Monday, November 06, 2006

Why are people so eager to suspend their critical thinking and flock to the quacks?

Why are people so eager to suspend their critical thinking and flock to the quacks?
- Yitzchok Adlerstein

Replies Fred* from On the Main Line:

Why must it be that frum people are taken in by all sorts of counter-rational ideas, ranging from autistic children communicating by computer to produces messianic predictions in broken Yinglish? Why do people embrace the strangest forms of alternative medicine, not just as an adjunct to the conventional therapies, but sometimes even to their exclusion – even resulting in death of children? Why did so many people so uncritically jump on the Bible Codes bandwagon, when the vast, vast majority of experts (yes, the frum ones too) decided that the evidence didn’t support the hypothesis?

R. Adlerstein, it isn't a mystery. A culture that doesn't endeavor to teach people to think critically will not think critically. Actually, I must emend that: it is interesting to note that we produce, for example, physicians who certainly know how to think critically. They could not function in their field otherwise. And yet I know that even physicians are susceptible to Bible Codes and to miracle workers, having seen it firsthand--because these touch on fields in which they were not taught to think critically, even discouraged. However, these physicians certainly do not embrace strange forms of alternative medicines. Why? Because in that field they must know how to employ their critical faculties and if they didn't develop them then they would not have made it in that field.

But they didn't learn to think critically when they read the Golem cartoons in the Jewish Press when they were children, and that legend was reinforced by their teachers or rabbeim. They didn't learn to think critically when fantastic--or even mundane--legends about all sorts of personalities were told as fact. It is considered a schtikle sophisticated to note that "not all of them" are true. Reb Moshe Feinstein's Artscroll biography begins noting something his family said ISN'T true, that he finishes Shas 200 times. Why then is it in the biography? Not only that, a major American ra"m repeated that claim before 10s of thousands of people at the last Siyum Ha-shas. Critical thinking? And this particular rosh yeshiva is brilliant!

Recently regarding the Monsey kashrut scandal a story begun circulating about the grandfather of the butcher who was also a butcher in Switzerland and lax in kashrut (specifically about accepting stunning) and a rav said that such a man will have a grandson who will also be careless in kashrut.

Now, I haven't seen sure rebuttal of that story. I do not promise that it isn't true, even in whole. Strange things can happen. But surely the way that story was passed around, complete with conflicting accounts of who the oracular rabbi was, bore all the hallmarks of urban legend. I saw many people hear the story and nod their head. This story was even passed by a great rabbinic leader in a major American Jewish community. Should I assume he rigorously fact-checked it? Did he call the butcher's bereaved ex-wife or sons to ask about their elter zeide?

I think there is an inherent tension between desiring critical thinking and managing where those thoughts will lead. Surely it must be acknowledged that honest, critical thinkers do not always conclude what our traditions maintain and perhaps it is sometimes viewed as a greater good to inculcate credulity rather than incredulity, so long as the incredulity can be managed (eg, it shouldn't lead to a new Shabbetai Zevi episode or similar).

I hope this isn't beginning to sound like a diatribe, but please be assured that it is דברים שבלב.

Ay, you'll say, this gadol be-Torah was rigorous and that one you couldn't fool him for a second. Someone once tried to defend a difficult passage in a Bertenura on a mishna to R. DZ Hoffman and had to employ mental acrobatics to do it. R Hoffman said "It's a printer's error. When you rise to shamayim you won't be greeted by the Bertenura to thank you for defending him, you'll be met by the zetser (typesetter) of the Romm printing press to give you a shkoyach for defending him"

That's a great story. But hagaot ha-bach or the gra notwithstanding never once in my life have I seen such a thing, not in a shiur in yeshivot and not in laymen's shiurim. I once told someone of some stature an interesting idea contained in the Torah Temima's sefer on tefilla Barukh Sheamar. The TT had a question: in bentsching we say "hameleah, hapesucha, haqedosha, harechava." The first, second and fourth are similes. What is "haqedosha" doing in that sequence? God's expansive, wide, holy hand? It is really in disharmony with the others.

Before I could even give his suggestion, which was the it was in fact a scribal error and it originally read "hagedosha" with a gimmel, making the sequence flow beautifully, I could not get this person to acknowledge their was even a question. "What do you mean? It's the liturgy. There's no problem." Finally I did convince him enough so that we could move on to the suggestion, but when I offered it the person acted as if I was telling him that the Samaritan aseret ha-dibrot were a better text. I mean, this person was really appalled. If he had a better solution or could otherwise rebut the suggestion I was all ears. I wasn't claiming this was definitely so; certainly there isn't manuscript evidence, so the emendation has to be considered conjectural.

So what's my conclusion? Yes, R DZ Hoffman thought critically. Many people of all eras, today included, great and not-so-great think critically. But our culture doesn't encourage it and many, if not most, among us don't even know how to. Is it any wonder that those who could think that the scientific method is akin to a shittah, and one which can be rejected because it is a minority, would also swallow sugar pills? Elu ve-elu! The doctors say azoy and the smiling man in the ad says the voodoo therapy produces excellent results. Have you heard the one about the pigeons and the hepatitis? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. It is.

[*N.B: Fred submitted this comment to Cross Currents. For reasons known only to Yaakov Menken, it was not immidiately published. After seeing other comments published while his remained "in moderation", Fred asked me to print his comment here. (a good idea, because more people read this blog anyway.) If one of your comments is rejected by Cross Currents, please send it to me ( and I'll consider it for publication here.]

Update: Fred's comment currently appears on Cross Currents
Related (1): The Godol Hador's attack on Yitzchok Adlerstein
Related (2): DovBear vs Cross Currents: A short history [More]

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