But What If I’m Wrong?

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Who do you trust more to predict the Jewish future: a Jewish leader or a chimpanzee?

Before answering, consider that the track record of highly-credentialed experts at predicting world events is suboptimal, at best. In Expert Political Judgment, political scientist Philip E. Tetlock found that experts across the political spectrum struggled to perform better at forecasting world events than “dart-throwing chimps.” While Tetlock makes clear that this research should not lead us to dismiss expert opinions altogether, Tetlock contends that the findings should increase intellectual caution when assuming that anyone is automatically superior when making prognostications about future trends.

Every person who reads eJewishPhilanthropy should pause and consider the implications of Tetlock’s research. I read articles in eJP every day; oftentimes, I ask myself how many articles are driven by the author’s motivated reasoning. Despite living in an organizational world where we preach the gospel of “metrics” and “data-driven decision making,” those trends cannot buttress the fact that, in general, foundations want to prove that their grantmaking decisions were right, professionals want to demonstrate that their organizations are relevant, and Jews of all stripes want to affirm that any sliver of evidence about the future confirms their Jewish worldviews. This does not make any of us stupid, but it does make all of us all too human.

Of course, Jewish life is about much more than confirming our pre-existing beliefs, and this is not meant to impugne outstanding primary sociological and demographic research done on the changing nature of Jewish life. However, we need to acknowledge that most Jewish leaders are not merely “calling balls and strikes”; we are both in and of the world we seek to impact.

  1. Observers and Advocates

Like much research, when Tetlock’s “dart-throwing chimp” comment entered the public discourse, many distorted his conclusions to argue that there is no value in experts, at all. In Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Tetlock and Dan Gardner assert that experts remain incredibly important, and because of that we need to do a better job of measuring and holding accountable the conclusions that people forecast about the future, and recognize their and our heuristics when making those predictions.

In particular, Tetlock and Gardner encourage us to avoid “belief perseverance,” where someone can be “astonishingly intransigent – and capable of rationalizing like crazy to avoid acknowledging new information that upsets their settled beliefs” (160). I frequently worry about this blindspot, for why would I choose to work in an area of Jewish life where I do not believe in what I am doing? And so it is with all of us. Although our work requires us to be observers of trends in Jewish life, ultimately we remain advocates for the kind of Jewish life we want to succeed.

Consider the future of non-Orthodox Judaism. One of the most well-known predictions gone wrong was the claim made by many commentators on religion following World War II that orthodox varieties of religion would eventually disappear; Marshall Sklare famously went to the extent to write in Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement that Orthodox Judaism was a “case study in institutional decay.”

Today, the opposite is true, with birthrates in the Orthodox community skyrocketing, Orthodox outreach (keruv) programs multiplying around the world, and many institutions in non-Orthodox Judaism struggling under the weight of financial and demographic pressures, with decades of scholars describing why the “strict church” model is advantageous for long-term vitality.

As such, was Rabbi Norman Lamm, Shlit”a, correct when he predicted in 2009 that “We will soon say Kaddish” for Non-Orthodox Judaism? What qualifies as the “death” of non-Orthodox Judaism? Does ten years count as “soon?” If it does not disappear ten years from now, was Rabbi Lamm wrong, but if it happens fifty years from now, does that mean he was right? How many years would need to pass before Rabbi Lamm would admit he was incorrect? And when leaders of my community rush to condemn Rabbi Lamm, do they recognize that he made his prediction even though he said this would be bad for the Jewish people?

(As an aside, every time I write a piece for eJP, several people comment on my articles to prove, no matter what I write, that non-Orthodox Judaism has no future. I have no doubt that this article will elicit roughly the same responses. Consider yourself forewarned.)

No one wants to puruse mission-oriented work only to fail, and most of us are naturally inclined to see every trend as providing additional evidence to support the importance of our chosen paths. Yet Tetlock and Garder remind us “getting people to publicly commit to a belief is a great way to freeze it in place, making it resistant to change. The stronger the commitment, the greater the resistance” (161). Therefore, before we use evidence to accuse others with whom we disagree of fundamental attribution error, we should first recognize that these biases affect everyone. No exceptions.

  1. The Power of the Pre-Mortem

Not every decision that a leader makes has the kind of stakes where the Jewish people’s future is literally at stake, although many of us act like that. However, when staking our claims about the future, we can cultivate modes of humility and reflection that make our decisions better when we are proven right, and better understand them when we are proven wrong.

During the debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (colloquially known as “the Iran nuclear deal”), Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America made the excellent suggestion that our discourse might be improved if organizations would “publish the dissent,” making the case that all of us benefit when, in a critical historical moment, we learn what Jewish organizations “sought to learn – and how they plan to act differently – when given an opportunity afterwards to pause and rethink.”

While I love this suggestion as a way to improve the historical record of the past, I would take Dr. Kurtzer’s argument one step further, and say that not only should we publish the dissent, but, before making the decision at all or attacking the decision of another, Jewish leaders should imagine a future where their consequential decision goes terribly wrong.

Dr. Gary Klein calls this exercise a “pre-mortem,” a process a team performs before making a critical decision, where everyone is asked to imagine a future a year from now where this decision failed. Doing this exercise forces alternative views to be brought to the table, and challenges groupthink by mandating that people show skepticism. Klein writes in Seeing What Others Don’t that, “we’re likely to miss the insight if we rely on flawed belief, either in a theory or in data, and we make it worse if we’re pigheaded and fixate on that belief.” No matter our perspective, each of us will be better off when we imagine that alternative world. And maybe, just maybe, sometimes we will alter our decisions by doing so.

  1. Scalded by the Rabbis

Kathryn Schulz writes in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error that many of us, “go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything” (4). Yet, in reality, Schulz reminds us that “wrongness” is a “vital part of how we learn and change,” for “however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”

Schulz’s argument is a very Jewish idea, for the true way to walk a pathway to wisdom is to stumble. While Hazal uses the use term Hahamim to refer to the greatest sages in our tradition, the term used in the Talmud to describe a young scholar of Torah is tzorbah me-rabbanan, or “one who was scalded by the rabbis” (a teaching I first learned from my colleague, Rabbi Ethan Linden). At first glance, this choice seems bizarre, as it implies that studying Torah is a traumatic experience. And yet, this term’s implicit meaning captures the essence of what it means to be a person of wisdom, someone self-aware enough to recognize how much he/she/they do not and cannot know.

The next time you read a piece about a perspective or decision about which you vehemently disagree, can you take a moment and ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” In all likelihood, your view will not change, but you will clarify the beliefs you already hold, and better emphathize with those with whom you disagree. And in a world of great uncertainty and too much misplaced certainty, that matters a great deal.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director of Synagogue Leadership at USCJ, and is the Program Director of 20/20 Judaism, a collaborative convention of USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly (which you should totally register for to get the early-bird rate). You can read more of Josh’s writings atwww.joshuarabin.com.