Archive for December, 2012

Email from Adam

December 11, 2012

Adam Penrod wrote me an interesting email. I received his permission to post it, and below I present an edited, slightly-shortened version of the letter. 

Dear Rabbi, 

My name is Adam Penrod and I have recently found your website. I began by reading Genesis and the Big Bluff and I must say that I really appreciated the sources and comments you made. While I was in college, like most other religious people, I was very distressed about the relationship between science and religion (specifically science and Torah). I came across Dr [Gerald] Schroeder’s books and read them all. They were a life-saver for me at the time because, frankly, there wasn’t anything else. Other books about science and religion that were available were usually written by Christians, but where was the Jewish scholarship? Where were the Rabbis? I took it for granted that Dr. Schroeder was correctly representing the scientific view and the Torah view. I had some initial problems with the book but because it brought me so much comfort – it told me what I wanted to hear – it told me that it’s okay to believe in the [complete agreement between] Torah and science. Any conflict between the two is a misunderstanding. Oh wow did I feel so much better! But there were some things in the book [Genesis and the Big Bang] that I just didn’t agree with and so I always had a lingering doubt about some of Dr. Schroeder’s answers. I knew that relying on Dr. Schroeder’s books was just putting off the inevitable need to look for another solution, but like I said, there wasn’t anything out there that I could find and, as Descartes says (to paraphrase) if you’re going to build a house you still need to live somewhere!  

One problem I had with the book was this: If I agreed with Dr. Schroeder’s presentation then I was essentially trapping myself within the context of current (current meaning when Dr. Schroeder wrote the book) beliefs about certain things. Having taken a philosophy of science course and having read the likes of Alfred North Whitehead and Thomas S. Kuhn, I knew that science wasn’t simply progressing. It was a process of new theories revolting against the old theories. Just because the majority of scientists were confident about a particular theory didn’t mean that they would always be confident… It seemed like a mistake to hitch myself to a presentation of the Torah and science discussion that seemed to mirror the faith that scientists had in the current theory. This scepticism was further strengthened when I learned that there were approximately 25 competing theories for the origin of the universe, 25 theories in competition with the cherished prize of religious folk – the big bang theory! 

Over the last ten years I have quietly been developing my own opinions and thanks to having the chance to learn with Rabbi [Dovid] Gottlieb at Ohr Somayach I began to discover the other point of view in a clear and steady voice. When Rabbi Gottlieb posted one of your articles on his website I began reading it and continued reading other articles on your website. I was really excited about how strong the Mesorah is and how it isn’t crazy to have legitimate disagreements with scientists, since they are not infallible. I knew this to some extent, but reading the material on your site and Rabbi Gottlieb’s site has increased my excitement and encouraged my resolve to continue learning so that I can make others aware of this important information.  

Thank you very much for your work and as soon as I am able I will buy a copy of your new book [Genesis and Genes] and look forward to reading it.  

Channukah Someach, 

Adam

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A Further Response to Dan

December 10, 2012

Further to my previous post, Dan wrote a fairly lengthy response. Below are his comments, and my responses to them: 

Dan: 

 “part of being rational means trusting those who have proven their expertise” 

I agree, that is why people are justified in trusting science when it comes to basic ideas in cosmology. They are not being irrational, just as you trust modern medicine when your doctor prescribes you medicine for your stomachache, in spite of the fact that there are examples where medicine has been very wrong, and even stubborn in its views, as you write about in the Robin Warren case. You might feel that there is more power control when it comes to cosmology then medicine, or you, for whatever other reason might follow medicine but not modern cosmology, and that is fine, you are entitled to make that decision, but it is a purely subjective opinion. It is not like the objective truth of mathematics. You will most probably argue that cosmology is not a “repeatable, observable, limited phenomena” that you write about in your book, but there are millions of intelligent people that will argue otherwise, and we could spend years debating the point. (a quick idea to think about, the main issue is that the universe seems to be older then 6000 years old, not that it is 13.75 billion years old, this important point is often overlooked) More importantly there are issues in medicine which are still unobservable and debatable, but it is still rational for one to follow his doctor if he has a proven track record. 

My response: 

Since chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes deals precisely with the points raised above, I do not intend to reply in detail. 

The key point in this context is that most scientific findings are not an either/or proposition – completely reliable or totally speculative. Rather, they span a continuous spectrum. On one extreme are findings that are limited to phenomena that are repeatable, observable and limited; where predictions can be made and tested and theories can be confirmed or refuted. On the other extreme are claims about events that are forever shrouded in the mists of time or space, inaccessible to direct observation and measurement, not corroborated by experiment and never to be repeated. In between these two extremes are found all other findings of science, constituting the vast majority. This is a basic point of departure for all history and philosophy of science textbooks, and it is for this reason that historians of science differentiate between historical sciences and experimental sciences. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, writes that “In complex historical sciences like geology, few situations can be as well controlled as ideal laboratory experiments.” [Stephen Jay Gould, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, Norton, 1993, page 174.] Gould contrasts the “complex, unrepeatable, and unpredictable events of history” associated with historical sciences with the “quantification, experimentation, and replication” of experimental sciences. [Ibid. page 77.] Needless to say, Gould did not think that this is a subjective point that needs to be debated for years. It is common sense, and is amply corroborated by history. It is unlikely that the medicinal properties of aspirin will ever be denied, but that has precious little to do with ultimate theories in physics or cosmology. As the astronomer and science-historian Timothy Ferris wrote:

“Such optimism [about specific physical theories] may, of course, prove to have been misplaced. The history of twentieth-century physics is strewn with the bleached bones of theories that were once thought to approach an ultimate answer. [Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris, pages 332-333.]” 

In short, I certainly disagree with Dan when he equates the treatment of stomach-ache with cosmology. Notwithstanding Dan’s claim, there is a vast gulf of credibility between the two. This is how I put it in Genesis and Genes

“One essential ingredient of critical thinking is the ability to discriminate. Discrimination – an unfortunately much-maligned word – is the application of different standards, as and when appropriate. As we have seen in this chapter [i.e. chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes], scientific results slot into a continuous spectrum of credibility. We accept the nutritional-value advice on a packet of pasta because the science behind it is repeatable, observable and limited. The chemical analysis that identifies the carbohydrates, proteins and sugars in foods conforms to all the requirements of credible science and therefore justifies our trust. But this does not justify unlimited withdrawals from our credibility account when scientists speak about the origins of life, or the behaviour of physical laws a moment after the creation of the universe. It is appropriate to apply greater scepticism at this end of the spectrum of scientific claims.” 

I do not know what Dan means when he says, “You might feel that there is more power control when it comes to cosmology then [sic] medicine.” But I demonstrate in Genesis and Genes that intellectual disciplines fall on a spectrum which I call the continuum of proof. Different standards of proof apply in different disciplines such as physics, archaeology, geology, pharmacology, economics, psychology, and history, and an informed consumer of science needs to be able to distinguish between the levels of credibility that can be assigned to claims emanating from such diverse fields. At no point do I say that it is irrational to believe in current cosmological theories, as Dan seems to imply in his second sentence; I merely point out that one should be judicious when considering the credibility of various results in science. 

***

Dan: 

“I don’t know what Dan means by religious authorities…” 

I meant religious authorities of any creed, more to the point- it is very important to point out that there is not a community in the world that is immune to the abuse of power that you so brilliantly write about in your book. In fact I think your book would be beneficial for people of oppressed countries, they will learn to be skeptical of their dictator and not simple believe the information that is selectively fed to them.

 My response: 

I am flattered that anyone would deem Genesis and Genes worthy of being read by the oppressed masses and capable of instigating revolution and liberty. My objectives, alas, are more modest. How should an informed layman react to the spectrum of claims made on behalf of science? Is there strong evidence for biological evolution, in the sense of common descent through Natural Selection acting on genetic mutations? And what do traditional Torah sources say about all of this? If readers of Genesis and Genes will find it easier to answer these questions, I will be satisfied.

 ***

Dan: 

You write in your book “But scientists are human beings, subject to all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of other human beings. In our context, it is essential to recognise that scientists are subject to conditioning. They are the product of all previous life experiences, including a lengthy training period in which the reigning paradigm is impressed indelibly on their minds” I believe that we could include the entire human race in “scientist” thus Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders are all human. 

And I am sure you will agree with me that the more power and the less accountability leaders have, the more skeptical we should be of their pronouncements. 

My response: 

I wrote in Genesis and Genes

“Of course, I am not saying that conditioning is a problem only for scientists. We are all products of our lives and experiences, and these experiences make us all vulnerable to bias. When [the physicist Sir John] Polkinghorne says that scientists wear theoretical spectacles behind the eyes, his point is that conditioning is a problem for scientists also. They are not immune to having preconceptions.” 

It isn’t necessary to spell out for readers that prejudice and conditioning are part-and-parcel of the intellectual scene, especially when religion is involved. Nothing is easier than dismissing someone’s argument just because he is religious. But it’s different when it comes to science. The day-to-day activities of researchers are so removed from those of the general population that they are, to all intents and purposes, alien. Professor Polkinghorne again: 

“Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that.” 

This is why it is necessary to tell the public that science is a human endeavour, bedeviled by all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of human beings. 

***

Dan:

I am also sure that if hypothetically people would be given the death penalty for going against the leaders of medicine e.g. Robin Warren , we would have all the more reason to be extremely skeptical regarding medical pronouncements, because people will be too scared to challenge them, and we would all be having a lot of stomach problems! 

That is why when you write (I might be misunderstanding you here so I apologize in advance if that is the case) at the end of your article about prof Shapiro and Rabbi blue, that מלגלג על דברי חכמים carries the penalty of losing one’s share in the world to come, which is, I think, worse than the death penalty, I become very skeptical indeed. 

My response: 

I suggest that you approach a competent Torah authority to acquaint you with relevant sources. Here is one such source: 

דרשות הר”ן, הדרוש החמישי, נוסח ב: כן נצטוינו לכל מה שאמרו לנו על צד הקבלה מהדעות ומדרשי הפסוקים, יהיה המאמר ההוא מצווה או לא יהיה, ישראל הנוטה מדבריהם אפילו במה שאינו מביאורי המצות, הוא אפיקורוס ואין לו חלק לעולם הבא, וזה מפורש בסנהדרין בפרק חלק אמר יתיב רבי ירמיה קמיה דרבי זירא ויתיב וקאמר, עתיד הקב”ה להוציא נחל מבית קדשי הקדשים ועליו כל מיני מגדים, שנאמר [יחזקאל מז, יב] וְעַל הַנַּחַל יַעֲלֶה עַל שְׂפָתוֹ מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל לֹא יִבּוֹל עָלֵהוּ וְלֹא יִתֹּם פִּרְיוֹ לָחֳדָשָׁיו יְבַכֵּר כִּי מֵימָיו מִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הֵמָּה יוֹצְאִים וְהָיָה פִרְיוֹ לְמַאֲכָל וְעָלֵהוּ לִתְרוּפָה. אמר ליה ההוא סבא יישר, וכן אמר רבי יוחנן יישר, אמר ליה כי האי גוונא מי מחזי כאפקרותא, והא סיועי מסייע, אלא אי שמיע לך הכי שמיע לך, כי הא דרבי יוחנן הוה יתיב ודריש עתיד הקב”ה להוציא אבנים טובות ומרגליות שלשים על שלשים, וחוקק בהם עשרה על עשרה, ומעמידן בשערי ירושלים, שנאמר [ישעיה נד, יב] וְשַׂמְתִּי כַּדְכֹד שִׁמְשֹׁתַיִךְ וגו’, לגלג עליו אותו תלמיד, השתא כביעתא דצולצילתא לא משכחין, כולי האי מי משכחין, לימים הפליגה ספינתו בים, חזנהו להנהו מלאכי השרת דקא מנסרי אבנים טובות ומרגליות, אמר להם הני למאי, אמרי ליה עתיד הקב”ה להעמידן בשערי ירושלים, כי הדר אשכחיה לרבי יוחנן דקא יתיב ודריש, אמר ליה רבי דרוש ולך נאה לדרוש כשם שאמרת כך ראיתי, אמר ליה כי הא אם לא ראית לא האמנת, מלעיג על דברי חכמים אתה נתן עיניו בו ועשהו גל של עצמות. והרי מה שאמר כאן רבי יוחנן אינו דין וחוק מחוקי התורה, ואף על פי כן העלו כאן שהוא מדברי אפיקורסות, שהוא בוזה דבר השם יתברך, שאינו מאמין למי שהוא מצווה להאמין. 

***

Dan: 

Finally with regard to the debate regarding evolution there are plenty Jewish leaders that accept evolution as being compatible with Torah, for example the Chief Rabbi of England who is regarded as a great leader. Last year at the Sinai indaba he was a highlight of the evening when he gave his message to the entire Johannesburg Jewish community. I read his new book it was very interesting.

I am not saying that people should not follow Torah leaders that appose evolution if they choose to, all I am saying is that we have Jewish experts for and against evolution, and it is vital that on is given the freedom to choose. One can argue that the leaders on one side of the fence are less wise, or whatever then the other side but that is very subjective, on the opposite extreme of mathematics.
Looking forward to your response. 

My response: 

Once again, since much of this is discussed in detail in Genesis and Genes, I decline the opportunity to respond at length. 

  1. As always, definitions are important. I, too, am a believer in evolution, if evolution means limited changes within species, as indicated, for example, by slight changes in the beak size and shape of finches on the Galapagos Islands. Pointing out that so-and-so believes in evolution is of little value unless one defines evolution carefully. 
  2. To a Jewish audience (and, especially, a Torah-observant readership), what is of crucial importance is not so much whether contemporary writers support a particular notion, but whether it can be said that traditional Torah sources do. That is why writers like Dr. Gerald Schroeder and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, for example, strive to demonstrate that it was Chazal or the Rambam etc. who wrote of hominids and such like. If true, such claims would carry immeasurably more weight than the esteemed Lord Sacks, regardless of his popularity at Sinai Indaba. 
  3. There is nothing subjective about certain aspects of this debate. One can look at passages in the Rambam that are alleged to be discussions of hominids and determine, objectively, whether the claim is adequately substantiated. Some expertise is required to appreciate the Rambam’s context, and to translate his words correctly. But it is doable, and one cannot forever hide behind the claim that all important questions are subjective. I find it curious that when it comes to other contentious issues (gun control, legalization of cannabis, affirmative action) lots of people manage, despite the vociferous debate, to sift through the arguments and reach a conclusion that they deem to be rational and fact-based (while still acknowledging that others disagree). Yet, when it comes to contentious issues that impinge on fundamental theological points, the same people are content to perpetually abstain from taking a position.

 

Credulity and Scepticism – a response to Dan

December 7, 2012

In response to my previous post (an excerpt from chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes), Dan wrote: 

What principled distinction is there between scientific authority and theological authority, surely your point that we should be open minded and skeptical about scientific papers, pronouncements, etc, should also apply to religion. We should also be open minded and not simply accept everything that religious authorities pronounce. Do you agree with this? If not I would appreciate it if you could explain the difference.
Thanks 

My response:

Broadly speaking, I agree with Dan. Would any rational person disagree? We place our trust in people or institutions on the basis of evidence. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out that the famous Jewish proclivity for scepticism begins at the dawn of our history. Hirsch writes: 

“They [the Israelites] began to have doubts concerning the mission of Moses. In view of their situation, it is easy to account for their misgivings. How could they have assumed so unquestioningly that God would lead them to their goal in such an extraordinary manner, unprecedented in history, in a manner running counter to all natural assumptions? As Judah HaLevi points out in his Kuzari, these persistent doubts in fact constituted an important documentation for the authenticity of Moses’ mission. Moses was dealing with a people whose minds were clear and lucid, not befogged by fanciful notions, a nation that was not easily taken in…” [The Pentateuch T’rumath Tzvi, (Hirsch Chumash) page 263. Emphasis added]. 

At the other end of history, contemporary Jewish outreach (kiruv) typically involves, as a major component, the presentation of rational arguments. You may agree or disagree with the argument, but you won’t be asked to chomp on mushrooms and hum Ohmm for hours on end. 

On a personal level, I consider myself a sceptic twice over: by temperament and by training. I grew up in a thoroughly secular home, with no Jewish education to speak of. My journey to observance involved endless questioning and doubt. Furthermore, I have been a Talmudic scholar for seventeen years, and there is no more sceptical document in human history than the Talmud, in which the most common refrain is, “How do you know that?” 

Having said all of this, I should point out that scepticism is often an excuse for inaction; it functions as a mask for laziness. Anyone who wishes to avoid the cognitive dissonance that follows from a refusal to live by one’s convictions can claim that his inaction stems from scepticism. 

More to the point – as far as Dan’s comment goes – is the fact that scepticism does not mean that we never take things on authority. On the contrary; part of being rational means trusting those who have proven their expertise. I may not understand precisely why a doctor prescribes medicine A as opposed to medicine B, or why my mechanic thinks that the tappets need replacing, but if he has proven himself competent in the past, I would most likely trust his expertise in this case. 

I don’t know what Dan means by religious authorities. I do know that my commitment to Torah Judaism came about through a long and thorough exploration of the relevant issues. I also know that the Torah tradition has proved itself to be the most trustworthy, reliable, rationally-defensible ideology in history. On the basis of experience and evidence, I have no reason to doubt it, even if I do not pretend to know every nook and cranny of this enormous intellectual edifice.

Excerpt from Genesis and Genes – Chapter 1

December 5, 2012

Genesis and Genes (Feldheim, 2013) is now available in selected bookstores in Israel and the UK. A shipment is making its way to the USA, and then to South Africa and elsewhere. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is a passage from Chapter 1.  

Anyone who reads science publications will periodically come across such items. Seed, an award-winning science magazine[1], published an article in May 2007 about the research of epidemiologist John Ioannidis. The article reports that,

In a 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, epidemiologist John Ioannidis showed that among the 45 most highly cited clinical research findings of the past 15 years, 99 percent of molecular research had subsequently been refuted. Epidemiology findings had been contradicted in four-fifths of the cases he looked at, and the usually robust outcomes of clinical trials had a refutation rate of one in four.[2] The revelations struck a chord with the scientific community at large: A recent essay by Ioannidis simply entitled “Why most published research findings are false” has been downloaded more than 100,000 times; the Boston Globe called it “an instant cult classic.”

Part of the explanation for this shocking finding is something we just discussed:

Cash-for-science practices between the nutrition and drug companies and the academics that conduct their research may also be playing a role. A survey of published results on beverages earlier this year found that research sponsored by industry is much more likely to report favorable findings than papers with other sources of funding. Although not a direct indication of bias, findings like these feed suspicion that the cherry-picking of data, hindrance of negative results, or adjustment of research is surreptitiously corrupting accuracy. In his essay, Ioannidis wrote, “The greater the financial and other interest and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”[3]

Financial prejudices are only part of the problem, as Glenn Begley’s experience in cancer research shows. During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, Begley identified 53 “landmark” publications – papers in top journals, from reputable labs – for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development. Result: 47 of the 53 studies (89%) could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published in the journal Nature in March 2012. In a Reuters report, Begley said “It was shocking. These are the studies the pharmaceutical industry relies on to identify new targets for drug development… As we tried to reproduce these papers we became convinced you can’t take anything at face value.”[4] Begley’s experience echoes a report from scientists at Bayer AG. In a 2011 paper titled Believe it or not, they analyzed in-house projects that built on “exciting published data” from basic science studies. “Often, key data could not be reproduced,” wrote Khusru Asadullah, vice president and head of target discovery at Bayer HealthCare in Berlin, and colleagues. Of 47 cancer projects at Bayer during 2011, less than one-quarter could reproduce previously reported findings, despite the efforts of three or four scientists working full time for up to a year. Bayer dropped the projects. 

Bayer and Amgen found that the prestige of a journal was no guarantee a paper would be solid. “The scientific community assumes that the claims in a preclinical study can be taken at face value,” Begley and Lee Ellis of MD Anderson Cancer Center wrote in Nature. They and others fear the phenomenon is the product of a skewed system of incentives that has academics cutting corners to further their careers. Part way through his project to reproduce promising studies, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies. “We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure,” said Begley. “I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they’d done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It’s very disillusioning.” 

Sources: 

  1. Seed was a finalist for two National Magazine Awards in 2007 in the categories of Design and General Excellence, is the recipient of the Utne Independent Press Award, and is included in the 2006 Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology published by Houghton Mifflin.
  2. The original research by Ioannidis can be read here: http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/294/2/218.full.pdf+html. Retrieved 5th June 2011.
  3. http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/dirty_little_secret/. Retrieved 5th June 2011.
  4. See http://www.newsdaily.com/stories/bre82r12p-us-cancer/. Retrieved 31st March 2012.