Volume 51 Number 84
                    Produced: Sun Apr  2  9:35:36 EDT 2006

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Slifkin - censorship and critique
         [Michael Frankel]


From: Michael Frankel <michaeljfrankel@...>
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2006 22:08:58 -0500
Subject: Slifkin - censorship and critique

It is not easy, after the extended literary fisticuffs attending the
slifkin affair, to say anything new at this late point.  Nevertheless, I
believe the following post offers some as yet unmasticated perspectives.

1.  Censorship: The post below comes with a brief history which I'd like
to share as it raises issues quite independent of the substance of the
post itself.  In brief, the post below, with only very minor stylistic
changes, was submitted more than a year ago to a different e-mail list
in which i used to participate (not dissimilar to mail jewish itself and
with an overlapping clientele).  At that time, I thought a notable
lacuna in all the slifkin discussion - entertaining though it was
(though perhaps not to slifkin) - was a considered review of slifkin's
work from a scientific perspective. And while i am neither a biologist
nor the son of a biologist, i was comfortable providing a substantive
review of the volume, Science of Torah, which seemed mostly devoted to
physics based arguments (non-withstanding my belief that biology too is
fundamentally only physics - as is chemistry, geology, archeology,
sociology, historiography, garbology and, ver vais, probably
orthography) . However the post was rejected for publication at the time
because the list masters wished to "protect" R.  Slifkin. They expressed
concern that its substance might be monitored by the evil ones and used
to open yet another line of attack on the persecuted author - something
along the lines of "you see, not only is he a kofer (rachmona letzlan)
who doesn't realize that a qoton such as himself is not permitted to
tackle deep subjects and chutzpadic for actually wishing to respond
(chas v'sholom) to scurrilous attacks - but to top it all off, he
doesn't even get his science right."  The moderators suggested they
wished only to delay publication for two months or so, ad ya'avor za'am,
and then stated they would await explicit permission from slifkin
himself, the presumptive and prospective injured party.

I protested at the time that i didn't see how my relatively minor
technical cavils, balanced with complementary (and complimentary)
appreciative remarks could possibly further injure the author, that
authors in the public domain - whether we're rooting for them or not -
must be prepared to take their lumps, else they shouldn't be publishing
in the first place.  As well, one should stand up to bullies.
Pre-emptive self-censorship concedes victory to the askanish thugs.  In
response, the listmeister essentially accused me of being brave at
another's expense, i.e. it wasn't me being bullied or who might pay a
price.  But there was a much larger point that was being lost. A
dedication to emes, in which name slifkinites rally to his cause, should
not be sacrificed for entirely imagined (and even imagined, only very
temporary) tactical advantage.  To do so, on a matter already in the
public arena, is to blur the line between the good guys and the bad guys
- (the latter) for whom factual truth may be a divine attribute -
chosomo emes and all that- but imitatio deo is not one of their
hashqofic priorities.  Finally, I also thought it way way over the line
to cede decision authority on a review to the reviewee himself.  So,
since I still believe after all this time it was fundamentally wrong to
censor criticism (and still completely rejecting the exaggerated
accusation of "bravery" at another's expense), I publish this note, not
terribly significant in itself, but one that contributes in a minor way
to a more accurate assessment of slifkin's work.  I am wondering
however, whether the readers of this list would disagree with me and
still think the answer to censorship is more censorship.

(In a related incident, at about the same time i had also prepared a
highly critical response to a public letter penned by R. M. Sternbuch
shlitah which had also addressed the science/torah issue. My letter,
unlike that of R.  Sternbuch shlitah, had the virtue of being based on
facts. This too was censored as it disappeared into a literary black
hole and was never published.  Again, it seems to me that people who
deliberately put things in the public domain should not be shielded from
subsequent public discussion and substantive criticism, even if the
writer is a highly respected talmid chokhom.)

2.  Critique: And now for the original post. (originally penned in feb 2005)

<<...one element so far missing in l'affaire slifkin as it unfolds .. is
a lack of any substantive review of the works themselves.  i ... have
reviewed one matter that seems to have received a complete pass to date,
and that is the science. ...  (as) i was curious about what-on-earth
could have energized all these presumptive worthies to such would be
book burning frenzies, i read one of the banned books - the Science of
Torah. This would not have previously occurred to me since i try to
avoid the many popularly written science/torah publications that have
floated by over the years.  i generally find them painful - or
embarrassing - because they are frequently suffused with error and/or
imprecision while their engagement with jewish sources is generally
apologetic and/or polemical rather than scholarly.  But
banned-in-b'nei-b'raq proved too much a draw to resist.  so, herewith
some immediate impressions.

first, a caveat that, as this note is dedicated to perceived
deficiencies it may present a mis-impression i think the work is bad,
which on the whole, i do not.  rather i think it is a good piece of work
for its purpose, and could be made better with various mistakes - of
interest perhaps only to the specialist - corrected if a second edition
is published.  for the benefit of the technically disposed, and
hopefully R. Slifkin, i list these errors, as i perceive them anyway, in
the following.

one more caveat.  i do not wish to address R. Slifkin's treatment of
jewish sources at any detailed level since i recognize he pursues a
different agendum - qiruv r'choqim - rather than dispassionate scholarly
enterprise suitable for an academically minded audience. which means
what i would consider systemic deficiencies may not be relevant to the
author.  such systemic deficiencies would include selective quoting of
sources as though that were the only classical position whilst ignoring
others, highly idiosyncratic reading/interpretation of sources such as
zohar, his embrace of the concept of hishtalsh'lus as an undergirding
theme which he perceives everywhere and into which he shoehorns his
source texts, etc etc.  under the present circumstances, let me also add
that .. i deplore the damaged reputations effected by this whole
brouhaha.  not damage to R. Slifkin but rather damage to the purported
signers of these various public screeds all of whom are liable to be
held by many spectators in lower esteem than previously.  let us hope
many of these reported signings are false.

Now for a list of some of the - l'anius da'ati - scientifically
deficient assertions in R. Slifkin's book:

p. 24. R. Slifkin writes of the "so far incompatible theories of special
relativity and quantum physics" .  surely this should have read
"general" relativity rather than special" relativity as the latter
coexists quite comfortably with quantum theory.

P. 29 R. Slifkin writes of the intrinsic indeterminacy of QM as rooted
in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  this is not quite correct.  it
is rooted in the ACT of measurement, whose outcome is uncertain -though
predictable as a probability - between possible alternatives available
to the system.  .. i.e. indeterministic nature of QM fundamentally stems
from the potential realizability of different eigenvalues to operators
in measurements repeated under identical circumstances, not from the
finite spread in the realization of an observable as a result of
measurement of its conjugate.  (said another way - the uncertainty
relation "protects" the observation of quantum phenomena as it prevents
us from determining certain things we used to be able to do classically,
e.g. which hole the particle went through in a double slit experiment
which results in an interference pattern. but this doesn't mean
indeterminacy, it just means the either/or logic is wrong and particles
are really new kinds of beasties that can go through both physically
separated holes at the same time)

p. 43 the ratio of the longest to the shortest EM wavelength is
infinity, not 10 to the 25th.

p. 44 R. Slifkin writes that "a certain amount of heat is required,
which is only provided by infrared radiation". this is not quite true.
There is also radioactivity (and the "radiant' energy component of
radioactivity is in the form of gamma rays, not infrared) it was neglect
- excusable since radioactivity had not yet been discovered - of this
energy source that famously mislead the great 19th century physicist
Lord Kelvin to very grievously miscalculate the age of the earth.

p. 46 R. Slifkin compares the after-the-fact reality that life is viable
in our universe to the after-the-fact improbability that the same person
should have won thousands of lotteries in a row - which he asserts would
be greeted with calls for a police investigation rather than a ho-hum
acceptance that the prior probability of this happening was not
technically zero.  but this argument is advanced in a section discussing
the possibility of an infinite number of universes.  since infinity is a
quite large number indeed, it is entirely likely - indeed quite certain
- that a single individual will be found in one of them (indeed in an
infinite number of them) who has won thousands of lotteries, and there
will be another infinity of universes where an individual has won
millions, etc. etc.

p. 57 citing chaos as support for a non-deterministic universe is a
fundamental error which - quite inexplicably to me - i've seen made
numerous times by otherwise respectable scientists who should certainly
know better. chaos is completely deterministic, if difficult in practice
to calculate.  the sensitivity to initial conditions (which is what
mathematicians basically mean by "chaos") merely makes the future a bit
more difficult to compute.  but (as i wrote in part of a letter which
Prof Domb assures me will be published in an upcoming volume of BDD), it
was already moderately difficult to measure (simultaneously!) the
positions and momenta and then solve the interactive dynamics of the 10
to the 80th or so particles that make up our physical universe.  sure
chaos now makes that program even tougher to execute, but hey - that's
only a practical computation problem. but the universe remains, in
principle, just as deterministic as before chaos was introduced.

(Update: While this letter was marinating the past year, my critique of
Professors Domb and Aviezer was published in BDD #16.  Profs Domb and
Aviezer published a reply ad loc which takes issue with my criticism.
However, they are wrong. Scientifically ept readers are invited to view
the exchange in vol 16 and decide for themselves.  of course it's not
really an exchange since there is no further response to their response,
but each and every counter-assertion of theirs is incorrect.  If i ever
work up the energy, i shall send a follow-up to BDD pointing out just
why that is so, but of course they may decide just to let it all drop
since both sides have had an initial say).

p.102 while I have basically limited myself to a scientific critique, i
include one textual objection, because I find it egregious.
R. Slifkin's preferred translation of the raabad to hilchos t'shuvoh 3:4
in which famous gloss he berates rambam for dismissing those
philosophically unenlightened who hold a literal belief in
anthropomorphic descriptions.  R. Slifkin's translation reads "there are
many better and greater people among US who..".  now, hebrew "me'mennu"
will indeed suffer a translation "among US".  But it seems clear from
context and generally accepted translational precedent, that raabad here
is directly dissing the rambam , i.e. it should read "there are greater
guys than HIM (rambam) who.." it also seems unlikely to me that raabad -
who often demonstrated he understood his own place at the top of the
pecking order - would have referred to people greater than "us" who yet
were misled by all those confusing aggodos. i can only speculate what
R.Slifkin's reasons for this emendation may have been, but nevertheless
wonder whether he has seen this particular translation elsewhere.

p. 115 since this only references Dr. Schroeder without attempting to
reprise his arguments which center on gravitational time dilation, i
won't attempt to engage them here.  i just mention for completeness that
i disagree with them.

p. 126. R. Slifkin writes "as time unfolded...it gradually became
transformed from spiritual energy to physical energy and...".  sounds
like for some interval after the on switch was thrown at 0-time there
was still a partial component of "spiritual energy" which had not yet
completely "transformed " into "physical" energy.  needless to say,
science has never taken note of this chidush, but if meant as d'rush, nu

p 132 while it is clear that R. Slifkin means to refer to the "almost"
symmetries he discussed previously he should be aware that the
conjunction "broken symmetry" has a specific referent in physics and
that aint it.  It more usually refers to the appearance of separate
phases at different energy levels - and there need be nothing "almost"
about it. thus the separation of the electroweak force into the everyday
but vastly different strength electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces
that we observe today after the universe had cooled sufficiently (at 10
to the minus 12 seconds or so after 0-time). etc. or the appearance of
different phases of matter at different temperatures, etc.

p. 207.  R. Slifkin quotes R. Aryeh Kaplan to the effect that the
"higher and higher complexity" observed in the process of evolution of
some simple organism into a human being is a violation of the second law
of thermodynamics which decreed that entropy (or disorder) always
increases.  Both of them should have known better as the second law only
requires that the entropy of a closed system (like the universe) always
increase, but there is no particular problem with a decrease in any
localized system -so long as it is coupled (as are people) to a larger
system and the decrease locally is compensated (more than compensated)
elsewhere.  the observable universe is particularly rich in observable
local "violations" where emergent organized behavior - with lower local
entropy - can be observed all around us, from the red spot of jupiter to
oscillating chemical reactions etc.

there is an additional class of errors that i find somewhat painful to
read.  these are not due to R. Slifkin per se, but are physical
speculations by R.Slifkin-quoted talmidei chakhomim who understandably
haven't specialized in physical science and whose discussion of the
subject matter may occasionally strike one as naive. .. i forebear
citing examples from the book here.

Mechy Frankel


End of Volume 51 Issue 84