Nowadays, there is my news and your news, your truth and my truth, and consensus about facts is increasingly elusive. Even the university, once the place where young minds pursued “veritas,” is more likely today to teach its students the postmodern prioritization of subjectivity over objectivity, discourse over reality, perspective over universal truth. Against this backdrop, HUC-JIR Symposium 2 explored the various ways in which contemporary Jews–especially liberal Jews–grapple with the concept of the truth.
This conversation with Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, recorded at the Symposium, was published on the HUC-JIR College Commons podcast as “Truths, Untruths and the Problem of Perspective.”View Transcript
Joshua Holo: Welcome to the College Commons podcast, passionate perspectives from Judaism’s leading thinkers. Brought to you by the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, America’s first Jewish institution of higher learning. My name is Joshua Holo, Dean of HUC’s Jack Skirball campus in Los Angeles, and your host. You’re listening to a special episode recorded at Symposium 2, a conference held in Los Angeles at Stephen Wise temple in November 2018.
Welcome to this episode of the College Commons podcast, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you back for a first follow-up interview Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman. Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman is the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds. You can find our previous conversation on the College Commons website. Geoff, thanks so much for joining us, it’s a pleasure to see you again. We’re here at Symposium 2, and we’re talking about truth, understanding that truth sometimes feels like it’s under assault – this is the theme of our conference. What’s on your mind perspective with respect to truth and our conference?
Geoff Mitelman: So one thing that I’m going to be talking about a little bit is that our brains are not scientists, they’re lawyers. When we think about evidence, we tend not to be able to look at evidence in a dispassionate way, to be able to say “OK, is my hypothesis true or not?”. I was on a jury a few months ago, and the conversation about evidence was very different in the legal perspective than from the scientific perspective, because the lawyers in this jury trial, they were presenting evidence to convince us of a particular perspective there. So the word “evidence” can mean a couple of different things.
And the world that we’re living in now, it’s becoming more and more that evidence is used in a sense of making arguments and convincing people, rather than trying to find a larger sense of truth. You can find evidence to find a variety of different pieces. And they’re not necessarily incorrect, but they may be incomplete, and they may be partial, and they also are designed to be able to convince particular people. And you know, in this ultra-polarized world that we’re living in, the people that we’re talking to – the evidence convinces the people who it already convinces. Actually, there’s a lot of research that says that if you already believe something, a contradictory piece of evidence will actually strengthen what somebody’s preexisting perspective is, rather than trying to to rethink where they are.
Joshua Holo: Thanks to the net, we have at our fingertips more or less an infinite range of evidence, which could be divided roughly 50/50 in any question to be, you know, “the devil can quote Scripture” type thing. So you can see why someone wouldn’t be moved at all by an article of evidence when they have six other things in their pocket.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, and there are a lot of factors, and that’s a big part of it: one is that there is more and more information out there in the world, but a lot less wisdom. And so being able to find information, people can actually cherry-pick the information that they want, or they’ll see something shared – I mean I see this all the time on Facebook, of people sharing an article, but not necessarily finding what the sources are. And one thing that often happens – and I’m guilty of this as well – where I’ll see something that one of my friends shared on Facebook, and I’ll read sort of the headline, and then I’ll talk a friends and say “I saw something on Facebook that was an interesting piece but I can’t remember who said it, I don’t know what the source is.” And then it becomes my truth.
And so being able to untangle all of this, of the speed of the information spreads out into this world, and the time it takes to be able to parse it and figure out what’s accurate, what’s not accurate, what’s my source, who’s saying it, why – that becomes much harder right now.
Joshua Holo: And thus far you’ve been talking about the nature of evidence. But since you establish the comparison with science, let’s go back a step prior to the evidence and ask a question about the question. Because it seems to me that science prides itself on asking very, very narrow questions, and giving a specific hypothesis to test –
Geoff Mitelman: Right.
Joshua Holo: – whereas these social questions often get very broad very fast, which promotes the kind of wild-west quality of evidence, because the question itself can really be tackled from so many different angles that it’s hard to even agree on what we would call an evidentiary standard.
Geoff Mitelman: And what’s also complicated is communicating science, from that very narrow specific element to the way it’s communicated to the public. So in a scientific journal, they will say “here’s what our methodology is, here’s what our hypothesis is, here’s the audience, here’s what we did.” So then people can then later say “I see the mistakes in your in your research.” Now, that doesn’t mean that it always happens, there’s what’s called the replication crisis that’s happened a little bit, but in many ways that’s actually science’s strength, to be able to say, “OK, we know, actually, how we can retract this.”
So they may ask a very specific, narrow question with all the details and what’s the – p-hacking, what’s the range of error, and how many people, and all these different pieces. And then it gets communicated to to the media as “chocolate says it helps your health” and that becomes the truth, when in fact it’s so much more complicated than that.
Joshua Holo: I will say this as a non-scientist: it appears to me that the culture of science is suffering a crisis whereby it feels obligated to justify its relevance. And so it promotes itself in popular outlets that absolutely expand the implications, or claim to expand the implications. That does seem to me to be a scientific crisis.
Geoff Mitelman: So I think that the problem is not as much the science, but the way it’s communicated. Because one thing that we know sometimes say with Sinai and Synapses is that in the world that we’re living in, there’s this perception that on one side is “scientific, educated and liberal” and the other side is “religious, uneducated, conservative.” And if you pick anything from either column, you’ve got to pick everything, and you’ve got to demonize the other side. So that means that science is perceived as “those elites, the liberals, they have an agenda.” Now, that may or may not be accurate, that’s a whole other conversation, but it can come off very condescending in a lot of ways. And so it’s not just “what’s the information, well it’s the facts, it’s the truth”, well, yes, but it’s going to impact real people’s lives. You’ve got to be able to know how to communicate that so that it can be internalized.
Joshua Holo: I agree that there has to be artful, skillful expert and faithful communication. I’m actually challenging the scientific establishment – if it were true to itself, it would communicate the full narrowness of its conclusions at every opportunity. But in fact, even before we get to the media, let’s just talk about grant-making. Scientists have a powerful incentive to be able to articulate broad impact for very, very narrow questions. That promotes distorted communication, I think.
Geoff Mitelman: Mhm. I think that’s true. There’s a wonderful TV show called Adam Ruins Everything, where a comedian named Adam Conover talks about all the problems, and all sorts of different pieces. And what he does is “Adam Ruins Science,” and he talks about this, that it’s misaligned incentives. Most scientists are not, you know, buying multi-million dollar mansions, but they do need to be able to support their family in some way.
Joshua Holo: I want to ask you to cite, perhaps the example that’s foremost in your mind, about a broken step of scientific analysis and communication, an attempted benefit for society, but that’s going awry, or has recently gone awry.
Geoff Mitelman: So I think a lot of a big, big challenge, and it’s not just in the scientific world, I think it’s in the wider academic world, is a level of siloing, and between the scientific communities and the humanities also. And so you brought up a really important point, which is there’s often a very narrow perspective. And not only – forget about scientists talking with religious people, it’s very rare for a scientist to be able to talk with a literature professor, let alone for a scientist, for a biologist, to be able to talk with a chemist. There’s not a good – there are not strong incentives to be able to do cross pollination and conversations here, of if you’re in the scientific community, very generally, you’re focused on your experiment, because that’s what your job is, and that you’ve got to teach and you’ve got to do this particular piece. But being able to connect it to other elements is really is really challenging and really problematic, because we’re seeing so much fragmentation of what does truth look like, who am I talking to, what are my sources of inspiration – and not just sources of inspiration, but sources of knowledge. There’s – where we see this is we do a lot of of interfaith work, we have an interview fellowship. We have these doctoral students who come, and they’re doctoral students in astronomy, in psychology, and they’re in conversation with pastors. And the doctoral students – we’ve got a couple who’ve actually sort of changed their doctoral work out of the Fellowship work that we’re doing because it’s broadened what their perspective is.
Joshua Holo: Moving to the political sphere as a reflection of science, with respect to global climate change, which is one of the – it’s a broad posture, global climate change, and it’s suffering, as we all know, all kinds of attacks and challenges. Let’s just for the moment accept the somewhat stereotyped uneducated/conservative/religious vs. educated/secular/liberal and science. Let’s for a moment accept that, even if it’s oversimplified. I have heard the rhetoric of the conservative religious stipulate that global climate change is happening, but then to question its source. That, to me, is movement, because not so long ago, they were questioning the fact of the phenomenon itself. Is that movement, or is that just political jockeying?
Geoff Mitelman: That’s a good question. My hope is that there’s movement. And I think that, again, it’s who do you communicate with. So there’s one person whom I tremendously respect, her her name is Katherine Hayhoe, who is an Evangelical Christian. And she talks to predominantly right wing and evangelical Christian communities in the language of religious perspective, to be able to talk about climate change. And that’s something that’s an incredibly powerful piece, because if you notice that, you know, from a scientific perspective, there’s nobody who’s fighting against Newton’s laws of motion, right, nobody is saying “that’s not real.” There’s an economic, political of climate change, and so being able to talk about it in a religious perspective, in a moral perspective, that, I think is a tremendous step forward. But I’m also seeing that from a larger political perspective and seeing, you know, President Trump withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, that there’s a strong chance of Republicans and conservatives pulling away from that need. So there may be a little bit of a decoupling happening.
Joshua Holo: And we might lose some ground because of it.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah.
Joshua Holo: when you talk to a person on the right side of our stereotyped categories, they will –and you say “but you’re being ideological”, they will look you in the eye and they will say “yes, of course I’m being ideological, that’s what I am and that’s what I’m doing, I’m happy about that, I’m not hiding that.” However, if you speak to it a committed, Enlightenment-styled science person or scientist, they’re more prone to saying “I’m not being ideological, I’m being factual.” And it seems to me that there is a serious blindspot about the ideology of science, the ideology of the Enlightenment. And that we need to come to terms with that, if nothing else, to be interlocutors of good faith. Do you agree with me?
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. I think one difference is that is that science, at its best, is a Platonic ideal, is designed to not be ideological. But it is an article of faith, that, you know, that we can understand the universe. But one thing that the people are starting to talk about now is between science and scientism.
Joshua Holo: Interesting, right, because well, I’m a scientist, I’m a scientism-ist, I’m not a scientist, but I’m into scientism, I buy it, yeah, I buy its ideology.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, scientism is actually the idea that science can and should explain absolutely everything including religion, God, and that’s –
Joshua Holo: Well, many religious people can hold that and still be religious.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, well I think I think religious people can hold science. I think a level of scientism is… science has its own rules that it abides by. And that’s an article of faith in a lot of ways. That’s –
Joshua Holo: A governing principle.
Geoff Mitelman: Right. This is – here’s what we’re going to do, and these are the rules,and by the way if it’s outside of these rules, we’re not going to talk about it. Which is why in many ways I don’t really care what Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking have to say about God, because they’re not theologians, in the same way that I’m not going to look towards a religious person to explain the origins of the universe.
Joshua Holo: Right. So scientism owns up a bit to its ideological commitments, which I see. But even science – I want to push back in the Platonic sense, is even radical, pure platonic science still evinces ideology in the questions it chooses to ask? And so maybe it asks them and then proceeds reasonably, fairly, within the rules, to answer them. But the scope of the questions, the questions themselves, the components of the universe that it chooses to investigate, surely are loaded.
Geoff Mitelman: they are, I think but again in an ideal sense, any question should be up for debate scientifically. Now are there constraints? Of course. And scientists are humans. And so, you know there are going to be some – and there are religious scientists who are investigating something that’s inspired by their faith, inspired by their tradition. And the idea that there are some things that should not be studied – now, that could become politically loaded. Do we need to look at questions of gender from a scientific perspective? Do we look at questions of race? Do we look at questions of gun control?
Joshua Holo: Gay rights was completely subject to this. And abortion rights, of course. They’re explicitly right invoked.
Geoff Mitelman: right and there’s and one thing, that’s the thing that can be challenging, is what happens if there’s research that doesn’t necessarily confirm what our ideology would say. And that can be very uncomfortable.
Joshua Holo: right, but again the ideology comes into play. Because why would a scientist bother to ask the question about when life begins in the first place? I mean, they have protozoa to work with, they don’t necessarily have to work with fetuses or whatever, so it strikes me as as loaded, and I think that the Left needs to own how loaded it is, and maybe that can bridge a little bit.
Geoff Mitelman: Right and I think because there’s on both sides, for example, if you talk about abortion, both sides will bring forth scientific arguments, but not necessarily in the scientific perspective but in the lawyer perspective, right. “I’m going to use this to convince you as to why my perspective is accurate.” But it’s not just Democrats/Republicans, it’s also Israeli/Palestinian, it’s – theres hits you a same kind of question of epistemology and humility and relationship building, and that needs to happen across any kind of divide where it’s polarized.
Joshua Holo: And maybe Judaism, by virtue of having developed as a minority culture in diaspora, can bring some of that humility, because we have traditionally entered into religious conversations with the understanding that we are – we’re the dissenters. And that’s a powerful place to come from. Well, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman – now I can call you my friend, we’ve met a number of times – it’s such a pleasure to spend time with you. I want to thank you for your insights and the pleasure of your company and a wonderful conversation.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you Josh, wonderful to be with you again.