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The Danger of Knowing for Sure

Thoughts written on September 12, 2001

Jacob Bronowski at AuschwitzI can remember the first time I saw the image at the right of the screen. It comes from the television series The Ascent of Man and the particular episode was called "Knowledge and Certainty". It shows Jacob Bronowski reaching into a pool of black mud, black because it contains the ashes of people murdered as the result of an insane belief system. In the middle of the 20th century civilisation was threatened as an entire country seemed to go mad, and millions of people died as a result. A new word came into common use, "holocaust", to describe something which even today almost defies belief – that someone could propose, and execute, a plan to destroy a large part of the world's population simply because they had the wrong genealogy – their parents and ancestors were the wrong sort of human.

Some people thought that Bronowski was making a play on the words in the series title and showing that, as well as an ascent of humankind towards civilisation, there was always the possibility of a descent back into primitivism and savagery. This point was certainly being made, but the main idea was contained in the title of the episode – "Knowledge and Certainty". Bronowski was making a distinction between science and non-science – between knowing something with confidence and knowing something with certainty. The Nazis knew with certainty that they were right. Science, and its handmaiden skepticism, is based on the principle that knowledge is testable and that ideas and beliefs can be rejected and replaced if they can be demonstrated to be wrong or outdated. It is a process of continuous learning. Yes, science can have bad outcomes, but those bad things can be challenged and changed if necessary. When ideas cannot be challenged then learning, improvement and the correction of mistakes are impossible. There is no way back.

World Trade Center – 11 September, 2001 (Jose Jiminez, Primera Hora – Getty Images; The Washington Post)On 11 September, 2001, civilisation was again attacked when hijacked aircraft were flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, and again we were presented with indelible images that will stay in our minds forever. At the time of writing, the people behind this atrocity are unknown, although there are suspicions and clues. For my purpose, however, it does not matter who did this or whether the motivation was political protest, religious bigotry, racism, extortion, whatever. What is important is that the people who did this were absolutely certain that they were right. The hijackers entered the planes in the certain knowledge that not only were they going to die themselves, but that they were going to kill an unknown number of strangers, people who had never harmed them in any way. It must take a special kind of madness to train for months for a suicide mission, to be so absolutely certain about your belief that there is nothing that could change that belief, regardless of the consequences to you or anyone else.

You might say that I am talking about extremes here, just as it would be extreme to use the examples of human behaviour that we have seen over the years in Cambodia, Rwanda, Ireland or the collection of tribes that used to be called Yugoslavia. Yes, they are extremes, but they are all examples of the failure of rational thought. It is not just civil wars, however, that exemplify the problem. Agricultural production was damaged for decades in the Soviet Union because ideology decreed that the science of genetics be rejected, and the same country held on to an inefficient economic system long after its faults and weaknesses had been demonstrated. People are campaigning against the development of an AIDS vaccine because they think the loss of millions of lives is irrelevant when placed against their belief that all vaccines are evil. Others hang on to ancient superstitions and medical systems with no proven effectiveness and proudly state that these things must work because they have not changed for centuries. Countries with enormous natural and human resources are held back by religious traditions which may have been appropriate when armies fought with spears. People have their savings stolen daily by liars who pretend to contact their dead loved ones or who promise miracle cures for incurable diseases.

Skepticism is sometimes confused with cynicism. Skeptics are seen as people who don't want to believe anything. This is incorrect – skeptics, like scientists, are people who just want to be confident that what they believe and know is the most likely thing that accords with reality. Put another way, a skeptic is someone who likes his facts to be correct. It is difficult to change long-held beliefs and it can be distressing to find out that you have an emotional investment in something which is wrong. Sometimes, however, it is just necessary to put away childish things, because there can be real danger in knowing things that just ain't so.

Peter Bowditch
September 2001

It ain't so much the things we know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so.
Some people know that Artemus Ward said this; some people know that Josh Billings said it;
some people know that Mark Twain said it; some people know that Will Rogers said it;
before I looked it up, I knew that Ralph Waldo Emerson said it

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
1 Thessalonians 5:21

Text copyright © 2001- Peter Bowditch
WTC image © 2001 Jose Jiminez, Primera Hora, Getty Images, The Washington Post
The Bronowski image was found on the web and is presumed to be from the video
"The Ascent of Man" © 1974 BBC/Time Life

The SkepticA version of this article appeared as a guest editorial in the December 2001
edition of the Skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics
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Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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