Tag Archives: Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer and the Betrayal of Trust in the Internet Age

Jonah Lehrer was one of my favorite authors. I found his writing style engaging and his content thought-provoking, but what I loved most was his ability to explain complicated scientific studies in ways that laypeople could understand.

Because my focus is on the interaction of science and religion, and in particular, how cognitive science can inform who we are as human beings, I constantly drew on his work, and quoted him in multiple posts. He was a great explainer and popularized some very complex and important ideas.

So when I read that he had fabricated and willfully misinterpreted quotations in his book Imagine (which I had read only a month and a half ago), I felt betrayed. Yes, I know that it’s important to be a critical thinker of what I read, and to have a healthy skepticism of any information I may come across. But since I don’t have an academic background in cognitive science, it would have been very hard for me to even know what questions to ask, or precisely how to examine the studies Lehrer talked about.

Instead, I simply had to trust him and trust his integrity. Unfortunately, as I found out on Monday, I couldn’t.

Beyond my personal feelings of betrayal, however, there’s a deeper issue that I’ve been thinking about these last few days: the importance of trust in the internet age.

Many people are mystified as to how Lehrer could have thought that his lies would go undetected. In an article on Salon.com, Roxane Gay wondered: “In the age of the Internet, when everything is just a click away, how did Lehrer think he wouldn’t get caught…when he simply lied over and over?” Indeed, truthfulness is a sine qua non for bloggers and writers who want to be respected, simply because if they don’t check their facts, eventually somebody else will.

But while crowdsourcing has made it infinitely easier and faster to uncover lies, there is now so much information out there that it’s impossible for us to personally verify each and every thing we read. And today, if we come across something intriguing, we go beyond simply reading it — we immediately share it, tweet it, draw on it, remix it, and build off of it. The only reason we do that is because we implicitly trust the accuracy of that information.

And as soon as we link our name with someone else, we link our credibility to theirs, as well.

Indeed, in the internet age, we are all not only consumers of content, but producers of it, as well. Anything we say or share might become the basis of others’ work, and more likely than not, they will simply have to trust that we are telling the truth.

That’s why the Rabbis highlighted an intriguing characteristic about the Hebrew words for “lie” and “truth.” In Hebrew, the word for “lie” is “sheker” — shin, qoph, resh. The shape of those three letters are balanced on thin footing, and are precariously balanced.

In contrast, the word for “truth” is “emet” — aleph, mem, tav. The shape of those three letters rest on more firm footing, and have stronger bases.

So in the Babylonian Talmud, the Rabbis looked at those letters and asked, “Why does falsehood [stand] on one foot, while truth has a brick-like foundation? Because,” they answered, “truth can stand, but falsehood cannot.”

Ultimately, in the internet age, everything we say becomes a potential building block for others to use, and the only way to ensure a solid foundation based on trust is to be truthful.

And as Jonah Lehrer learned, lies will topple your world.

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What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other (co-written with Sam McNerney)

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s inherently challenging for believers and atheists to have productive conversations. Discussing topics such as belief and nonbelief, the potential irrationality of religion, or the limits of scientific knowledge is difficult since each side often ends up more firmly entrenched in their own worldview.

But one bright person interested in broadening the conversation is Sam McNerney, a science writer who focuses on cognitive science and an atheist interested in religion from a psychological point of view.

I found Sam through his writing on ScientificAmerican.com, and started reading his blog Why We Reason and his posts on BigThink.com. We discovered that even though we approached religion from different perspectives, we had great respect for each other.

So as two people with different religious outlooks we wondered: what can we learn from each other?

Sam McNerney: There are many things we can learn. Let’s take one: the role of authority.

A recent New York Times article points out that secular liberal atheists tend to conflate authority, loyalty and sanctity with racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not difficult to see why. Societies suffer when authority figures, being motivated by sacred values and religious beliefs, forbid their citizens from challenging the status quo. But a respect for authority and the principles they uphold to some degree is necessary if societies seek to maintain order and justice and function properly. The primatologist Frans de Waal explains it this way: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.” (Haidt, 106)

Ironically, atheists’ steadfast allegiance to rationality, secular thinking and the importance of open-mindedness blinds them to important religious values including respect for authority. As a result, atheists tend to confuse authority with exploitation and evil and undervalue the vital role authority plays in a healthy society.

Geoff: You accurately bring up one aspect of why organized religion can be so complicated: it is intertwined with power. And I’m glad you note that authority and power are not inherently bad when it comes to religion. In fact, as you also say, a certain degree of authority is necessary.

To me, the real problem arises when religion adds another element into the mix: certainty. It’s a toxic combination to have religious authorities with the power to influence others claiming to “know” with 100% certainty that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

One thing I learned from several atheists is the importance of skepticism and doubt. Indeed, while certainty leads to arrogance, uncertainty leads to humility. We open up the conversation and value diverse experiences when we approach the world with a perspective of “I’m not sure” or “I could be wrong.”

Recently, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote a beautiful piece on NPR’s blog 13.7 about how valuable uncertainty can be:

Dig around in most of the world’s great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas…

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

Certainty can be seductive, but it hurts our ability to engage with others in constructive ways. Thus when religious people talk about God, belief or faith, we have to approach the conversation with a little humility and recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. In the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, we need to realize that another person doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

This doesn’t mean believers and atheists will agree on the role of religion in society, the validity of a particular belief system, or even the very existence of God. In fact, believers and atheists will almost certainly continue to vehemently disagree about these questions. But we have to remember that not all disagreements are bad. Some arguments are quite beneficial because they help us gain a deeper understanding of reality, encourage clearer thinking, and broaden people’s perspectives.

The Rabbis even draw a distinction between two different kinds of arguments. Arguments they call “for the sake of Heaven” will always be valuable, while arguments that are only for self-aggrandizement will never be productive (Avot 5:20). So I’m not interested in arguments that devolve into mocking, ridicule, name-calling or one-upmanship. But I’d gladly participate in any discussion if we are arguing about how we make ourselves and this world better, and would actively strive to involve whoever wants to be part of that endeavor, regardless of what they may or may not believe.

Sam: You are right to point out that both atheists and believers under the illusion of certainty smother potentially productive dialogue with disrespectful rhetoric. What’s alarming is that atheism in the United States is now more than non-belief. It’s an intense and widely shared sentiment where a belief in God is not only false, but also ridiculous. Pointing out how irrational religion can be is entertaining for too many.

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs influence negative behavioral consequences, so atheists are right to criticize religion on many epistemological claims. But I’ve learned from believers and my background in cognitive psychology that faith-based beliefs are not necessarily irrational.

Consider a clever study recently conducted by Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University in Ontario that demonstrates how religion helps increase self-control. In two experiments participants (many of whom identified as atheists) were primed with a religious mindset – they unscrambled short sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine” and “Bible.” Compared to a control group, they were able to drink more sour juice and were more willing to accept $6 in a week instead of $5 immediately. Similar lines of research show that religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like drinking, taking drugs, smoking and engaging in risky sex.

Studies also suggest that religious and spiritual people, especially those living in the developing world, are happier and live longer, on average, than non-believers. Religious people also tend to feel more connected to something beyond themselves; a sentiment that contributes to well-being significantly.

It’s unclear if these findings are correlative or causal – it’s likely that many of the benefits that come from believing in God arise not from beliefs per se but from strong social ties that religious communities do such a good job of fostering. Whatever the case, this research should make atheists pause before they dismiss all religious beliefs as irrational or ridiculous.

Geoff: It’s interesting — that actually leads to another area where atheists have pushed believers in important ways, namely, to focus less on the beliefs themselves, and more on how those beliefs manifest themselves in actions. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker, the actions that religious people need to focus on are less about “saving souls,” and more about “improving lives.”

For much of human history the goal of religion was to get people to believe a certain ideology or join a certain community. “Being religious” was a value in and of itself, and was often simply a given, but today, we live in a world where people are free to choose what they believe in. So now, the goal of religion should be to help people find more fulfillment in their own lives and to help people make a positive impact on others’ lives.

It’s important to note that people certainly do not need religion to act morally or find fulfillment. But as Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book The Righteous Mind, religion can certainly make it easier.

Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider who sits atop an elephant to suggest that our moral deliberations (the rider) are post-hoc rationalizations of our moral intuitions (the elephant). The key to his metaphor is that intuitions comes first (and are much more powerful) and strategic reason comes afterwards.

We need our rider because it allows us to think critically. But our elephant is also important because it motivates us to connect with others who share a moral vision. Ultimately, if we are striving to build communities and strengthen our morals, we cannot rely exclusively on either the rider or the elephant; we need both. As Haidt explains:

If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, institutions and relationships that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for…a society that no longer has a shared moral order. [And w]e evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. (Haidt, 269)

Since religion is a human construct, with its “norms, institutions and relationships,” it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can obviously be used to shut down critical thinking and oppress others. But as you mention, religion has positive effects on well-being, and religious beliefs correlate with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps the job of religion, then, should be giving us a common language, rituals, and communities that reinforce and strengthen our ability to become better human beings and find joy and meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have to agree with someone in order to learn from them. As Ben Zoma, a 2nd century Jewish sage, reminds us: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1) When we are willing to open ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and different perspectives.

Indeed, I have come to believe that our purpose as human beings – whether we identify as a believer, an atheist, or anything in between – is to better ourselves and our world. And any source of knowledge that leads us to that goal is worth pursuing.

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Give Your Brain a Rest

Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.

But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.

So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?

It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.

In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.

While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:

[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”

So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.

Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating.  According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.

So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.

And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace.  Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.

So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.

So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.


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Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

Most Americans are clearly rejoicing over the death of Osama bin Laden. And in listening to what people are saying, I think that sense of joy is based on the feeling that “justice has been served.” But what kind of “justice” was it? Why did that justice feel so good? And where do we go from here?

It’s important to remember that there is a difference been retributive justice, which gives us a primal sense of pleasure, and restorative justice, which is about our responsibilities as we try move forward from this moment on.

Retributive justice was the source of our pleasure or joy when we heard about bin Laden’s death, and those positive feelings are deeply rooted in human nature. Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment where subjects watched interactions between two people, some of which involved one person wronging another (for those know it, the experiment was the Prisoner’s Dilemma). As Lehrer says:

According to the data, when men (but not women) watched a [“bad person”] get punished, they showed additional activation in reward related areas of the brain…that same highway of nerves that also gets titillated by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Apparently, we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished.

So the pleasure people were feeling over bin Laden’s death was immediate, emotional and instinctual. But things that are pleasurable are not always good for us or for society. After all, sweets feel good — and that’s what led to America’s  obesity epidemic. Similarly, those pleasurable feelings resulting from retributive justice are not the most important things to consider as we try to move forward.

Instead, we should also be thinking about restorative justice — which is about asking “what do we do now?” This is a harder, but more important question. There is no restitution for the lives that bin Laden took. There is nothing that can be done to bring those loved ones back. So how do we move ahead to create a better world?

I was particularly taken by the words of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of Rabbis for Human Rights, who argued:

Repairing the broken world is not about what someone else might do, it is about us and how we bear the responsibilities given to us. Treating every human being as created in God’s image is difficult. Feeling compassion for the stranger, because we were strangers, is not an easy choice. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) insists that the responsibility for healing is in our hands, if only we could overcome our own limitations: “Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators of worlds, as it is written, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God [Isaiah 59:2].”

Indeed, the goal of justice is not to get rid of evil people — it is to get rid of evil. There is a story in the Talmud about a group of hoodlums who were terrorizing the town where Rabbi Meir lived. He prayed to God that these men would be killed. His wife Beruriah told him: “Do not prayer for the death of sinners, but rather for the death of sin. Then, sin having ceased, there will be no more sinners.” (Talmud, Berakhot 10a)

Yes, bin Laden is dead. But as many have noted, al Qaeda still poses a threat. There is still the possibility of retaliation. And that simple fact reminds us that our world is still far from whole. And so may we have the strength and wisdom to rid the world of wrongdoing and evil — not by focusing on the death of those who propagate it, but instead, through our ability to restore a sense of justice and peace to the world.

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The Opportunity of Multiple (Aspects of Our) Personalities

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about our natural desire to want to “create” our identity. The idea is that we want to be the ones in control of how we see ourselves, and when we are denied that opportunity, we’re likely to push back.

In the last few days, there have been several new articles about how Americans don’t want to be boxed in when it comes to our sense of identity. Sunday’s New York Times had an article entitled “More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race,” and author Susan Saluny notes that

[m]any young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

But while it’s not a surprise that young Americans want to choose how they present themselves in different situations, what is surprising is that when people do have a chance to embrace multiple aspects of their identity, they end up being significantly more creative. Author Jonah Lehrer explains:

According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

In the first experiment, the researchers gathered together a large group of Asian Americans and asked them to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients. In the second study, they asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device. In both cases, subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who could only draw on one of their backgrounds. They designed tastier dishes and came up with much better communication devices.

Because their different social identities were associated with different problem-solving approaches, their minds remained more flexible, better able to experiment with multiple creative strategies.In contrast, Asian Americans who felt that they had to “turn off” their Asian background in an American setting – this is an example of “low identity integration” – or female engineers who believed that they had to be less feminine to be effective at work, had a harder time drawing on their wealth of background knowledge. (Jonah Lehrer’s “Frontal Cortex” blog — “The Advantage of Dual Identities”)

I think there’s a clear reason why people with multiple senses of identity were more creative — they had started by needing to create their selves. If we have to think about who we are — a most basic and fundamental question — in new and inventive ways, then we’ll be that much more likely to start thinking of programs, products, and situations in new and inventive ways, as well.

And that provides a great opportunity to the American Jewish community, which by definition, involves at least two aspects of our identity — “American” and “Jewish.” As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer notes in his book Empowered Judaism:

That Jews are increasingly unwilling to settle for a broad definition is a positive. Why? Because someone can no longer get away with telling you “I am Orthodox” (ed. note: or equivalently, “I am Reform”) and assume that you understand what kind of Jew she is. Instead, people are forced to explain why they practice in a particular way or what, specifically, they believe in. A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice in the world…It is a major step forward because it leads to a rich discussion about what being Jewish means in our richly textured, highly individualized, twenty-first-century lives. (Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 147-148)

Quite simply, creativity leads to ownership. Indeed, at a recent session to learn about community organizing (a process Temple Beth El is going through now), there was a line that stuck with me: “People are not transformed by what they receive. They are transformed by what they create.”

For better or for worse in our society, we get to create our identity. So the question is whether or not that’s the end of the discussion. Do we simply say, “This is who I am,” or do we go further and say instead, “This is who I am…and this is what I want to create with it.”


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Why We Should be More Like Robin Hood

In an interview in 2010, Oscar winner Russell Crowe explained why he took on the role of Robin Hood in the movie of the same name. He felt like “there [wa]s something wonderful about a story that has lasted for so long. Its core thing, the thing that attract[ed] me, and has attracted me since I was a five-year-old kid…is that there is some guy out there who will go out and work on behalf of the people who can’t do something for themselves.”

So what is about the Robin Hood story that makes it so enduring?

Perhaps the Robin Hood still resonates for us because we have a natural aversion to too much income inequality. A recent study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely found that

[w]hile liberals and the poor favored slightly more equal distributions than conservatives and the wealthy, a large majority of every group we surveyed – from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal – agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Certainly, if we are lucky enough to be comfortable, we probably feel like we have earned our success (and hopefully, we actually did earn it!). But many of us have also faced difficult and challenging times. If we live long enough, we begin to recognize that luck often plays a large part in how wealthy we are at any given moment. And when we become aware of the hand of fortune in the monetary realm, we also start to realize that there may be value in helping lessen the gap between “rich” and “poor.”

The Relationship Between Rich and Poor

The Rabbis believed that if we do happen to live comfortably, that’s wonderful – but it also entails certain responsibilities:

“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him…But why does God create both poor people and rich people? In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other’ (Ecclesiastes 7:14).” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, 28 in Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy, 55)

If we are prosperous, we are certainly allowed to enjoy it. But we also know that prosperity can become adversity all too easily. And if that is the case, then we can see that helping others is clearly a responsibility we have.

But what is truly fascinating is that giving money to help others actually makes us feel better than simply having money. Author Jonah Lehrer describes a Caltech study where people were randomly selected to be “rich” or “poor” and the “rich” people were immediately given $50. They were then placed in a brain scanner and given an opportunity to give some of that money to a stranger. Amazingly, the reward center in their brains lit up when the “rich” people were giving money to a “poor” stranger! As he notes:

The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good – it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Perhaps the Robin Hood story endures even up to today because thinking about “giving to the poor” simply makes us feel good (although certainly just “taking from the rich” is not what we should do!). So maybe we should strive to become a bit more like Robin Hood on the “giving” part of that equation — not only would it make the world more fair, it would make us feel better, as well.

As we give to others, we can find simchat mitzvah, the joy in fulfilling a mitzvah, which not only makes our world a little more whole, it elevates our souls a little more, as well.

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