Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Rav Avi Shafran Accuses Chazal Of Error!

Much of what Rav Avi Shafran writes is banal and predictable.  The Agudah's version of Torah observant Judaism is presented as the only form of the religion and its political and religious views presented as the only real mainstream version of those views.
But every so often, Rav Shafran slips up.  A few years ago, in a post subsequently taken down by Cross Currents, he wrote a piece claiming that Bernie Madoff, the greatest financial criminal of the 21st century (so far) was a bigger hero than Chelsey Sullenberger, an airline pilot that landed a crippled plane and saved the lives of all his passengers.  Why?  Because Madoff overcame his yetzer hara to admit his crime despite all the temptation not to while all Sullenberger was doing was the job he was trained to do.
Another slip up appeears in his latest piece at Cross Currents.  It's a shame because some of the piece has merit.  Rav Shafran's basic thesis is that scientists can, in their ideological zeal, be just as biased and distorted as anyone else in society.  His basic example:
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was one of the most celebrated, influential and widely-read scientists of his time. In his 1981 book “The Mismeasure of Man,” about the measurement of intelligence, he presented the work of 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton as Exhibit A for how racial preconceptions can prejudice scientific research.
Morton, seeking evidence that the Supreme Being had created human races separately, used mustard seeds (at first, then buckshot) to meticulously calibrate the volumes of hundreds of skulls of Caucasians, Asians, American Indians and Africans. He indeed found a pattern of size differentials in the brain cavities of the various groups. Reanalyzing the data anew, however, Gould concluded that the earlier scientist had misrepresented his findings, and accused Morton of believing that the groups with the smaller cranial cavities were intellectually inferior.
Now none of this is earth shattering.  As an undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario I was witness to the Phillipe Rushton scandal.   Professor Rushton was a psychology professor who produced a study in which he claimed that Oriental Asians were more intelligent than Caucasians who were more intelligent than African Blacks.  He also claimed that Blacks were more sexually promiscuous than Whites who were more promiscuous than Orientals.  His methods?  He went to a local shopping mall and measured the skulls of various passersby from the three races and also somehow got measurements on genital sizes.  His conclusions were based on his discovery that Orientals had the largest skulls (and therefore the largest brains and highest IQ's) and the small genitals while Blacks were the opposite and Whites were in the middle.
Naturally there was a firestorm of controversy.  Noted biologist and social activist (more the latter than former sadly) was brought in to publicly debate him.  He earned a guest appearance on the Geraldo Rivera show in the US opposite a panel of firebrand Black activists.  UWO was pilloried with people being bused in from other universities to protest when it was decided that we locals had done enough ourselves.  Rushton himself could not teach classes publicly and had to settle for appearing in class via closed-circuit television and even those sessions were marred by demonstrations.
The problem, for those who were actually paying attention, was that all the attacks on Rushton were personal.  He was a racist.  He was a bad man.  He was a secret Nazi.  No mention of his work which, in the scientific and semi-scientific community, is what's important.  Some of the greatest researchers in the world produced correct conclusions that were attacked for being ideological (now politically) incorrect at the time (see: Gallileo Galilei).  Their being on the wrong side of society's values at the time did not change the veracity of their findings.  Rushton claimed the same thing and repeated the same mantra: if you think I'm wrong, prove it.
Now within a few months a group of professors at another university nearby analyzed Rushton's methods and data and published a paper thoroughly discrediting both.  Rushton's study was quickly consigned to the dustbin and eventually the matter passed into history but the dismantling of his flawed thesis received only a tiny fraction of the attention the personal attacks on him got.
What if he'd been right?  What if, on second look, his study had been valid?  People were simply not prepared to concede that possibility.  The idea that not all human races are equal, that some might have advantages or other disadvantages that others lacked was not an acceptable outcome even if it turned out to be true.  Rushton's opponents, in their zeal and righteousness, were prepared to teach lies to their students if that's what it took to uphold their doctrine of an equal mankind.
This is Shafran's point and it's a good one to consider.  However, true to form his triumphalism shows up immediately after.  Having found an example of a celebrity scientist who let his beliefs get in the way of his scientific acumen, he then launches an assault on science itself:

Nowhere in science, perhaps, does bias so blind as with regard to evolution.
Species, over time, retain traits that serve them well, and lose others that don’t. The ill-adapted don’t survive; the advantaged do. That’s simple, and seen.
But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new limb or organ within a species—things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times—have never been witnessed or reproduced.

The argument he posits is so weak as to be completely laughable.  Really?  Never witnessed?  You don't say. So new species of bacteria and viruses haven't developed in the last few centuries since we've begun tracking them (and especially since we began throwing antibiotics at them left right and centre)?  Never find that his dismissive comment about new organs is also a red herring.  Such changes on a macrospecies level take hundreds of thousands if not millions of years to occur.  Evolution is not karate, it's tai chi.  No one could wintess such a change unless they lives a commensurate amount of time.
But then there is little gem tucked in:
Ditto doubly for an organism emerging from inert matter—a “spontaneous generation” that evolution proponents assume began the process

Firstly, spontaneous generation has to be understood in context.  No one claims that one day, billions of years ago the first organism appeared in the primeval muck out of nowhere.  A long process in which molecules formed bigger ones which formed chains and eventually prions, DNA and RNA proceeded that appearance which was simply the final step in that particular process.  Spontaneous generation in this case means the first appearance of something we could classify as an organism, not appearance ex nihilo.
But what really makes this statement priceless is that it directly contradicts Chazal who claim that lice spontaneously generate from sweat (Shabbos 107b) and certain types of mice from mud (Chullin 126b).  Nowadays we know that such phenomena do not happen and were simply part of the scientific beliefs of the age but for Shafran who is part of the "Chazal knew everything about everything and were never wrong about anything" crowd this is pure heresy.
Burn his columns!  Protest his house!  Excommunicate his cat!  Rav Shafran has, wittingly or not, joined the rationalist side. All say "Shechechiyanu!"


Michael Sedley said...

I really wish that people who know nothing about the scientific method would refrain from writing idiotic articles about the Scientific method.

When Rabbi Sharafan writes an article that makes hime look like an idiot with regard to basic science, it is hard to take him seriously in areas where he should have expertise (e.g., Halacha, or Machshava).

If Rabbi Sharafan wants to limit the appeal of Judaism to people who have no more than a 3rd grade concept of what Science is, he is going about it the right way.

Baruch Pelta said...

It sounds like Rushton's methods were pretty ridiculous. In light of them -- from your account anyways -- the personal attacks sound understandable, if perhaps overdone.

You're right about educators having a problem teaching emes when it goes against their previous beliefs and that seemingly now applies even to the ever-respected Gould (science has always been my worst subject, had horrid teachers, so I'd feel uncomfortable judging him only a few weeks after this article's been published. But it does seem rather airtight and I've seen other observers agree with it). Unfortunately, Rabbi Shafran -- and when I interviewed him, he was very nice, so I don't mean to be mean -- doesn't understand how much his critique of bias blinding people to the obvious emes applies to him and his own world.

Baruch Pelta said...

Btw, IMHO, I don't think that in Rabbi Shafran's writings, "the Agudah's version of Torah observant Judaism is presented as the only form of the religion." We actually talked about this in my interview with him and in a few places he's written about the legitimacy of other people who have their rabbanim, even if he thinks their views are far to the left of the emes.

Bob Miller said...

It's priceless, Garnel, when you think an ideological opponent of yours has a nuanced view about something, but you go after him anyway!

Baruch Pelta said...

It's priceless, Garnel, when you think an ideological opponent of yours has a nuanced view about something, but you go after him anyway!
Because you're not allowed to criticize people for positions if they're nuanced? The fact that the haredi world allows for some very limited nuance doesn't make it open-minded. Bob, wazzup?

Bob Miller said...

Take a deep breath...

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Don't worry Bob, I knew what you meant.
Me, I like a good argument as long as it doesn't get personal. Heck, I'm happy to argue for positions I disagree with sometimes. Only sometimes though...

Baruch Pelta said...

Take a deep breath...
I get it, Garnel allows that Shafran has a nuanced opinion, but still he disagrees, and you celebrate that. I'm just saying, there's not too much nuance there and the people ought to be criticized for being silly and close-minded even when they've got some nuance.

Sorry if that didn't come out right, but it's just a blog discussion mate, I'm chill.

Menachem Lipkin said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. For some reason, the masochist in me I guess, I get his "articles" emailed to me. I just finished reading his latest missive and wanted to scream!

The real tragedy is that hundreds, if not thousands, of little Agudah troglodytes will read his words while dutifully nodding their heads in agreement.