Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Torah, Science, Pseudo-Torah & Pseudo-Science

When science appears to contradict the Torah, there are a few ways to deal with the situation. When I was a child, I was taught to compartmentalize the two - science and Torah are different realms and there is no need to reconcile them. This, it seems to me, can be a symptom of or result in either dismissing Torah as untrue, and I think that is how it was taught to me. But it can also be a result of remaining in a state of unconcerned faith. This is my personal approach. Due to my lack of interest in science - my last biology class was in ninth grade and physics was in my freshman year of college - I don't claim to understand science well enough to find a resolution. I just remain confident that a resolution will eventually be found.

I had a roommate in yeshiva who had a more right-wing schooling and was taught by his rebbeim that science is wrong and the scientists are just a bunch of faithless fools. This did not sit well with him because his father is an accomplished research physicist. Quite the opposite of their intent, the rebbeim were the ones who seemed like ignorant fools, dismissing matters of which they had little knowledge. (To his and his parents' credit, my friend's faith did not suffer and he is still learning full-time well into his 30s.)

Science, the rebbeim pronounced authoritatively, is only made up of theories to explain facts. Those theories are inherently biased to the scientists' worldview and scientists are a bunch of heretics and atheists. Scientific theories come and go, so why should we believe any particular one?

This is just wrong. I know plenty of scientists with whom I went to yeshiva or know otherwise and they are neither heretics nor atheists. They are far less biased (and far more knowledgable in these matters) than these rebbeim. Additionally, some scientific theories come and go but many are here to stay. The law of gravity is not changing any time soon. That the planets revolve around the sun is not going to be disproven. That blood carries oxygen throughout the body is also fairly well documented. Viruses, bacteria, germs - these were all big hiddushim in their times. It is wrong to state that science cannot be trusted because it changes all the time. Not all things change and not all things remain unchanged. Scientifically ignorant people like me might not be able to tell the difference between what is definite and what is not, but that does not mean that those involved in these matters cannot (more on this below). Not to mention that we put our life on the line very frequently because of scientific theories. I would never get on a big box and travel full speed towards the Atlantic Ocean unless science confirmed that the box would be able to fly. Nor would I take all sorts of medicines that do untold things to my inner body unless medical theory confirmed that they would not harm me.

Another response that I see adopted is that of adhering to any scientific theory that can support Torah doctrine. Believing scientists and laypeople latch onto any scientist who proposes a theory that bends science to fit in with (what appears to be) the Torah's view. I believe that there is a danger in this.

There are always fully-credentialed scientists who devise elaborate opposition views to regnant scientific theories. Some call them crackpots and their teachings pseudo-science. Do we really want to align ourselves with crackpots? Does our faith require us to latch onto any pseudo-scientific theory that uses lots of big words and elaborate conspiracy theories to explain away the evidence? As a religious person, I find this embarrassing.

I've spent a lot of years learning Torah, enough to be able to tell fairly quickly when someone discussing a Torah topic is a gross ignoramus. For fun, I sometimes read Heterodox responsa. Some are good. Some are excellent. Most are pseudo-Torah, the kind that makes me wince in pain from the distortion of my religion (but it's still an interesting read). Sometimes I will read an article from someone trying to make a political or social point and use a Torah concept as proof. The people who have a leg within serious Torah study can usually do this successfully but many do not have that background and make obviously inept comparisons and statements that will fool outsiders but are immediately obvious to the initiates. They are engaging in pseudo-Torah and they probably do not even know it. In a way, it is harmless amha'aratzus and at least they respect Torah enough to try to prove their point from it. But frequently they are distorting the Torah and are also respected as Torah scholars by those even more ignorant. Pseudo-Torah can be dangerous.

Le-havdil, this can be applied to all areas of study. The initiates know immediately what is pure junk while those of us on the outside cannot tell the difference. I do not know what is pseudo-science and what is real science. I do know that many fundamentalist Christians will defend anything to preserve their faith, no matter how untrue. I will not align myself with them on matters such as this and prefer to say "I don't know" than to accept their pseudo-science.

Is Creationist Science pseudo-science? I don't know. It has more respectable adherents than the flat-earth theory and Dr. Nathan Aviezer is a serious scientist. But when rov minyan u-binyan of the scientific world is arguing one thing, I find it hard to believe that a rabbi in Brooklyn who read one or two popular works on science can refute their arguments. More likely, he doesn't know what he is talking about and would do better to say "I don't know but some scientists disagree with the mainstream theory."

What is my point in this rambling post? Don't dismiss all science as "just a theory." Don't latch onto pseudo-scientists. And don't pretend to know things that you don't. Lamed leshonkha lomar "eini yodei'a" (teach your tongue to say "I don't know").

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