Why Teaching Science Is So Important

When I mention the big bang theory to my yeshiva students, they inevitably react with; “It’s apikorsus (heresy)!”, “Isn’t that evolution?”, “I like that show!”, and “We don’t believe in any of that, right?”

These students are not in 5th grade; they are young adults with 12 to 15 years of Yeshiva education in their pockets. They have not studied the big bang theory, the theory of evolution, Darwin, carbon dating, Einstein’s theories of relativity, or quantum mechanics. In their minds, these theories are a big jumble of mysterious things that the secular world believes.

Yeshivas don’t teach these theories, but they do teach the following attitude about them; Science and Torah are not compatible, and scientists are out to disprove the Torah at every turn, and are, therefore, the enemy.

Whenever I ask why science is not taught in Yeshivas, I am told that there is a fear that these theories may lead to questioning the underpinnings of Judaism. My personal belief and experience is that a deeper understanding and appreciation of the physical sciences can vastly enhance our relationship with our creator. For me, deeply comprehending the profundity of “Baruch oseh breishis” (blessed is He who created the beginning – i.e. time), only began once I learned about spacetime. And the bracha of asher yatzar doesn’t need to reference “chochma (wisdom)” if we are not to try and deepen our appreciation of our bodies through scientific understanding.

I believe that if difficult questions come up along the way, so be it. Since when are we afraid of questions? Is not the Talmud itself a vast collection of questions, answers, and opinions—?many of which are no longer considered to be reasonably part of our Halachic (Jewish Law) or Hashkafic (Jewish Philosophy) norms?

Unfortunately today, in our Yeshivas, we have unspoken rules about questions. Ask a “bomb kashya (amazing and unanswerable question)” on a R’ Akiva Eiger (An outstanding Talmudic scholar, influential halakhic devisor and foremost leader of European Jewry during the early 19th century.) that no one in the Bais Midrash can answer, and you’ll be a hero. Ask a similarly difficult question in Hashkafah, and if you’re lucky no one will “tummel (make noise – gossip)” about it, if they do you are likely to get branded a heretic.

These issues have in the past been limited to the question of pedagogy. Now, however, they are threatening to become a much larger problem; one that may affect the well-being of our entire community.

Science is dependable. That is what makes scientific theories so useful. I have heard religious people who feel their worldview threatened by one theory or another say; “Why should we take Science seriously when everyone knows that it is always changing? If scientists currently believe X, they’ll probably believe Y in a year or two.” Comments like these come from an inadequate understanding of the scientific process. Scientists are not flitting back and forth between the latest in vogue theories, and scientific theories that are rigorously tested and accepted as true over time are rarely disproven. Instead, a new theory that incorporates the former and expands upon it is found, sometimes forcing scientists to reconsider their positions, sometimes not. Perhaps the most famous example is Newtons laws of motion which were believed true for about 200 years only to be replaced by Einsteins theories. Newton’s theories were not wrong, just incomplete. His laws still accurately describe our world; you can rely on them in almost any imaginable situation here on earth. So we can trust good science to reveal truths about the world around us; science is dependable.

Recently there has been a disturbing trend towards anti-vaccination in society at large that is being mimicked in our communities. There has not been a serious scientifically sound study that has shown vaccination to be a cause of autism. All accepted studies have shown that there is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever that vaccination is unsafe. Vaccination has eradicated smallpox and enormously reduced the cases of polio, tetanus, diphtheria, rubella, measles, hepatitis, mumps, chicken pox and whooping cough. When I say enormously reduced, I mean by a factor of around 90% in this country!

You may find a medical health professional who disregards all evidence and relies on the anecdotal evidence of his experience to claim that vaccines are dangerous. But these Doctors are so rare that they are not even statistically significant. Would you seek out the one mechanic who claims that seat belts actually cause more deaths because in his auto-body shop that has been the case!?

In recent years, the reluctance to vaccinate children has resulted in outbreaks of measles in Orthodox communities in Lakewood and Brooklyn. More recently the interwebs were flooded with stories about a non-vaccinated yeshiva boy in Baltimore who was not allowed to attend school. One paper claimed that a well known Rabbi got involved and convinced the Yeshiva day School to let him go to class and told the reporter that “vaccinations are the problem, not the solution!” I am assuming that was a misquote, but the parents of that boy and apparently many others in our community have apparently bought into this canard about vaccines.

Why would parents make this mistake? Well, autism is emotionally devastating to parents, and the natural response when tragedy strikes close to home is an irrational sense of guilt; maybe I could have done something, or worse?—?maybe it was something I did. On top of this, the autism rate has been increasing, and there doesn’t seem to be an explanation for this, though there is a correlation; vaccination. Correlation does not equal causation, but you need to know about the scientific method in order to understand why.

Maybe our failure to teach about science is having an unexpected and pernicious effect on our community. When you don’t understand anything about science and the scientific method, and your basic understanding is that science and scientists are anti-torah, it becomes a lot easier to fall for pseudoscience. I believe that if we changed our attitude towards science and embraced it our communities would be in a better position to make wise choices in scientific matters that have a great impact on all of us.

The rate of autism is now 1 in every 68 children born so in the USA between 30 and 40,000 children will be diagnosed as autistic this year. Since diagnoses of autism are difficult before age 4, these are scary statistics for parents of young children. Despite the fact that there is NO evidence of a connection between vaccination and autism it is understandable that some parents might feel that they’d rather be safe than sorry. Obviously Doctors and scientists don’t know everything, and we believe that all is ultimately in the hands of the creator. So where is the harm in not vaccinating?

This thinking is all wrong. If you replace vaccination with another modern marvel the fallacy becomes even more evident. The science behind automobiles is imperfect, and the 30 – 40,000 deaths from car accidents that will occur in the USA this year can be scientifically proven to be one hundred percent the result of riding in an automobile. As believing Jews when we travel we say Tefilas HaDerech, recognizing that ultimately HaShem is the final adjudicator in our safety; not the airbags or the driver. Somehow that does not stop us from trusting the science behind the various components, the mechanics who maintain our cars, and the drivers.

If we trust our cars to transport us in relative safety, then we must also trust the science that has allowed Doctors to save the lives of countless of thousands of people in the relative safety of vaccination programs.

(cross posted on rabbiskaist.com)

rav shmuel
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rav shmuel

Rav Shmuel is a Rabbi who hangs out in Greenwich Village and plays original compositions on his guitar and ukulele. On the rare occasions when he is not posting artistically rendered photographs on Instagram he can be found posting random videos to Facebook. A few times a year someone holds a gun to his head and says "blog!" So he does.
rav shmuel
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