Thursday, January 31, 2008

Science, from a Yated Reader

Oh, man, there are some weeks that the Yated is a gold mine of blog material. This week is one of them. I could probably spend the whole week blogging on this issue, but I’ll restrict myself (for now) to one letter to the editor. Here is a letter, titled “Science” (with the quotes) from yesterday’s edition. All typos are mine (with the exception of the misspelling of the word “pursue” at the end).

A. Stone was dead-on in his observation regarding the arrogance of weather reporters. This arrogance is not limited to weathermen, but extends to all scientists in all fields of science. This is a profession where most scientific data is disproved within a decade of their release, yet, in each generation, these people somehow delude themselves to believe that they are different, that their ideas stand at the pinnacle of science.

This cycle has been going on for thousands of years, yet none of these scientists have ever learned their lesson. They are constantly correcting their own mistakes. To realize this, all you have to do is open up any science publication and you will notice the phrase “Now we know….” Written over and over, year after year! If you look closely at science, most successful scientific discoveries are trial and error discoveries, or “recipe” discoveries. We took patient A who had disease B and gave him medicine C and he recovered; therefore substance C treats malady B. This prompted Paul Valery, a noted French essayist, to write that “science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. The rest is literature.”

When scientific theories are not based on trial-and-error techniques, they are almost always wrong. For example, if a scientist would have been asked exactly how medicine C would affect the patient, he would invariably be eventually proven wrong. Here are some of the predictions of this kind to look back on:

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be attainable.” (Albert Einstein, 1932)

“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” (The New York Times, 1936)

“Scientists predict cure for allergies is near.” (Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1982)

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” (Yale University, 1929)

Sometimes, science goes a step farther and makes sweeping predictions about the future. These are the funniest to look back on. Of course, the scientists quickly forget these predictions, or give us an arrogant analysis. “Well, then we believed A and B, but now we know…”

Who remembers the prediction of the coming ice age in the ‘70s, which made the front cover of several national publications? Who remembers global famine, resource depletion, or overpopulation? And, of course, we have the following masterpieces from the great New York Times:

“Earthquakes may engulf all of Europe.” (April 8, 1906)

“Rats [!] may destroy the human race; man must drive out or be driven out.” (July 7, 1908)

“British experts say deaf age is coming; New Yorkers may be first to lose their hearing.” (July 26, 1928)

“Man’s war on disease sweeps on to victory; few [battles] remain to be won.” (June 15, 1927)

So, as we persue (sic) all the dire scientific data of our impending global barbeque, pardon me as I guffaw loudly.

Professor J. Sherman
Psychopharmaceutical Development Specialist,
GlaxoSmithKline Inc.

I found the letter mildly amusing until I saw the signature at the end. That was when I burst into laughter. If this fellow is a “Psychopharmaceutical Development Specialist” at GlaxoSmithKline, you may want to reconsider some using of their products. In any event, I’m fairly certain that “Professor” is an academic title, not a personal one (such as “doctor.”). GSK doesn’t hire people to be professors, only colleges do.

In any event, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this letter. It sounds like a poorly written kiruv primer. The Professor makes the assumption that if a scientist says something, then that’s the opinion of “science” (by which I suppose he means the scientific community) and when it’s disproved, then that proves that all of science must be wrong. He puts up the straw man of science claiming to be all-knowing and infallible when it never makes such a claim – indeed, one of the principles of the scientific method is that any scientific hypothesis *must* be falsifiable.

He goes on to state that when science doesn’t rely on trial-and-error, it almost always is “proven wrong.” In reality, however, all scientific inquiry (by definition) is done through trial and error and/or observation. If not, then it is not scientific.

In addition, the Professor seems to be making the same mistake that Rav Uren Reich made a few years back when he disparaged science. At the height of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Slifkin, Rav Reich said:

These same scientists who tell you with such clarity what happened sixty-five million years ago – ask them what the weather will be like in New York in two weeks’ time! “Possibly, probably, it could be, maybe” – ain itam hadavar, they don’t know.

In short, he says that because they can’t predict the future, then anything they say must be suspect. It’s kind of like a person saying that the computer I’m using to type this post on can’t possibly exist because Bill Gates said that no one would ever need more than 640K of RAM. Since Bill Gates was wrong, certainly nothing the computer engineers tell us can be believed.

Interestingly, even some of the quotes that Professor Sherman uses are suspect. Take the quote about earthquakes engulfing Europe. If you go to the actual New York Times article, you’ll find that his quote is only half the title. Here’s the complete title:

Earthquake May Ingulf (sic) all Europe, Says German Scientist; Berlin Professor Finds in French Mine Disaster a Symptom of the Approaching Cataclysm --- American Geologists Not Quite So Alarmist in Their Views.

So, it was the opinion of one scientist, not the opinion of “science.” Furthermore, if you actually read the first two paragraphs of the article, you’ll find that the scientist who made the prediction was an astronomer, not a geologist. So, what you have is a scientist that is making a prediction outside of his field; and his opinion is disputed by other scientists who *are* experts in the field.
In addition, you have to keep in mind that the New York Times of 1906 was not the New York Times of a century later. Journalistic standards of 1906 were much lower than they are today. Just because the New York Times chose to print something hardly makes it the scientific equivalent of Torah MiSinai.

Another of his quotes is the 1936 quote from the Times that rockets will never leave the Earth’s atmosphere. This quote is referenced often on the web, yet, when I searched the Times archive from 1900 to 1949, I could not find the quote that he attributes to the Times. My guess is that it’s an urban legend (or else it’s a misstatement of the famous editorial against Goddard in 1920 – but that wasn’t written by a scientist, it was written by an editorial writer).

What is highly comical, I suppose, about this letter is that is written by someone who purports to be scientist, and yet claims that “all scientists in all fields of science” are arrogant. And what's utterly sad about it is that there are thousands of people who are going to read his letter and, because they don't know any better, will say to themselves, "yep, science is just a load of horse-hockey." And yet, these same people will go on with their lives, living into their seventies and eighties (and possibly beyond) on average, they probably won't die of scarlet fever, whooping cough, malaria or smallpox, they will be able to store food for longer than a day in their refrigerators, get where they are going in planes, trains and automobiles, be able to communicate with each other via telephone and the Internet, and, in general, benefit from the many good things that God has provided for us through science and the scientific method.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

I found the letter mildly amusing until I saw the signature at the end. That was when I burst into laughter. If this fellow is a “Psychopharmaceutical Development Specialist” at GlaxoSmithKline, you may want to reconsider some using of their products. In any event, I’m fairly certain that “Professor” is an academic title, not a personal one (such as “doctor.”). GSK doesn’t hire people to be professors, only colleges do.

Pharmaceutical companies sometimes hire former professors/PhDs to work for them...

BrooklynWolf said...

Right, I understand that. But then if they aren't in academics anymore, they aren't titled Professor, correct? That's a title that's used in Academics. If he has a PhD, then he should use the title of "Doctor," not "Professor."

The Wolf

Larry Lennhoff said...

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” (Yale University, 1929)

That he even thinks this is a scientific prediction shows an inability to read pshat. Words just fail.

DAG said...


Wolfie, professors reciev professorial appointments. Unless such an appointment is revoked, they remain in force, even after leaving the University. And professors need NOT be PhD's

DAG said...

BTW, there IS a Yiddish Lit Professor at Oxford named Professor J Sherman

Professor J. Sherman
Oxford Centre for Hebrew and
Jewish Studies
Yiddish literature.

I would have no idea why a Yiddish lit Prof would work for GSK

Anonymous said...

I work for a large pharma company and the honorific and title sounds phoney to me. Also he forgot the Thomas Watson prediction (Head of IBM in the 50s) that the world wouldn't need more than 10 computers. That's usually first or second on the standard "What do they know" list.

Anonymous said...

This is not the least bit funny. If you're chuckling, stop it. The repurcussions of this attitude won't be laughable, and you share in their fate, even if not completely.

Zev Stern said...

A professor who leaves academia for business (fairly common since academic salaries stink) might still be referred to as Professor. Likewise, a Senator who leaves the Senate continues to be addressed as Senator (unless she becomes President has v'shalom) and Jimmy Carter is still addressed as Mr. President (ugh).

If that letter was supposed to be Purim Torah, it's two months early. But then it's always Purim for the fools at Yated/Deiah V'Dumbness.

ProfK said...

Sorry but "professor" does not migrate with someone when they leave a university or college setting. It is a term of direct address for an instructor in a college setting, regardless of degree held. Those with a PhD are frequently addressed as "Doctor_____," although they may also go by professor, but when referring to themselves they would not write Doctor_____ but_______, PhD.

I suspect that J. Sherman has no PhD, hence the attempt at legitimacy for his so-called expertise by calling himself "professor."