When Science Conflicts with Common Sense

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Some interesting numbers were released by Gallup. They polled Americans on core issues of belief and science and were met with some surprising results.

The numbers are mostly steady over the last 30 years, which also has some significance in my opinion.

Of particular note, are the evolution numbers. 46% of Americans believe that God created the world within the last 10,000 years. 15% believe that humans evolved and God played no role in the process. 32% believe that Humans evolved and God guided the process.

Here’s the thing. Science has basically accepted that evolution exists. The 46% that basically deny evolution completely are doing so in direct opposition to logical, rational, evidence-based, thinking.

I am NOT referring to the group that believes that evolution is a mechanism used by God. Those people are reconciling their beliefs with science. Whether it “works” or not is a separate discussion. I am only referring to the 46% who flat out disagree with science on the question of evolution.

How does this happen?

An article in the New Yorker explains some of the science behind the rejection of science. Turns out that we are deeply embedded beliefs based on what we might call common sense. When science contradicts common sense, even when we know that the science is correct, our brains try to push us in the direction of common sense. It takes effort for our brains to choose what we know to be true when it contradicts our perception of what “makes sense”.

Evolution is not something that our brains are comfortable with. It is a difficult thing for us to accept. Common sense does not favor evolution. It is only though research and advanced scientific tools that evolution becomes the reasonable choice.

Even ideas that have 99% acceptance rates work this way. For example, almost everyone agrees that the earth goes around the sun. But common sense says that the sun goes around the earth. The ancients believed that the sun went around the earth and only recently has science proved this to be false. Now we all know that the earth goes around the sun. Yet, when measuring specific brain activity levels, it can be demonstrated that we have a hard time convincing our brains that this is the truth.

This explains the discomfort we feel due to cognitive dissonance. Your brain literally wants to use common sense and it takes effort to follow logic and reason.

What does this all mean? It means that we are preprogrammed to favor common sense. It takes work to override that default position. Sometimes common sense is right but other times it is not right. The greatest tool we have in overriding our default settings is education. The more we know and the more we process new information, the more our brains accept changes to their programming.

When it comes to religious beliefs, even within those who believe in God and are religious there are some more common sense or folksy beliefs that come natural to people. Many of these beliefs are not essential and may even be wrong. But people cling to their folk beliefs despite evidence to the contrary – even within their own religious texts and writings.

This is why Maimonidean Rationalism failed. It takes too much work to deprogram the common sense beliefs in mysticism for it to work for the masses. It’s been 900 years already and it still isn’t catching on. Perhaps with new evidence and more information, it will catch on. I sure hope it does.

Links: Gallup, The New Yorker

  • E.K

    Wow, thank you so much for this article! This is one of the biggest problems I’ve run into in the frum community, people who flat out deny science (particularly evolution), even when we have solid proof to back it up. This article was a breath of fresh air.

    • Anonymous

      Not only deny it, but deny it without having anything more than a high-school-level knowledge of what they are talking about. The combination of denial and lack of knowledge makes me wonder what people are afraid of – are they afraid that an honest evaluation of science will destroy their emmuna? If so, I’m afraid there is a time bomb here, because I don’t think people will be able to ignore science forever.

      And I second E.K.’s “thank you so much for this article!” The more rabbis, and educated Orthodox Jews generally, openly and honestly confront this issue, the more that aforementioned time bomb may be defused.

      • Geocentrophil

        Just curious, what level science education do you have?

        • Anonymous

          High school +. I’ve spent much of the last few years reading and trying to raise my level of scientific knowledge. With that, I do not hold myself out as an expert on anything scientific, but it disturbs me how many frum people I have met who emphatically declare that evolution is wrong without having ever studied it, and it makes me wonder why they seem to feel it is so threatening. Personally, the more I learn about evolution , the more I think it tends to proves God’s existence rather than otherwise – DNA seems to work like an unbelievably complex computer language, and I find it inconceivable that such a tool could have simply “happened.” The religious issue seems to relate more to the age of the universe, but there’s a lot more out there than just evolution to challenge a literal belief in the Torah’s account of creation through the flood.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Thanks for pointing us to that article (
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/brain-experiments-why-we-dont-believe-science.html), it’s interesting. However, I think what the author calls “instinct” is more appropriately called “observation”. We don’t have a problem believing that the moon revolves around the Earth because that’s how it appears. Conversely, it “appears” in much the same way the Sun also revolves around the Earth. And so we believe until proven otherwise. Biological organisms “appear” to be static, so it’s much easier for us to believe that they suddenly popped into existence. Matter “appears” to be solid and so on.

    Reinforce this observational “ignorance” with thousands of years worth of, what is believed to be divinely inspired wisdom, and you have a tough nut to crack.

    What the article doesn’t seem to account for is the extreme tenacity of the new Earth/anti-evolution position as opposed to other similar types of counter-observational information that is more widely accepted.

    • Cali Girl

      I’ll take a crack at the argument you linked since I hear it all the time and IT DRIVES ME ABSOLUTELY NUTS. I hope that I don’t sound stupid: It’s been 14 years since AP physics.

      So, firstly, when we discuss the scientific claim that the earth revolves around the sun in contrast to what appears to be true from the perspective of our eyes–that is, the sun revolving around the earth–we, in fact, are discussing neither. What is causing the sun to appear that it is moving is the earth rotating on it’s own axis. No one disputes this, even geo-centrists.

      If we used the theory of relativity exclusively and without other scientific findings, as was done in the link you posted, someone could just as well apply it in this instance. Someone could say, “We don’t know that the earth turns on its axis. Maybe every day the sun completes an entire orbit around the earth? Maybe that’s how we get days and it slightly changes it’s orbit to give us seasons.” No reasonable person would believe this, even though it’s theoretically possible, because of all the other scientific laws and findings that come into play that do not negate the theory of relativity and are not mutually exclusive.

      Similarly in the argument you brought up, if the theory of relativity was the only scientific finding then yes, the evidence would be 50/50. But it’s not. This argument is just grasping at straws.

      Now, once upon a time Chazal thought that the earth was flat and that the sun entered the earth’s atmosphere every day, etc. This is in fact where we got the notion of shkiya. We have all accepted that this was a misunderstanding (I hope), since the evidence is overwhelming enough and has been for long enough. Maybe with regards to geocentrism and heliocentrism this will eventually be the case as well.

      • Cali Girl

        Sorry, that was for Ezra below you…

      • Right. But the interesting thing is that according to the research it is still HARD for our brains to acknowledge that the earth is revolving around the sun!

        • Cali Girl

          So what’s the point, exactly? That it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around something scientific that’s also counter-intuitive? That’s not news to me. So it’s hard. That doesn’t adequately explain complete denial, I feel. I would argue that people don’t believe scientific findings because they just don’t want to for whatever reason, and not because it’s hard or counter-intuitive.

          • Right. Most people think that ” people don’t believe scientific findings because they just don’t want to for whatever reason, and not because it’s hard or counter-intuitive” but the truth is that science shows us that even when we DO believe the new findings of science that are not common sense, our brains try to reject them. This takes denial to a whole new level.

            • Abe

              I refuse to accept “that even when we DO believe the new findings of science that are not common sense, our brains try to reject them”. It goes against common sense.

      • Abe

        There is no evidence the Talmud believed the Earth was flat. I believe we could presume they agreed with the common scientific view of their time that it was shperical. At most you can argue that they believed the Earth was a hemisphere.

        • Cali Girl

          Re: There is no evidence the Talmud believed the Earth was flat.

          Then why are there halachos that depend on the premise that it is?

          Re: I believe we could presume…

          Why? Religious people today also don’t agree with “the common scientific view of their time.”

          Re: At most you can argue that they believed the Earth was a hemisphere.

          You’re joking, right? When we discuss a flat Earth we mean the bottom.

          • Abe

            Which Halachos? I presume most people use the term correctly. A map is flat, a hemisphere isn’t.

  • Ezra Goldschmiedt

    I remember seeing this (bottom of page 9 of
    http://books.google.ca/books?id=HYLi3l9ylWwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false) and not knowing what to make of it. What would you say about arguments like this?

    More importantly, my inability to make my own judgment call comes from another important element to this discussion – to become sufficiently knowledgeable about the topic(s) in question to the extent that one can think critically about what they’re hearing takes a lot of work and time. A combination of laziness and a lack of time go a long way in keeping people in the dark and unable to come to whatever conclusion is correct.

    • Anonymous

      Wow. That is unbelievable. To write such utter nonsense with a tone of condescending authority. Not only was the Rebbe clueless, so was the editor of the book who selected this quotation, and who knows who else who read and passed on it — and this is the 4th edition! This is truly frightening.

      • Ezra Goldschmiedt

        Ok, but I haven’t heard from you something more concrete to help reject this (nor did I get what I was looking for from Cali Girl who posted a comment to this below – “No reasonable person would believe this, even though it’s theoretically possible, because of all the other scientific laws and findings that come into play that do not negate the theory of relativity and are not mutually exclusive.”) You may very well be correct (and I’m inclined to think that you are), but those less in the know can’t proceed to disagree with the source above unless they hear some facts put forth in a rational and convincing way.

          • Ezra Goldschmiedt

            That’s too much, and that’s the point – your average Joe isn’t going to take the time to read a long article (even a fairly concise Wikipedia entry) to undermine their previous way of thinking. I’m a heliocentrist if you will, but without some heavy intellectual lifting in that area of study, you can’t expect me to take on the above view and dismiss it easily and with confidence.

            • Abe

              There is actually a debate amongst physists if a geocentric model is possible within the theory of general relativity.
              If you are scientifically literate, read “A Semi-Tychonic Model in General relativity”.
              I am sorry Eli if this offends your common sensibilities.

        • Anonymous

          HI, Ezra,
          Well, here goes. First, the Rebbe is confusing the “relativity principle” — that motion can only be defined with respect to some frame of reference. E.g., you’re riding on a train and see a train on the next track moving backward at 10 mph. That’s its speed relative to your train, but relative to the earth’s surface (the frame of reference we take for granted), your train might be going 50 mph and the other train 40 mph in the same direction, or 30 and 20, or whatever. The Rebbe is confusing this “principle of relativity,” described by Galileo in the early 17th century (and probably known much earlier) with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity first published in 1905 which I won’t try to explain here. While the “principle of relativity” corresponds to “common sense,” the effects of Einstein’s theory don’t. The Rebbe obviously never read or tried to understand Einstein, and is repeating someone’s description of the principle of relativity, thinking they are the same thing.

          Second, the rising and setting of the sun. The daily motion of the sun we explain as the effect of the earth rotating on its axis every 24 hours. If there was any doubt of this, careful measurements of the orbits of artificial satellites show that the earth is not a perfect sphere, but bulges slightly at the equator, an effect of the centrifugal force caused by the earth’s rotation.

          Third, the seasons and the earth’s orbit. As the seasons change, the apparent path of the sun changes. In the Northern Hemisphere, It is highest in the sky (furthest north) at midsummer, about June 22, and lowest (furthest south) at midwinter, about December 22. The ancients explained this by saying that the path of the sun around the earth was a composite of two separate circular motions, the daily motion circling the earth in 24 hours combined with a slower, one-year cycle in the opposite direction along a circle inclined at an angle of (IIRC) about 23 degrees to the Earth’s equator called the “ecliptic.” Twelve constellations along the ecliptic, the annual (not daily) apparent path of the sun around the earth gave their names to the twelve equal divisions of the circle — the zodiac. (The actual constellations are no longer in the same “place” and no longer correspond to the solar year.)

          We explain the seasons in modern times as a consequence of the earth’s yearly orbit around the sun and the angle between the earth’s axis and the plane of the earth’s orbit. Because the earth’s axis is “tilted” relative to the plane of the earth’s orbit (at about 23 degrees), it “points” in a fixed direction, but as the earth moves around its orbit the axis points toward the sun on one side and away from the sun on the other. Imagine walking around a building with your hand pointing north all the time — on one side, you’re pointing at the building, on the other side you’re pointing away from it. The north pole of the earth’s axis points most nearly toward the sun at midsummer and most nearly away from it at midwinter (in the Northern Hemisphere). Of course, that’s how we define the seasons, from the apparent north-south movement of the sun.

          That the earth orbits the sun and not vice-versa is confirmed by “parallax.” [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallax#Stellar_parallax%5D Although the size of the earth’s orbit is very small compared to the distance to the nearest stars, it is not negligible. The angle measured between a pair of stars, when one of them is close to the earth, will differ slightly when measured from one point on the earth’s orbit and then measured again six months later from the opposite side. This would not occur if the earth stood still and the sun moved around it. The Rebbe is simply wrong that we have no way of knowing which revolves around which, and the effect of parallax was known well before the Rebbe was born.

          I hope now you understand why I was appalled. You were right to ask for an explanation when you didn’t understand. If only the Rebbe had. KT, Kevin

          • Anonymous

            Keven, nice job! And Ezra, thanks for raising the question – I remember stumbling upon the same passage, and also being very troubled by it. The bottom line is, it takes a lot of time and effort to understand any of these scientific ideas properly. Most people do not take the time.

  • I think what people call Maimonidean
    “rationalism” is a misuse of the term, in Maimonides the rationalism
    means that the mind can come to know God, the idea that Judaism is
    “rational” in the common sense usage of the term is actually
    Mendelsohn’s “vernunft”.

    • this is a post-enlightenment issue. I don’t think Judaism ever dealt with the enlightment rationally.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this nice article, it’s these kinds of discussions that brought me to this site originally.
    Where do we go from here though? Where does a frum Jew go to have these discussions? Why are they only taking place in Aish and Ohr Sameach?

    Are we going to have to move to LA and live on the beach in order to have these discussions in person? 🙂

    • Anonymous

      I could think of worse things than having to live on the beach in LA 🙂

    • Don’t kid yourself. Aish and Ohr Sameach are not having these conversations either.

      • Anonymous

        I’m not kidding myself. I’ve kinda given up on finding meaningful answers, or even discussions.
        The irony is that over the past few weeks in the fallout of the great Asifa, when I would ask chareidi rabbonim why, instead of simply bashing the internet, they’re not online forwarding their worldview through blogs, their answer has been “there’s plenty of Torah online, there’s Aish”
        I ask them, “since when have you relied on Aish to promote your torah”?

        There’s no answer, it’s a leitzanis.

        • “There’s plenty of Torah online, there’s Aish.”

          OY! Aish is a feel good Frummag. If you really dig deep you can find archives of R’ Yaakov Weinberg’s Torah and some other good stuff. But in general, give me a break…

          • Indeed. Miamonides lost out and R’ Judah HaLevy’s philosophy won.

          • John Cohen

            You’re not very respectful in the way you write for a Rabbi. That’s maybe because you’re so focused on real time reply to your fans, that you seem to make more and more of these mistakes lately..

            • Mistake? Where?

              • I think John Cohen was referring to your tone.

                • Huh? Don’t rabbis speak stridently all the time? And was I really all that strident? Calling Aish.com (a glorified frummag) a Torah website is an insult to Torah with exception of a small number of deeply buried articles.

                  • I’m just elaborating on what JC was referring to. I agree regarding Aish. Though, I think as a rabbi your tone & attitude could be polished in some instances that I have seen (and from personal experience). It could be a consequence of hanging around Dovbear too much.

          • Anonymous

            R Weinberg is great and real, and also they have a lot of speeches from R Berkovits, who is also real. but some of their other stuff is brainwashed silliness. I heard a basic seminar from them and was disgusted with the intellectual dishonesty, pushing the classic Sinai principle (i.e. no one can get away with a a big lie such as all of us were there and G-d spoke to all of us) with severe distortion with respect to our chain of mesorah as to what actually happened at Sinai.

      • Menachem Lipkin

        Not that I’m a huge fan of Aish, but as of last year, at least, Dr. Schroeder was giving lectures there about his ideas of synthesizing the age of the universe with the creation narrative, among other things along these lines.

        • Yes. They have ONE lecture given by ONE lecturer who talks about this.

          • Arie Schwartz

            …and he and his ideas have issues all their own.

            • Indeed. Reconciliation is messy business.

              • Abe

                Why do you feel the need to applaud the choir you are preaching too?

              • I still don’t understand how you reconcilie – you end up in a philosophical place that to me seems very weak: God becomes very limited in a Maimonidean world, and even more so in a post-enlightenment, post-postmodernism type world. There are tons of questions about ethics, truth of the torah, and why do anything when you try to reconcile.

                I’m actually curious how you are making it work

  • Interesting because this is sort of the thing that those on the atheist camp say about religion in general.

  • I haven’t read the New Yorker article. ( I doubt they have the final answer on this issue, but OK). Anyways, how am I to understand that these 46% have a hard time due common sense? I mean, it’s religion that is most likely causing them not to believe in evolution. If not for religion, they would have no problem believing in it. Meaning, since we don’t know what the default setting of the brain is, I would say they ARE using the “the tool” of education to program themselves. It’s called religion. The brain on an objective level doesn’t know what is right or wrong. It’s simply how we program it. So for them, they are programed right, it’s not about common sense. They’ve already been educated.

    • Seriously. Read the darn article. It’s SCIENCE.

      • >It’s SCIENCE.

        Not sure what you are implying by making that all in caps…but alrighty….

        I just did. The article spends a lot of time dealing with how certain ideas go against our common sense. Ok. Great. But my question still stands. The article commenced with religious people, and then failed to return why THEY don’t believe in it. It’s not because it goes against THEIR intuition. It’s because THEY have already been pre-educated to think a different way. It’s like the article says: People aren’t blank slates. Then how can you be sure if something is going against their intuition/common sense thinking vs. religious indoctrination? Both, form methods of thinking about the world in a certain way. If so, then how can your solution of education against common sense be valid, since in THIS particular case of religious rejection of evolution, doesn’t come from common sense, but, ironically….from education.

        • You missed the point of the article. Even beliefs that do not contradict religion, rather they just contradict common sense, are hard for our brains to acknowledge.

          • I got that. Trust me, I got that. But then why start with the evolution question in regard to religious people when the reason for their rejection of evolution is not common sense, but in fact, education.

            • Because 46% deny the existence of evolution when they have a perfectly valid religious version of evolution (the 32% that believe God guided evolution, for example).

              • That is a statement after the fact. How do we know —once again— those 46% are rejecting evolution or, a valid religious version of evolution because of it going against their common sense vs. they are simply being taught (educated) a very literal reading of genesis and active push that carbon 14 testing is incredibly faulty? Both the 46% and 32% are being educated in one way or another. You’re going to say they are dafka rejecting the 32% version because it goes against their common sense. But that has yet to be shown.

  • I have written a book that discusses this concept amid a stream of other concepts germaine to this discussion. I am hoping to generate some interest. This seems like a proper forum: http://www.lulu.com/shop/martin-bodek/a-conversation-on-the-way/paperback/product-20173034.html

  • “The common sense belief in mysticism”

    Talk about an oxymoron.

    • Yet, so very true…

      • DG

        Can you please explain what is commonsensical about mysticism (for us non-mystics)?

  • Anonymous

    with the birth rate of irrational vs. rational at about 3-1 (or more), pretty hard to expect this will ever change. those who believe they have to work to support their kids will always have less kids, though they are strangely irrational (though we are all rachmanim) in encouraging such behavior by donating to certains segments of those “less fortunate”, who in many cases recklessly chose to have more kids at the rationalists expense.

  • Rebbeca Rubin

    See “the cholent goes off the derech”

  • Anonymous

    It’s easy to understand why we have a bias for sensory based knowledge. If you see a lion, your first instinct is to run, not to wonder what a lion might be doing in the liquor cabinet. I think this accounts for the initial discomfort in accepting the heliocentric model; it violates the understandable evolutionary link between seeing and believing (were it otherwise, practitioners of sleight-of-hand would be unable to find employment).

    Interestingly, I think common sense has more in common with empiricism then rationalism which is why, for example, Eric Hoffer makes considerably more sense then Einstein on any subject other then science.
    It’s also why I’m not bothered by the vaguely anti-religious bias of the New Yorker article. What if people who believe in a young earth theory give more charity and have more intact families? What if virtue depended on the acceptance of certain myths; wouldn’t the more appropriate question be whether some myths are better then others and not whether myths are an obstacle to human advancement?
    You seem to imply that mysticism is an impediment to moral progress. Extreme rationalism may have failed in Judaism not because of religious primitiveness or a recalcitrant folk culture but because without the restraining force of mysticism (the belief that the intellect is an inferior mechanism for experiencing the transcendent) rationalism will inevitably give way to naturalism.
    Finally, I am uncertain about the nature of the appeal you make to education. Given the bizarre notions that emerge daily from academia (political correctness, the belief that America is a racist county and moral relativism, will do for starters), I’m sure you mean to advocate something other then increased college enrollment. Please explain.