Avoiding Babel: Including the Scientist in the Judaism and Science Dialogue

Avoiding Babel: Including the Scientist in the Judaism and Science Dialogue

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In the early days, after the great flood that destroyed the whole world and everything upon it, a king named Nimrod ruled over all the people. And Nimrod, perhaps through his own arrogance, or perhaps from unsanctioned curiosity, led his people in constructing a tower to reach into heaven. Because the people all spoke one language and communicated well with each other, the work progressed quickly, and the tower rose above the plain. “And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do.” 1 So God confused the speech of the people, and caused them each to speak different languages so that they could no longer communicate with one another.

In the present day, people who speak different languages still try to come together in the hope that they can reach a little closer to heaven and bring more understanding into the world. Sometimes, they are successful. But sometimes they forget they are speaking in different tongues, and they each forge ahead with their own agenda without pausing to consider the other.

When rabbis, theologians, philosophers, medical practitioners, and others gather to discuss the intersection and interrelationship between science and Judaism, the conversation often feels like a veritable Tower of Babel. We use the same words, but they have different meanings. It seems that, all too often, the philosophers take the discussion to a meta-level—talking about theoretical implications of theoretical science that is just one or two steps beyond what is currently feasible or practical. Even when the science under discussion is current, actual science, the implications and concerns being addressed are those of the philosophers, ethicists, and policy-makers. The scientist and the scientist’s concerns get lost in translation. It is generally true that scientists are more focused on the actual current data and its implications in a narrower sense, while philosophers and theologians seek broad meaning from the same set of narrow results. As a group, scientists are cautious about generalizing findings too widely.

A colleague recently asked me why it mattered if information that is not truly scientific or scientifically accurate—but is presented as though it were—were used as a homiletic tool to reinforce a rabbinic, theological lesson so long as the “science” and the lessons derived from it spoke to him personally and promoted spiritual growth. The danger, I replied, is manifold. By allowing our clergy to misrepresent science, we turn scientists away from religion, and we perpetuate the notion that religion and its practitioners are ignorant of the actual world around us. When rabbis and others base their arguments on a misunderstanding of science—not only do they fail to reveal truths about the world—the spiritual lessons they attempt to teach fall apart and lose their salience once they are shown to have been built on false foundations. Trying to answer the big questions of life by carelessly applying narrow conclusions does not help us reach God. Instead, as science continues to deepen its exploration and understanding—replacing old theories with new results and theories—we find that all the explanations built on unsupportable conclusions fall about us like a house of cards. All of this is not to say that science and religion cannot interact. In fact, I am a firm believer that the two must speak in order to learn from and build upon one another.

How can such a dialogue, such an intellectual exchange, take place when each of the disciplines involved speaks its own language? As biologist Francisco Ayala explained in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times, “the word ‘theory’ in science means something different than in general usage, where it commonly means ‘a hunch.’ That’s not the way we use the word in science. A theory in science is a body of knowledge and the evidence that supports that knowledge.”2 If someone does not understand that, how can we have a meaningful dialogue between the disciplines? How can we make sense of the Babel without the extreme hubris of thinking we are capable of building a tower to heaven only to find out halfway through that a whole group of people were left out of the enterprise?

I would like to propose that, as academics and practitioners of religion, we become aware of how we use scientific findings to further our own agendas, and further, that we represent both the science and the scientists as accurately as we can. Thinking about and debating issues such as evolution versus the biblical account(s) of creation, the use of stem cells, or genetically modified foods can be stimulating and even a fruitful intellectual exercise. Such thought experiments elicit questions about our origins and our future. Comparing cosmologies—for instance, the Big Bang, and Kabbalah—invites us to ponder the big questions of our place in the universe. Yet, Judaism is not practiced by science but by scientists. And really only a small minority of scientists are actually concerned with these questions on a daily basis. A true dialogue between science and religion must focus not only on the interests of the philosophers, theologians, academics, and rabbis. It must also include the concerns of the scientists.

So what concerns scientists? Clearly, there will be different pressing research questions in each of the many subfields within science (be it biology, chemistry, physics, or any of the other numerous scientific disciplines). As in any highly specialized academic field, each individual scientist is primarily concerned with his or her own narrow area of study and expertise, and examples of this variety of interests are reflected in the wide range of articles published each week in both specialized and more general science journals. But are there any general concerns that bridge the various sciences and the scientists who study them?

When the rabbis were not sure what the actual practice was, they had a good system in place for finding out—they went out and looked. So, I too went out and looked. I consulted the last few months’ worth of the top two general science journals—Science and Nature. What I discovered was somewhat surprising. The top stories in these journals were not stem cells or genetically modified foods. They were not evolution, inheritance of characteristics or propensity for disease, the environment, or any of the other “sexy” topics you might think of, though there were articles on all of these subjects. Rather the preponderance of the articles was about practical concerns to the scientist regarding how to practice science as a discipline. Like the rest of us, scientists are concerned with how to perform their jobs and advance their careers. The very act of doing science, in any discipline, is a job, and as with any job there are parameters by which one advances one’s career. In science, this generally means getting grants and publishing papers (and in order to do that, one needs to perform experiments and get results). But getting those grants and publishing those papers does not happen just through diligent, thorough, or even necessarily good science; the science done must be in a field that someone is interested in funding, and it must be novel.

Even when the aforementioned criteria are met, “[t]he real question is whether good, solid work is enough when as much as $800,000 is at stake.”3 At the largest private non-profit funder of cancer research in the United States, only 15% of the proposals submitted can be funded because of the amount of money available. The situation at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds the majority of biomedical research in the United States, is not much better. In 2009, only 21% of research-project grant applications were funded, which is down from the 32% funding rate that existed ten years earlier. Senior reviewers observe that when the top one-third of proposals can be funded, “the review process works well at identifying the best science.” However when the success rate drops below one-third, “they see the process start to fall apart.”4 That is when conversations turn nit-picky and negative, and rather than focusing on a project’s merits, reviewers begin looking for any excuse to deny funding. “Reviewers say that they feel forced into making impossible choices between equally worthy proposals,”5 and when this situation prevails, even established scientists worry about future job security.

With the competition for funding so tight, researchers scramble for ways to make themselves and their work seem more important and therefore more fundable than that of their peers. One way that researchers are doing this, according to Donald Siegeland and Philippe Baveye in Science, is “salami slicing” their manuscripts into ever smaller “least publishable units” so as to get more publications out of the same amount of work.6 Concurrently, it has become more common to rush manuscripts to publication before proper replication or evaluation of results can take place. Such a situation may have contributed to the recent retraction of four papers from a lab at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. In that instance, as reported in Science, “two postdoctoral fellows working in the lab of noted gene therapy researcher Savio Woo had been fired for research misconduct,” and retraction letters citing “data irregularities” and duplication of micrographs, photos taken through a microscope, were sent to the journals that had published the work.7 Fortunately, there have not yet been “any major setbacks for the field given the timely retraction of the papers”.8 Unfortunately, this seems to be only a matter of time. Siegeland and Baveye contend that “the quantity of articles published in scholarly journals increased on average by about 200 to 300% from the early 1980s to the late 1990s.” 9 They attribute this dramatic increase to researchers publishing more articles to directly inflate their own citations. This is done in order to raise scores on recently created bibliometric indices that use “citation counts” to evaluate a researcher’s impact in his or her discipline. According to Siegeland and Baveye, “this flood of manuscripts is beyond most editors’ capacity to handle, so outside [r]eviewers are solicited to scrutinize not just manuscripts but also research proposals and governmental reports.”10 Regrettably, peer-reviewing is rarely valued by academic institutions as a productive way for researchers to spend their time, and so locating good reviewers has become more and more challenging.11 This lamentable situation allows for fraudulent papers, such as the ones retracted by Dr. Woo, to be published in the first place.

Even when work that a scientist is preparing for publication was done properly with all of the appropriate scientific controls in place, and in an ethical manner, it still needs to present something novel in order to receive funding. Often however, multiple people in different locations are doing similar work, researching the same or similar topics. Consequently, there is a rush to publish and a desire to hoard results and prevent others from scooping your work. And because the peer review process can take so long, the lag between discovering novel results and seeing those results in print can take months, at the very least.

Perhaps it is no wonder then that in the rush to be known as the first person to make a discovery, some scientists bypass the peer review process and go straight to press releases. Genomicist Stephan Schuster recently had two of his current projects upstaged by rivals in just such a manner. First, on September 15, 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the chocolate giant Mars Inc. announced in a press release that they had sequenced the cacao tree, whose seeds are the source for chocolate.12 Then, during a widely publicized talk the next day, Elizabeth Murchison of the Sanger Institute announced that her group had sequenced the genome of the Tasmanian devil. Neither of these results has completed the peer review process for publication in scientific journals, so the validity and accuracy of the science and conclusions drawn have not been verified or vetted by others in the field. The group working on the sequence of the cacao genome did submit their paper to a scientific journal prior to making the press release, but those working on the Tasmanian devil sequence have not even completed their analysis. As a result of these incidents, Schuster has stated that he no longer believes in scientific publication: “We tried to be a good citizen, … and we lost.”13

Although some scientists like Schuster are critical of this apparent hasty rush to press release, there are those who maintain that the negative effects of this practice are minimal.14 According to Richard Gibbs, director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and an editor at Genome Research, “the headline grabbing is unlikely to cloud the prospects for publication.”15 He claims that “[a]s long as the paper contains new insights that are not in the press release, then there is minimal [negative] impact.”16 Science editor Laura Zahn agrees. Proponents of announcing scientific breakthroughs via press release point out that the precedent for publicizing genome sequences well in advance of publication in a scientific journal was established almost a decade ago when rival sequencers held a press conference with then President Bill Clinton to announce the completion of drafts of the human genome.17 It is worth noting that to date, neither of these genomics projects has stood the test of peer review.

Whether or not the practice of pronouncing new discoveries to the media before properly presenting them before one’s colleagues is as innocuous as some claim, it certainly turns up the pressure and may encourage sloppy work among researchers. In some instances, the stress can even lead scientists into ethical grey areas where it becomes all too easy to cross the line into scientific misconduct. For example, compelled by “internal pressur ,”18 Vipul Bhrigu, a former postdoctoral researcher at Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, admitted that he suffered from “a complete lack of moral judgment” 19 when he sought to slow down the work of a graduate student in the same laboratory by deliberately sabotaging her experiments. Reporting on this incident, Brendan Maher commented in Nature that “Bhrigu’s actions are surprising, but probably not unique. There are few firm numbers…but conversations with graduate students, postdocs and research-misconduct experts suggest that such misdeeds occur elsewhere, and that most go unreported or unpoliced.”20 Incidents like this and other “more subtle actions to hold back or derail colleagues’ work,” continues Maher, “have a toxic effect on science and scientists” and constitute “an affront to the implicit trust between scientists that is necessary for research endeavors to exist and thrive.”21 While such “overtly malicious offenses” are likely infrequent, Maher avers that other forms of sabotage not technically considered research misconduct such as “vindictive peer review, dishonest reference letters and withholding key aspects of protocols from colleagues or competitors” are probably more common.22

Some critics claim that the structure of the scientific enterprise is to blame for these instances of sabotage and ethical misconduct, as well as the premature press releases and falsification of data so widely reported in the general science journals. After all, these observers point out that, “the big rewards—tenured positions, grants, papers in stellar journals—are won through competition. To get ahead, researchers need only be better than those they are competing with.”23 One might therefore reason that in order to advance one’s own career, one needs either to find a way to make one’s self look better or to make one’s colleagues and competitors look worse.

Let us for the moment consider this phenomenon from a different perspective: Could this overly ambitious and imprudent climate emerging in contemporary scientific research be attributed to what Francisco Ayala claimed in his LA Times interview—that “science has no way of exploring values”? Ayala contends that values are the domain of religion and not science: “Science deals with the origin of organisms, the origin of human beings, and biodiversity of living things. Religion deals with the meaning of life and the purpose of life, and the moral values that should govern our lives. So these are different matters.”24 Those of us working on issues at the intersection of science and Judaism would find Ayala’s assertion unsatisfactory. Science and religion must cooperate with one another for the edification of both. However, unless we can establish common interests, a shared vocabulary, and a method for dialogue between equal partners, then Ayala is right: Science and religion will remain wholly unable to speak to one another with each contained in its own sphere focusing on its own unique problems.

Judaism does have something of value to contribute to science, and in particular, to scientists’ decision making when faced with ethical dilemmas like those described above. For instance, the issue of how best to distribute available funding so as to maximize the number of scientists receiving grants might be addressed by learning and applying Jewish texts that describe how to apportion tsedakah, money that has been donated to a fund for the underprivileged of the city. In another example, the Jewish commandment that one may not bear false witness may be understood as teaching that not only is it forbidden to falsify data, when data is published, it must contain all of the relevant information (so that others may replicate the results or judge for themselves the validity of the conclusions drawn). Examination of Jewish laws about what is necessary for one to be considered a valid witness capable of bearing testimony against a fellow Jew might prove enlightening when applied to the need for qualified peer reviewers whose work is appreciated in the larger scientific or academic community. Moreover, Judaism teaches that one should not place a stumbling block before the blind. In regards to professional conduct, this precept can be understood as saying that one may not, under the Jewish legal and moral system, commit any act of sabotage against a colleague’s work whether that sabotage is overt or subtle. Finally, an examination of Pirkei Avot 6:6, wherein the 48 qualities by which Torah is acquired, reveals a number of teachings and qualities that, if followed, would decrease the likelihood of any of the above problems recurring. In Pirkei Avot, it states that not only should one qualify one’s words, but one should also not take credit for oneself, and one should participate in the burdens of one’s fellows. Hence, proper attribution is crucial. Not only is one required to say something in the name of the original author, but doing so contributes to tikkun olam—that is, it brings redemption to the world.

Following these Jewish teachings and principles might help researchers avoid wrongdoing. However, simply claiming that a scientist should learn from Jewish texts and teachings might seem facile and smug, particularly to the scientist. No one wishes to be told “My way of living is right and yours wrong.” That is not a conversation. It is imposing one’s viewpoint upon the other. Just as injecting a little science into your theology or philosophy does not automatically give validity or proof to your spiritual message, quoting rabbinic precepts, mitzvot, and halakhah, does not make your science more accurate or ethical. Both science and religion are complex and nuanced fields, and any dialogue between the two must take this into account.

I certainly would not want the reader to come away with the misconception that scientists are immoral people in need of ethical training because they have no other moral compass and will stop at nothing to advance their careers. My own research with Mike Kalichman has shown that scientists in general consider themselves to be good, ethical people, and the current professional ethics courses (such as those required by the NIH as a stipulation of receiving grant money) merely show scientists the ways in which others may seek to derail their careers.25 Having one’s career derailed through no fault of one’s own is a frightening prospect. That, I believe, is the reason for the proliferation of these stories in the scientific community. The lesson to be taken from them is not that scientists are immoral and the rabbis who crafted the Jewish wisdom were righteous, but that modern scientists, like the rest of us, fear losing their livelihoods. They are focused on doing good, well-researched work in an attempt to understand the world around us, but the ways in which their work can be wrecked by others are ever present in the back of their minds.

So why does it matter to the philosopher, theologian, doctor, or rabbi that the scientist is concerned with protecting and advancing his or her career? What does that have to do with the dialogue between Judaism and science? The answer is this: Unless the non-scientist realizes the ways in which politics, funding, and other factors influence what science is done, what research gets funded, and even what results make it out of the lab and into the public domain, they will not be present in the same conversation as the scientist.

Most scientists are not involved in cases like those reported in Science and Nature and discussed above. That is, most scientists do their work ethically and conscientiously. In fact, they work diligently to present the data they collect accurately—which means not making wild claims on the basis of data that does not support such claims. Even with these safeguards in place, science is not infallible, nor is it the one and only purveyor of absolute truth. But it must be noted that neither is religion, be that Judaism or any other world religion. Each presents a way of understanding the world and our place in it. Each can be a path to God, or dare we say, to understanding God. But when non-scientists take researchers’ data and exaggerate the conclusions, or draw sweeping generalizations from limited or unsupported data, it understandably upsets the scientists, seems reminiscent of cases of scientific misconduct, and leads to widening gaps between science and other disciplines. It is the Tower of Babel all over again.

When the non-scientist makes remarks in the name of Judaism or another religion based on bad, incomplete, or fraudulent science, or fails to see the political concerns influencing the science, a wedge is driven between the disciplines. When we try to have conversations about the “big,” “meta” issues while ignoring the more fundamental problems facing career scientists, we risk falling into Babel. Our task, as people interested in both science and Judaism, is to continue interdisciplinary conversations that do not widen that gap but seek to bridge it. We all have much to learn from each other: both science and Judaism are trying to figure out how the world works, how we are to live in the world, and what we can do to make the world a better place. To accomplish these ends, we must cultivate a better understanding of the other disciplines involved in the conversation—not only must rabbis, philosophers, and theologians seek to better comprehend scientists and their specific concerns, scientists in turn must attempt to understand the enterprises of the theologians, philosophers, and others involved in the conversation. With greater understanding of one other, we can undertake to read the scientific results through the lens of Jewish tradition, use the wisdom and teachings of Judaism to enable scientists to do their jobs more ethically (and quite possibly more effectively), apply knowledge across disciplines, and see truths arrived at from perspectives different from our own. Working together we can build a better understanding of the world in which we live and endeavor to reach beyond it into the heavens.



1 Genesis 11:6, JPS 1917 translation

2 Kozlowski, Lori. “Author of ‘Am I a Monkey?’ explores questions of life.” Los Angeles Times October 22, 2010 available online at: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/22/science/la-sci-francisco-ayala-20101023

3 Powell, Kendal. “Making the Cut.” 23 September 2010, Nature, VOL 467, p. 383.

4 Ibid

5 Ibid

6 Siegeland, D and Baveye, P. “Battling the Paper Glut.” 17 September 2010, Science, VOL 329 p. 1466

7 Miller, G. “Misconduct by Postdocs Leads to Retraction of Papers.” 24 September 2010, Science, VOL 329 p. 1583

8 Ibid

9 Siegeland, D and Baveye, P. “Battling the Paper Glut.” 17 September 2010, Science, VOL 329 p. 1466

10 Ibid

11 Ibid

12 Pennisi, E. “Genomics Researchers Upset by Rivals’ Publicity.” 24 September 2010, Science, VOL 329 p. 1585.

13 Ibid

14 Ibid
15 ibid
16 Ibid

17 Ibid

18 Maher, B. “Research integrity: Sabotage!” 30 September 2010, Nature VOL 467, p. 516

19 Ibid

20 Ibid

21 Ibid

22 Ibid

23 Ibid

24 Ibid

25 Plemmons DK, Brody SA, Kalichman MW, Student perceptions of the effectiveness of education in the responsible conduct of research, Sci Eng Ethics. 2006 Jul;12(3):571-82