American culture has a peculiar relationship with science – especially for a nation ostensibly built on Enlightenment ideals. Scientific knowledge, and how and whether it is filtered through the lens of faith, has increasingly taken the public spotlight as debates rage over education, and the urgency of political action on issues like climate change becomes increasingly clear. The public response to COVID-19 was just one more in a string of circumstances where support for scientific action became a proxy for political views – before that, it was the environment, emerging out of the moral minefield of Cold War-era science.
Many of these struggles have arisen because of a perceived conflict between religion – usually the Protestant Christianity that has traditionally been ascendant in this country – and scientific discoveries that have been perceived to threaten this culture in some way. But what if there wasn’t a conflict after all? Judaism, in particular, can show us how intellectual curiosity and rigor can in fact be inspired by the traditional culture of a religion. How might this positive example be useful for improving the public discourse?
Naomi Oreskes, PhD is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is an internationally renowned earth scientist, science historian, and author of both scholarly and popular books and articles on the history of earth and environmental science. Oreskes has been a leading voice on the science and politics of anthropogenic climate change.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. “Why Trust Science?” was a panel discussion between Dr. Oreskes, Rabbi Dan Geffen and Judy Klinghoffer held at Temple Adas Israel on August 14, 2023).Read Transcript
Judy Klinghoffer: So good evening, everybody. Welcome back to our ongoing series of dialogues on science and religion. Again, we always have to say a big thank you to Dr. Steve Rosen and Celia Paul, because without them we wouldn’t be enjoying this moment where we can learn and be together.
So this is a very, very exciting topic. Our topic tonight is “Why trust science?” And this has been something that, in the last few years, we’ve really seen some heated discussion about. So we are so fortunate to have today with us Naomi Oreskes, right here. I’ve got to tell you a little bit about her. Very impressive woman. She is the Henry Charles Lee Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is an internationally renowned Earth scientist, a science historian, and the author of both scholarly and popular books and articles on the history of Earth and environmental science. She’s authored and co-authored numerous books and other works, including her 2004 essay “The scientific consensus on climate change,” which has been cited over well over 2,000 times, and was featured in The Academy Award-winning film – you’ve probably seen An Inconvenient Truth.
Her 2010 book with co-author Eric Conway, Merchants of Doubt, was made into a documentary by Participant Media and her Ted Talk – which I’ve recently seen, and you guys should all check it out, it’s wonderful – “Why We Should Trust Scientists?” has over 1.6 million views. That is a lot. It’s amazing, yes. And she’s also been named a Guggenheim Fellow for her latest book with Eric Conway, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market. So this is going to be a very interesting discussion.
Of course, we have Rabbi Dan, and we are here in our wonderful home of Temple Adas Israel. So Naomi, we’re going to dive right in. So why should we trust science? Or maybe we shouldn’t?
Naomi Oreskes: Thank you. Well, the answer is “most of the time.” We should not always, but most of the time. And so my book is really all about this. And so I wrote this book originally because I was giving a lot of talks about climate change – climate science and climate change denial. And one day someone in the audience stood up and said – and I gave this talk where I used to go into great detail about the history of climate science, what the evidence was, how scientists had done the work to understand the climate system. And at the end of the talk, a man stands up and goes, “Well, that’s all very well and good, but why should we trust the scientists?” And I thought, “Well, that’s a really big question.” And this is the great thing about giving public talks like this, and listening seriously to your audience, because people ask me questions. And so that became a book, and that became the question that the book addresses.
And so what I argue is that most people have a misconception – they think that science is trustworthy for one of two reasons. One is they think that scientists are geniuses. So I’m here to tell you I spent my whole life around scientists – most of them are not geniuses. And actually, you know, we can identify some geniuses in the history of science – Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Darwin. But the vast majority of the history of science is not populated by geniuses. It’s populated by small people who work hard, and maybe they have some talents – they’re good at math, or they’re – I think almost all great scientists are very big observers. But most scientists are not geniuses, and even the geniuses didn’t work alone. And so if we think about someone like Einstein – I mean, one of my favorite examples from the history of science is – some of you may know, I know Dr. Rosen knows – so when Einstein proposed the Theory of General Relativity, it was really just a theory. People did not know whether or not it was right. So how did we figure out if it was right?
Well, the theory made certain kinds of predictions. And so one of the things we do in science is we see empirical predictions. Can we test that to figure out if those predictions are right or wrong? And so this was done with the General Theory of Relativity. One of the startling aspects of that theory is that it said that what we conventionally call “gravity,” what we call the force of gravity, isn’t really a force at all. What Einstein says is that it’s actually the bending of space-time in the presence of large bodies like the sun. So this is a very, very different way of seeing the universe. And so people say, “Well, okay, if that’s true, then light would be bent when it passes into a massive body.” Now, according to Newton’s Theory, there’s no reason why light should be bent, because light has no mass. But according to Einstein’s theory, it should be bent, because the fabric of spacetime along which it travels is bent. So these are radically different visions of the universe.
So people say, “Well, we could test that by looking at the path of light coming from a distant star that’s going close to the Sun.” Now, on an ordinary day, you couldn’t look – you couldn’t do that, because at night you can’t – there’s no sun. And also in the daytime, you’ll be blinded if you stand at the sun. But during an eclipse… so, in 1918, the British astronomer, Sir Arthur Eddington, tested the theory by looking at the path of starlight during an eclipse. And he showed that, lo and behold, it actually should. And this was such a big discovery, it was actually on the front page of newspapers around the globe. So this is often taken to be one of the most important proofs of the theory of general relativity. Arthur Eddington did so, and that’s just one example. And I’m only mentioning two people, out of many, many other people, of course. But every time we look closely at any accomplishment in the history of science, whether it’s Galileo, Newton, Einstein, the discovery of DNA, whatever, we always find there may be some very, very smart people involved, there may even be some geniuses. But that’s just a small piece of the whole story.
So we also shouldn’t trust science through the scientific method – that’s just wrong. So then the other thing that many people think is, “Okay, well, if it’s not genius, it’s the scientific method.” And you were probably taught this in high school. It was probably a box – maybe you had a physics or a chemistry class. And there’s a box that said “the scientific method.” Now, if you actually look at textbooks, which I’ve done, what you find is they don’t actually agree with this supposedly unique scientific method. But the argument is something like – “Well, because scientists use the scientific method, that’s why they get accurate results.” But it turns out that doesn’t work either.
So what is this so-called “scientific method”? Well, most textbooks would tell you it’s something like this: scientists develop a hypothesis, like the general theory of relativity, through general relativity, then they think of some experiment or some observation – some tests that you could make to figure out whether it’s true. They do the test, and if it works, then you say “Yes, it is true.” If it fails, you say “No, it’s wrong.” So the story I just told you about Einstein, Eddington actually fixed that model.
So there are places in the industry of science where we can find people doing that. But those are the exceptions. Most of the time it’s not what scientists actually do. So if we’re going to be scientific about it, we have to actually look at what scientists do. We have to study science in action. And when historians and sociologists and anthropologists do that, what they find is a much, much more complicated picture, with many different kinds of methods. And we find that a great deal of science, probably the majority of the history of science, is actually what philosophers call “inductive science.” And by that, we mean we make the observations first – we go out into the world and we see things that are confusing, things we don’t understand – a new virus develops, or there are just things we don’t understand about the natural world. And so we observe it, we study it, and we try to come up with an explanation that makes sense. Philosophers call this the “inference to the best explanation.” So a tremendous amount of science actually works that way.
And it’s not to say that one is better or worse. In the philosophy of science, there are giant arguments among people who want to say which is the right method. I think those arguments are a total waste of time. What history tells us is: they’re both scientific methods, they both work, and they both can be effective, depending upon what the question is. Different questions will require different kinds of tools to answer them. And then in fact, when we say “the history of science,” we see a diversity of methods.
So I’ve just told you the reasons that I can’t answer the question. And because I’m an academic, I do that. So first, we dispense with the wrong answers. And now I’ll tell you what I think is the right answer.
So if we ask the question, “What is it that really distinguishes science from other kinds of human activities?” One of the key things we see is the processes of criticism, the processes of critical interrogation, the give and take, where scientists argue with each other, where they ask each other tough questions, where they ask questions about their methods, their evidence, how much data they have.
And so when scientists come up with a claim, an idea, there’s a process that they go through that typically is something like this: first, the scientists will shop the idea around somewhat informally, maybe at conferences, maybe at workshops, maybe among their colleagues in their department, maybe among their graduate students. They get feedback – people will say, “Well, you know, I’m not sure about that, I’m not sure about your math, I’m not sure that that step in your proof, doesn’t seem like your sample size is large enough,” you know, lots of different kinds of questions. Scientists take that on board. They take that criticism on board, and they say “Okay, maybe my sample size is too small. I need to continue this work, I need to have a larger sample size.” Or, “Oh, maybe I did make a mistake in the mathematics, I need to fix that.”
And eventually you get to a point in your work where you feel like you think the argument’s secure enough. And at that point, you submit it for publication in what we call peer-reviewed journals. So what does that mean? Peer-reviewed journals are essentially magazines, scientific magazines, where when a paper is submitted, the editor sends it to other scientists, other experts in that area. Often it’s highly specialized, so it’s not just other physicists, but it’s other microwave physicists. Or it’s not just other geologists, it’s other high-temperature geochemists. It’s quite specialized. Those people read the paper.
And then there’s a second round of criticism. And the reviewers are looking for trouble – they’re looking for problems. It’s very – in a way, it’s almost hostile. I mean science isn’t always fun. Like, all of us have had the experience of getting some kind of really nasty review that made us mad. I’m always telling my graduate students this: like, you have to be thick-skinned, and you have to take the criticism as, in a way, a kind of weird gift. It doesn’t feel like a gift, but it is a gift, because people have taken the time to read your work carefully and to look for fallacies and to tell you honestly, “this isn’t working,” right.
So you go through another round of this criticism, this critical interrogation, and then, again, you may adjust what you think, you may change the hypothesis., you may give up – the paper may be rejected if the reviews are too negative, or it may be accepted. We have what we call “accepted pending revisions.” So you have to make some changes. And eventually, if things seem to be good enough, if you can persuade your colleagues, then the paper gets published. So that’s what I think is round two.
And then round three is when your colleagues kind of use your work. That’s what I would call “science in action.” So now you’ve published this paper. If you’re unlucky, it just gets ignored. Lots of science does. That’s the reality. So often you have to do work to get attention for your work, but if it doesn’t get ignored, then your colleagues – they’ll read it and maybe they’ll try to use it in their own work.
And during that process, there’s a third opportunity. And if they do find problems, then they write an additional paper saying “No, Orsekes was wrong about that, we think the actual answer is this.” And sometimes big arguments ensue in the scientific community. But eventually, if it’s all going well, you get to a point where people say, “Yes, we think this is correct. We have proved this to our satisfaction.” And that’s when something becomes knowledge – when this community of experts says “yes.”
And so philosophers call this process “transformative interrogation.” So “interrogation” because it’s hard – it can really be quite nasty at times. I mean you’re hoping it’s friendly – it isn’t always. But it’s “transformative” because when it works right, the final product is generally fairly different from what we started. I mean, it might just be a little different, or it might be quite radically different. But it’s that process of transformation, by making changes in response to criticism. But the criticism is given in the spirit of wanting to actually find out the truth about that.
And so that’s what I always view as the strength of science – the scientists are willing to accept views of – not just willing, but scientists voluntarily subject themselves to this pretty tough process in order to figure out the truth.
Judy Klinghoffer: It sounds incredibly creative. It sounds like working on a script or a book, where you’re working with an editor and you probably have your one or two trusted friends or family members, and it’s always better if they’re brutal with you, you know, or as honest as possible, because you just want to come up with the best possible work that you can.
Naomi Oreskes: And I’d say in many ways, I think science is more like other human activities that we’ve often thought. We often think about science as being this really different thing that’s kind of way out there, when all of the rest of us, mere mortals, are, you know, doing whatever it is we’re doing.
But I think one way in which it is different is – say if you’re a screenwriter or a poet or whatever, you want that criticism, you want that tough criticism. But you’re also free to ignore it. If you think the advice you’re getting is off-base, you can just say, “No, this is my creative work, I’m sticking with it.” And that might even be the right choice. We know that there are creative people who have been given bad advice in their lives.
But in science, you don’t actually have that choice. You have to confront the criticism. And you have to either accept it, or you have to explain to everyone else why you think you’re right and they’re wrong. And that’s done in a very public way. And in that sense, science is also much more public than many other human activities. And again, that’s a strength of science: because it is public, there’s an opportunity for many people to participate.
And so another part of my argument in the book is that, also, diversity is important in science. Because of all the people studying the problem are all looking at it from the same point of view, then the odds that they might miss something can be fairly great. But if the community is diverse – and by that I mean, well, we’ll talk more in a minute about what I mean by diversity. But if the community is diverse, it increases the odds that you have people to look at the problem in different ways and avoid what would be damaging blind spots.
Dan Geffen: I just want to say, very quickly, how remarkable is your description of the scientific world and the scientific mind, the relationship between scientists, of how many analogs there are in the rabbinic world. And how it actually supports something that I’ve always sort of felt, but I could never quite articulate – as to why I feel comfortable in this world, as with a very limited skill set of things that I can do.
But one of those things is in the world of analysis, and when you study Talmud – for example, Talmud is the classic example of what you’re describing, right. The Torah is actually very terse. It’s full of lots of very direct rules – “do this, don’t do that.” But in practical application, those rules start to raise questions. And that inductive reasoning is actually very much the way that the rabbis of the Talmud approach the vast majority of their conversation, as sort of the inevitable reality that this hard and fast rule that is applied in the Torah, when it comes into contact with the real world, presents three, four, five, six, seven different variations, various nuances, various potential biases, and all sorts of things that the rabbis then have to argue over.
And one of the great sort of characteristics of the Talmud, as opposed to a lot of other bodies or groups’ religious literature, and particularly ones that are directed towards law, right – codes of law generally are designed to be terse, to be direct, to be limiting. But the Talmud is the exact opposite. It’s a giant expanse, it’s thousands of pages of arguments, some of which don’t actually go anywhere in particular, and oftentimes go in tangents to return to something else, but almost always begin with this sort of inquiry. But that inquiry is not necessarily the one where they sat down that day to say, “I’m going to find out the solution to this particular problem,” but more – I can’t tell you how many stories, so many sections of the Talmud that begin with a story, with a narrative. “I was walking along the path when I suddenly found X, and it raised the following question.”
And then how do we, in the end, solve the question? It’s very rarely solved by the rabbi who poses it. In the world long before the internet, before Substacks, before places to pose questions in your sphere, that was the design of it. And more often than not, when a question arose, there was a need to really communicate, with not just the rabbi of the particular community, but many of them.
And as just a 30-second piece of this relates to my family: So my great-grandfather is the first Rabbi that made Coca-Cola kosher, gave it its official stamp –
Naomi Oreskes: And – boy oh boy, did he make a mess of things.
Dan Geffen: I know. Exactly, you know. But it turns out there are layers to the story. And my aunt Helen, who was a chemist at Emory, was the one who in the end figured out how to replace the one non-kosher ingredient with another one. But it turns out there was a disagreement between him and a rabbi in Chicago, and the rabbi in Chicago had said that it was totally kosher without any need to change anything, and that he had observed the entire facility and there were no problems. And my great-grandfather in Atlanta, where Coca-Cola resided, had a difference of opinion.
And the main difference of opinion was about intention. So there’s a law in the laws of kashrut that says – let’s say you’re cooking a meat soup, and you happen to have a thing of cream above and happen to knock into it, and just enough falls in. Question is: what point is the threshold crossed between it being kosher, right? And it turns out, 1/60th of the total volume. So, so long as it is less than 1/60th of the total volume, it is “nullified,”– bitul is the word for it. It’s as if it doesn’t exist, right.
Naomi Oreskes: Because it was accidental.
Dan Geffen: So that’s the rub – so long as it was accidental, exactly, it’s fine. But if you do it intentionally, then it’s no longer acceptable.
And so the way in which the Coca-Cola formula had, even though it was an infinitesimally small amount of glycerin derived from a pig hoof, because it was intentionally put in, it needed to be replaced in order for at least my great-grandfather to give his hechsher.
And so here, again, you’re thinking: what does science have to do with religion? In our case, believe it or not, volume, size, determination of time, space, all of those things factor into almost every decision that the rabbis make. And when they come into conflict – this is where it really comes back to everything you were just saying, about the positive nature of the academic world and the scientific world, of pushing each other forward through critique. This is exactly what our Rabbi Emeritus was just talking about this weekend. The phrase in Hebrew is a “makhloket l’shem shamayim” – “disagreement” or a “debate,” of some sort; l’shem shamayim means “for the sake of heaven.” And it’s understood by the rabbis to mean, really, for the sake of, actually the benefit of all, everything under heaven, as it were.
So if you’re arguing simply for the sake of arguing – it has happened sometimes in academia, where you might have a person arguing to aggrandize themselves and to delegitimize their opponent – never, never would have… but for the vast majority of scientists whose mission is greater truth, greater understanding of this world that we share – that kind of critique to push us forward, l’shem shamayim, as it were, that is fundamentally part of who we are as Jews.
And as a last word before I stop talking: The periods of history in which the Jewish people have run away from that tendency, become much more rigid in their thinking, much more reticent to accept new ideas that may supersede older ideas, that have been the periods in our history in which we have done the least, in which we have been in the worst possible position. But historically, in the places in which we have pushed ourselves, the expanse is great, and the progress is great, as a result of it.
So it’s just been amazing to me to hear all of this, because it just fits so perfectly in with everything that I believe the rabbinate is about and what Judaism is about.
Naomi Oreskes: Well, that’s great. I love that on many levels. And I’m definitely going to remember the story about the intent, because a lot of my other work is about disinformation, people who are trying to undermine trust in science, and this is where intent becomes really important. And I’m often asked the difference between misinformation and disinformation. And there’s a really simple mnemonic: misinformation, with an m, is a mistake. Somebody’s confused, somebody got bad information for themselves, but it wasn’t intended to deceive. Disinformation is intended to deceive, it’s deliberate – so, the “d” words.
And so that fits with your model that intent matters, right. And it matters also because the remedy is different. if someone is misinformed, then you can fix that by giving them good information in a friendly, kind and compassionate way. And you could say, actually, “That isn’t really true, and let me explain why.” But if a person is involved in disinformation and it’s deliberate, then just giving them information will not work. And then there’s a whole different approach that you might need to take.
The other thing I love about what you say also is: so in history of science, there’s a big sort of sotto voce conversation has taken place over the question of why there are so many Jews in science. And many historians are nervous, they’re uncomfortable in that space, because of the risk of what might seem to be genetic determinism, that there’s something about Jewish brains. And that’s something that makes almost all historians uncomfortable, and in my opinion rightly so.
But what you just said, I think, explains something that I have actually long thought, but it confirms it: that there’s a cultural resonance between the rabbinic traditions, Jewish traditions of learning and study – you know, studying Torah and Talmud, and the kind of approach that is characteristic of science. So it’s culturally resonant, and it’s therefore relatively easy for many Jews to feel comfortable in science, because it’s consistent with their traditions. And even if you’re not raised in a rabbinic-oriented family – I mean, as we all know, Jewish families all argue. And we were taught to argue. We were taught that arguing was a good thing. And my husband and I have talked about this a lot, but when we first started teaching in an Ivy League school whose name won’t be mentioned – you know, it was kind of a shock to be in a place where we felt like arguing wasn’t actually viewed as a good thing. And then it gets bad.
So then how do you have an academic conversation? And one of the things I’ve noticed, in my current institution, is that when people do want to say something critical, they often begin with this long prologue – “Well, I just want to thank you for that absolutely splendid talk, and the amazing contribution you’ve made to our field…” And this goes on for now about five minutes. And then finally the person says, “But I just have one little tiny question,” right. And as a Jew, you know, I’m sitting there thinking, “Could you just get to the point?”
Dan Geffen: When you’re a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College, in your fourth year, you give what’s called a senior sermon, and as it used to be, back in the day, I’m told, especially in Cincinnati, at the original campus – this was like the firing squad, right. The student would get up and give their sermon, and the professors would sit in the front row like this, and they would wait for the after-conversation, and then would do exactly this, right: begin with some platitude of some sort, and then just to go right for the jugular. And it’s exactly that, but it’s like Colombo. “Just one last thing before I go.” It’s up again, another unbelievable analog, not that I experienced that myself.
Judy Klinghoffer: So I have a question – you know, I’m a big lover of TV, I grew up with TV, I’m of that generation, I think a lot of us are, whether we want to admit it or not. And I was always surprised how in real life, in my household, intelligence and, you know, loving science, and trying to love the truth, was revered, and was held up. But in media – and this has just kept spiraling and growing – science and scientists – it’s the “evil scientist,” “the mad scientist,” the scientist who’s usurping the power of God. And this has sort of gone into this disinformation age, of whether it’s either science or faith. And I was curious if you think there’s a remedy. That’s something that would be good to see in media, that would counteract that.
Naomi Oreskes: Yeah. Well, I think that’s a question I want to unpack into a few different parts. So because I think that the television of our youth – and I’m assuming we’re, like, roughly contemporaries – there’s a very particular thing going on, and this actually relates to a question that Stephen asked me earlier today. So that’s really about the aftermath of the atomic bomb. So in the 1950s and 60s, there was a lot of television, a lot of film, the whole world of science fiction films – if you remember the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you know, The Day the Earth Stood Still – all of those movies were all really about the atomic bomb, and a lot of those things – the mutants were, King Kong was a mutant created by radiation. And so I think as children, we didn’t know that. We’re watching these TV shows and films. But the motif of the evil scientist, the dark arts, you know, the sort of Mephistopheles, which of course has been in literature and film (sort of, well, film hasn’t been around forever), but I mean, it’s an old motif, but it took on a particular resonance in the period after World War II because of the fact that scientists had created the world’s first weapon of mass destruction, and because there was enormous anxiety about radiation, and the idea that even after the bomb was done, you know, even after the immediate aftermath, that the radiation lived on, and that that radiation could cause damage long after the bomb itself.
Now, of course, you know, the reality is much more complicated than what those movies imply. But so we grew up in this period where there was a lot of anxiety about the role that scientists had played. And I think also the role that science had played was [as a] secret. So if you’ve seen the Oppenheimer movie, you know that the Manhattan Project was secret. Scientists were forbidden from talking about it in public. And then even after the war, enormous numbers of important decisions were made about the development of nuclear weapons – what we should develop, a hydrogen bomb – all of which took place behind closed doors. The American people had no access to those absolutely huge, important decisions that were being made, decisions in which the future of the planet was literally at stake. But some scientists were inside in those conversations, and people knew that that was true. They knew enough about people like Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, to know that those scientists were involved in these conversations. But we, the American people, were being excluded.
And so that became a really rich landscape for filmmakers, poets, writers, to explore – you know, the dark side of that situation. And so I think that was a particular moment in history. And the people who were raised with those questions are very different from the people to whom they’ve passed down science today?
And so one of the things I’ve studied in my work is this sort of change that has happened. And I talk about this in the Why Trust Science book. So if you go back to the 1960s, most of the people who were skeptical of science at that time – we can say broadly, as a kind of gross generalization – were on the left side of the political spectrum, because they saw scientists closely implicated with the military-industrial complex, which in fact it was.
But things began to change in the 70s and 80s, when science became much more strongly affiliated with the environmental movement, and where a number of big issues came to the fore, like acid rain, the ozone hole, and climate change. And the scientists who worked on those issues were not necessarily left-wing. Most of them were not. Most of them were just scientists. And they didn’t even know that this focus was going to lead them to a politically charged domain.
But as these issues came to the fore, it began to be clear that they were really implicating industry – like, chemicals, like DDT, that had the potential to really wreck ecosystems, or climate change, which was caused by burning fossil fuels, which was at the heart of modern industrial capitalism. And so the right wing began to see science as being implicated in an indictment of modern capitalism, modern industrial property. And so we begin to see a political shift. And my book Merchants of Doubt is all about this.
So beginning, really, in the Reagan Administration, we begin to see people on the right wing of the political spectrum beginning to attack science. And that took off – you know, what’s the phrase I want, I don’t know, took off like 20 – I don’t know, like, bandits, whatever. I’m not picking the right metaphor. But that’s what we’ve really been living with the past 40 years. The increasing – because as the scientific evidence – because the Vietnam War ended, badly, or well, depending on your point of view, but it did end. And somehow the whole association of science with the military industrial complex – it’s not that it ended, but it became one piece of a bigger, more complex landscape.
Since the 1980s, the scientific evidence – climate change, of acid rain – there were these really big environmental problems. It’s just become stronger and stronger and stronger. And so that has made the right wing really dig in to reject the science that would force us to rethink how we do business. And so this is what I’ve called “implicatory denial” – that people deny science when they don’t like its implications. So conservatives don’t like the implication that they might have to change the way we live.
In the book, I talk about George H.W. Bush – this is something that’s not well remembered, but he accepted climate science. He signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the international law that all these COP agreements we’ve passed before, they’re all adjuncts to that convention. And when he signed the convention, he promised to translate the written words into concrete action to protect the planet. And when he was running for president – so this was 1988, when he was running the second time, he said, “Those people who think we’re powerless to fight the greenhouse effect haven’t thought about the White House Effect.” And he promised that if he were elected president, he would do something about climate change.
So, what the heck happened, right? So what happened was a big political shift, where the right wing began to say, “No, we won’t accept this, because if it’s true, then we have to rethink how we do business. Maybe we have to put a price on carbon. Maybe we have to restrict, have stronger laws restricting, how business operates, where we can’t just let the fossil fuel industry produce as much oil and gas as they want.” And so the implications of this were really profound for the American economy, for global capitalism.
And so what I started to say about Bush, what I forgot to add, is – so he makes this big speech, but then subsequently, when he starts getting pushback from within his own party, he says “Well, I’m committed to doing something about this problem, but the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” So there it is – here’s this essential tension. Because the reality is that the American way of life is implicated, right. I mean, lots and lots of countries contribute to climate change, but no country has contributed more than us. And with a few exceptions around the globe, no people are more responsible for putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than Americans are, because we live this incredibly consumptive lifestyle. And the reality is that most of us like that. We don’t want to give it up. Now, some of us like myself will say, “Well, wait, hold on, we’re not actually saying you have to give it up, we have to find some different way of doing business,” right. But that’s really, really threatening, particularly to conservatives. And so that’s why we see this conservative alignment.
And this is a point that I try to make a lot: it’s not that most Americans reject science. Most Americans still accept science. All the public opinion polls we have show that, for most people on most topics, 70 to 80 percent of Americans like science, trust science, think science is basically a good thing. “I think the government should support science” – actually, 72 percent of Americans think the federal government should continue to be a strong supporter of science and technology. But if you ask specific questions about specific areas of science, like evolutionary theory or climate change, then the picture shifts. And when it comes to climate change, then 95% of people who self-identify as liberals or Democrats say, “Yeah, of course there’s climate change.” And some roughly equivalent number, something like 80% of people who identify as conservatives or Republicans, say “No.” And that’s because of the political and economic and social implications, and what they perceive to be the political implications of the science. So it’s not that they have a beef with science per se, but they have a beef with this particular science.
But what we’ve seen in the last 10 years or so is that has now spilled over. So what we’re now seeing is Republicans rejecting science in other areas. It didn’t used to be that scientists rejected, say, public health, but during the pandemic, boy, we saw that in spades.
Dan Geffen: So just jumping back a bit, and thinking about sort of the way that scientists can be portrayed in different lights in different periods of time, and thinking about sort of the analogs within Judaism – and the truth is that Judaism as a religion, philosophically, has, I would say, more than many others, been open to the idea of scientific advancement, and what it does for human beings. And the usual thread of logic is that, first of all, the sort of overarching cover for any innovation that any human being ever comes up with within the Jewish world is always attributed to God. Like, that’s the historical way of doing it. So every Rabbi that’s ever written a book, historically – even if they created the – Maimonides, whatever it might be the first opening preface says something to the effect of, “Thanks, by grace of God, I have sat down and written this treatise on whatever it may be,” right. So it gives a certain coverage to say that even when a human being invents something that otherwise is by definition unnatural – in other words, would not have occurred otherwise – there is still this sort of feeling like it can be a positive thing, so long as it is used for positive means.
But it came up, actually, in our conversation a few weeks ago about AI, about how Judaism relates to the concept of something that is quote-unquote “unnatural,” or not created directly by God. If you continue to have a religion that only allows for that, you eventually run into all sorts of really significant challenges, and even things that are not to the most extreme, but you take something like Christian Science, for example, in which many people won’t necessarily go seek medical care for life-affecting things, because their life is “in the hand of God,” so to speak. There is a stream of Jewish thought that can lead in that direction as well. But most of the rabbis of history sort of pulled back from that.
And the reason this relates to this question about how we sort of view the scientist and the scientific mind is that, in most cases, what is the Torah concerned primarily with? Idolatry. And what is idolatry? As we talked about this past weekend, really, sort of a shorthand way of saying things that are done that are not ours, things that are representing some other means.
And in the end, it’s not so much the veneer that matters, it’s the intentional piece that comes down to it. So it’s not, for example, that the religious mind, at least within Judaism, is going to be against science or scientists, but it is very concerned with what happens when a human being possesses the power of a god. And that becomes the real place where the ethical considerations and the moral considerations come into partnership with the scientific advancements. Because in the end, as we talked about last week, the hammer is the most amazing tool in the world – it can just as easily build as kill someone. And in the end, it’s a question of the person whose hand it falls into, in the case of Oppenheimer, as we talked about last time as well.
So this question, of the projection of the media, is creating the evil scientist, the one that leads it in that direction, I think – (again, it really is very much cultural and historical and often based very much in the context of the time), and who in the end is benefiting from creating that kind of image. And it’s precisely in this kind of vein, right – we like what we like, but anything that speaks in counter to our worldview, it’s what, in the rabbis’ parlance, is “avodat kokkavim u-mazzalot,” “worshiping the stars.” It’s like a catch-all phrase for something we ought to not do.
So I think, for us in the Jewish world, this is why this program has been so important to us to do in our communities, to remind ourselves that these sort of very dangerous, very fake bifurcations between science and religion generally serve somebody’s agenda that is not ours. And it’s definitely not been part of mainstream Jewish thinking, certainly from Maimonides onward, and really, actually, from even before that.
Judy Klinghoffer: That was well-said.
Dan Geffen: It was actually AI (laughs).
Naomi Oreskes: I could add a little something to that too. because, I mean, virtually all historians of science would agree with exactly what you just said – that if we look at the history of science, we see that actually most scientists, historically, were people of faith. Not always entirely conventional faith, but definitely faith of some kind. And most religions, at most points in history, didn’t actually have a problem with science. And in fact, you know, we often think of the Catholic church as having a particularly fraught relationship with science. But actually, in the 14th century, they were in really important patrons of science. And the entire science of astronomy was supported by the Catholic Church, because – you know why? They needed to know when Easter was.
Dan Geffen: That’s a big part of it for us as well.
Naomi Oreskes: Right. You need astronomy to figure out your calendar.
So then the question: why do so many of us have this idea that there’s this intrinsic conflict between science and religion, that almost no historian would say was true, and most scientists wouldn’t say either? There’s a couple of things there. One of them is certain unhelpful scientists, in my opinion. So I’ve made some notes for today, just some things I wanted to make sure to say if it came up – so, if any of you are fans of Richard Dawkins, I would really encourage you to rethink that. Anybody here read Dawkins? No? Okay, this is a good group. But I go to a lot of places where people say, “Oh, but I love Richard Dawkins. And he says…” And he pushes this idea that “Only idiots believe in God” – super unhelpful. But his books sell very, very well, because for some people, it makes them – I don’t know, it makes them feel superior. I don’t know what it does, but he’s very, very popular.
I was just telling my friend Ellen, I actually did a book signing right next to Richard Dawkins last year. And I thought, “Oh my God.” And it was an audience – and these books are very popular, so millions and millions of copies. And there were all these sort of acolytes, including one man who was there with a stack of first editions of his books. And I thought, “Oh, this is going to go badly.” But it was really great. This one woman goes and gets Dawkins to sign her books, and then she comes to my table and she says, “Well I’ve never heard of you, but your books look really interesting, so I’ll buy them, too.” And I thought, “Well, that’s good.” Just shows it always pays to show up, right. Just be there, and things might happen. If you stay home, nothing happens.
So there is this one element in the scientific community that pushes this idea, I think, for their own vested interests, or because it sells books, or whatever, but also because here in the United States, there’s a very important part of this history that’s not well known. But it actually has to do with history of universities. So in the early history of American universities, in the 18th and 19th centuries, almost all American universities were sectarian. Places like Harvard were established to train ministers. But there was a movement, particularly in the 19th century, from around the 1830s onwards, starting with the moral acts which created the land-grant universities as non-sectarian universities, but also with the rise of the research universities, beginning with Johns Hopkins in the 1860s and 70s, to create a space for universities that would not be denominational, not be sectarian. And in order to make that case, there were a group of scientists, particularly Andrew Dixon White, who was the president of Cornell, who wrote books – and there was one famous book, called The Conflict of Science and Religion. And they actually promoted this idea in order to say, “We cannot have religion for at Yale. Or we have to isolate religion in the Divinity School and not have it be sort of across the curriculum.”
And it lives out at Harvard in a really interesting way. So in Harvard, we have a very famous Divinity School. Many famous religious people have come out of it. And it’s a non-sectarian Divinity School, so people of all kinds of different faiths, and they welcome that. And yet, a recent president of Harvard said, “I don’t understand why we have a school of religion.” Yeah. So there’s this really, really deep motif that was consciously developed in America to make people believe that science and religion [were incompatible] in order to push religion out of elite universities like Harvard and Cornell.
Judy Klinghoffer: So Naomi, you had said earlier, just briefly – you touched on the issue of diversity.
Naomi Oreskes: Yes.
Judy Klinghoffer: And I wanted to make sure that we got back to that, since It’s something that’s on our minds.
Naomi Oreskes: Right. So one of the arguments that I make in my work is that diversity isn’t just a moral good, which of course it is, but it’s also an epistemic good – that is to say, it helps us think about problems in a more effective way when we look at a problem from a wide range of different angles. Because we all have our own blind spots, nobody is able to see everything, no matter how smart or how well-trained we are. But when we bring people into a room that have different points of view, it expands the conversation, and it enables us to see things that we might otherwise have missed.
Now, one interesting question that comes up – and this is an argument that some philosophers of science have made with me – is they say, “Well, when you say that aren’t you really talking about what we could call epistemic diversity – that is to say, looking at things from different points of view, which might arise from your different educational background, disciplinary backgrounds?” Like, you’re trained as a rabbi, I’m changing the story of science. And it’s not really about race or gender, right. So this is an interesting challenge.
So here’s what I want to say about that. I want to say that deep, deep down in my heart, I actually think that’s right. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to worry about race or gender, we would only have to worry about epistemic diversity, because the goal, at least in science, is to find the truth about the natural world. The problem, though, is that the world is not a perfect world. The world is not equal. And the reality of life is that people have different experiences, in part – not entirely, but in part – because of their race, their ethnicity, or their gender. And they will in fact see different things because of that. And conversely, we all have blind spots, and our blind spots can be linked to our race and gender as well. And so what I argue is that ethnic diversity, what we can call demographic diversity, in a way, is a proxy for standpoint diversity. What we really want is standpoint diversity, but one way we can get it is by ensuring that we have demographic diversity as well.
Dan Geffen: I would just add to that, again, that I think that that has been absolutely the case in the rabbinate as well, for those, again, in our world that will understand and observe that. Because as I remind people all the time – think about the way that Judaism advanced and developed over, let’s say, just the last 2,000 years, most of our life and dispersal. What we would really refer to as Rabbinic Judaism, post-Temple destruction, post-sacrificial system, kind of rabbis reimagining what it ought to look like. But the problem, of course, is, what voice is not represented 98% of the time in the formative forming of that rabbinic Judaism? The voices of what would have been potential women rabbis. So it’s only until the last century we’ve recently learned about Regina Jonas in Germany, but really for us in America, Sally Priesand, being the first ordained Rabbi in America – that’s really only, if I remember, in the late 1960s. So you really only had women rabbis contributing to rabbinic thinking since the late 1960s.
Now, it’s not to say that women have not been Torah scholars, Talmud scholars, prior to that, but in terms of the impact and the effect, again, not just in individual cases, but cumulatively – and what that means, again, is a loss over time. It’s something like interest – it’s a compounding effect. So it’s not just losing out on a year, right, it’s losing out on the multiplying effect of year upon year, and the growth upon that. And of course, as we know, whenever you have an implicit bias built into a system – and this is, I’m sure, true in the scientific world especially – that’s actually what Josh was talking about too, with AI, right, is that it’s especially hard to figure out how to limit that bias because of its natural ability in terms of its learning. It’s only learning from what we have produced. So if we are producing misinformation or disinformation, it’s learning incorrectly.
So it’s not to say that Judaism has necessarily been incorrect in having the bias that it’s had built in, but it’s definitely missing what I think, as I said, is now an attempted sort of catching-up. And as you said, in a perfect world, in an idealized world, it wouldn’t even be a consideration. It would simply be about, again, the best conversations, pushing truth further forward and all of that, but without some of the, what I would say, the structured attempts to undo that cultural and religious norm, it’s going to take centuries most likely before we even get to a place of what I would consider even equilibrium, before we could even consider the possibility of a system that doesn’t need to have certain things, making sure that that diversity appears.
And I for one, again, am very grateful that I ended up living in the era that I lived in, that I studied with the people that I studied with, that my teachers are the teachers that they were and are, and that I serve in a congregation in which we, at least I hope, have embraced this idea that Judaism grows and expands and develops at its best when it is as wide and expansive as possible, with as many voices contributing as possible. So long as, again, that contribution in that conversation is for the purposes, l’shem shamayim, of moving us all forward.
Judy Klinghoffer: So another thought I was thinking about when I watched the Ted Talk – science is always changing. The truth that science gave us 10 years ago is going to change. Because I think you were talking about the stellar parallax, and they didn’t have a fine enough instrument to really measure that accurately. But the truth is that the microscope, the telescope, of even maybe 10, 20 years ago, that’s obsolete. And it’s the same thing, well, definitely, with computer programs. You learn how your program works, and dang, there’s an update, and you don’t know where anything is anymore. And I think that upsets people, because when they learn something, it’s, “I know this, I have mastered it, I’m done, I don’t have to think about it anymore.” And science doesn’t work that way, and neither do scientists, because they’re never done with that problem, because some other problem springs out of it. And that makes me go – “If I’m going to have a conversation with someone who said, ‘No, I’m not going to listen to this scientist because 20 years ago he said X, and now he’s flip-flopped and he or she is saying something completely different,’ it’s, like, well, but look at all the things that have changed.” In a way, you can’t go at it like – you can never just butt heads with people. No one is going to get anything from that. Is there a way to have that conversation and kind of maybe move the ball down the field just a smidge?
Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, well, that’s a great question, and I think the answer is that there is. But I think it is important to acknowledge what you just said, that science is a learning process, and so by definition it means if we learn new things, we may sometimes realize we have to re-consider things we used to think were true. And that’s unsettling. And so, I do think that it is the case that science always has the potential to be unsettling, and that there will always be some people who will be upset by that, and who won’t like it, who will resist it, for whatever reason. And so I think that’s a really important thing to acknowledge. And it’s not how we were taught science in school – I mean, we were taught science is a body of facts, static – “these are the facts, learn to memorize them and get 100 on the exam and you’re done.” Because once you did that, you were good to go, right? And the idea that it was a learning process and it would change, and I don’t think we were ever really taught that in school. So it’s really an important part, I think, of what I’m arguing is that we really should teach science differently. We should teach it much more as learning, process of discovery.
And I think science teachers today do that to a much greater extent than we were did in school. But there is this tension that we have to live with, and that’s a bit uncomfortable, because in a way we use the word science to refer to different things. We use it to refer to the body of stable knowledge that we think is true. We say, “Oh, science tells us that DNA carries [our genes], and science tells us that creatures evolve, or science tells us that the environment is changing because of all the greenhouse gases between the atmosphere.” And those things are taken as stable facts. But then we also teach it as a process of learning and discovery and experimentation. And we sit with that in tension. And we don’t often talk about that tension or really discuss, you know, “How do you live with both of those things,” right. […] So this is a good example, I think. And I’ve worked with the National Center for Science Education, that works a lot with high school students. And NCSE was originally set up to deal with attacks on evolution in schools. Now we have a broader mandate to defend science more generally. It’s kind of sad that we now feel we have to defend science more generally.
So one of the things that we’ve learned from research on the evolution debates is a lot of scientists think that if people reject evolutionary theory, it’s because they have a literal reading of the Bible, that they think [the world] was made in six days. And if you look at the data on public opinion polls, it is the case that rejection of evolutionary theory is very, very strongly concentrated in Evangelical Protestants. Not Catholic, not Buddhist, Hindus or Muslims, but Evangelical Protestants. And so that’s the first clue. Well, okay, this isn’t just about the Bible, because a lot of us are reading the same Bible. But we’re not. And then it turns out that actually even among Evangelical Protestants, it’s not really about a literal reading the Bible, it’s not really about whether the Earth is six days old, six thousand years old, or you know, 4.5 billion. So what is it?
Well, it’s because it turns out a lot of Evangelical Christians think that evolutionary theory tells us that a) there’s no God and that life is meaningless. Now, that can be addressed, right. Because first of all, evolutionary theory does not accept that there’s no God. Lots of evolutionary biologists believe in God. And we can give students examples of that. And we find that in the classroom, if you actually give students things to read by biologists who are people of faith, that demonstrate “Oh, actually, you can believe in evolution and believe in God” – for a lot of students, that’s like “Oh, okay, great, I’m good to go,” right. And so it sort of resolves that anxiety.
But the second one’s a little bit more subtle. So why would people think that evolutionary theory tells us that life is meaningless? Well, here’s how the argument goes: if you study evolutionary theory, you learn that mutations are random, and that selection operates on random mutations, right. So that gets heard, in the minds of people, as saying that life is random. And if life is random, then it’s meaningless.
Now, that’s what philosophers call a “categorical error,” right. Because of course, the meaning of life is not a scientific question, it’s a religious question – a philosophical, a metaphysical question. Scientists cannot tell us the meaning of life. I mean, science can’t tell us – scientists may have opinions, but that’s not a scientific question. So again, it’s a little bit trickier. But again, if you sit down with students and you say, “Well, that’s a religious question, and for the meaning of life, we have to turn to theologians, philosophers, poets, filmmakers,” right, that there are lots of people who have views on the meaning of life and evolutionary theory. It’s a different set of questions.
And when you recognize that, when you sort of recognize that there are these different domains, it’s what Stephen Jay Gould likes to call the “non-competing magisteria,” which I know is kind of the usual pretentious academic stuff. What does he even mean by that? What he’s saying is they’re both great. “I love science, I love religion, but they’re not competing.”
Now, I don’t think that’s entirely true, because obviously people do perceive them as competing. So why do we perceive them as competing? Well, that’s a good question, but in part because some scientists like Richard Dawkins set it up as a competition. So we can say, “No, it’s not a competition. Science is trying to understand how the natural world works. Religion is trying to answer these big, giant, maybe ultimately unanswerable questions about the meaning of life. But it’s a different project.” And again, when you present it that way to people, it doesn’t always satisfy everyone, but if you acknowledge the idea that you can have these two different projects and that they could coexist, for a lot of people, that at least to some degree resolves the idea that evolutionary theory is trying to disprove the existence of God.
Judy Klinghoffer: How could such a small group of people, though, impact so tremendously on the educational system?
Dan Geffen: Very easily, as the history will tell you. Actually, very easily.
I mean, if there is one challenge in the history of humanity, it is, again – there are periods of time in which there is an open and expansive view towards education, one that is not generally held back by need to define or defend. Then you see a period of time in which so many things percolate and are created. And then you have these dark periods in human history. And again, this is not just in Western history. Eastern history has a similar principle, in which there is some pushing back upon that and a closing of it. And it almost always begins with education, right. What’s allowed to be taught and what’s not? And it’s actually one of the gifts of the Enlightenment period, so to speak, was that it unlocked that door a bit.
But it can go back even to things like Gutenberg. I mean, once you have a democratization, so to speak, of access to information – but of course, you know, the same principles applied then as now. You know, everyone in the world, for the most part, that has a phone, every one of us right now has in our pockets more information and knowledge than the entire history of humanity put together. And as somebody pointed out the other day, what do we do with it? We look at pictures of cats and things like that.
But to go back to this this question of “How do you deal with changes over time to firmly held ideas,” and that phrase, “flip-flopping,” right, is one of the worst phrases ever invented in humanity, because it is one of the great logical fallacies that’s ever existed. And it gives the veneer of a question about integrity, or a question of constancy, which of course is complete baloney. (You know, technical term. It’s Kosher, as a word).
But in Judaism, we ran into the same exact problem pretty early on. So for example, you have the Torah sitting in this Ark behind me. And the Hebrew Ha’ Torah, in Hebrew, the letter “Hey,” in the beginning of a word, is the equivalent in English of “the.” So it’s referring to a specific thing – the scroll that has been unchanging for as long as we know to our Scrolls to have existed. And even though they may be a slightly different size, every single Torah that’s a kosher Torah has to have exactly the same words, exactly the same letters. Every single one has to be perfect. And if not, it’s not a Kosher scroll. So you have a certain amount of constancy in that sense.
But if we followed – if we were the Jews of the Torah only, then we would be what are called Karaites. And it’s a very different religion in a lot of ways, because it never had that Rabbinic piece to it. The one that says, “Yes, we have this Ha’torah inherited, we can’t change it, but if we stick to this exclusively, we’re going to literally kill each other until there’s none of us left,” because of any number of laws that say, right – you violate Shabbat, you’re being stoned to death, right. Certainly exactly, all sorts of things that, if followed, just simply could not function.
So we have the tradition in Judaism since the time of the rabbis what’s called Torah she’bich’tav, the Torah that was written down, and the Torah she’be’al peh, that was translated. At the same time that the written Torah was given on Mount Sinai, an oral tradition is given at the same time. And it’s passed down originally from Moses to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and so on and so forth, until you eventually get to the period of the Mishnah and the Gemara that we call the Talmud. But basically, up until that point, it’s an oral tradition. And oral traditions allow for a certain fluidity, a certain ability for change to take place. But by building in this narrative, which again, historically and academically, one would argue is a human construct after the fact to justify changes, it’s a rather elegant system, because it says “Actually, it’s all God-given,” right. Whether it’s written down or it’s in an oral form, it’s all from God, right. So the Talmud, to a traditional Jewish mind, is of almost similar quality, priority, as the Torah itself, but because of it, it allows for that little bit of flexibility that allows for that greater comfort with change.
But there still are in the Talmudic mind, and also it says in the Torah, “These are the laws.” And this this part of the Torah reading at this time of year in particular, these are the laws, these are the statutes. You follow them and you do not deviate to the right or to the left.” That’s literally what it says in the Torah. So one can read that text and say you “Can’t change,” right. You used that melody last week – you cannot change that melody, it’s not acceptable. But there’s always been this part of our religion that says if you go into that mindset, if that’s what you really think, then stagnation will be your only existence. And you will never develop it further. And the argument that the rabbis basically make is that they’re not actually changing anything, they’re just understanding it better than they did before.
Naomi Oreskes: And that’s exactly right. It’s totally funny that you say that, you know, one of the big arguments in the philosophy of science was whether or not Einstein’s work refuted. And most historians and philosophers thought that he did. Wow, I mean, either time is absolute or it’s not. It’s a little bit hard just for that. But most scientists don’t say that. They say, “Oh, well, we now understand that Newtonian mechanics is a special case, when things are moving slowly,” that, you know, Einstein’s theory actually applies to everything, but we can still slap Newton in here and there it is. And whether you view it as a radical departure or just a kind of expansion, well again, it’s an interpretation.
Dan Geffen: The essence of Rabbinic Judaism is interpretation, and that’s what the wordplay really is when you put that letter heh in front, that makes “the Torah.” If you take it away, the word Torah – really means “instruction.” That’s its whole concept, its teaching. So that little bit of – I’m sure there is a scientific term, it’s like a binary star of some sort, right. That they really are their own entities, and they’re the same entity at the same time. Forgive me if I just used that incorrectly. What was I thinking, making a reference to something scientific with a scientist? But you know, something that that can somehow or another be its own thing and united to something else at the same time? But you know, certainly – these are great question, just to say.
Judy Klinghoffer: Okay, before we turn it over to Q&A, one last thing I feel that this summer was the summer that a lot of people who did not want to believe in climate change went, “This is scary.” You know, “My life has now been touched by it.” Wildfires, the heat, depending upon where you live. And it’s actually now starting to cost people money, and businesses. So that paradigm you were talking about, how big business basically has created a lot of the the ideas and the disinformation because it’s good for capitalism, so to speak, now there’s a possibility that maybe we’re getting to a tipping point – hopefully, in time. What can you, in an optimistic way, see what could happen moving forward?
I mean, I know what happened in Montana, which was pretty exciting.
Naomi Oreskes: For those who don’t know, in Montana a group of young people have brought suit against the state because the state constitution of Montana guarantees the right to a healthy environment. And so a group of young people, 14, 15, 16 years old, in high school – and a judge, just today I think, or yesterday ruled that this case will go forward. So this is a very, very big case, and things are definitely changing, there’s no doubt about it. I think the most optimistic thing I can say, particularly in an audience of Jews, is that this is the moment to talk about it. Because I think what you said is exactly right. People have seen – I mean, what has happened this year is unbelievable. And it’s not that we haven’t already had things like this happening, going back to Hurricane Katrina, going back to Hurricane Michael, going back to terrible wildfires in California. But the scale, the scope, the constancy – that every week, there’s some new disaster, and especially what’s just happened in Hawaii, a tropical island famous for rain, right – I think people see it. And I think people, more importantly, feel it.
But we’ve been in this place before. I mean, people felt that way after Hurricane Katrina. I can remember scientists saying “Oh, well, this will be the thing. After this nobody will be able to deny climate change.” And actually, the deniers dug in even deeper. And we’re already seeing this – mean, if you go on social media there’s a huge amount of climate change disinformation now, all over social media.
But what we also know is that for the last 10 years, a lot of people haven’t wanted to talk about climate change because they see it as divisive. They don’t want to get in a fight. They see it as polarizing, their uncle Joe doesn’t believe in climate change, their brother’s an idiot, whatever it is. And so a lot of people hold back because conflict is uncomfortable. This is the moment not to hold back. This is the moment to say “We need to talk about this.” We see what happened in Hawaii. We see what has happened with flooding in China and India, and incredible heat in the Middle East, and heat so bad that it is literally killing people – people’s houses burning down, people losing whole communities. And climate change caused this. And scientists told us that it would. And now it’s happened, and there’s kind of no excuses.
And so this is the moment to have that conversation with people, and then to build on it, to say, “So what can we do? What can we do as individuals? What can we do as a community? What can we do as a religion?” I mean, some religious leaders have been great on this issue. But overall, they’re kind of the exceptions. I can point to some individual people who’ve been amazing on this issue. But overall, where’s the religious voice? And where were the other religious leaders to step up to the plate when Pope Francis was incredibly bold and courageous on this issue, and most Catholics turned their back on their Pope? And I understand they mean, like, what happens to that “Papal infallibility” thing, right? So I mean, this is really a moment, I think, for religious leaders to really think hard about what could you do, how could you work together with other religious leaders and step forward, and say – and again, because this is about creation, right – I mean, if you believe in God in whatever form, read in my book. I have a place where I talk about “Whether you call it creation, or biodiversity, or a dreamtime or whatever, I mean, and whatever your conception of God ism, this is what God created and we have now this.”
Dan Geffen: You ever think about becoming a rabbi?
Naomi Oreskes: (laughs)
Dan Geffen: Or at least coming back for the holidays to give the sermon, because–
Naomi Oreskes: I’d totally do that.
Dan Geffen: Okay, we’re gonna talk. But I think about that, actually. Because I’m looking and seeing two people sitting next to each other by coincidence but Cheryl Gold – we were talking about this once, early in my time here. And I, in the, end wasn’t planning on giving a sermon about climate change, and I did as a result of that conversation. But in the end, did it actually result in anything tangible? I ask myself that all the time. And part of my reasoning, sort of my self-criticism, was realizing on the one hand, the High Holidays is our time of year from the pulpit to get our congregations thinking – it should be less about telling and more about talking and thinking. But you know, the translation from that act to the actual act, that gap, can often be very, very large.
I’m thinking, also, of Carl, who’s sitting next to us. So many years ago, Carl taught on Judaism and environmentalism. And he’s taught a number of times over the years. And one of the focal points is a text in Genesis that actually is the very crux of a religious debate about our either owning, really, or stewarding. You know, are we, in the end, tenants on a place that God has bestowed upon us and acting accordingly, or is it Manifest Destiny, right? Is it ours to take and to use?
And Judaism unequivocally, historically, has come back time and again with the mindset that the world itself is a gift, that the land that we live upon, in particular our holiest land in the land of Israel, is only by the grace of God – right, only because God has allowed it, and it can be taken away at any time – which again, if you don’t believe me, read the prophets. They will tell you repeatedly that that kind of concept, of what is the difference between “This is my thing to exploit for my purpose,” versus, “This is a gift that was given to me that I must treasure and take care of and make sure is there for the next generation” – it’s just so amazing how we can all kind of nod our heads in the simplicity of that statement.
And then, as you say, it gets so remarkably complex once you throw that pure light through the prism of our mishegas as humanity, you know, because then that light can reflect and refract in so many different directions, and almost always through a manipulation to create a certain kind of way of thinking. And that certain kind of way of thinking, if you follow it long enough, will almost always bring you back to a very common and deep part of our psyche, which is greed. You know, that “I need more,” “I want more,” “It’s mine, I deserve it, I’m gonna take it.” And that just simple line of thinking, in the end, is the cause of so much destruction, so much waste, and so much potential for us, quite literally, to lose access to our existence. But again, you would think the simplest life-threatening, existence-threatening thing would be enough, but even in the movies, it doesn’t seem to play out in that way. I think we’re in that second act before the third. And I hope we listen to the heroes of the story telling us what’s coming if we don’t change.
Naomi Oreskes: You know, the Return of the Jedi after The Empire Strikes Back.
Audience member: One thing we haven’t talked about is sometimes difficult to believe – science is funded by corporations and especially medical science, where it is a great profit. You come out with the way they want it to come in. How do we rationalize that? Also in religion. There’s a lot of money in religion. And how do we make sure what we’re getting is sort of truth, not money, talking?
Naomi Oreskes: Okay, well, I’ll let Rabbi Dan answer the religion one, obviously. But the question of money in science is a really important one. And in the book, one of the things I do talk about is if we’re judging science, we do have to ask, “Who’s making these claims? How diverse is the community who’s funding it?” I wrote a whole book called Science on a Mission, which is all about funding of science and how funding affects things. So it’s definitely a consideration. And it’s also one of the reasons why I think that as citizens, it’s incredibly important for us to support government funding of science. One of the things we’ve seen in this country, again, in the last 40 years, with the rise of anti-government ideology, is the cutting of government funding for both federal science agencies, for the National Laboratories projects other than weapons, and for independent academic science. And it’s absolutely crucial to the integrity of science that it be funded by non-vested interests. So as citizens, I think voting for candidates who embrace government, who defend government and defend the role of the government as funding important projects, common-good projects, of which science is one – I think it’s absolutely essential.
So now, Dan, you talk about the religion piece.
Dan Geffen: So there is a very famous Talmudic phrase that says “Im ein kemach, ein Torah; Im ein Torah, ein kemach.” So it’s a favorite of Jewish fundraisers, because what it means is “if you don’t have flour” – kemach is flour – “then you can’t have Torah.” So it doesn’t mean flour, right. It means if you can’t sustain yourself, if you can’t eat, then you don’t have the energy to produce the thing. So there’s always been a certain understanding. And this is true even if you think about the Levites or Kohanim, they are not given lands of their own. They are sustained by a combination of tithing and certain other expected parts of the year in which people are contributing on their own to he greater functioning of the religious body, as it were. And the analog, in that case, would be thinking along the lines of the way tax money is used to support various kinds of scientific endeavors of the government.
But even on a private level, many of the great Jewish thinkers – they also had day jobs, right. Maimonides was a doctor. Rashi was a vintner. It’s not that they didn’t work, necessarily, but there was a very common practice of patronage, and for long periods of time in which actually some of the great theologians and philosophers were only able to sit down and do that work because some patron, some great house, gave them the money to do so. And in that era, that would have been the analog to a corporation, in essence, right. Corporations as individuals, apparently, right – that’s, in essence, how this worked.
And there’s always going to be – some of the greatest scientific advancements in history are because of, as we’ve discussed, warfare, right. And it doesn’t have to be in modern times. The whole – most of the medical profession, most of the things we know about the human body and how to fix it, came from destroying other people’s human bodies. There’s always going to be a question of the relationship between the resources, financial or otherwise, and the nature of the people who are working, either in science or in religion or in politics or in finance, or whatever field it might be, in its advancement and its furthering.
The challenge, I think, of this era, more than any other era, is it’s so hard to know actually who is the money behind a thing, and where is it coming from, and what is motivating it? And the rabbis exist very much in a world in which you’re asking the fundamental ethical questions, of if tomorrow, a company that is known to be a terrible company, which uses terrible unethical means, creates a panacea that solves cancer, or whatever it might be – or even climate change, right. Imagine if, in the end, the solution to climate change came from BP. So our question then becomes – “Are we going to say no to the solution to this world-changing problem?” No. Most likely than not, we’ll embrace it. But it still begs the question of how much of our soul are we willing to give up in order to solve whatever the existential threat might be? And it always begs the philosophical question, which is yes, that group or that person or that thing might have solved the problem, but was there another way to get there that didn’t involve, for example, having to torture animals, or having to take money from a person who makes money off other people’s suffering? Is there some other way to get there?
But I think part of the challenge of, again, this era, and the way that countries have formed in the last century, and the way that corporations in this particular country have been empowered as entities, that it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where that changes.
But even the days before corporations – talking about universities. Universities are a classic example, right. Most of the great thinking has been produced by said universities, all of which have some history at some point or another that is complex. And how, again, one deals with the result of that complex work, that is the place, at least, where I won’t say necessarily, that religion only is – you can be a secular or an atheist philosopher, somebody who thinks about ethical considerations that have nothing to do with religion. But in the end, I hope very much that, if religion has a role to play, that it’d be a positive one, not a negative, and that it helps us to sort of say, you know, “What if it’s not enough to solve the problem? We have to solve it the right way.” And I think that’s an important conversation to have.
Audience member: Thank you both for this really lively, rich and exciting conversation, which I think should be bottled and sold or given away. So you mentioned early on about Einstein, and whether scientists are geniuses or not. I want you to know that a lot of quotes are attributed to Einstein that he didn’t say in order to dignify them. But this one I can vouch for. I didn’t hear it personally, but there’s a book of quotations for mine. This is definitely a quote. And I repeat it as often as I can. Einstein said: “I’m not a genius, I’m not smarter than anyone else, I just stay with a problem longer.” And I think young people have to hear that. Because if they think somebody’s a genius, they can’t do it because they assume they’re not. But as Naomi pointed out, most scientists are not geniuses. And even Einstein, who was a genius, said he wasn’t. So that’s one thing I wanted to add.
And the other thing I want to go back to is the embarrassing, disproportionate amount of Jews in science. Twenty-six percent, by one statistic, of all Nobel Prizes in physics are Jewish. Have you seen this kind of number? Now on the face of it, it sounds like – wait a minute, 0.2% of the world is Jewish. If you divide 0.2% into 25%, you come up with a hugely disproportionate representation of Jews as scientists. And I’ve thought about this a lot. One of my friends is is the country’s greatest demographer. And he said, “Wait a minute. Think about that denominator a minute! Nobel laureates are not drawn from the population at large, they’re drawn from a population of physicists. So the question is: what percentage of Jews are attracted to physics?”
Now, in my experience, 89 years of all the physicists I’ve known, I would say maybe a quarter of them in my limited [perspective] – so, a quarter of physicists are Jewish, a quarter of Nobel laureates in physics are Jewish. Hello – it’s not disproportionate. And I think that’s really important to understand, because otherwise it’s really embarrassing.
Now, the other thing I want to add is that I have never met a rabbi who’s not interested in physics.
Dan Geffen: I’m very interested in physics. As a matter of fact almost every time that something happens in my house that my daughter or my son causes and can’t figure out, I say “It’s physics, you just need to understand,” right. You know, if you jump off the bed, you’re going to hurt yourself – it’s physics. My main point is simply that of whatever gifts I may have been given in life, and the various teachers who helped the other parts along, physics was always one that from a mathematical standpoint presented a challenge that I simply could not crack. So I exist in the world in which I see its impact, but it’s magic to me.
And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always sort of said that, in the world of religion and science, every time I get onto an elevator, or anytime I fly in an airplane, I think to myself, “Thank God someone understands trigonometry, because to me, this is all faith,” right. I get into this box, it takes off and I somehow don’t have a heart attack, and then I land two hours later. But that’s because of an unbelievable series of centuries of advancing ideas that eventually come to be that. Otherwise – I think if anything, I have a reverence and an awe, but simply an inability to translate the beauty, of what physics is. But never should it be said that “I don’t like physics,” or that “I don’t appreciate physics,” as I most certainly do. I just wish that gravity thing didn’t impact me so much. You know, it would be nice to be able to dunk. That was always my goal as a kid. Yeah I know, I can’t break that one unfortunately.
Naomi Oreskes: Great comments. I guess the only thing I would want to add is about being part of the reason I wrote this book, Why Trust Science?, was about the demystification. Because I think that when something’s mystified, it can create awe and reverence, but not create fear and resentment, and especially if the people who are doing the mystification kind of act as if they’re superior and lord it over you, which admittedly some scientists do.
And so part of what I wanted people to think about was – actually, the Einstein quote is relevant. Science is a form of work, right. And so one of the things I talk about in the book is, I say, “Well, look – why do you call a plumber to fix your pipes if your pipes are broken, and not your dentist? And why do you go to the dentist if your teeth hurt and not to the electrician? Well, it’s because these people have training, they have specialized knowledge, they have expertise to solve these problems. And scientists are the plumbers and electricians of nature, of the natural world. It’s our job to figure out how these things work, and so we should trust scientists about questions about science, because it’s their job and that’s what they work on. And they’ve been working on it for a long time.
And as you said, I mean, I think Einstein was a genius, but I’ve never met a great scientist who didn’t also work incredibly hard, and stay up late and go in on the weekends and just because you know that these are hard problems. Because if they were easy, they would have already been solved. And you’re willing to work hard because you feel it’s worth it, because it actually is a labor of love, because it’s incredibly gratifying when you feel that you actually understand some piece of the world that someone didn’t understand before. But I think that demystifying it is part of the project of also making people feel okay about it. And so you get on that plane because you know that people have in fact done Aeronautical Engineering, and you’re not the first, right.
And this is one thing I also use that as an analogy with climate change denial, because yes, you can find scientists who don’t believe in climate change. They’re out there. But imagine this analogy: you’re about to get on a plane with your family, and 99% of all aeronautical engineers have written a report saying this plane is not safe. But one scientist who’s an employee of McDonnell Douglas – I’m just saying, I’m not against them, but it could be Boeing. You know, I mean, whatever. He goes on television he says “Oh no no, this plane is totally safe, don’t worry.” Would you get on a plane? Of course not. And yet, that’s what we face with climate change. That’s one guy, two guys, who are in many cases taking money from the fossil fuel industry, go on Fox News and tell us climate change isn’t real, and we’re being asked to believe that.
The other thing I wanted to say, and this is sort of cycling back to something you said earlier, I think one of the problems about science is that – you know, we were talking about how it can be unsettling, and lots and lots of people feel that. So there was a very useful study done by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences years ago, maybe three or four years ago, and they asked people their views about science and technology. And I cited this earlier – they found that something like 72% of Americans have a basically positive view of science and technology. They believe the government should spend taxpayers’ money on science and technology. So that’s all good news. But they also do feel the technology is changing too fast. And I think that’s really important, because I think it tells us saying that we actually could acknowledge that part of why people get upset about technology changing fast is because they feel disempowered by it. They feel like these things are happening around them and that we don’t have a say in these really important things that are affecting our lives.
And AI is a beautiful example of that. So that’s why I get hot under the collar. Like a few weeks ago, Eric Schmidt said, “Well, no ordinary people can tell us how to regulate AI, because you guys don’t understand it, only the experts can understand it.” I mean, people across the country should stood up and say, “That’s outrageous, that is an absolutely outrageous thing to say.” Because first of all, it’s not true. Yes, it’s complicated, but there are plenty of us out here who are smart enough that with a little effort, a little time, we could understand the basic ideas here, but also because it’s outrageous in a democracy to say, because AI is going to affect us. It’s going to affect the labor markets, it’s going to affect everything. So we need to have a conversation.
And so I feel like a lot of people – it’s almost like they’re intimidated in the face of technology. They don’t know what they can say. And so I guess part of my argument is to say, actually, we all can have something to say about this. And I wish that, say, President Biden would have said, “That’s an outrageous thing to say. Every American person has a stake in this and we need to figure out a way to have a conversation that respects the needs and rights of all of us.”
Judy Klinghoffer: Mm-hmm. I think the reason that the speed of technological changes in advance is so upsetting is that you never know when that new piece of technology comes along, if we’re going to set fire to the atmosphere this time. So that’s sort of the issue. And yet it’s Pandora’s Box, and you’ve just got to – you are compelled to open it, just by the very nature of being human and being curious.
Naomi Oreskes: Pandora’s Box tells us that this is not a new problem; people have been worried about impact of technology forever. And I think in the history of technology, I think we see two patterns that coexist. One is the pattern that “technology will solve all our problems” – so I did some work in the history of the early 20th century, when many people thought radio would bring world peace because we would be able to listen to each other. We’d be able to talk to each other, we would have a greater understanding, and all our problems would be solved. Yeah, well, that didn’t happen. And when the internet was first invented, people made similar claims: the internet is going to make democracy better, we could all vote from our bedrooms, or whatever. That didn’t happen either. So we see on the right hand, both exaggerated positive claims, but then also we see the anxiety that this will destroy the world and set the atmosphere on fire. And those two different reactions coexist.
In your book Merchants of Doubt, you brilliantly document how certain scientists attempted to spread disinformation, sort of inculcating doubt about whether climate change was real, with PR companies taking a page from the tobacco industry, which for decades inculcated doubt about a link between smoking and cancer. What could be done about this the scientific prostitution, which just continues and continues?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, obviously, one thing I’ve learned during my work is it’s a whole lot easier to identify a problem and describe it than to figure out how to fix it. But I do think that mold grows in dark places and to the extent that we can expose these things, to expose them to the light, to say, “Look this is disinformation.” Then people wake up and they see, “Oh okay.” And the tobacco story has been very important, I found, because many people know about the history of tobacco disinformation. Many of us witnessed those executives swearing under oath that they didn’t think nicotine was addictive, even though we have documents that prove that they had all the evidence in front of them. So people know that.
And so when you point out that the climate change denial is following that same playbook, and not only following it in a metaphorical sense but actually in a literal sense, that the same people, the same PR agencies’ books – that we found notebooks that give instructions to people how to follow this playbook. So when you point that out to people, what I’ve experienced since we wrote that book and made the film of it is that for a lot of people, that’s a wake-up call. And it puts the whole debate in a different light. Because previously, they might have thought it was an honest scientific debate, and then now they realize that no it’s not, it’s dishonest disinformation.
And the other thing that I found that can be effective: talking to people about it. Essentially, this is a giant con job. We’re being conned. And nobody wants to be the sucker on the losing end of a con. And so when you can point out to people that this really is a con game, a lot of them are like “Well I know I’m not going to be the sucker that’s conned.” And so again, that reframes the debate. And so instead of saying “Oh, but Exxon Mobil is just trying to give us a product we like,” they say “Oh wow, Exxon Mobil was trying to put a fast one.”
Okay, thank you so much. I’ve been exposed to, I guess, discussions about climate change for the last 35 years, so this is very thought-provoking and raises some questions for me. Two things that I’d like to hear from you about: one is in religious education – let’s say, as a rabbi, you are trained to be a communicator. Scientists virtually are not trained. And is this one of the missing pieces that would help with the public perceptions, and also help with solutions and strategies to mitigate. That’s one question, because I’m just listening. And you’re an exception, but I’ve heard scientists after scientist that I’ve invited to give talks, for instance, and it’s an exception that can actually translate their research and make the public care about it. That’s one thing.
And the second thing I just want your take on – we happen to live in a fairly wealthy community. That doesn’t mean we don’t have people that are underserved, but we happen to have people that either present themselves as environmentalists that I call “pseudo-environmentalists,” because they’re flying their helicopters and planes every day, or they have their names on the Environmental Law Center at Columbia University, and they’re the worst when it comes to fossil fuel. So you mentioned and said conservatives are right-wing, they don’t want to change their lifestyle – they’re either entitled, or Rabbi, you say greedy. How do we even deal with, you know – it’s one thing to talk to individuals about what steps they can take, but this is a much bigger problem, and we’re not making any progress.
Naomi Oreskes: So thank you, those are both great questions. I think on the first one, you’re absolutely right, and this has always been a big problem in the climate space for a long time. As you say, most scientists are not good communicators; they’re not trained to communicate. They’re not taught any communication skills. And frankly, the personality of a lot of scientists – people often go into science because they’re happy in the lab, or they’re happy being out in the field.
I’ll tell you one experience partly about how I made this switch from being a scientist to a historian of science. I was a geologist; I was doing exploration in the wilderness of Alaska. And I was dropped off by a helicopter every morning at eight o’clock and then picked up at five o’clock, and in between, I’m completely alone. It’s me, the rocks, and maybe a moose. On a good day it’s a moose, on a bad day it’s a grizzly bear. And there was one day when it was just raining incredibly hard. I was on this very steep slope, and it was really pretty dangerous, and I’m carrying rocks in my backpacks. I’m carrying a backpack with about 30 pounds of rocks. The rocks are slippery and I just thought “Yeah, this is just not happening.” So I found a little ledge that I was able to go on to pull down my space blanket, put it over me. And I thought to myself, “This is not my life.” And there was a moment when I just thought “Okay I don’t know what my future is, but it isn’t this right.” But I knew people for whom there was nothing better than that. I mean, there was no better life than being dropped off by a helicopter at eight o’clock and not seeing another person until five o’clock. And that’s an extreme example. But I do think a lot of people are attracted to science, people who aren’t that interested in people, who would like to work alone or be in the lab with the equipment, the machinery, whatever it is so it is a real problem. The scientific community has made an effort; there are a lot more programs now that do try to train scientists to communicate, to figure out how to write, to engage. But still I think most scientists have a very hard time about it.
So I think that rather than wait for the transformation of the scientific community, I think the rest of us have to pick up the slack. And that’s partly how I got involved in this work in the first place, because I was studying all the science, I understood it, I saw what was happening, and I saw the way my scientific colleagues were not explaining it. And so I kind of stepped into that space. But I think that religious leaders can do it too – community leaders, businesspeople, anyone who’s in a position to talk to other people now has the opportunity to do this. And you know, the science – there are parts of the science that are complicated, but most of it is not complicated. It’s pretty basic, and anybody with a college degree can learn what they need to learn to talk about this.
The second question, about liberals and helicopters: yeah, there’s no question that’s a real thing. And it’s a problem for sure. But I think that’s partly why, when I think about this problem, I try not to think about it so much in terms of what individuals should do, but to think of it more structurally, right. Because although it is bad when rich people fly in helicopters to their summer homes or private jets, the bottom line is that we have an economy that’s structured around fossil fuels. And the fossil fuel industry is doing everything it can to keep it that way, and not to allow change. And so I think the bigger questions have to do with changing the tax structure. We should, in my opinion, work to eliminate all subsidies for fossil fuels. Most Americans think that renewable energy is very heavily subsidized, but actually for every dollar that subsidizes renewables, about 10 go to fossil fuels. So these are structural things. If we could get rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, that would make an enormous difference.
And then we have to fight back against the fake solutions. And you know, you mentioned BP – I mean, the Inflation Reduction Act had millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, in tax credits, for carbon capture and storage – most of which, in my opinion, is completely bogus. Not all, there are some projects that are legit, but most of them are adjuncts to fossil fuel production. They will lead to more oil and gas being produced, not less. And they will keep coal-fired power plants going when they need to close down. And those are structural problems. If you can close down one coal-fired power plant, that does a whole lot more than the annoying liberal helicopter. So that’s my view. Now, if you actually know that person or you have some way of influencing them, that’s important too. Certainly the naming issue is one that I’ve been involved in at Harvard, that I do think is very problematic, when billionaires give large amounts of money, and then we name buildings after people who are not models for our students. So that’s an issue I have written some about. So it’s a both/and thing, I think you know. And depending on where your position is in life, you may be more in a position to fight subsidies for fossil fuels, or you might be more in a position to argue about the naming of buildings at Columbia University. So that’s kind of a thing that you have to think about. Where am I in life, and where are the levers that I have access to? But if all of us did that, if all of us thought about “Well, where can I make a difference and did what I could do?” Then the world would be a different place.
You really should just leave on that, because that really is perfect. But I, for whatever it’s worth – just a couple of things. So Cheryl, I think first of all, that’s a great idea that you should bring forward or someone should take on. I remember my brother went to University of Indiana took a class that was designed for student athletes that was literally just preparing them for press conferences. So they had a setup and the student would come and they would pepper them with questions and that whole [thing], because that was the reality of their life. And all these kids who were not prepared for it, and would then say something that then would hurt their ability to whatever. So it actually is much more practical and plausible than you may realize to institute that exact same logic, that says that you’re going to be a scientist in a forward-facing entity. To have some structural piece that helps people in some of the basic things about public speaking, because, certainly in rabbinical school, they do in fact have a course that is designed for people to prepare to be public speakers, because not everybody who goes into the rabbinate is in fact prepared for that. So that certainly that is one piece of it.
And I think you know your question in the end, about the helicopter, is obviously an example that’s germane to us. But it’s always part of this this conversation as well. And I just say, as a it’s a big thing in my mind, and it’s part of where I might be going for one of my services for the High Holidays, but you know that, for example the catch-all phrase “tikkun olam,” in Judaism that you hear all the time, right – “social justice,” you know, repair the world, all of these things. And a tremendous amount of effort and time and energy and money goes into a lot of those actions. And then when you sort of go beyond the surface and you realize, though, that a lot of the work that’s being done under this umbrella term is completely disassociated, disconnected, from any Jewish text, any Jewish study anything that actually underpins the ethical thing – that you’re doing – it’s really just kind of a sticker that you put on it, to say “This is a Jewish Social Justice act.”
But as a rabbi, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with that, because I find more and more that, for example, when I try to to demonstrate to someone who’s doing an act of social justice and say, “Hey, you may not know this, but there is this text in Judaism, it’s existed for 2000 years, and you’re doing this without even realizing that’s what you’re doing” – there is a rejection of that. Because in the end, the sort of view of “I’m repairing the thing that’s broken, it makes me feel good, and therefore, that is the reason why I’m doing it,” as opposed to the original conception within Judaism, is that it has nothing to do with “it feels good,” or makes you feel good. You either do the right thing or you don’t do the right thing. And you do that because it’s fundamentally right or wrong. And so the problem, of course, is a person can sort of pat themselves on the back and say, “I have solved this problem.” But as you said, you may think you’re solving a problem, but actually if you make it easier for a coal company to stay in existence because you’ve created some kind of carbon capture that works 30% of the time instead of 100%, you’re still producing that other 70% that remains. And so there, again, is the complexity of all this, without an answer.
But you know, I think tonight is a good example of one things that we certainly can do. And thanks to you know to Steve and Cecilia and to everybody who’s helped to bring this program here, and to Rabbi Mitelman and Sinai and Synapses, because that was the whole conception of this program – that not just our temple, but temples all over the country, are now participating in – is to have conversations just like this, not just to break down biases and break down misinformation and disinformation, but to also energize us to be engaged, and to be engaged in the scientific conversations that will determine not just our present, but the future of generations to come. And it can begin as simply as this, right – as simply as this, an idea posed by someone in a crowd that could change something quite significant. And I think it’s the oft-misused quote in the Talmud that says, “If you save a single life, it’s as if you save the whole world.” Similar hyperbole, right. But its underlying intention is correct, which is: don’t ever think that the world is changed solely by giant, big things, that actually it is almost always the case that it is a series of small things that put together, like a wave, can crash. But it doesn’t always end up in that way.