Inherit an Ill Wind, and Other Musings About Science

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Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s famous essay on teaching about science remains, as most of our readers know, at the center of an ongoing controversy. That controversy focuses on the final argument of the essay, concerning material in the Talmud that seems to conflict with contemporary scientific thinking. What too many people have forgotten is just how carefully Rav Hirsch crafted his advice– how many steps he went through before arriving at his conclusion as the final argument to be used when all else failed.

He strongly advocates not hiding from any part of science, but inoculating students against conflict by first and foremost teaching them about how science works. What are its assumptions? Just what is scientific truth? What are the roles of probability and extrapolation? What are the strengths – and weaknesses of scientific method? I have successfully used this essay with bright high school students to show them just how and why scientific method – while the best application of human rational thought that I am aware of – can sometimes fall short of the goal. More importantly, they learn how the method can be abused – as can most things in life – in the hands of the unscrupulous or the agenda-driven. The rest of this piece is a behind-the-scenes look at agenda-driven science, drawn from a recent high-profile case.

[UPDATE: The memo mentioned below is now available for download.]

My son forwarded to me a memo he received from Edward Sisson, a partner in his law firm. Mr. Sisson had come under attack for devoting some of his pro bono time to assisting a group that recently appeared before the Kansas Board of Education in an effort to include “intelligent design (ID)” in the curriculum. Mr. Sisson (whom I thank for giving me permission to share his memo with our readers), an MIT grad himself, wrote convincingly about the case for reconsidering Darwinian orthodoxy. For those who have not read up on ID as much as they should (briefly, ID people do not reject the evidence for evolution, but dismiss on scientific grounds the likelihood that it could have taken place without the guidance of a higher intelligence), the memo is worth reading in its entirety.

The conduct of the hearings sheds much light on the difference between good science and bad science. Mr Sisson’s client produced a formidable list of witnesses to speak about the inadequacies of the classic Darwinian synthesis to account for the intractable problem of biogenesis (or how the first life forms assembled themselves) and the mounting evidence for biochemical complexity and elegance that earlier evolutionists simply did not have access to. They were prepared to debate. The other side was not.

Kansas Citizens for Science (“KCFS”)… posted on the group’s website that the “strategy at this point is … [to] portray [the State Board members] in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc.”

So they boycotted. The American Association for the Advancement of Science supported this strategy.

Mr Sisson had been prepared to ask them the hard questions. He had prepared by reading much material on both sides of the divide. He would have asked them if they subscribed to the legendary
Dr. Richard Feynman’ definition: “in science there is no interest in the background of the author of an idea or his motive in expounding it. You listen, and if it sounds like a thing worth trying, a thing that could be tried, is different, and is not obviously contrary to something observed before, it gets exciting and worthwhile. You do not have to worry about how long he has studied or why he wants you to listen to him.”

The stated position of the boycotting mainstream advocacy group is that decisions about science should be left to those with specialized background. Sisson rejects this. Firstly, non-scientists can gain the knowledge they need to assess scientific matters. To argue differently is to arrogate a niche for scientists that smacks of elitism. In Torah circles, our high school teachers used to tell us all the time, “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.”

More importantly, he argues that outsiders must not leave decisions that impact the rest of society in the hands of scientists alone. The cost can be too great. It is both naïve and contra-factual to assume that the scientific community has no biases of its own, that it warmly welcomes attempts at upending long-held positions. You can hardly ask for a better example of this than the Kansas science group’s explicitly declared position of waging their war through character assassination, rather than through debating the merit of their position.

Sisson’s piece de resistance is a compelling and chilling lesson in the danger of misapplied science.

Here is an excerpt from A Civic Biology, the very textbook that John Scopes taught from. It presented the “consensus of those with the specialized background,” used to teach the high school students of Dayton, Tennessee, beginning six years prior to Scopes:

Parasitism and its cost to society – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become , or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.
The Remedy – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.

Sisson continues:

When I read the above-quoted portion of the Scopes textbook, I decided that I would never grant “mainstream science” the unquestioning deference it seeks concerning what should be taught in our schools as science. To those who question how “mainstream science” could be so wrong on “unintelligent” evolution, I rejoin: explain to me how “mainstream science” could have been so wrong on eugenics. The explanation you offer to me is likely to be very similar to the one I hand back to you. No such deference is appropriate.

Part Two

Nothing could be further from my purpose than to take a gratuitous swipe at science in general. Bad science and bad scientists should not sour us on the genuine gifts that good science offers. Whether this includes new insights into classic Torah issues is the subject of a fascinating debate in the current issue of Jewish Action, pgs.80-85. Unfortunately, these pages have not made it to the OU website with the rest of the issue. A writer, basing himself largely on the work of the always-articulate Rav Chaim Eisen, goes head-to-head with Professor Nathan Aviezer, who has long enlightened Jewish audiences on the interface between Torah and science. [Full disclosure: Howard Shapiro, the writer, is a student of mine, and I serve on the editorial board of Jewish Action.] They disagree about using current but changeable scientific approaches to illuminate Torah texts. Simply the fact that they can present two contrasting views in one Jewish journal is refreshing in its own right. One tidbit I particularly enjoyed was a quote from Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg:

One can imagine a category of experiments that refute well-accepted scientific theories that have become part of the standard consensus of physicists. Under this category, there are no examples whatsoever in the past hundred years.

When people are too quick to dismiss all science as inherently unreliable because so much has changed in the past, it is useful to remind ourselves that not all science is created equal. There are elements of it that have survived long enough to warrant the confidence that they will be around for a long time to come. This, too, is part of the intelligent, non-agenda driven use of science.

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4 Responses

  1. Micha says:

    I think you’re misrepresenting R’ Hirsch’s position by only giving half of it. He also requires knowing what it is the Torah requires we take literally, and what not. At the end of the day, Rav Hirsch had no problem embracing the idea of an old universe. He didn’t simply insist on the literal read of Genesis 1 and dismiss the science because of weeknesses in methodology. (Something I felt many would conclude from the partial coverage.)

  2. Max Shenker says:

    It is interesting that in the same historical period during which Darwinism has been accepted by Biology, Physics has undergone several revolutions of thought. We have seen radical changes in understanding based on Einstein, then on Quantum Mechanics, and current work on String Theory. (In this context I am not sure I understand the Steven Weinberg quote.) Why has Biology been so resistant to change? I think that Sisson offers an excellent explanation of this problem in the section “Burden of Proof,” “To abandon an accepted theory without adopting an acceptable alternative is something scientists deeply resist, because it means moving from a position of claimed knowledge to a position of admitted ignorance.”

    Regarding the issue of bias in the sciences that Sisson also addresses, I recall a book I read in college by Stephen Jay Gould called The Mismeasure of Man. Gould analytically demonstrates the flawed science born out of the bias of proponents of Eugenics and Craniometry. In his conclusion to that book Gould unabashedly dismisses such notions as Creationism, but he never acknowledges that he might also be subject to the power of his bias.

  3. Aaron says:

    Thanks for the link to that memo. It was fascinating.

  4. ja says:

    I agree that the field is overdue for a Kuhnian paradigm shift.
    I think the paper is weakened by the introduction of eugenics to clinch the case. eugenics presents moral problems, more than scientific ones.