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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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The Beauty in Science and the Beauty in Judaism

Think about the most inspiring piece of art you have ever looked at. Or the most powerful book you have ever read. Or the most moving play or movie you’ve seen.

Now — why did you find it so beautiful?

There were probably any number of reasons — it may have changed the way you thought about things. It might have emotionally affected you. It almost certainly stuck with you afterwards.

But despite the fact that whatever you chose was personal and subjective, there seem to be certain facets of beauty that cut across all genres, times and places. Educator Howard Gardner argues in his book Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed that there are three main elements of beauty: we find something beautiful if it is interesting, if it is memorable, and if it is has a “pull” to it, leading us to continually come back to it.

In fact, it’s that third factor, what he calls the “invitation to revisit,” that is the sine qua non of beauty. The most beautiful objects are ones we can’t seem to leave alone — there always seems to be more to them than meets the eye on first glance, and the more we experience them, the more we appreciate them. And Gardner explains that this “invitation to revisit” could arise from several possible factors: “one likes the experience, one has curiosity to learn or to understand better, or one has a feeling of awe…” (53)

But what’s fascinating is that two of those elements — curiosity and awe — are two of the driving forces behind both science and Judaism. They are what lead us to see their inherent beauty.

The beauty of science was eloquently described by Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who talked about what he saw when looked at a flower:

As he says, while he could appreciate the surface beauty of a flower as well as anyone else, knowing about the science broadened and deepened his experience: “I see much more about the flower… I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty…It adds…[a]ll kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.” So a fuller understanding of science gave him a richer sense of beauty. And notice what specifically what enriched it: curiosity and awe.

So how do these two elements give us a sense of beauty both in science and in Judaism?

Curiosity

As Feynman tells us, the more questions we can ask about something, and the more ways we can look it, the deeper our appreciation of it will be. Indeed, curiosity in science almost demands an “invitation to revisit,” asking how we can look at the same set of facts in a new way, and looking to see how an answer to one question leads to a whole host of new ones.

But that same process also guides the study of Jewish texts.

Study in Judaism begins with the Torah. But when we study Torah, we are not supposed to stop at the p’shat, the simple, literal level of the text. Instead, we are primarily seeking to create drashot, inerpretations of the text. We are asking, “What are the unspoken assumptions here? What other questions do we need to ask? What are the different ideas that this text is trying to teach, and how many different ways can we read it?”

We do this because while the text is static, we are dynamic. While we read the same words each day, each week, and each year in our prayerbook and in our Torah, what we take away from them changes. We revisit the same texts because when we repeatedly come back to the same words, we find new meaning in them and new ways to discover values that guide our actions. The text is the always the same — but we are not.

And so curiosity, asking new questions, always wondering “What else could this mean?”, leads us to revisit both scientific data and Jewish texts, and elevates our sense of beauty in both realms.

Awe

Science easily gives us a deep sense of wonder, whether we are looking out onto the vast reaches of space, or are examining how our mind works, or are wondering how the variegated species on this earth arose. But even as we intellectually explore those ideas, there will always be an emotional aspect to that experience that we cannot describe in words.

After all, when we feel a moment of awe, we are not seeking to analyze or describe it. Our most powerful experiences, our most wondrous moments, our most significant encounters simply cannot be put into words, let alone dissected and scrutinized. Indeed, it is that very inability to describe those experiences that makes them so beautiful.

And as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains in his landmark book God in Search of Man, that sense of ineffability is the root of religion, as well:

[I]n religious and artistic thinking, the disparity between that which we encounter and that which is expressed in words and symbols, no words and symbols can adequately convey. In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement. We have an awareness that is deeper than our concepts; we possess insights that are not accessible to the power of expression…

The roots of ultimate insights are found…not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable. It is the level on which the great things happen to the soul, where the unique insights of art, religion and philosophy come into being.

[Our experience of God] is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can forever ignore. (116-117)

So no matter how often we look at a sunset, we will never cease to be amazed by it. No matter how accurately we understand the way babies develop in the womb, when we hold our child for the first time, we will never stop calling it “the miracle of birth.” We are simply overwhelmed by those experiences.

And so religion, as Heschel argues, is how we respond to that sense of awe. Religion doesn’t begin with trying to prove the existence of God. It doesn’t even begin with asking whether we “believe in God” or not. It begins with a moment of mystery. And even if we can scientifically explain that mystery, it will never lose its emotional impact.

Indeed, while curiosity broadens our minds, awe deepens our souls.

Turn it and turn it

Ultimately, it’s that combination of curiosity and awe, that mixture of breadth and depth, that joining of head and heart that allows us to see the beauty not only in science, but in Judaism, as well.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag taught that there is always more to Torah than meets the eye. And so we are to “turn it and turn it, because everything is in it.” (Avot 5:21) But it’s not that the Torah has all the answers — it’s that the more we turn it and turn it, the more we learn about ourselves and our place in the world.

Because there is beauty when we see connections that we had not made before. There is beauty when we discover things we never knew. And there is beauty when we realize just how much we don’t know.

After all, the most beautiful things are ones we keep coming back to — not because the objects themselves have changed, but because we ourselves are constantly discovering new levels of meaning within them.

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Why Can Judaism Embrace Science So Easily?

I recently had a conversation with a neuroscientist, who also happened to be a self-described atheist. He knew I was a rabbi and so in the middle of the conversation, he very tentatively asked me. “So…do you believe in evolution?” I think what he was really asking was, “Can you be a religious person who believes in science?” And my answer to that question is, “Of course.”

While some people think of science and religion as being inherently in conflict, I think it’s because they tend to define “religion” as “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” Quite honestly, if that’s what religion really was, I wouldn’t be religious!

In fact, it’s not “religion” in general, but that particular definition of religion that is so often in conflict with science. Instead, my experience with Judaism has been that it embraces science quite easily. So why is that?

While there may be many reasons, there are three in particular that I have found to be especially significant:

1. The Bible is almost never read simply literally

Yes, the Bible is the basis of Judaism. But Judaism as it is practiced today is not biblical, it’s rabbinic, which means that it’s about studying and engaging with the text, but not stopping at face value. I’ve met people who haven’t understood that distinction — when I had a student pulpit in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, a group came to the synagogue asking “where we offered up our sacrifices,” because they believed that Jews still followed the literal laws of Leviticus.

Instead, when Jews read the Bible today through a rabbinic worldview, we are trying to answer two separate questions — first, what did the text mean in its time, and second, how can we create interpretations that will give us lessons for our time?

Indeed, the Bible shouldn’t be taken simply literally today, because circumstances, societies, norms and knowledge have all changed.

A great example of that comes from how the Rabbis interpret the verse “an eye for an eye.” While that is what the Bible says, to the Rabbis, that’s not what the verse means. Instead, the Rabbis argue, “an eye for an eye” actually means financial compensation, and they go on for multiple pages in the Talmud trying to explain their reasoning. They don’t read that verse on its simple, literal level, but through the lenses of fairness, of common sense, of other verses in the Torah, and of the best legal knowledge they had at that time.

So now we can also see why in Judaism, the beginning of Genesis is not in conflict with the big bang theory or natural selection. On the one hand, for its time, the Bible provided an origin story that was a story that worked then, but now, science provides a much better explanation for how we got here.

But the Bible isn’t meant to be taken only literally — it’s designed to be a source of study and exploration for the questions of our time. The point of the Creation story is really to challenge us with questions like, “How should we treat people if everyone is created in the image of God? What are our responsibilities to this world if it God has called it ‘good’?”

In Judaism, there’s no concept of “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Instead, Judaism pushes us to embrace the text for what it was back then, and to create new ways of reading the text for what it can be now.

2. Questioning is not only acceptable — it’s encouraged

There’s a phrase that recurs all the time in rabbinic literature — “How do we know this?” The Rabbis always had to explain their reasoning. And if there was a choice between believing something because of a Divine miracle or believing something because of thoughtful and reasoned arguments, there was no question which one the Rabbis would accept — reason and logic would always win.

The classic story about this comes from the Talmud, where a Rabbi named Eliezer was arguing with all the other Rabbis about a minute detail of Jewish law, and trying to convince them all that he was right. As the story goes,

…Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Rabbis did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If I am right, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough, the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the Rabbis retorted.

And again he said to them “If I am right, let this river prove it!” Sure enough, the river of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a river,” they rejoined…

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer then said, “If I am right, let God Himself prove it!” Sure enough, a Divine voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!” Rabbi Joshua then stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven! We pay no attention to a Divine voice, [because now that the Torah has been given to humanity, people are the ones who are to interpret it.]” (Baba Metzia 59b)

So even though the Torah was seen to be a gift from God and was sacred scripture, as soon as the Torah had been given to humans, any arguments would have to be settled by logic and reason — and would trump even a voice from God.

Similarly, science is never to take anything on faith. Science is about continually questioning assumptions, revising theories, and integrating new data. So critical thinking — an essential aspect of science — is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

3. There is no fixed, systematic theology

There’s a great Yiddish expression that says, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” In fact, I think that claiming that you “know God’s will” is an act of incredible hubris. Instead, what we say about God has much more to say about us than about it says about God. There are, in fact, a whole range of different theologies within Judaism (you can find some of them in the terrific books Finding God and The God Upgrade, both of which describe a whole range of differing — and sometimes even conflicting — theologies.)

And while I can only speak personally here, to me, “God” isn’t really a noun at all — it’s a verb.

Here’s why. The most common name that God gives Godself in the Torah is “YHVH,” a name that is sometimes thought to be so holy that no one was allowed to pronounce it. But that’s not exactly right — it’s not that “YHVH” was not allowed to be pronounced, it’s that it is possible that it is literally unpronounceable. Hebrew is written with only consonants, but the four letters that make up the word “YHVH” (yod, hay, vav and hay) at times also acted as vowels. And as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said), if you tried to pronounce a name that was all vowels, you’d risk serious respiratory injury.

But perhaps even more importantly, the name YHVH is actually a conflation of all the tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” God’s name could be seen as “was-is-will be,” so God isn’t something you can capture or name — God is only something you can experience.

And indeed, when Moses is at the burning bush, having just been told by God that he will be leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he says, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God responds that God’s name is “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which is often translated as “I am what I am.” But it could also be translated as, “I am what I will be.” So God is whatever God will be — we simply have no idea. Indeed, for my own theology, I believe that God is found in the “becoming,” transforming “what will be” into “what is.”

Science, too, is very much about process. Science at its best is about testing hypotheses, setting up experiments, and exploring ideas. And if new data or new evidence arises, scientific knowledge changes. Science can’t be tied down to old theories — it is dynamic and ever-changing.

Just like our experience of God.

And perhaps that’s how science and religion can be reconciled — not as two realms that are in conflict or as “non-overlapping magesteria” (as Stephen Jay Gould once described them), but as things you do.

Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.

So yes, if science and religion are seen to be competing sources of truth and authority, they will always be in conflict — especially if religion is “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” But if instead, religion is about helping people create a deeper sense of meaning and a stronger sense of their values, then I truly believe that science and religion can be brought together to improve ourselves, our society and our world.

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