Science, Blinded

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“Just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else” was the eminent twentieth century psychologist H.J. Eysenck’s judgment of scientists. “And their unusually high intelligence,” he added, “only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”

A recent example of scientific unreason stands out, both for the renown of the scientist involved and the irony of where his bias led him.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was one of the most celebrated, influential and widely-read scientists of his time. In his 1981 book “The Mismeasure of Man,” about the measurement of intelligence, he presented the work of 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton as Exhibit A for how racial preconceptions can prejudice scientific research.

Morton, seeking evidence that the Supreme Being had created human races separately, used mustard seeds (at first, then buckshot) to meticulously calibrate the volumes of hundreds of skulls of Caucasians, Asians, American Indians and Africans. He indeed found a pattern of size differentials in the brain cavities of the various groups. Reanalyzing the data anew, however, Gould concluded that the earlier scientist had misrepresented his findings, and accused Morton of believing that the groups with the smaller cranial cavities were intellectually inferior.

This month, however, a study published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, Public Library of Science Biology, asserts not only that there is no evidence that Morton held any racial biases but that Gould, not Morton, had misrepresented the data. Researchers re-measured 308 of the skulls Morton had collected, and found that Morton had actually underreported the extent of the differences he found.

Gould’s charge that Morton had “unconscious[ly] finagl[ed]” circled around to bite him in the back.

Of course, Morton’s premise that races were created separately is not what the Torah teaches (although a tripartite humanity does emerge after the time of Noach, generated by his three sons). But his research was conducted honorably. It was Gould, propelled by his antipathy to the notion that there may be brain size differences among races—which might be used to support racist beliefs—who (consciously or otherwise) fudged the data.

Scientific hubris is of more than mere academic import. Had biologist Paul Ehrlich had his way in 1968, the world would have seen compulsory birth control, in the form of spiking water supplies with sterilizing chemicals. That was the year Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” in which his disdain for the number of babies being born led him to predict worldwide famine within twenty years without such measures.

Practiced as it should be, the endeavor of science is sublime. What it yields can not only increase understanding of the world and improve lives but deeply inspire. A science book evidencing an awe of Creation and a recognition of human limitations can be a veritable work of religious inspiration.

But, as more traditional Jewish texts explain, only someone who has overcome the preconceptions, desires and imperfections of character to which we all play host can truly perceive the world with clarity. The rest of us—even scientists—are subject to misjudgments, hampered as we are by our prejudices.

Nowhere in science, perhaps, does bias so blind as with regard to evolution.

Species, over time, retain traits that serve them well, and lose others that don’t. The ill-adapted don’t survive; the advantaged do. That’s simple, and seen.

But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new limb or organ within a species—things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times—have never been witnessed or reproduced. Ditto doubly for an organism emerging from inert matter—a “spontaneous generation” that evolution proponents assume began the process.

The solemn conviction that life appeared by chance and new species evolved from other ones countless times remains a large leap of… well, faith. Which is why “evolution” is rightly called a theory—and might better be called a religion.

As a faith that hallows chance as the engine of all, Evolutionism may owe less to objectivity than to a subconscious desire to reject the concept of a Creator.

And all the militant insistence on its truth should remind us all of Professor Eysenck’s words.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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