Science, Blinded

“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 … Read More >>


The Silicon Emperor’s New Soul

But we are neither wallabies nor Watsons. We don’t just feel; we emote. We don’t just compute; we conceive. We don’t just act; we choose. Our reflections in a mirror mimic us too. But they’re not us. … Read More >>

College Students Not Learning Much

This is the headline on CBSNews.com, describing a study published in a new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” Given that students are going to courses and acquiring lots of new information, how can it be claimed that they are “not learning much?” Because, says the study, they are not learning to think.

A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

The study determined that the subject area is less important than methodology when it comes to learning to think critically. “Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.”

I have pointed out a few times that while yeshiva studies are devoted to what might be called classic literature, without immediate relevance to the modern day workforce, they excel in teaching students to think. This has been borne out by various studies in Israel, and now a contrasting study emphasizes that this is an area where today’s colleges are finding limited success.

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Punishing People for Their Beliefs

Merely “brain-dead” human beings, in the judgment of major halachic decisors, are still alive. … Read More >>

Dirt

forty-odd years ago, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts. … Read More >>

Someone’s There

Is ending a life of pure contemplation less objectionable that ending one that includes physical activity? … Read More >>

Defining Death Down

The shortage of organs for transplantation – is pushing some physicians to call a life a life, even if it hasn’t yet been fully lived. … Read More >>

Stairway To Peoplehood

It is thus much more than a comparison; it is an identification. Jacob is the Jewish people; and that is why he is deathless. … Read More >>

The Candle Within

a society that denies the soul-idea is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless … Read More >>

The People Problem

The life work of Norman Borlaug, who died shortly before Rosh Hashana at the age of 95, should give deep pause to those who see humans as a threat to the planet.

Those, that is, like Dr. Borlaug’s fellow scientist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book “The Population Bomb” predicted worldwide famine within twenty years as a result of rising birth rates and limited resources. Hundreds of thousands of people, Dr. Ehrlich soberly prophesied, would starve to death by 1988. He compared the “population explosion” –he coined the phrase – to the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells in a body, and advocated the “radical surgery” of compulsory birth control, in the form of spiking the world water supply with sterilizing chemicals.

Over ensuing years, Dr. Ehrlich’s prediction was embraced by legions of scientists, intellectuals and population-control advocates across the United States and Europe.

All the while, Dr. Borlaug, a plant scientist, quietly continued his work of decades experimenting with grain varieties, eventually developing strains of wheat and rice that raised food yields by as much as 600%.

That achievement revolutionized modern agriculture, allowing a country like India, for example, whose population grew from 500 million in the 1960s to … Read More >>

Heart and Soul

Electroencephalographs measure electrical activity in the brain but nothing more. Who can possibly know what might be happening in the soul of a living human being? … Read More >>

One Good Deed…

The awe-inspiring is all around us, if we care to look and think, and are not fooled into imagining that nature’s fantasticalness is a phantasm, the meaningless yield of random meetings of molecules. … Read More >>

Whence You Came

the President opted not to enter the Dickey-Wicker sticky wicket. … Read More >>

A World Going Ape

It’s easy to snickeringly dismiss the recent disclosure that the late hotelier Leona Helmsley not only left $12 million to her dog but nearly all of the rest of her estate – an estimated $5-8 billion (yes, billion) – to dogdom. No correlation, after all, has ever been evident between wealth and sanity.

More significant by far was another recent bit of animal news, the Spanish parliament’s June 25 vote in support of extending the right to life and freedom to apes.

That would be great apes – orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. (Pity the poor lesser apes and common monkeys, not to mention all the non-simians, whose rights for now remain unaddressed by Spanish lawmakers.)

The vote was the culmination of a push by an entity called the Great Ape Project, which for years has advocated on behalf of having apes accepted as closer to human than animal. The DNA of apes and humans, the group points out, is very similar. Indeed it is, although there are some 40 million differences among the two species’ respective nucleotides. The group further contends that “Human blood and Chimpanzee [sic] blood… can be exchanged through transfusion.” Don’t try that at home – … Read More >>

Baby Einstein

An amusing pair of letters to the editor appeared in the New York Times Book Review on April 13, responding to a review of a book about the science of human reproduction.

Both letters were withering critiques of the illustration that accompanied the review, a graphic of a large, oddly shaped, complex organic molecule, featuring atoms of various elements and bonds of many sorts. One of the letter-writers, a professor of chemistry, sniffed that the graphic contained a “dozen brazen errors” and deemed it “a lesson in aberration.” The second, a graduate student in chemistry, denounced the drawing as “nothing short of atrocious” and upped the error count to more than two dozen.

It must have been difficult for the editors to quash the urge to respond mockingly, but somehow they managed understatement. “Our correspondents’ knowledge of chemistry,” they wrote, “may have kept them from noticing that the molecular entity [depicted]… spells out a familiar three-letter word.”

The letters and response are entertaining evidence for how limited scientists can be in negotiating the world outside their labs. It is a truism brought to mind too by the recent sale at auction of a 1954 letter written by Albert … Read More >>

Guess What? Money Can Buy Happiness

Everyone knows that “Money can’t buy happiness.” It turns out, though, that this is yet another case where the conventional wisdom is wrong. Money can buy happiness if you spend it the right way. And in this case, the right way is charitable giving.

A study published in this week’s edition of the journal Science found a consistent relationship between giving and happiness. For example, they studied the employees of a medical supply company who were given bonuses of several thousand dollars each. Researcher Michael I. Norton, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, said that they determined “the size of the bonus you get has no relation to how happy you are, but the amount you spend on other people does predict how happy you are.” Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who led the study, also said that those employees who devoted more of their bonus to “pro-social” spending came out higher on the happiness scale. This confirmed the results of an initial survey of 632 Americans, which also showed a clear correlation between spending on other people and general happiness.

It is true that having money can’t provide happiness. In … Read More >>

Academic Freedom Evaporates

by David Klinghoffer

Americans like to think of our university system as a haven for unimpeded truth-seeking, where tenured professors press the boundaries of knowledge, no holds barred. The picture is attractive but false when it comes to scholarly consideration of big questions such as: Is the universe meaningful?

Just ask Iowa State University astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. His troubling case is a parable illustrating the limits of academic inquiry, and not only at ISU. Despite a stellar research record, Gonzalez is being forced out of his job for expressing his view on a scientific matter possessing religious implications.

In 2004, Gonzalez co-wrote a book called “The Privileged Planet.” He argued that life on Earth and our ability to make scientific discoveries about the cosmos depend on a host of incredibly improbable planetary conditions, suggesting intelligent design rather than a cosmic accident.

Gonzalez never taught this material to students. But if he and co-author Jay Richards are right, then the late astronomer Carl Sagan was wrong when he mocked our human “delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.”

Gonzalez was up for tenure this spring at ISU, where 91 percent of tenure applications in 2007 were approved. … Read More >>

Of Slopes and Hopes

“Oh, come on!” the e-mail read, “What’s a few dead children on the altar of my liberal slippery-slope paranoia?”

Gruesome as the imagery was, I had to smile. The message was intended as a humorous “touché!” from an academic who had originally contacted me in anger. He was not only honest enough to concede his error but perceptive enough to identify its origin.

What had motivated him to write in the first place was a letter published in The New York Times in which, on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, I welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of the federal “partial-birth abortion ban” law.

“How in the world could you write such a letter…?” the professor fumed. “You know perfectly well that the so-called ‘partial-birth abortions’ are almost always only performed when there is a serious, potentially mortal danger to the birth-mother, and that Jewish law is clear and unambiguous in such cases: the life of the mother takes precedence over that of an unborn child…”

The professor is correct about Jewish religious law’s placement of the life of a Jewish mother before that of her unborn child. The Jewish legal metaphor for the fetus is a “rodef,” … Read More >>

Let My Scientists Go

Back on April 13, in the spirit, perhaps, of the Passover then just past, The New York Times editorialized about the need to “free” something from the “chains imposed” upon it. The sentence’s subject was “American science” and the Pharaoh-figure, President Bush.

“One man,” huffed the Old Gray Lady, “and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress.”

The editorial umbrage was the product of Mr. Bush’s declared intention to veto a bill currently wending its way through Congress that would ease restrictions on providing federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells, of course, are biological entities with the remarkable ability to develop into many different types of specialized cells. They can theoretically divide and redivide without limit, and thus offer the hope that they might be harnessed to replenish damaged or diseased organs, tissues or blood.

Some stem cells can be harvested from umbilical cords, bone marrow and even from adult human tissue; but many medical researchers feel that stem cells taken from embryos present the greatest opportunities for potential therapy.

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An Unexpected Pesach Present

While my children were out purchasing their “afikoman presents” with my in-laws, I happened on my own holiday present in the form of a remarkable article by Dr. Francis Collins.

The highly regarded Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and the piece is a synopsis of his personal journey of faith. I found the statement noteworthy as much for what it did not claim as for what it did assert.

Collins’s main premise is that not only is there no conflict between science and belief, but that, in fact, scientific discovery is itself testament to the greatness of God’s creation. As he so beautifully writes,

As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan . . . I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.

This perspective is, in effect, a contemporized restatement of Mamonides’ famous declaration (Basic Principles of the Torah … Read More >>

Squid Pro Quo

The half-ton squid caught in waters south of New Zealand in February – 33 feet long and weighing 1089 pounds – isn’t kosher, but it can still serve as food for Jewish thought.

Such sea-creatures – this one a representative of the species Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni – were long thought to be the products of overactive imaginations.

Until 1873, there were only claims, but no hard evidence, that monstrously-sized squids existed. That year, though, a fisherman off the coast of Newfoundland struck a large sea-creature with a hook and then hacked off one of its tentacles. The appendage was later measured to be nineteen feet long. Over subsequent decades, intact carcasses of such giant squids (a smaller species than the “colossal squid” of the recent catch) were discovered washed ashore on various beaches. Thus ended the centuries over which the animal was assumed to be fictional.

Only a few years earlier, though, Arthur Mangin, a celebrated French zoologist, dismissed sailors’ claims that they had seen the animal, urging that:

“the wise, and especially the man of science, not admit into the catalogue those stories which mention extraordinary creatures… the existence of which would be… a contradiction of the great laws … Read More >>