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.