A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a note saying, “I would be interested to read your take on vaccinating children being (or not being) a Jewish issue.” My response was one word: “Vaccinate!!”
I sent her to the excellent pieces by Rabbi Jason Miller and Jamie Rubin explaining why vaccinating children is a Jewish value, yet I was trying to get into the mindset of why people might not vaccinate their children. To be honest, I still can’t do it entirely, but I now think it comes down to beliefs.
Now, some of these beliefs are erroneous, like that vaccinations lead to autism, or that immunity can be developed “naturally” without vaccinations. Other beliefs, though, are more subtle.
Rand Paul and Chris Christie have recently said that they believe that parents should have some level of choice over whether they should vaccinate their children. That belief isn’t so much about the science as it is a belief about the role of government. And as the father of a 16-month-old who now cries when she sees her doctor, I can understand the belief that parents don’t want their kids to feel pain when they get poked at a lot. (By the way, having her be uncomfortable for a few seconds is a price I am certainly willing to pay to keep her and her friends healthy and safe!)
But here’s the thing—beliefs guide our actions. And while we can privately believe whatever we’d like, when those beliefs manifest themselves in our choices, there are consequences. And what we can’t choose is what happens as a result of our decisions.
Adam Frank, an astrophysicist and founder of NPR’s blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, makes it very clear that in many ways, nature doesn’t care what we believe:
Infections spread with well-understood mathematical patterns. Planets respond to changes in atmospheric composition via the laws of physics and chemistry. They do this in spite of who we vote for. They do this in spite of our political or social beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad.
The world, in other words, has its own ways. Denial can’t change that. But what the Disneyland outbreak makes clear is that science denial has consequences. That is the real news here. The anti-vax and climate “skeptic” strains of science denial have been with us for more than a decade. Until now, however, it’s all seemed a bit theoretical, like just another forum for Internet hate-festing (which we shall all see soon in the comment sections of this post). But now along comes an outbreak of a once-beaten disease and—surprise—we suddenly see that science denial has actual real-world consequences, because it’s about the actual real world (the one we humans invented science to describe).
People often say that “everyone has a right to their beliefs.” But one of the wonderful things about Judaism is that in general, it doesn’t really care what we believe per se. Instead, what Judaism cares about is how those beliefs play themselves out in our lives, in our relationships, and in our world.
So yes, while everyone has a right to their beliefs, Judaism’s emphasis is not on our rights but on our responsibilities, and especially our obligation to care for ourselves and for others. Otherwise, we’d live in the world described by the recent piece in The Onion, “I Don’t Vaccinate My Child Because It’s My Right to Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back.”
Neil de Grasse Tyson once said that what’s good about science is that “It’s true whether or not you believe in it.” But there is an addendum to that statement: our beliefs influence our actions, and our actions create consequences—not just for ourselves, but for others.
After all, science doesn’t care what we believe…until those beliefs lead to measles outbreaks and rising sea levels.
The Big Bang has always evoked a sense of mystery, awe and curiosity among scientists and laypeople alike. But while the Big Bang has been well-established and well-documented in the scientific community for over 50 years, the question of how the universe expanded from “minuscule” to “gigantic” in a fraction of a second was the subject of a variety of theories. One proposed idea was called “inflation theory,” and while it was theorized and generally supported, there wasn’t enough evidence to determine if it was true.
Until this week.
On Monday, scientists announced that they had discovered the proposed “gravity waves” that now provide us an understanding of what happened within the the first 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 second of the birth of the universe. To get a sense of just how important this finding is, consider that the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation — which helped us get to within 380,000 years after the Big Bang — led to a Nobel Prize for Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.
But while the science itself is quite exciting, what’s even more powerful is how scientists are responding.
One video that has been making the rounds is Professor Chao-Lin Kuo telling Professor Andrei Linde (one of the people who helped develop inflation theory) that after many decades, his theory was now supported by hard evidence:
There are several moments that are wonderful here (my favorite is when Linde and his physicist wife Renata Kallosh nearly collapse over the news), but there is one line Linde uses that borders on the religious.
“This is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms,” he says. “Let us hope it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling: ‘What if I am tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful? What if…’” — and he trails off.
In other words, Linde had faith his theory was true, but until Kuo knocked on his door and reported his results, he didn’t know if his faith would be justified. Linde had no idea Kuo was coming, so his wife thought it was a delivery and asked, “Did you order anything?” “Yeah,” he answers, laughing, “I ordered thirty years ago! Finally, it arrived!”
Andrea Denhoed nicely describes how Linde must have felt at that moment:
It’s rare enough for a person to have a life’s work; to be able to see the validation of that work firsthand is understandably an overpowering experience. Linde might not call those years of waiting “faith,” but what he describes sounds somewhat like it—the persevering hope in the face of doubt and self-questioning: “What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?” Faith, after all, is not just a religious category, and science isn’t divorced from our human capacities for aesthetic appreciation and awe.
Belief, joy, awe, curiosity — these feelings are more than religious. They are more than scientific. They are reflections of the best of what it means to be human. They are the sources from which both religion and science spring.
Indeed, while we marvel at the cosmos and the mind-blowing nature of the early universe, we also need to marvel at the human side of these findings.
Yes, it is inspiring to consider the ingenuity that has helped us get closer and closer to the first few moments of our universe.
But what truly gives me hope, what truly makes this potentially Nobel-Prize-winning discovery so special, is the unbridled joy and excitement of seeing a person’s deeply-held belief system vindicated.
We may never come close to reaching Andrei Lin and Chao-Lin Kuo’s intelligence. We laypeople may never truly grasp inflation theory. But we can all understand just how Andrei Linde must have felt when Kuo knocked on his door and said, “Your evidence is here.”