The Myth of the Almighty Scientist: “Genesis and Genes” by Yoram Bogacz (REVIEW)
There is at least one thing that intelligent theists and atheistic/materialist scientists agree on: “leaps of faith” are extremely dangerous. A “leap of faith” means believing something – not because it is reasonable or backed up by compelling evidence – but because you would like it to be true, because it satisfies your emotional, spiritual, or philosophical agenda. Non-believers, be they scientists or philosophers, wield this principle as a blunt instrument when they attack religion and believers. Sometimes these attacks may be justified and sometimes not. What they fail to do, however, is to apply this same standard to themselves.
Secularists have perpetuated a myth of the “Almighty Scientist” who has transcended all human failings and temptations, who is computer-like in his mathematical thinking and objective analysis of not only scientific issues, but even in the philosophical implications of scientific “truths.” In other words, for many non-believers Science has become the religion that eclipses all other systems of belief; the Scientist has become the new holy man whose words and declarations must be accepted without question. If you think I am exaggerating, read the books and essays by some of the current crop of secular prophets: Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens, P.Z. Myers, et al. In his book Genesis and Genes (Feldheim Publishers, 2012) Yoram Bogacz, a chemical engineer and Jewish educator who resides in South Africa, masterfully lays out for the reader a history of science that shatters this myth and establishes realistic paradigms for the rational truth-seeker to investigate and evaluate controversial issues involving science and religion; in particular, cosmology and biological evolution.
For orthodox Jews it is important to note the strong approbation given by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical Seminary in Baltimore: “an excellent book defining the assumptions of science in formulating their theories…fascinating reading…I highly recommend it.” There is also an introduction by Rabbi Dr. David Gottlieb – former Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and senior lecturer at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Jerusalem – “Genesis and Genes will go a long way to counteract the obsequiousness to scientific authority. Through the meticulous documentation of numerous case studies, the author introduces the lay reader to a more realistic framework for evaluation of scientific results…Genesis and Genes wisely refrains from the wholesale rejection of science. Only caution is urged…the [author’s] argument is not that the theory of evolution is refuted, but rather that…the available evidence justifies profound skepticism.”
While the author presents an excellent review of the very real problems with the current theory of Darwinian Evolution, (along with relevant traditional Jewish sources on the subject), I think the most important part of the book is contained in the first 158 pages where Mr. Bogacz lucidly illustrates the long history of blunders and unjustified assumptions that scientists have made in their attempts to understand the natural world. All human foibles including arrogance, wishful thinking, narrow-mindedness, blind obedience to “standard teachings,” pure stubbornness, and even political affiliations have contributed to some of the serious errors that scientists have made over the centuries. Some notable examples:
- Dr. Robin Warren, an Australian pathologist, was scoffed at when he suggested that some stomach ulcers were caused, not by stress as was the “standard teaching,” but rather by bacteria residing in the intestines. His collaborator on this project, Dr. Barry Marshall, was told by a chief gastroenterologist at one of Australia’s major hospitals that Dr. Warren was “the crackpot downstairs trying to prove that bacteria cause gastritis.” In February 1983, their paper was rejected by the Gastroenterological Society of Australia. By 1984 their work had demonstrated that most peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria that somehow managed to survive the acidity of the human stomach. Millions of sufferers who were once given palliatives for a chronic condition could now be cured with antibiotics. Warren and Marshall were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005.
- America’s first Nobel Laureate in Physics (1907), Albert Michelson, declared the following in an 1894 speech given at the University of Chicago: “The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented in consequences of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” How ironic in light of the fact that Michelson’s own experiments helped disprove the long held theory of the luminiferous ether. Little did he know that a young physicist working in a patent office in Switzerland (by the name of Albert Einstein) was about to revolutionize our entire understanding of the physical world with his theory of relativity.
- When renowned physicist, Max Planck, was a twenty year old graduate student, one of his professors, Phillip von Jolly, advised him against becoming a physicist. He told him that after the discovery of the two laws of thermodynamics, all that was left to do was to tie up loose ends. This was how the physics community saw things as the 20th century approached. Just a few years later Planck formulated the theory of the quantum, which helped usher in revolutionary developments associated with quantum mechanics and relativity.
- In the late 18th century, astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel rocked the world of astronomy by announcing the discovery of a 7th planet that came to be known as Uranus. Since antiquity, it was assumed that there were only six planets (Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn), those which are visible to the naked eye. A Scientific American article stated that “The idea that our solar system harbored a whole other world…captivated astronomers…[They found] that the planet had actually been seen 20 times prior to 1781, including as early as 1690, but misidentified as a star.” Herschel’s predecessors could literally not see what they saw because they had been conditioned to believe there were only five other planets besides Earth. It had never been challenged or questioned. It took an amateur astronomer like Herschel to break through the established “known” facts and think outside the box.
- Cosmologists make absolutist declarations about the size and age of the universe while at the same time hypothesizing that somewhere in the neighborhood of 95% (!) of our universe consists of dark matter and dark energy regarding whose nature we are absolutely clueless. In fact the names “dark matter and energy” are simply another way of saying “we have no idea what it is.” The reason why physicists hypothesize the existence of dark matter and energy is because certain observed phenomena make no sense in light of the visible and measurable amount of matter and energy in the universe. (Isn’t a little bit of humility in order here?)
The list goes on and on, but I will add one heart-rending example that Bogacz does not include in his book. Dr. Phillip Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) was a Hungarian physician who was appointed as chief resident of the First Obstetrics Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital in 1846. At the time an alarming number of women giving birth ended up dying from what was called “puerperal fever.” Strangely enough, the mortality rates were significantly lower among women who gave birth outside of the hospital. This was one of the clues that eventually led Semmelweis to discover the cure for the disease. He wrote that the number of women dying in his clinic “made life so miserable that life seemed worthless.” What turned out to be the “cure” for puerperal fever is absolutely shocking and mind boggling to those unfamiliar with the story.
Semmelweis discovered that that the occurrence of the disease could be effectively reduced to zero if Doctors would simply wash their hands with a chlorine/lime solution when they went from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies. Remember, this was well before Louis Pasteur and the development of germ theory. These findings ran against the conventional scientific wisdom that diseases spread in the form of “bad air,” also known as miasmas. His groundbreaking idea that cleanliness was crucial in preventing the spread of disease ran contrary to established medical/scientific understanding.
One would have thought that the results themselves – the startling reduction in the mortality rate when his protocols were followed – would have taken the medical profession by storm. What Semmelweis could not have foreseen and what he did not count on was the arrogance and stubbornness of the medical/scientific community when faced with a paradigm shift. Not only were his findings rejected but he was ridiculed and ostracized by the members of his own profession. According to the Wikipedia entry, “some doctors were offended by the suggestion that they should wash their hands, feeling their social status as gentlemen was inconsistent with the idea that their hands could be unclean…Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers.” He eventually was dismissed from his position and tragically died in an insane asylum. He was not fully vindicated until well after his death. This story should be an object lesson for those who find themselves enthralled with Scientists.
For those who would respond that in modern times such a thing could never happen, I remind you of the case of Dr. Warren, who was mentioned above. In a TIME interview in 2005 he recalled the scorn that was heaped on him for daring to challenge the conventional scientific wisdom by suggesting that bacteria caused peptic ulcers; “it was pretty savage.” He was even denied access to tissue samples with which to conduct his research.
Professor Dan Shechtman, of the Technion Institute in Israel, was also ridiculed by the entire scientific community for his discoveries regarding the nature of quasicrystals which ran contrary to the “accepted” scientific paradigms. In his own words: “For a long time it was me against world. I was a subject of ridicule…the leader of the opposition…was the two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, one of the most famous scientists in the world…for years, until his last day, he fought against quasi-periodicity in crystals.” Pauling once said, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” At one point the head of Shechtman’s research group told him to “go back and read the textbook” and asked him to leave for “bringing disgrace” on the team. In 2011, Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research. Even today, the medical/scientific community suppresses the knowledge of serious medical risks associated with abortions – among them, significantly increased risks of breast cancer and miscarriages in future pregnancies – for purely political reasons. So much for the unquestioned objectivity and integrity of Scientists.
The reason I emphasize the importance of the opening four chapters of Bogacz’s book is that before one can approach and intelligently evaluate controversial subjects such as cosmology and evolution – subjects which have profound implications in our understanding of who and what we are as human beings – it is crucial to also understand that Science is expounded by Scientists who are fallible human beings – at times, very human and very fallible – just like the rest of us. Bogacz has compellingly argued that a healthy and robust skepticism is in order.
In Genesis and Genes, Yoram Bogacz has meticulously and painstakingly marshaled the evidence and has pleaded his case with the skill of a virtuoso barrister. This book is an invaluable contribution towards fostering a true understanding of the relationship between God, Science, Religion, and Torah; it is accessible to all and while directed primarily at the Jewish community, any rational truth-seeker will find it a fascinating and enlightening read.
In closing, Bogacz cites Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, one of the most influential Talmudic thinkers of the 20th century: “We have known three revolutionaries: Darwin introduced materialism into nature; Marx injected materialism into history; and Freud brought materialism into the very soul of man.” He then adds his own commentary on Rabbi Hutner’s remarks: “Rabbi Hutner did not concoct a cocktail of materialistic reductionism and vague references to esoteric kabbalistic sources and call it theistic evolution. He just flatly rejected the compatibility of the Torah with this odious ideology. There is no need to genuflect before the masters of materialism.” To which I add: Amen, Mr. Bogacz, Amen!
Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.