Interaction between science and religion

Detail from the cover of the Electronic Journal for Research in Science & Mathematics Education, Vol. 25, no. 3, Fall, 2021.

If I had not been familiar with Sinai and Synapses,* I might have dismissed this special issue of an obscure journal as yet another attempt to use science to rationalize religious beliefs. It is nothing of the kind. The entire issue consists of essays by Fellows who have been supported over the years by the Sinai and Synapses organization, about which I have said a few words below, in an Endnote. The Fellows are experts in their fields and mostly faculty at secular universities. All of them, I am certain, know what they are talking about.

The front matter contains helpful synopses of all the papers. Sometimes, I admit, the synopsis was all I wanted. I learned, however, that a second-century CE rabbi, Judah ha-Nasi, had noted that “pestilence” often transferred from pigs to humans, so Rabbi Judah recommended fasting whenever pigs suffered pestilence. I wondered why on earth such an influential rabbi would care one whit about pigs, so I naturally turned first to the article, “Zoonotic pandemics and Judaism’s early-modern turn to science,” by Jonathan Crane of Emory University. I was relieved to find that Rabbi Judah did not raise pigs, but he had nevertheless noted the similarity between pigs’ organs and humans’. More strikingly, he recognized that diseases could be contagious and could be transferred from pigs to humans. Rabbi Crane introduces us to later Talmudic scholars who, in addition to citing earlier scholars and relying on their expertise, adduced their own evidence and required confirmation. Specifically, medieval Jewish scholars such as Maimonides accepted the scientific knowledge of their day, and the early modern period found Jews embracing “exogenous knowledge as well as the emerging means to discover and develop it.” Rabbi Crane continues, “To be precise, scientific method and evidence matter when it comes to physical issues like medicine and public health.”

Advertising bot solves the problems of early hominid


I was looking at a post today at Uncommon Descent, wondering what strange interpretation they were going to make of this palaeoanthropology report from Smithsonian Magazine. On my browser, in the middle of the post there was an ad. I know that the UD site is not responsible for which ad gets put onto the page when I view it. In this case a bot seems to be responding to the word “footprint”.

[UD post with ad]

The advertising bot appears to have decided that Graecopithecus needed relief for sore feet. It does not realize that 6 million years ago hominids did not have Amazon accounts.

There are no risk-free choices: interview with Paul Offit

Book cover

I recently caught an interview with Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of vaccinology and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The interview, originally broadcast on KERA in Dallas, was moderated by Krys Boyd. Part of the purpose of the interview, obviously, was to sell his latest book, You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation.

To get immediately to the point, Dr. Offit argues convincingly that there are no risk-free choices. If you choose not to be vaccinated, then you are choosing between the risk of contracting a deadly widespread disease (and, I might add, of infecting others) and the risk of suffering from a rare side effect. Why do people choose the common disease over the rare side effect? One reason, Dr. Offit claims, is that a sin of commission may be seen as a greater risk than a sin of omission, even if statistically it is not. Thus, you may feel guilt over a sin of commission but not over a sin of omission. Further, and equally regrettably, people see themselves and their children as invulnerable – “I am strong and healthy; it won’t happen to me” – and Dr. Offit attributes this kind of denialism to the unfortunate fact that the emotional centers evolved early, before what I shall call the thinking centers. He did not, according to my notes, discuss the political implications of refusing vaccination.

How safe are the Covid vaccines?

Iris pseudacorus

Yellow flag iris
Iris pseudacorus – yellow flag iris, Cottonwood Lake, Boulder, Colorado, June, 2015. This plant is an aquatic iris. I took this snapshot in 2015 (and an earlier one in 2009) and did not give it much thought. The plant was not very widespread when I snapped the pictures, but last week I came across a sign warning that the area had been sprayed to control yellow flag iris, cattail, and teasel. Sure enough, the Colorado Department of Agriculture considers yellow flag iris a noxious weed, though it is only on a watchlist and not regulated. I have no idea why cattail is being sprayed, but teasel is very invasive.

Creationists and advocates of social justice unite to take down T.H. Huxley, a leader in educational inclusion


WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment may be renamed after a bizarre report uncritically plagiarising far-right creationist & conspiracist materials gets Thomas Henry Huxley exactly backwards on racism.

From 2004-2007 Dr. Nick Matzke worked at the National Center for Science Education, including the [Kitzmiller v. Dover( court case that determined that teaching “intelligent design” in public schools was unconstitutional. He obtained his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2013. He is now a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. This essay represents his personal scholarly views, not those of current or former employers.

Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment was founded in 1969, the year of the Santa Barbara oil spill, when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, and when Earth Day was proposed. It is now one of the oldest and most prestigious environmental colleges in the country. It was named for Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), famed not only as “Darwin’s Bulldog” after the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species, but also for his remarkable career, rising from a family too poor to pay for school to becoming a leading anatomist (proposing the kinship of humans with the great apes, and birds with dinosaurs), geologist, ethnologist, and philosopher (coiner of the word “agnostic,” foe of Social Darwinism). Above all he was a leading figure in making science a profession (rather than a hobby for priests and the landed gentry), and making a liberal science education available to all.

Despite accomplishing more than most could ever dream for science and public science education, Huxley is now in the dock at WWU. The main charge is racism, with many at WWU calling for Huxley College to be renamed. WWU’s president commissioned a Legacy Review Task Force which issued a Report making the rather elliptical claim that Huxley’s “ethnological accomplishments were grounded in white supremacist values that dehumanize and harm many members of the Western community.” More directly, the Report indicts him for advocating polygenism (the idea that different human races are separate species) and “many negative generalizations on the basis of race.” Another charge was that Huxley’s “Huxley’s claims about the inexhaustibility of fisheries has contributed to the decline of the salmon runs that are central to Coast Salish cultures.”

Are the accusations correct? A large debate could be had about the substantial difficulties of fully understanding the views of historical figures, let alone judging them. But clearly universities should not ignore major relevant evidence, nor rely on badly biased and one-sided presentations of the evidence.