trevor Burrus: What do you mean? Terrible by the outcome? So the nuclear bomb was good science, but with terrible implications. As opposed to bad science, where something just doesn’t work.
39:05 Aaron Ross Powell: Right, so I could see it either way. You would do the science poorly and screw up and somehow make something that wasn’t what you intended incredibly dangerous, or you could be running off down a road very competently, but it’s probably not a road you should be going down, there’s gradations. But I guess the effect of the end result being negative in science seems like it can be more catastrophically wrong than in really any other human endeavor except state craft.
39:36 Timothy Sandefur: Well, I think the answer to that that Bronowski would give is probably the same that you and I give when it comes to freedom of speech, that the cure for bad speech is more speech. And so, the cure for the scientific danger of things like, say, nuclear power, is better science that can deal with that. But I think the spirit of your question really touches on this issue that a lot of people were talking about in 1946, which is: What about the science from the Nazi warlords? What about the science they did or the experiments, the experiments Dr. Mengele, performed on the inmates of the death camps? Bronowski was always of the view that science really was incompatible with totalitarianism and Nazism and tyranny, and things like that, but that seems like an overly optimistic view. George Orwell, himself, pointed out that the Nazi regime really didn’t have a shortage of scientists and the Soviet Union found plenty of competent scientists, who are willing to design war machines for Stalin.
40:40 Timothy Sandefur: I think Bronowski would have said, “No, their work was terrible, the quality of the work was bad.” And Bronowski very strongly believed that Mengele, and other so‐called scientists had actually performed no research of any value in the death camps. And Bronowski was in a better position to judge that than most people because in 1946, he was sent as a member of the T‐Forces to Germany, as part of… The T‐Forces were the groups that were sent to find what scientific research and technology had been done by the Nazis and capture it and bring it back to the West. So, he was of the view that no valuable science had been done by the Third Reich. Nevertheless, Orwell’s point is true, which is that it’s not the case that a totalitarian tyranny is going to collapse scientifically. And so it’s not really comforting to say, “Freedom is necessary for science, so a society that destroys science is going to destroy… Or destroys freedom is going to destroy science.” That’s not necessarily the case.
41:40 Trevor Burrus: So all this discussion about his belief in individual rights and human possibility and the need for truth and… Why was he a socialist then, do you think?
41:51 Timothy Sandefur: Well, because at that time, especially in, say, 1930… 1931, let’s say, if you were around at that time, it looked to you, especially in Europe, it looked to you like there were only two paths for the human future; and that’s fascism or communism. It really looked, to a lot of people during that period, like that was the choice. Either it was an anti‐technology throwback to tradition and culture, on one hand. Or it was a pro‐technology planning for the future of all mankind in favor of civilization, on the other hand. And that conflict between culture and civilization really seems, to a lot of people, as the only two alternatives.
42:34 Timothy Sandefur: The ideas that we as libertarians are comfortable with, the ideas of Hayek and Mises had not yet even been articulated. And so the critiques of capitalism appeared to a lot of people as having been valid, especially after the Great Depression. And so I think that he was of the view that a, something that you and I would call, a massive welfare state, was the only path to freedom for people who had suffered under the remnants of feudalism. That’s another aspect of it, is that Europe has always been a bit different ever since the French Revolution because of the legacy of feudalism. In the United States, it was considered sufficient to let people do their own thing and be free, and then then the state sit back and leave them alone. In Europe, there was this idea that that’s not enough because generations of tyranny through feudalism had to be eradicated by the state.
43:29 Aaron Ross Powell: This brings up an issue I’d love to get your thoughts on and something that when I’m talking with young libertarians, or my writing bring up a lot is this engaging with thinkers, who hold a set of beliefs that are very different from the ones that we cherish in a normative sense. So here, we have an example of someone who you… You’ve written a book about him, you clearly think that we have a lot to learn from him, and you think that we, as libertarians, have a lot to learn from him. But at the same time, he had this category of beliefs that run directly counter to a set of core values that we hold. And that’s the case for a lot of thinkers throughout history.
44:12 Aaron Ross Powell: And one of the things I find when I’m talking with young people who are getting into this stuff is they’ll sometimes be too dismissive. They’ll be like, “Well, I have this guy… I have nothing to learn from Plato, because Plato held this set of views.” And it’s like, “Well, but maybe there still is something you can learn from him.” So how do we, as we’re approaching the history of ideas, assess that question? How do we figure out where that line is and whether someone is… Someone like Bronowski, who you can separate out for historical reasons, the bad, and just look at the good, from someone who probably there isn’t much to learn from them because the views are rotten to the core?
45:01 Timothy Sandefur: Yeah. Well, that’s a good question. In writing this book, I wanted very much to be as faithful to Bronowski’s actual views as possible and not succumb to the temptation to make him sound the way I wanted him to sound. There are these books out there, for example, HL Mencken’s book on Friedrich Nietzsche, which kind of try and portray the subject as the writer wants them to be, rather than the way the subject really is. And I wanted to avoid that, but I also wanted to engage Bronowski’s ideas and challenge them where I thought they were weak. And so, I’ve done my best to try and say, “Here’s what he thought, here are some of the weaknesses of that. Here’s what critics said. Here’s what I think the critics were right or wrong about,” that sort of thing. So his, Disestablishment of Science essay, for example, I try to show why he thought this and why what he did was rooted in something I think that’s good. But that in the end, the critics were right, that it really didn’t work that way.
45:57 Timothy Sandefur: And anybody else who approaches this subject matter is gonna necessarily have a different view of these things than I do. And Bronowski himself would have enjoyed that. He was very much of the view that a person’s personal views of things were rooted in… How a person reports something is going to be rooted in their own value structure and that there’s nothing wrong with that, including science. So he would have been okay with that, I think. But it can be a challenge sometimes when you’re talking about a figure who is so like Plato, or maybe a communist figure, who’s so associated with bad things. Is there anything to learn from them? Of course, there’s something to learn from them. If at least just what it is that’s bad about them is a valuable lesson.
46:41 Timothy Sandefur: That’s the great thing about freedom of speech is that, with freedom of speech, we are able to see evil ideas, and therefore, understand why they’re evil and arm ourselves against evil in the future. John Milton in Areopagitica, the most beautiful thing ever written in defense of freedom of speech, makes just this argument. He says, “I cannot praise a fugitive in cloistered virtue that sinks from the race and for truth, which is not to be obtained without dust and heat.” In other words, that you can’t really call a person a virtuous or intelligent person if that person is only pure because they’ve refused to encounter evil. On the other hand, a person who does read and study what is bad and comes to understand what’s bad, and puts that lesson into practice in his or her life, that person is the truly virtuous person.
47:35 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/freethoughtspodcast. You can follow us on Twitter at @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.