May 2nd, 2008


An Open Letter To Ben Stein

My daily perusal of BoingBoing exposes me to a wide range of "wonderful things" -- and, occasionally, the horrific as well. On a rare occasion, something I find there will drive me to delight and elation -- and others, to tears of indignant outrage.

This is not an example of the former.

This evening, the monotone maw of Ben Stein, star of stage, screen, and Nixon speechwriting, graced us with the following:

When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

Mr. Stein, I will not attempt a rebuttal. I have no need to do so. Thirty-five years ago, Jacob Bronowski said everything that need be said in his magnum opus, The Ascent of Man, in a scene filmed on the site of those very atrocities you evoke so wryly, as the ashy remains of his own family members and yours flowed through his fingers:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. This is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashed of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.'

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

Which of us, Mr. Stein, claims to know the Mind of God?