What we want to believe is often more important to our hopes and fears than what might actually exist in reality. Our minds do a good job at tricking us into not seeing or processing what exists either by ignoring reality completely or reinterpreting facts in such a way that they fit our notions of what should be. We all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from a variety of biases that help us accomplish these ill-informed but hugely successful tasks of distortion. From confirmation bias, which states that the beliefs we hold affect the manner in which we process new information, to the polarization effect which indicates that the more biased our opinions the more rigidly new information is interpreted, to motivated reasoning which suggests that we accept new information only to the degree that it supports our fears and hopes, our views can be easily distorted by our very human frailties and desire for simple understanding. Unfortunately, most of the time, facts do not give us an easy or simple out. So what do we do with the conflict between fact and our personal distortions?
I attended a speech recently and was aghast at how the presenter manipulated data to make his point. He did not just disregard the statistics he was presenting, he actually presented them in direct opposition to the way they were presented by the authors of the study he cited. So much so that I have to believe that he never bothered reading the study he cited. Still, of the 600 or so in attendance, barely a handful realized what had occurred, and if they did they did not care. The reason? Simple. He was a motivational speaker. For him and his listeners facts were secondary. His goal was to create a specific reaction in his audience, facts be damned. He wanted them to believe something despite the fact that the evidence did not support it.
I have encountered this type of disregard for honesty many times prior. Just one more example of the many – A pamphlet widely distributed by an organization supporting young couples quoted a study on how much information a person would want to hear from his or her health care provider. Unfortunately, the pamphlet stated the findings in complete opposition to what the study found and reported in the original journal article.
These examples pale in comparison to the gross misrepresentations we see today in political spheres. We are bombarded with the idea that all news is “fake news” and all facts are considered “alt-facts.” An opinion seems to carry far more weight than all the available scientific data on virtually any topic. Yell loud enough and you can make your very biased, even though it may not be malicious, idea or belief true. And, you can always find a crowd to believe it because it fits their bias too.
The essential question though is whether these presentation biases are deliberate and what the ethical and moral obligations for not properly fact checking might be. My concern is not about who is correct in the abstract political arena because that may just be a philosophical debate without resolution. My concerns are for those who will ultimately be hurt by the biases of misinformation the issues that impact individuals in many day to day aspects of their lives.
Take for instance, the recent David Lichtenstein radio show, when the moderator interviewed Rav Nochum Eisenstein on the topic of those in poverty living on government welfare. Rav Eisenstein stated that there is no problem if someone chooses not to work and live on the beneficence of the government and, that the government of Israel has to support those in Kollel. When pressed about what might be done to address the poverty rates Rav Eisenstein’s answer was that not talking about it is the best solution. He seems to have said that talking about it is the root cause of poverty.
His view is not unique. This absence of reality testing pervades the shidduch world too. Divorce rates are climbing but we are told that it is only because of the outside world’s influence. There is no acknowledgement that the real reason is that shidduchim are being made for some very wrong and superficial reasons. Money is given to try to address the age gap purported to be a cause for the shidduch crisis while all the demographics suggest that there is likely no age gap phenomenon.
And of course, while the Hareidi world is finally acknowledging that sexual abuse, abuse of all kinds, exists in every community, still there is little acceptance of the need to properly support victims and report abusers. All of the available scientific knowledge brought to bear to deal with the problem is rejected in some communities in favor of the bias of handling the “problem” internally, in essence allowing abusers to escape to other communities or, in some neighborhoods, to simply remain in place and continue their destruction.
I make the case for greater honesty, morality, use of data and ethics because the data indicates more people are being hurt by the rigidity that comes from not addressing the issues properly and from then being shunted to untrained, unlicensed, inexperienced community members who do not read the data but are motivated by a desire to play to biases.