Saturday, November 1, 2014

Bias Is a Two-Way Street

A post of mine was recently critiqued as essentially an exercise in wishful thinking.  I had been bothered by the seeming disappearance (or even lack of existence) of the "Paleo-Hebrew" script that we are now all familiar with in the course of Jewish history.  Given that much of Kabbalistic thought is built off of those letters, the idea that they were introduced in the time of Ezra (many centuries later than the Jewish tradition suggests) is potentially troubling to a theist like myself.  After doing some research, I came up with an answer that satisfied me and found a similar approach discussed on a blog called Aish Das.

The blogger known as the "Atheodox Jew" begs to differ.  His contention is that in the same way that hokey alternative medicine practices such as the "dowsing rod" (which he believes the practitioner subconsciously moves in accord with his wishes) are merely the result of below the surface bias - so too is the belief that there was an original Hebrew alphabet that was carefully preserved over time and only introduced to the masses later in Jewish history.

Fine.  This contention can be argued and approached from a variety of historical, archaeological and philosophical perspectives.  What I find irksome about the contention is the (all too common) self-congratulatory style with which many "free-thinkers" conduct their thought.  While leveling the charge of hopeless and wanton bias at the believer, the skeptic often seems wholly unaware of the bias and unsubstantiated assumptions with which he draws his conclusions.

For instance, Atheodox Jew writes that "Billions of years of evolution have imbued us with a formidable intuitive capacity, i.e. the ability to make spot assessments of circumstances, to sense things about ourselves and our environment, in order to take the kinds of actions that will help us survive."  As popular as this belief may be, it is simply an assumption.  There is no formal proof that this is the case, there is no model by which to test it and furthermore, it oftentimes seems that human beings are actually quite deficient in this capacity to begin with.

Though they don't like to explore it much, the history of science and "free-thinking" is littered with egregious examples of gross bias and group-think.  Yoram Bogacz offers a stunning example of this phenomenon in his book Genesis and Genes whereby the entire scientific community concluded that the age of the Earth was 100 million years - largely due to the great influence of Lord Kelvin.  Here were the results:

By the end of the 19th century, there was an entrenched, virtually  indisputable scientific consensus that the Earth and the Sun (and thus the universe)  were at most 100 million years old...the paradigm was pervasive and considered unassailable [much like today's views of evolution].  It was the consequence of fifty years of determined scientific effort, involving dozens of researchers  in multiple disciplines.  This result was repeated in countless books, monographs, journals, symposia, lectures and articles in popular magazines and newspapers.  Virtually all scientists and educated members of the public were convinced of the veracity of the paradigm.  It was almost inconceivable that results from such apparently-independent methodologies, drawn from such a wide array of disciplines and produced by the application of the most advanced tools of science could converge to such a narrow limit coincidentally.

Today it has been totally discarded.  

Despite this obvious truth about people - all people - Atheodox Jew goes on to make various assumptions that he finds meaningful  - about cosmology, and about linguistics.  On the latter, he cites a paper by UCLA professor William Schniedewind on the apparent evolution of the Hebrew letters in question.  In response I'd like to share a salient quote from Professor Schniedewind himself where he correctly affirms that "the assessment of the evidence here - and in other cases - depends quite a bit on the assumptions that we bring to the linguistic data."  (How the Bible Became a Book, P.179)  Indeed.

I once had the pleasure of meeting with psychoanalyst and physicist Dr. Jeffrey Satinover.  Over coffee I asked him how I (as a layman) could make sense of the fact that there are credible paleontologists who draw completely opposing conclusions regarding the fossil record - some seeing it as proof positive of the Darwinian theory and others as a refutation of it!  He made a fascinating assertion to me - that the position of the scientists were not scientific but rather emotional.  Each side viewed the data through the lens of his bias and drew the conclusion he most wanted - same data, opposite conclusion.

Everyone is convinced the he or she is a "free-thinker" and that their beliefs are solely the product of rigorous logic and rationality but we would probably all benefit from a frank admission that we are all blinded by one bias or another.


  1. Rabbi Jacobs,

    I can't help but notice that you didn't address the specific arguments I cited re: the Ktav Ivri/Ashuri debate, except to say that Prof. Schniedewind mentions "assumptions" that he brings to the linguistic data. Which sounds like you're using this as license to then ignore/invalidate anything he - or academic scholarship - says on the issue. So I'd like to press you a bit on this point.

    1) What is the exact context of his quote? (I don't have the book.)

    2) Do you think Prof. Schniedewind would agree with what you're saying, that it's his "bias" which leads him to make the conclusions he does, that there's no real evidence here, or that it's just a question of "interpretation," and really there's just as much chance that Ktav Ashuri is the "original" writing? If not, it's not exactly fair to quote him in the sense that you're implying.

    3) What do you do in this case with evidence (e.g. that Ktav Ashuri looks to have evolved, that Ktav Ivri was considered for a time to be "holier," etc.) that seems to go against your thesis? Does it impact your thinking at all?

    And maybe most importantly...

    4) What evidence would you have to be shown to change your mind on this issue?

    I am 100% ready and willing to change my mind if you would present evidence that was equally compelling, or at the very least something apart from pure conjecture. Personally, I'm fine either way - I don't need Ktav Ashuri to "be" or "not be" the original script. Though, truth be told, I'd prefer if it was the original script. Yes - I fully admit I'd like that. If anything, my bias is *toward* the tradition, not against it. But I'm not so committed that the tradition has to be "right" that I'm willing to ignore, bury, or otherwise "explain away" evidence that clearly points in another direction.

    And I think that's the difference between us. I get the very distinct impression that for you, the tradition HAS to be right, by hook or by crook, in ALL cases - otherwise the whole enterprise of Torah is somehow worthless, invalid. For me, "lav davka." Where it's right - give it that credit. But to give it credit when it's NOT right only serves to cheapen the tradition - as well as the idea of truth.

    (FYI, I plan to copy my comment to my blog as well.)

    Take care,

    1. 1) The context was concerning the difficulty in dating Biblical books (due to lack of clarity and consensus regarding the linguistic issues).

      2) No clue, but he seems pretty honest about the limitations of the exploration he's doing. Here's a quote from the article you sent me: "I also need to acknowledge the limitations of our evidence. To begin with, we are working with very limited data." He often qualifies his findings in this way. The whole enterprise is built on shaky ground IMHO.

      3) It doesn't much look to me that it evolved. I looked at Joseph Naveh's book on the origins of alphabets and could not see that it grew out of what was around at the time.

      4) A well-known and credible Jewish source that admitted that there was no ancient script that was preserved only for Holy purposes and that all of the interpretation of that script was invented out of whole cloth by the rabbis.

    2. Rabbi Jacobs,

      1) & 2) Prof. Schniedewind does acknowledge that he's working with limited data. Very true, and important to say. But that doesn't mean we then treat the data we DO have as if it's worthless, as if it doesn't exist (!). Couldn't you at least grant that the data is "suggestive," that you aren't sure how to account for it in your view, but that nonetheless you still maintain your belief? That would be an honest approach. But the fact that you don't seem to be willing give the data any weight whatsoever is, to me, "suggestive" in itself. (I'll explain what I mean ahead.)

      3) You're referring to the evolution of Ktav Ashuri out of a preexisting script (e.g. Phoenician). That's a separate issue. I'm speaking about the evolution *within* Ktav Ashuri. As Prof. Shniedewind points out, there is documented evidence that the forms of the Aramaic letters changed considerably, and in a graduated manner, between the 6th and 1st centuries BCE. It's the later forms which more closely resemble the letters we're familiar with in Jewish tradition. So even if we say, as you'd contend, that Ktav Ashuri was kept "hidden" for all those years (i.e. from the time of Moshe to the time of Ezra), is it really tenable to say that when it was finally "revealed" again, it began in a more primitive form, and then over hundreds of years evolved into its "true" form? That is what you'd have to argue here, and it's pretty far-fetched. But all this is irrelevant when we consider your criteria for a change of mind...

      4) "A well-known and credible Jewish source..." In other words, no amount of archaeological evidence, even if it came by the cartload, would convince you that Ktav Ivri was older, that Ktav Ashuri was adopted in exile, or that the letter forms of Ktav Ashuri evolved over time. This is perhaps the most significant thing you've said in any of our back-and-forth discussions. "Evidence" is not a part of how you formulate your beliefs. What you believe, insofar as anything related to Judaism, is informed solely and exclusively by what comes out of the tradition, from the mouths of the Sages.

      That is honest. I appreciate you saying that. Because now we have some clarity. There is really no point in discussing any issue, whether it relates to the Divine revelation of the Torah, or the nature/origin of the Hebrew alphabet, EXCEPT from the standpoint of the opinions of the Sages on these matters. When you cite insufficient evidence, what you're saying really is that ANY evidence is insufficient. Evidence, when it corroborates your beliefs, is something that you can use to strengthen your Emunah, but that's the extent of its utility.

      I am a fan of clarity - and that is VERY clear.

      I might conclude from this that it's pointless for me to ever bring evidence to these discussions. But I assume that many of your readers don't share your position. Many would change their mind based on evidence, even if a "credible Jewish source" didn't say it. So if we discuss this or other issues again, I'll continue to cite evidence, at least for their sake.

      I also want to add that I'm not mocking such a position. I appreciate the idea of staying true to one's faith, and I understand that people operate using different paradigms of knowledge acquisition. "Revealed" knowledge (the religious paradigm) is a different animal than "discovered" knowledge (the scientific paradigm). For me personally, the former is far too rigid, not how I prefer to relate to knowledge.

      My only criticism would be that if you ultimately don't accept evidence as your decisive criteria, better just to say that up front and not speak as if you are.

    3. AJ - maybe you could help me to understand what is so compelling in what Prof Schniedewind is offering. The paper you sent seems to outline my point - that there was a Hebrew script used for holy purposes that in his words "seem almost frozen in time" and another for secular purposes that underwent development over time. What is the great evidence I'm supposed to be so compelled by?

      Also, you asked me what I would find compelling in THIS case. I didn't intend for that to be applied across the board and although I admit my bias I'd like to think that I would also be open to convincing evidence - which I don't see here.

    4. RJ - I'm planning a post in reply. Coming soon...

  2. But scientific consensus can change if the model is confronted with evidence that refutes it. Until such occurs it is rational to go with the consensus. It is very unlikely evolution will be refuted because there is so much hard data from many disciplines supporting it. The age of the universe has always been based on weaker support.

  3. Well, here's a chemist who was recognized as one of the 50 most influential scientists in the world who seems to disagree: And here's 900 other scientists who also do:

  4. Thanks for the links Rabbi.

    This what the 900 opine:

    “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural
    selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the
    evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

    This is a carefully worded opinion that does not say they reject evolution. Rather, they are saying the 2 cited causes are not the full explanation the COMPLEXITY OF LIFE, whatever that means.

    Regarding the origin of life the first sentence may have some merit because other natural laws or events could have played a role. See my post and

    Evolution explains the diversity of species and is more compelling than inventing supernatural being(s)

    The list of 900 scientists include many that are not qualified to opine on evolution.- i.e they are rejected as a valid authority on the subject. Virtually every PHD Biologist accepts evolution. The opine sentence says Darwinian theory and by this does it mean modern evolution theory or a restricted form of evolution ?

    Why are they skeptical ? Is it because of religious dogma or scientific reasons ?

    And 900 signing “scientists” are out numbered by millions of scientists worldwide.who do accept evolution, it is the consensus.

    Best Wishs

    1. These 900 scientists knew that they were signing a declaration created by one of the most well-known Intelligent Design supporting organizations - the Discovery Institute. So whereas they may not have straight up rejected the theory they are casting doubt on its two central tenets.

      I invite you to read "The Edge of Evolution" by Lehigh University Biologist Michael Behe (a theist) or the recent work by Thomas Nagel - "Mind and Cosmos": Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (an atheist).

      The list of skeptics on this point are growing and I can provide many more examples if you're interested.

      Either way, even if the Darwinian theory was accurate it wouldn't help to explain abiogenesis which no one has any good explanation for.