Admitting Errors and Credibility
A number of people wrote to me about last week's report that a group of scientists at CERN tentatively claimed to have measured neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light - which modern science, based on special relativity, deems impossible. "If scientists were wrong about this, then maybe they were wrong about everything!" Maybe the universe isn't really 14 billion years old - maybe it's only 5771 years old! Maybe the kidneys really do provide counsel to the heart! Maybe elephants really do jump to reach food!
And maybe the world really is flat?
Of course, the correct view is that some scientific facts are better grounded than others. Scientists might have to change their mind one day about the universe being 14 billion years old, but they are not going to discover that it is only a few thousand years old. We have oodles to learn about how the mind works, but we're never going to discover that it is housed in the kidneys and heart rather than the brain. And, as many surprises as there will be in zoology, I don't think that we will ever discover that elephants jump to reach food. For the non-specialist, it might be difficult to determine how well-established different scientific facts are. But it should be relatively easy to find out that the issues which concern (some) Jews - the antiquity of the universe, the common ancestry of living creatures, the non-existence of a global Flood, the non-existence of spontaneous generation, the sun traveling on the other side of the world at night rather than behind the sky - are very well grounded and will not ever be overturned.
A second important point to realize is that, even if there is a slight chance that one of these scientific facts will be overturned, so what? Right now, they are overwhelmingly well supported. We use airplanes and X-rays regardless of the possibility that science might one day overturn the principles of aerodynamics and radiation.
There's another interesting point to be made here. I recently noticed that some people feel that if a person admits to making an error, he subsequently has less credibility. When I admitted a while ago that I erred in my identification of one of the creatures in Perek Shirah, someone responded that if that is so, then how can I have credibility for anything?! And, of course, there is a popular view in the charedi world that the Gedolim could never be wrong - because they have never been wrong! My own view, on the other hand - and this is standard in rationalist circles - is that if someone admits to error, then they have more credibility. But someone who never makes any such admission is more likely to be intellectually dishonest and thus has less credibility.
Finally, I came across the following cartoon, which I think nails it: (note that if you read this blog via email or RSS feed, you might not be able to see it; in which case you'll have to visit www.rationalistjudaism.com)
On another note, if anyone is coming from the US to Bet Shemesh and can bring something for me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.