Creationist scientists

It’s easy to suspect that characteristically philosophical questions are irresolvable. And not just in the sense that there are no final and incontestable answers, but in the sense that you can’t even make progress on them. The main reason to suspect this is that philosophers don’t in fact seem able to resolve their disputes. (You might think that this indicates that a lot of philosophical questions are really pseudoquestions. But whether this is so is itself a philosophical question, and therefore irresolvable.)

What, then, to make of ostensibly scientific debates that refuse to die? After all, science is impressive precisely because in many cases, we achieve consensus and move on. But what happens when you still have a handful of scientists—good scientists, by all appearances—who go against even a very strong consensus?

Take, for example, Doron Aurbach, an Israeli electrochemist who has more than 320 publications and leads one of the largest research groups in Israel, a country that is by no means a scientific lightweight. He’s also a creationist. What biologists do, to him, is “macro-evolutionary philosophy.” Not only does he not think that the work of evolutionary biologists does not rise to the level of “real science that connects conclusions to solid facts based on reliable measurements,” he thinks the Torah is historically accurate, contains reliable prophecies, etc. etc. He sets aside not just nearly all of modern biology but history and biblical scholarship, all in favor of a cramped Jewish fundamentalism. (All this based on his chapter in Divine Action and Natural Selection.)

Now, there may well be good explanations for this sort of thing. On Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism especially, I found Solomon Schimmel’s recent The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth to be very illuminating. But still, I’m not satisfied. There’s something disturbing about the ability of many good scientists to let intellectual standards slip when it comes to to their religious convictions.

Now, Aurbach certainly would not agree. He argues that it is precisely his scientific thinking that leads him to denying “macro-evolution.” But that’s clearly bullshit; he cavalierly ignores evolutionary biology, history, and biblical scholarship, which are developed fields with plenty of intellectual rigor, comparable at least to electrochemistry. Aurbach is not an isolated case. I’ve run into other physical scientists who acted very similarly. I had a colleague as a postdoc, also Jewish but not even very religious, who was convinced there was something deeply wrong with evolution. I once encountered a Mormon physicist, very good in the lab, the kind of guy who draws in million-dollar grants, who with a straight face argued that he’d personally examined the controversies about the Book of Mormon, and he was convinced that it was a completely accurate description of the early history of the North American continent. This is a completely crazy idea, as far as actual historians or anthropologists are concerned. But no, as a scientist he felt perfectly capable of dismissing all that and certifying the truth of the Book of Mormon.

I don’t know what to do about such cases, other than rant. I think these are examples of thinking that go so far off the deep end that I have to wonder whether there is something wrong with me instead. Even when I think I can see exactly how they go wrong, even when I can see the plausibility of psychological explanations of why they go wrong, there’s something disturbing about such examples.

Weird weird weird.

Critical Thinking is Bigotry
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Jesus on Faith – Part 6
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • atimetorend

    Michael Shermer wrote, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

    That sums it up for me, though in a case like this I can fall back on that without really thinking it through. Because it is mind-boggling he can hold that position. I try to remember that I’ve held bad positions before, but it is still amazing.

  • Keith Parsons

    Interesting post, Taner, and happy Darwin Day to everyone! I have a colleague and friend at my university who is an excellent physicist and one of the smartest people I have known. He has no truck at all with creationism, “intelligent design,” biblical apologetics, or any of that folderol. A while back he told me that he had read On the Origin of Species, and it seemed more like philosophy to him than science.

    I think it is not terribly surprising that the Origin might read more like philosophy than science to someone like my physicist friend. It has no equations; in fact (unlike current journal articles on evolutionary topics), it is totally non-mathematical. Also, the empirical evidence it (massively) adduces generally is not in the form of carefully controlled experiments, but comes from observations gathered from many different sources. To practitioners of “hard” sciences the Origin probably does read more like a piece of advocacy written by a lawyer or a philosophical argument than the sort of science that they are used to. Even Darwin called the Origin “one long argument.”

    I think that historians and philosophers of science have amply shown that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all Scientific Method, but a variety of methods employed in different sciences. The methods used in a “hard” science like electrochemistry are not appropriate for a historical science like geology or paleontology. But different does not mean worse. Also, as those historians and philosophers have also shown, the “hard” sciences are not always as hard as some of their practitioners like to think. Genuine instances of knock-down crucial experiments are relatively rare. Much more typically, experimental results, even in the “hardest” sciences, require extensive interpretation, redaction, and analysis, and conclusions have to be argued out rather than settled by decisive demonstration.

    Still, there is no doubt that the kind of empirical constraint you get in astrophysics differs from the kind in archaeology. Historical science of the sort Darwin was pursuing in the Origin, has to account for unique historical episodes, by their very nature irreproducible, and inaccessibly located in the depths of time. The historical processes of, say, bird evolution simply cannot be recreated under controlled circumstances.

    Yet the historical sciences, like the “hard” sciences, do operate by constructing theoretical models and by vetting those models as rigorously as possible. The strength of Darwin’s model has always been that it accounts for an enormous number and variety of known facts and has readily accommodated new ones as they are discovered. It is by uniting a large number of seemingly disparate phenomena under a single, simple, comprehensive explanatory scheme that evolution by natural selection earned Dobzhansky’s plaudit that nothing in biology makes sense without it.

    Actually, come to think of it, maybe the differences in the confirmation of theories in physics and paleontology are not always so different. Famously, Newton’s conclusions in the Principia were widely accepted well before they had received rigorous testing. Further, people of the late 17th Century accepted Newton’s theories for reasons similar to those that backed Darwin’s in the 19th: They explained a large number of phenomena in simple, cogent, and comprehensive terms.

    So, maybe the answer for my physicist friend would be that a diversity of methods is to be expected between the historical and the “hard” sciences, but that such diversity does not imply an inferiority of scientific credentials. Also, we might point out that there are commonalities in the way theories have been confirmed in both types of science, and that some of the same sorts of reasoning, like inference to the best explanation, are employed in both.

  • Perezoso

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • tri-village

    Of course, atheist scientists are hardly immune to these tendencies. To most persons with bona fide expertise in the relevant disciplines, the recent popular books by so-called “new atheists” come across as a combination of anthropology as she is spoke, psychology as she is spoke, philosophy as she is spoke, history of religions as she is spoke, etc.

    I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to locate online something I once read, a guide to how to distinguish science from psuedoscience. I think it was put out by CSICOP (now CSI). Among other things, it said that one trait that distinguishes purveyors of junk science is their penchant for bypassing peer-reviewed journals and taking their arguments directly to popular audiences. I’ve always wondered why so many people are quick to apply this test to, say, Michael Behe, but not to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.

  • Taner Edis

    Tri-Village: “one trait that distinguishes purveyors of junk science is their penchant for bypassing peer-reviewed journals and taking their arguments directly to popular audiences. I’ve always wondered why so many people are quick to apply this test to, say, Michael Behe, but not to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.”

    Well, I, for one, have argued, in print, that Harris’s work is largely junk, exactly because he pays no attention to relevant scholarly literature. Don’t overestimate Harris’s reputation.

    Dawkins is a different case. He presents The God Delusion as a consciousness-raising exercise, not an intellectual novelty, and certainly not a scientific book. Plus, unlike Harris, Dawkins has a long paper trail before his recent popular book, including in more professionally relevant publications, where he presented aspects of his arguments.

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