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An Expert in Science
One of the problems with successfully conveying the rationalist approach is that, when it comes to science, many people do not understand how to assess expertise and authority. There are various rabbis around the world, some quite prominent, who are often portrayed as being "experts in science." Some of them support my work to a greater or lesser extent, some of them oppose it to a greater or lesser extent. But do any of their opinions carry weight as being "experts in science"?
The reason why these great Torah scholars are presented as also being great experts in science is that they have all read much popular scientific literature. One of them was given the task of addressing the a conference of kiruv professionals on Torah-science issues a few years ago, due to his alleged expertise in this area; as one participant told me in awe, "He's read every issue of Scientific American for the last fifteen years!" But does this mean that he is an expert in science?
It should first be noted that it is pretty meaningless to talk about "knowing science." There is physics and biology and astronomy and archeology and paleontology and a host of other fields. And within each of these, there are a multitude of subdivisions. The body of scientific knowledge is so huge that nobody gains expertise in more than a small fraction of it.
The problem with claiming these people to be "experts in science" is (A) their lack of credibility, (B) their lack of systematic knowledge, and (C) the difference in epistemology and worldview. That may sound like a lot of meaningless jargon, so allow me to explain.
The first point is credibility. None of these people possess formal qualifications or a formal education in science. Now, that alone does not mean that they do not possess expertise. After all, I consider myself to possess a certain expertise in various zoological matters, and yet I too lack formal qualifications and training in this area. On the other hand, I would never expect that people would respect me as an authority whose opinion should be relied upon, since they have no way of knowing if I am truly an expert or just a crank.
I am not a scientist. I am, however, someone who accurately reports the state of scientific knowledge, as can easily be verified. The credibility of my scientific positions does not rest on my personal credibility as a scientist (of which I have none), but rather on the credibility of the global scientific establishment that I am quoting. But when a Posek who is not a scientist disputes the entire scientific establishment, his acceptance is based upon his own credibility (which I would also argue to be non-existent). Thus, when people say, as they often do, "So what that Rav X is not a scientist? Slifkin is not a scientist either!" - it completely misses the point. It is truly laughable when a certain popular rabbi from Jerusalem tells his audience that "people who know science" - by which he is referring to a Rosh Yeshivah with a PhD in mathematics (not one of the natural sciences) and a physician - have declared that my science (referring to my belief in the antiquity of the universe and evolution) is wrong! The mathematician and physician are not disputing me; they are disputing the entire scientific establishment. And they have zero credibility in doing so.
The second factor is systematic knowledge. Systematic knowledge means that one possesses knowledge about a topic that is not only extensive, but which also fits together to provide a thorough, cohesive understanding. As an example, I'd like to pick my own field of zoology, and the sub-field of taxonomy - classifying animals. A person may be able to name a multitude of species, from pangolins to pottos, but this is not systematic knowledge. Systematic knowledge would mean understanding the larger patterns, the difference between an order and a genus, between a rodent and an insectivore.
Systematic knowledge is particularly relevant in the case of evolution. Non-scientists, reputed to be "experts in science," can toss out a lot of scattered data in the form of objections to evolution. But they have no systematic knowledge of the animal kingdom, which is what evolution is based upon and addresses. Evolution (in terms of common ancestry) addresses - exceedingly well - the overall pattern of life; the nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom, the geographical distribution, the fossil record, the patterns of homologous versus analogous similarities in physiology. Not only do these people have no overall model to address any of these; they've never even addressed them at all. Their knowledge is scattered, not systematic.
The third factor is epistemology and worldview. Modern science rests upon a particular epistemology and worldview - the scientific method. Hypotheses are offered, which must make predictions that can be tested. Conclusions are drawn based upon evidence, not based upon the social/ religious status of people. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The stability of the natural order is taken as a given without evidence to the contrary. Etc., etc. It is these differences in epistemology and worldview which account for far-reaching differences between the conclusions of modern science and the conclusions of the aforementioned Torah scholars.
It's difficult for many people to grasp these points. So perhaps some parables would help. Imagine someone from an Eastern culture claiming expertise in Western medicine due to having watched and memorized every episode of House MD. To someone who knows nothing about medicine, their knowledge of facts would sound very impressive - but they are not an expert in Western understandings of physiology or medicine! Or imagine a non-Jew claiming expertise and authority in paskening halachah against all Jewish poskim due to having read every English halachic guidebook. To another non-Jew, they would sound very knowledgeable about Jewish law - but learned Jews would know that this person has no credibility in issuing halachic rulings that run contrary to all Jewish poskim!
This may provoke the following question: Okay, so these Rabbis are not "experts in science." But what about Torah? How can regular learned Jews possibly dispute Torah scholars who are vastly superior to them in Torah knowledge?
That will have to wait for another post.