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The ridiculous pseudo-scientific exercise by an Orthodox rabbi

By Shmuel-Pairont de la Meyraque

Posted July 29, 2006

To be frank, I am writing this essay against my natural inclinations. I am doing it only because some friends asked me to spend time and effort on rebuffing the article by some Orthodox rabbi named Dovid Kornreich. His screed titled "Can We Make Do Without Science?" can be accessed at http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5766/chukas/ordk2chk66.htm.

This piece is in fact so absurd that the proper reaction to it should be to shrug and forget about it. My friends who asked me to write about the article in question argued that although that paper is obviously full of crap, it has an appeal to Orthodox Jews who are looking for an allegedly scientifically based support for their beliefs.

I don't think the firmly believing Orthodox Jews would be swayed by any arguments which contradict (or seem to contradict) their faith, so repudiating Rabbi Kornreich's exercise is a futile endeavor regardless of how well substantiated my counter-argument may happen to be. The true believers' minds are hermetically closed to facts and arguments as they live in a strange world having little to do with reality. Indeed, this is what Rabbi Kornreich himself proclaims to be the foundation of his approach to reality, science, and facts.

Indeed, on the very first page of his screed Kornreich wrote:

....we need to become discriminating consumers of scientific theories.

We start off with the following a priori position that is never negotiable: The ultimate truth about our reality was revealed to us by the same Creator of that reality through prophecy and various levels of ruach hakodesh preserved by our mesorah.

A few lines further Kornreich continues:

As a consequence, those scientific understandings that either confirm or conform to our superior source of absolute truth -- the Torah may be adopted. Those that don't, must be mistaken. And it makes no difference whether the scientists will eventually discover the mistake through investigation or they will not.

It is distinctly possible that they cannot in principle discover their mistake simply because they cannot access the non-physicality of the forces involved in the formation of the world (and its deconstruction and reconstruction during the Mabul period). But mistaken they must be. G-d informed mankind of unnatural formation of the universe well in advance of the theories that try to pretend that all events are natural. This is self-deception on the part of mainstream science.

The quoted display of arrogance by a religious fanatic echoes a similar utterance by his Christian counterpart William Dembski (on page 14 in the collection of articles titled Mere Creation, Inter Varsity Press, 1998). Dembski wrote:

As Christian we know that naturalism is false.

Both versions, Judaic and Christian, illustrate the touching unity of attitudes in both faiths and show the clearly anti-scientific nature of their authors' worldviews.

If one already "knows" something, any debate about this "something" is out of the question. That is the attitude of true believers whose minds are impervious to any arguments and facts which are not in tune with their blind faith. Dembski "knows" that naturalism is false. He also "knows" that Jesus of Nazareth was Son of God, who came back to life after having died on a cross. Rabbi Kornreich does not possess the "knowledge" proclaimed by Dembski, but he "knows" something Dembski does not -- that "ruah hakodesh" (holy spirit) has been preserved by the Jewish "mesora."

What if Rabbi Kornreich and William Dembski were both born in Islamabad to a Muslim family? Dembski certainly would not "know" that Jesus rose from the dead, and Kornreich would certainly "know" that many of Quran's "revelations" abolish those in the Torah.

Unlike faiths, science never "knows" anything a priori. It learns the truth through a painstaking process of inquiry based on observed facts and logic. It never claims to "know" anything for sure but only offers the most plausible explanations of the observed facts. Operating this way, science has achieved enormous success, but, unlike faith with its pretense for possessing the absolute truth, science remains modest in its claims despite its well proven power.

Since Kornreich claims in advance of discussing scientific questions that any scientific theory that contradict the Torah "must" be wrong, what level of discussion can be expected from his essay?

How does Kornreich "know" that the Torah reveals the ultimate truth? He "knows" that because that is what he was told by other rabbis who lived before him. Is there any logically consistent proof of the Torah's reliability? None whatsoever. The Torah is claimed to be reliable only because the Torah itself says so. Moreover, as is obvious to any minimally reasonable mind, the Torah is full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and plainly fictitious stories, like those of the Exodus or Noah's ark. Discussing scientific theories in light of the Torah is like deciding whether to buy shares of, say, Bank of America, on the basis of the events in what the world press unanimously and ridiculously refers to by a geographically preposterous name "the West Bank" (meaning the territory between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea).

I believe any reasonable reader would stop reading Kornreich screed immediately after seeing the above quoted assertions.

Since, however, my friends asked me to read Kornreich's opus to the end and to provide answers to his asseverations, I'll turn now to some of his specific points allegedly showing a lack of understanding on the part of the poor "mainstream scientists."

Kornreich suggests some arguments allegedly pointing to the "young" earth, its age being just thousands years rather than the billions of years asserted by the "mainstream" science. Before turning to any of his specific arguments, it seems proper to point out that not one of these arguments are Kornreich's own. All these arguments are copied wholesale from the publications of Christian young earth creationists, such as Henry Morris, Ken Hovind, and Russell Humphrey.

Furthermore, Kornreich's argument essentially boils down to the assertion that "mainstream scientists" only offered hypothetical models without having made any actual measurements. Kornreich in defense of experimental approach -- what a farce. First, Kornreich conveniently forgets to mention that Morris, Hovind, and Co. have never conducted any measurements whatsoever in any area of research, including those fields which are relevant to the arguments in favor of the young earth. Apparently, in Kornreich's opinion only the "mainstream scientists" are under obligation to support their opinions by experimental data obtained by them personally. The creationists, as per Kornreich, are free of such obligations, as they are in possession of the ultimate revealed truth. Reading Kornreich's demand for experimental data from mainstream scientists creates a strong desire to remind Kornreich that double standards are a sign of intellectual dishonesty. What empirical data support blind faith in the Torah's inerrancy? Well, this question is plainly rhetorical, as the esteemed rabbi, with all of his immense erudition in the Torah and Talmud-related matters, does not seem to have any experience in experimental work. I have, a few times, met such "experts" in experimental science who could hardly distinguish between binoculars and a bicycle.

Last but not least, Kornreich is either ignorant of the real arguments against the young earth notions or deliberately ignores them. Such behavior is typical of creationists of all variations. They offer arguments in favor of their belief in the young earth. Scientists offer rebuttals of such arguments. Creationists dismiss them -- they are simply incapable of accepting the factual evidence which negates or seems to negate their faith. No argument, however fact-based and scientifically sound, can penetrate the thick envelope of prejudice reigning in the creationist's mind; accepting the rebuttal of their faith means a disastrous crush of their entire world.

Let us briefly discuss some of Kornreich's specific arguments (each and all of them borrowed from Christian creationist literature).

Actually I don't need to provide detailed rebuttals of Kornreich's stale arguments -- all of them have been thoroughly and unequivocally shown to be wrong many times over. All I need to do is point to publications that have made mincemeat of Kornreich's borrowed arguments originating in the output of Christian young earth creationists. Contrary to Kornreich's asseverations, such rebuttals are quite far from being just speculations. Even those rebuttals which do not cite specific measurements, usually follow the standard scientific methodology which has brought about the great successes of science.

As an example, let me address Kornreich's asseveration regarding the concentration of helium in the Earth's atmosphere. The essence of the argument is the assertion that the helium concentration in the atmosphere is lower than what would be expected if the Earth were indeed a few billion years old. Gaseous helium is a product of processes of radioactive decay of minerals in the Earth's crust. The rate of helium emission from minerals is pretty well known. Based on that rate, assert young earth creationists, the accumulation of helium molecules in the atmosphere can be calculated. If the Earth were indeed as old as science maintains, the concentration of He in the earth's atmosphere would be many times larger than the one actually observed, or so say young earth creationists.

Not to be accused of distorting Kornreich's argument (if we assume that it is at all possible to avoid being so accused) here is the quotation from Kornreich's opus:

The "nexta" example (love that Yiddish) comes from smaller than expected amounts of Helium-4 if earth is old. Helium-4 is created by radioactive decay (alpha particles are helium nuclei) and is constantly added to the atmosphere. Helium is not light enough to escape the Earth's gravity (unlike hydrogen), and it will therefore accumulate over time. The current level of helium in the atmosphere would accumulate in far less than billions of years. Therefore the Earth is relatively young compared to their theories.

Once again, the conventional response is to assert that polar wind can account for the escape. And if that won't do the trick (because they haven't actually measured it to know for sure) then there is always the handy "interaction of the solar wind with the upper atmosphere during the short periods of lower magnetic-field intensity while the field is reversing." However, no one has ever measured a single magnetic-field reversal of the earth taking place, let alone how long they last before reaching full intensity. But that doesn't stop mainstream scientists from simply assuming that 20 of them could have taken place over the past 3.5 billion "years" to account for the missing helium. Problem solved.

Like every one of his arguments in favor of young earth, also this one is borrowed by Kornreich literally from the opuses by fundamentalist Christian Bible literalists such as Henry Morris (see Morris, Henry M., 1974. Scientific Creationism, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, pp. 150-151) Ken Hovind, the biblical literalist whose ridiculous output is largely rejected even by some other creationists, and Russell Humphrey (see, for example http://www.nmsr.org/humphrey.htm).

From Kornreich's texts it seems to follow that he is more or less familiar with repudiation of the creationist arguments regarding helium concentration, as he mentions certain counter-arguments by "mainstream scientists." However, Kornreich not only omits any references to the Christian creationists from whom he borrowed his arguments favoring young earth concepts, he also studiously avoids providing any references to publications where Morris, Hovind, etc. have been convincingly shown to be egregiously wrong.I will fill the void left by Kornreich. The creationists' argument regarding helium concentration has been thoroughly debunked, for example, at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/hovind/howgood-yea.html#proof14. A detailed discussion showing the fallacy of creationist quasi-arguments regarding helium was also provided by Dalrymple (Dalrymple, G. Brent. 1984. "How Old is the Earth? A Reply to Scientific Creationism" Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Volume 1, Part 3, edited by Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, April 30, 1984, pages 66-131).

In his brief description of the counter-arguments by mainstream scientists, Kornreich, as it could be expected, reduces these arguments to their caricature. I invite readers to look up the above references themselves rather than rely upon the straw man erected by Kornreich.

Furthermore, Kornreich brazenly makes obviously incorrect assertions -- such as, for example, his statement (not supported by any data) that helium molecules are too heavy for escaping the earth's gravitational pull and therefore cannot escape the atmosphere (see the above quotation). This assertion betrays Kornreich's ignorance of the pertinent scientific facts. Contrary to Kornreich, helium molecules can very well escape the atmosphere. It is true that the rate of their escape indeed is insufficient to account for the amount of helium in the atmosphere. However, there is a well substantiated explanation of why helium escapes the atmosphere at a rate much higher than calculated for helium molecules. Helium gets ionized in the upper atmosphere, and this is not just a speculation, as Kornreich wants us to believe, but a firmly established fact. If ionization is accounted for, the seeming discrepancy between the observed amount of helium and the age of the earth completely disappears. Whether Kornreich accepts this explanation or prefers to mislead his reader -- in either case mainstream scientists would hardly lose sleep.

Kornreich repeatedly asserts that scientists have not conducted any measurements to support their explanation of, say, the observed amount of helium in the atmosphere, and that therefore their explanation is just unsubstantiated theorizing. The answer to that thesis is twofold.

Number one: What measurements have creationists ever conducted to substantiate their anti-science stands? None whatsoever. Neither did Kornreich himself, and he can't cite any empirical data supporting his position besides quasi-arguments borrowed from his Christian partners in the creationist enterprise. Why does Kornreich consider it reasonable to demand measurements and detailed calculations from mainstream scientists while allowing creationists to make assertions not supported by any measurements or any factual data at all?

Number two: Kornreich's assertion is false. NASA scientists have performed enough measurements to show Kornreich's assertions for what they are: the rants of a religious zealot who either is blind to facts or deliberately misleads his readers.

To find out where helium in the atmosphere goes (including description of pertinent measurements), please see http://science.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast08dec98_1.htm and http://science.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast08dec98_1b.htm where data are presented showing the absurdity of creationist asseverations, and with them of Kornreich's piffle.

The helium concentration question is just one example of the sheer absurdity propagated by Kornreich, who follows in the footsteps of thoroughly debunked Christian creationists. His other arguments, likewise borrowed from Christian creationist literature, are about the amount of salts and metals in ocean water and about variations in the direction and strength of the earth's magnetic field. Both are as absurd as the argument regarding helium -- see, for example, the pertinent items in Mark Isaak's Index of Creationist Claims (at http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html).

Of course, when a person starts a discussion with a categorical assertion that he "knows" in advance the absolute truth, so anything that contradicts his self-confident "knowledge" must be wrong regardless of actual evidence, whoever is inclined to rely on such person's opinion may do so only at his/her peril.

Perhaps it is proper to note that Kornreich's attitude is imbued with unbounded arrogance: the fruit of scientific research has been gained through the hard work of thousands of honest scientists; Rabbi Kornreich takes the liberty of summarily denying science's achievements while in his own personal behavior he does not hesitate to make use of the results of the scientific exploration he brazenly rejects. He flies aboard airplanes, takes pills when sick, perhaps drives a car or at least takes buses and taxis, wears clothes made of modern fabrics, eats food obtained in abundance thanks to scientific breakthroughs, and with all this insults the same scientists, to whom he owes so much, with his anti-science fanatic rants. A little humility and a dose of apology would go a long way to at least partially salvage Rabbi Kornreich's so far shamelessly offensive image.

I see two possible results of having read Kornreich's screed: one can either laugh at the sheer absurdity of his discourse, or cry over the time wasted on a senseless anti-science diatribe, and that in the 21st century such crock can be posted as allegedly serious stuff.Readers have the choice between the two above possibilities.

Shmuel-Pairont de la Meyraque is a post doc researcher with a specialization in astrophysics. He is part French, part Jewish, with an admixture of at least three more ancestries, including some obscure offshoot of a tribe whose name nobody can pronounce. One of his avocations is making motor-driven dolls, another is speleology, and still another is occasionally debunking pseudo-science of creationists of all types.