Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Nussbaum's Orthodox Jews and Science

I wrote this letter to Skeptic: The Magazine in response to the article linked to in the title. What do you think?

A few points of criticism of Nussbaum’s article on anti-evolution beliefs amongst Orthodox Jews. First, I think it would tend to be a bit confusing for non-Jews who would not understand that Nussbaum’s references to Orthodox Jews refer only to Haredi Jews, not Modern Orthodox Jews, who believe that secular knowledge has inherent value. I doubt that this was Nussbaum’s intent, but it would make it seem that these attitudes reflect a larger body of Jews than is actually the case.

Secondly, I have a problem with two of the questions. Students were asked to indicate if they believed the statements were true or false. The first statement, “Evolution correctly explains the origins of life.” is indeed false regardless of whether one accepts evolution or not. Evolutionary theory begins with a single common ancestor or pool of common ancestors and shows how life increased in diversity through natural selection, random mutation, etc. It does not even consider how those first life forms came into being. The second statement, “Human beings evolved from apes” is also false as human beings are not in fact evolved from apes, but share a common ancestor with apes.

A person familiar with the theory of evolution would answer false to both of these. The questions and the testers interpretation of answers to them seem (although surely they were not intended to be?) loaded to make the students appear more anti-evolution than they may actually be. The third statement, which shows that most students felt that evolutionists were NOT lying may lead one to believe that the problems with statements 1 and 2 may have had this effect. Statements four and five show an obvious lack of knowledge about evolution and perhaps an anti-evolution bias, but not nearly the one a person would assume from the responses to statements 1 and 2. Again, the problems with statements 1 and 2 may have interfered with the accuracy of the experiment.

The nearly even split with responses to 6, 7, and 8 seem to indicate a mix of scientific ignorance (as well as ignorance of linguistics, not uncommon amongst Americans) and scientific knowledge, not necessarily anti-scientific views. An anecdote here, years ago the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans constructed a “Jurassic Park” exhibit to reap the benefits of the movie of that name. A few poor souls actually asked for the return of their entrance fees since there were no live dinosaurs in the exhibit. This lack of education, (admittedly linked to religious requirements amongst Haredi Jews) is shared by many who are not orthodox/fundamentalist in their beliefs. The state of science education in this country leaves much to be desired.

Although I’m certain that a great number of Haredi Jews remain ignorant of and hostile to secular science, I think the experiment’s flaws call the reliability of the results into question.


Anonymous Lee Russ said...

Good job.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Human beings did not evolve from apes, we ARE apes. Or at least we have to be if we intend that "apes" include chimps, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons. There is no common ancestor of any 2 of those species that is not alao a common ancestor of humans.

By the way, the same could be said of monkeys. Any taxinomic classification of "monkeys" that included both New World and Old World monkeys would also have to include all apes, including humans.

1:01 AM  

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