In 1994, Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg published an article in the respected journal Statistical Science, entitled Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis. What the three academics had discovered was a statistical anomaly in the Bible, which – they believed – was an ancient code. They announced that the word Torah (Hebrew for the Bible’s first five books) appears more than 56,000 times in the Bible in ‘coded form’.
Their findings were later elaborated by journalist Michael Drosnin in his book The Bible Code, in which he claimed that the Bible showed proof that Lee Harvey Oswald was destined to assassinate John Kennedy. It also predicted an Apocalyse in 2006 (which so far hasn’t happened.)
Now the important point about all this is that the three authors of the original paper are not fools or knaves. Yoav Rosenberg is Professor of Mathematics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Eliyahu Rips is an Israeli mathematician known for his research in geometric group theory and also a professor of mathematics; Doron Witztum has a masters degree in Physics and was a postgraduate student of Rips.
All three men are intelligent, well-educated, sophisticated scientific rationalists. So rather than merely scoffing at their gullibility, the question I want to ask is, how can it come about that intelligent, educated scientifically-literate people – people like you and me – can come to believe something that is unrealistic and self-deluding? But – and here’s the really important part – I also want to ask a related question that will outrage many people who think of themselves as scientific rationalists.
It is, how, exactly how, can we know if something we believe is wise or foolish? In the example just given, an extensive knowledge of physics and statistics wasn’t enough. There is something else that convinces us whether something is true or false – something that transcends the scientific method, and I would love to know just what that something is.
And the reason I wish to know is because there are almost certainly some elements of our current scientific picture of the world that are universally accepted, but every bit as bonkers as the Bible code.
Let me begin by addressing the first part of my question: How can professors of mathematics come to believe that the names of Adolf Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald’s are encoded in the Bible?
The answer here may well be fairly straightforward: big data and the human quest for patterns. Give an observer enough material to work on and they will see patterns forming in it, like Hamlet seeing shapes in the clouds. “Methinks it is like a weasel.”
Some people “see” alien artefacts on pictures of Mars. Some people “hear” the voices of their dead loved ones in the hiss of the radio. Others detect alien signals in radiotelescope data. No doubt suggestion and wish-fulfilment play their part in shaping our perceptions whenever there is enough data for use to be unconsciously selective. But there is something else, too.
Six thousand years ago, Babylonian astronomers mapped the heavens. Their methods and equipment may have been primitive but they were expert in their practice. They developed the system of notation still in use by astronomers today. They made remarkably accurate observations of the sun, moon and planets. They noticed the curvature of the earth’s shadow passing across the moon during eclipses. Yet they concluded that the earth was flat and held up by elephants standing on the back of a sea turtle. To them – and again recall that they were neither fools nor knaves – this was the most rational explanation they could conceive.
Now come forward six thousand years. As recently as the late 19th century, scientists debated whether life could arise from decaying matter, or whether life could come only from living matter. And they sought the cause of common diseases.
In 1862, Louis Pasteur performed a seminal experiment in biology when he prepared several sterile flasks of nutrient medium and left some of them open but kept some sealed. Moulds appeared in the open flasks but not the sealed flasks, proving once and for all that the idea of life coming into being spontaneously was false, and also lending strong support to the idea that the moulds were caused by microorganisms in the air.
After his death, Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks passed into his family’s possession and remained inaccessible to researchers for a century. In 1995, an enterprising American biologist, Gerald Geison, was able to gain access to the notebooks and has translated and published them ( “The Private Science of Louis Pasteur”, published by Princeton University Press, 1995.)
Geison looked up Pasteur’s private observations about the famous experiment and discovered that, in fact, Pasteur did find evidence that life flourished in his sealed sterile jars, but he chose to ignore it. He wrote ‘I did not publish these experiments, for the consequences it was necessary to draw from them were too grave for me not to suspect some hidden cause of error in spite of the care I had taken.’
In other words, Pasteur’s attachment to his theory was too strong to be overcome by empirical evidence even from his own experiments. Significantly, he chose to keep the contradictory evidence secret. This behaviour by one of biology’s greatest names in a key experiment is no isolated lapse.
A similar story from the field of physics is that of Robert Millikan who won the Nobel Prize for his experiment in 1913 that measured the charge on the electron. Millikan’s experiment, using microscopic drops of oil, was fundamental in that it determined first the size of the charge on the electron – thus providing the whole of atomic physics with its basic scale parameter, the electron-volt – and, secondly, established that this charge is always the same – there are no fractional charges in nature.
In his published paper, Millikan was at pains to assure his colleagues in the scientific community that, ‘This is not a selected group of drops but represents all of the drops experimented upon during sixty consecutive days.’
More recently, Millikan’s laboratory notebooks were examined by two historians of science who found that in fact he had selected only 58 observations for publication out of a total of 140. Beside many of the results in the notebooks, Millikan had made such marginal notes as ‘Very low – something wrong’ and ‘Beauty – publish this’.
Not only did the real observations not support the value he published, they also did not support his claim of a uniform charge – many appeared to show fractional charges – and just like Pasteur, Millikan put this down to experimental error.
I do not believe that Millikan was lying in the normal sense when he said that he had not selected his results. He genuinely believed he was discarding ‘erroneous’ results – results that did not fit his hypothesis. Similarly, I do not think Pasteur was setting out to deceive or hoodwink his fellow biologists by forgetting to mention the negative result of his experiment. The real issue here is that in many cases, it is not ultimately experimental observation that underpins science, but something else. Whatever this mysterious ‘something else’ is, it is neither rational nor scientific in any definable sense, yet it governs the behaviour of even the most eminent scientists.
Or as Wilhelm Reich put it, ‘Perfectly exact physics is not so very exact, just as holy men are not so very holy.’