When Facts Lead to Uncomfortable Truths

When Facts Lead to Uncomfortable Truths

Judaism has always celebrated the dynamic tension between the p’shat and the drash — the building blocks of our texts and how they are interpreted. Today, we see this dynamic play out in political perspectives, life experiences, and even sources of truth and information. Data doesn’t simply “speak for itself,” but rather gets filtered, changed, misinterpreted or even weaponized based on who’s hearing it, who’s sharing it, and who’s using it.

Professors Brian Nosek and Cailin O’Connor tackled these issues as part of our series “Learning from Scientific Experts for the Yamim Nora’im.” We want our policies, recommendations, sermons and teachings to be based on accurate data that will make a real positive impact on others, especially right now surrounding COVID-19 and racial justice. But we are the ones who interpret it. So how can we better integrate new and changing facts, as well as differing and challenging perspectives, as we teach, preach and connect with others — both on our sacred texts and the events of our own lives?

This webinar is presented by Sinai and Synapses, in consultation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. It is run in partnership with Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.


Professor Brian Nosek: Decisions Through Incidental Factors

These are two images taken on the same day in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, before the rescue operation really got underway. You might recall how that was delayed and caused a lot of struggle and death. I point out these two in order to identify the corresponding captions associated with each of them.

So for the one on the top, “A young man walks through chest-deep floodwater after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday.” The one on the bottom, “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina.”

Now this is an anecdote for a more broad investigation of how it is the perceptions of individuals may be different based on what are, presumably, incidental factors. So what the person is doing, even though ostensibly they’re doing the same thing, might be interpreted differently, based, for example, on the race of the person being perceived. So even though it’s an identical behavior, we may judge an African-American doing the behavior as doing something criminal, while whites doing the same thing as doing something that is survival-oriented. It’s also interesting to note that these captions, likewise, refer to the person at the top as a “young man”, and the person on the bottom as belonging – they’re “residents,” not criminals.

So if we ask the caption writers, “Did you use race to make the decision how to write your caption?” They would likely, and probably genuinely, say, “No, that’s not my job, my job is not to provide an assessment of people by race, my job is just to simply describe what it is you can see.” And they can genuinely and honestly say that while simultaneously being influenced by some of these assumptions, interpretive mechanisms, that they may not even recognize are influencing their judgment.

And we have these same sorts of mechanisms, not just for social perception based on gender, race or age, but how we consume information in general. So we and many others have done research about how our social judgment, our decision-making, is influenced by ostensibly irrelevant features.


Professor Cailin O’Connor: How Did Hydroxychloroquine Become Politicized?

So we’ll discuss a process by which people can become misinformed, even in the absence of what we might think of as traditional misinformation and disinformation. This is a process driven by these dynamics of trust and mistrust related to some of the things Brian was talking about. All right, so I want to give a little example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, and then sort of give you a hint of what our network modeling of this kind of example looks like.

So in February, this article was published by a Chinese research team looking at different treatments for COVID, and in particular looking at how antivirals would possibly inhibit the success of the virus in-vitro, so in the lab. And they found that, among other things, remdesivir and chloroquine did sort of inhibit the coronavirus. Now, on the basis of this finding and also general knowledge of antivirals, many doctors across the world, as the pandemic heated up, started prescribing hydroxychloroquine – a newer, kind of   safer version of chloroquine.

Now, at the same time, something sort of stranger started happening on social media, and especially Twitter. So on March 11, a Twitter user in California, or sorry, living in China posted this tweet “Chloroquine will keep most people out of hospital. The US hasn’t learned about that yet.” He tweeted at a blockchain investor James Todaro. On March 13 Todaro hosted their slowing growing evidence that chloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID, and also links this Google doc this year and another person who’s a lawyer and then a random person – none of them are doctors – made arguing that chloroquine is a good treatment for COVID. Then Elon Musk, a few days later – this is the billionaire investor – tweets about this document and then follows up with a tweet saying “Well, maybe hydroxychloroquine, a sort of newer version of chloroquine, would be even better.” A few days after that, Fox News has Greg Rigano, this lawyer, one of the document’s authors on to talk about hydroxychloroquine. And then shortly after that, Donald Trump, the president of the US, starts endorsing hydroxychloroquine as, basically, a miracle drug. And then from there, what happened was that hydroxychloroquine, and its efficacy became this locus of disagreement, argumentation, anger and polarization in the US.

By polarization what I’m referring to are situations where you have some groups in a society that are holding stable, mutually exclusive beliefs, often even in the face of debate and discussion. So here we have liberals becoming very skeptical of hydroxychloroquine even though at that point it was actually a perfectly promising drug treatments for COVID, conservatives becoming big boosters of hydroxychloroquine, even though it was not yet fully tested and that it. And notice that this polarization about this kind of new emerging belief, it didn’t just happen at out of nowhere. It happened along these existing party lines. And so it became part of what we might call “belief factions,” groups in which those involved hold multiple, shared, polarized beliefs.

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