Beware of Orthodoxy!

The latest Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded last month to Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman for his discovery of “quasicrystals.”

In the 1980s, the Israeli chemist noticed something peculiar as he examined a glowing hot metal he had cooled. The diffraction pattern that formed in the metal, unexpectedly, indicated atomic order, as in a crystal. And yet the symmetry seemed different from that of any known crystal.

When Professor Shechtman brought his observation to the head of his research lab, he was directed to a basic textbook on crystallography and told to read up on the subject. When he insisted that he had seen something new, he was asked to leave his research group.

Undaunted, he submitted a paper on the topic to the Journal of Applied Physics. It was rejected. Celebrated chemist Linus Pauling said that Shechtman was “talking nonsense” and that “there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

What became apparent with time, though, was that the professor had indeed discovered a new type of crystal, one that forms regular patterns, but whose patterns, unlike in all other crystals then known, never repeat. Now the stubborn scientist has a Nobel to help assuage any residual bad feelings.

Even more stubborn than Professor Schechtman, though—and to considerably less happy ends—are scientific orthodoxies, like the one he challenged.

A world that progressed beyond idols of stone and wood has naturally sought new objects of veneration. Some have been political systems, the various “isms”—nationalism, Nazism, Communism—that have plagued societies in recent centuries; others are isms of a different ilk, like atheism or scientism, here defined as an unyielding reverence for currently regnant scientific dogmas.

Among the “Ani Ma’amins” of scientism today are big beliefs like “human-caused global warming” and “the evolution of all species from a single ancestor” and “the existence of extraterrestrial life”; and smaller ones like the inherent value of all medical screenings.

Actually, scratch that one. Last month also brought the news that The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the federally mandated independent panel of medical experts, had concluded that PSA testing, which screens for prostate cancer and whose importance has been an article of medical faith for years, does not in fact prolong life for the average American man; and that it “is associated with harms related to subsequent evaluation and treatments, some of which may be unnecessary.”

In 2009, the same respected group stunned the nation by recommending against routine mammography screening for women under 50. A Journal of the American Medical Association article that year pointed out that a successful screening program should result in an increase in the number of early cancers, followed by a decrease in the number of late-stage cancers. That has not happened, however, in the case of mammography screening.

Even some big isms have taken some big hits. The widely embraced notion of an impending “population explosion,” for instance, sensationalized by scientist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” predicted worldwide famine within twenty years as a result of rising birth rates and limited resources. Hundreds of thousands, Dr. Ehrlich prophesied, would starve to death by 1988. (He advocated spiking the world water supply with sterilizing chemicals.)

Now, it may indeed turn out that the earth is warming dangerously as a result of human activity, that life thrives on other planets, and even, as Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch considers possible, that G-d created species through a process that began with a single cell.

And it is undeniable that science, in its pure, objective form, is a revelation of Divine wisdom, a most valuable means for understanding, appreciating, and exploiting nature.

But it is always worthwhile to remember that scientific orthodoxies have been toppled by new discoveries, that the endeavor of science progresses by replacing theories with better ones—in turn, subject to future revision. To realize, in other words, that skepticism of accepted notions is the very core of the scientific method.

Professor Shechtman himself put it well. “The main lesson I have learned over time,” he said, “is that a good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he reads in the textbooks.”


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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