Mystery Science Theater 2011
September 21, 2011
Earlier this year I survived a pretty significant coronary incident. After I did, someone from my synagogue asked if I had “bentsched gomel” — that is, said the Hebrew blessing thanking God for deliverance.
“Not yet,” I said, “but I thanked the cops who applied the defibrillator.” I might have added, “and the doctors who put me in an induced coma, the nurses who brought me out of it, and the medical device company that devised the nifty little machine that will save my life if it ever happens again.”
This isn’t a confession of atheism. All I am saying is that I am a big fan — a huge fan — of science. I am in awe of the great river of research that flowed from antiquity to today, carrying with it streams of theories and data and insights and innovations that delivered me back into the arms of my family and friends. Yes, there was a great deal of luck involved. But the twists of fate that led me to this place, at this time, under these people’s care would have counted for nothing had it not been for the dogged pursuit of knowledge by countless biologists, bacteriologists, cardiologists, chemists, electrical engineers, and geneticists.
In the debate between religion and science, I’m a strict magisterialist — that is, I subscribe to the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s notion that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” As Gould wrote, “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.”
I turn to religion to explore meaning, attempt goodness, and nurture a reverence beyond my own needy self. I turn to science for the best explanation of what we are, where we live, how we got here, and, depending on our attitude toward the empirical evidence, where we are going.
The current attacks on science — by Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and even a few Jewish leaders — mock this neat division of domains. It’s not enough that Bachmann and Perry and their fans find solace and meaning in religion; somehow, their worldview depends on discrediting science. So Perry dismisses evolution as “a theory that’s out there,” in explaining to a child why Texas schools teach both “Creationism and evolution.” (In fact, Texas state science standards do not call for teaching Creationism, but never mind.) And Bachmann, based on something someone told her, claims that a cervical cancer vaccine had caused “mental retardation” in a young girl.
Both statements are scary, and not just because they suggest a political calculation that anti-intellectualism is a vote-getter. Bachmann’s statement was not just a laugh line for late-night comics. It has real, and possibly deadly, consequences. Public health officials told The New York Times that whenever politicians or celebrities send out false alarms on vaccines, vaccination rates drop. Long after Bachmann drops out of the presidential race, her legacy may live on — and people may die — in cancer wards.
Perry’s attack on the foundational understanding of the organic universe has less sensational consequences but is no less insidious. It is basically telling every biology lab, every pharmaceutical manufacturer, every research facility that deals with the natural world that they are operating under an unproven conjecture. That at least is how he understands the word “theory.” Scientists use it to mean, per the National Academy of Sciences, “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.”
I don’t worry that a Perry administration will dismantle our country’s scientific infrastructure (although I can’t imagine it championing funding of the National Academy of Sciences). I do worry about a national leader who would promote anti-intellectualism exactly at a time when America is losing its competitive edge in technology and innovation.
I also worry that anti-intellectualism gives religion a bad name. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach recently defended Perry in an essay that contains the same confusion over the definition of “theory.” Boteach has been on an anti-evolution kick for some time now and is about to publish a book called The Religion of Evolution. Boteach enjoys debating evolutionary biologists, although I don’t see why either side bothers. That is, I am not sure why a biologist would debate a theologian. I am pretty sure that Boteach likes to debate biologists because an unchallenged scientific explanation of the universe makes his job as a religious leader that much harder.
But does it have to? Judaism, to name a religion, is a 3,000-year-old tradition of law, custom, moral guidance, and social organizing. It’s a method for exploring life’s meaning and a system for turning theoretical values into lived, and life-affirming, deeds. Its foundational texts and the scholarly traditions that grew out of them dealt with astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics. Does maintaining this tradition depend on discrediting humanity’s pursuit of empirical knowledge?
In the end, I did bentsch gomel. It was my way of acknowledging that for all the understandings my doctors had about my body, there are mysteries — about love, about kindness, about our unflagging will to live — scientists have yet to plumb. But they’re still trying, and for that I thank God.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.