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Moses the good scientist and the COVIDburning bush

Science, practiced with honesty and integrity, is a source of light and knowledge.  Practicing it with honesty implies that when the same scientific method that led to so many technological developments, knowledge, and cures, produces results that call into question some of the assumptions on which the same method is grounded, that needs to be acknowledged. Otherwise,  science is transformed into a dogma, some form of idolatry of the method.  

More than a matter of misconduct of individuals, which exists and is favored by the publish or perish culture, is a matter of the dynamics of a system based on those same assumptions and how  scientists, are trained to think. It is said of science that it is organized common sense. When results defy common sense, they tend to be ignored, not published, because they are deemed non-conclusive. They are reserved for when a logical explanation can be found based on new data, but otherwise, they are filtered out and most likely will never come to light.  In this way, science self perpetuates a logical and rational world view that embraces a comprehensive, coherent truth. It operates as a newspaper that only publishes good news. News validated by science assumptions get published, whereas bad news that defy common sense finds it harder for the press.

But it is precisely in those results that defy common sense, those “burning bush” results, for the biblical burning bush that is not consumed by fire, where the gold is hidden. The burning bush episode personifies Moses as the example of a good scientist.

“And Moses grazed the flock of Yithro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock by way of the wilderness [so that it does not graze in others’ fields], and he came to the mountain of G-d, to Chorev.

And an angel of the L-rd appeared to him in the heart of the fire in the midst of the bush, And he saw, and, behold, the bush was burning with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

And Moses said: I will turn away thither and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed.

And the L-rd saw that he had turned aside to see. And G-d called to him from the midst of the bush, and He said: Moses, Moses. And he said: Here I am.

So here is Moses, the postdoc tending the flock of his PI.  Not grazing in other’s fields, that is, not taking other people’s data or ideas, but most importantly, not deviating from the mandate and good practices that the application of the scientific method imposes. Not taking data from sources that may be inconsistent with the proper practice of science.  And then, all of a sudden, the unexpected happens. An observation that completely defies common sense takes place. A bush burning with fire is observed, but surprisingly, the bush is not consumed. And Moses, instead of shying away, says, “I will turn away thither and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed.” And there is where Moses, the postdoc finds G_d.

It occurs that it is precisely in these types of burning bush results where the paradigm shift in each particular field of research may reside if an explanation can be found for those common sense-defying observations. But if no unifying explanation can be obtained, those results could be considered evidence of revelation rather than being disregarded.  

This may be a reason for so many disparities across nations on the impact, mortality rates, and effectiveness of social distancing amid the COVID 19 crisis. For the unsolved question of whether masks make sense or not, for the surprising fact that the primary source of Covid viral spread was non-symptomatic carriers, while in all previous epidemics were symptomatic patients. For the fact that despite having reached vaccination levels consistent with herd immunity, in some places, people still need to be careful, even after receiving three booster shots.

These types of common sense-defying observations are not unique to COVID. They take place in the lab daily.  When trying to prove something, we often approach a problem through 4 or 5 different techniques, finding that one of them is discrepant with the rest. Or how many times we obtain consistent results, but all results go out of the charts on a particular day. Our instinctive impulse is to ignore the discrepant result assuming that some unknown variable or reagent should have been wrong. 

Contrasting with Moses and his excellent scientist attitude is the episode of the golden calf. It is said that what caused the golden calf sin were unmet expectations.  The Israelites were waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, but it took Moses longer than expected.  So in their unmet expectation and impatience, they asked Aaron to build the golden calf as a substitute to mediate their communication and worship G_d.  So be it in business when the numbers produced are not those expected and books are cooked, or in science when the results obtained differ from those anticipated and are ignored, one may be incurring in a certain form of idolatry. 

The good practice of science demands that a scientist report the results he or she obtains on the bench. One should not make up data, fabricate it or hide it. But as clear as this is to any properly trained scientist, it is also necessary to understand that when scientific results question the same assumptions on which the scientific method is based, one should not shy away because there lies a  change in our way of understanding science.  

What we are experiencing with Covid, what scientists went through over the last few years with the reproducibility crisis that affected cancer biology and psychology with parts of important peer-reviewed papers having reproducibility problems,  with scientists from time to time seeing similar issues in their labs ( a poll published in Nature reported that 70% of medical scientists polled admitted not being able to replicate other group’s results and 50-60 % failed at some point to reproduce their own). It all points to a wake-up call on our over-reliance on science and to acknowledge the real source of the bounty that science and technology provide.  Looking at data and facts with uncompromising honesty is the gateway to understanding what is in front of us.

 Note: Biblical text quotes were adapted from Sefaria.org.

About the Author
Hernan is an Argentina-born scientist with a passion for Torah study. He holds a BS from the University of Buenos Aires, a MSc from the Weizmann Institute of Science, and a PhD from a combined program between the University of Buenos Aires and Harvard University. In the last years he taught at Yeshiva Ohr Ysrael in Boston and devoted time to the study of the influence of science and jewish sources
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