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Commentary on Tanakh Talks 11/02/20: How Political Science Can Inform the Religion-Science Debate

David Dirlam

Rabbi Edery opened the discussion asking, “How is it that smart, intelligent, modern, people still have trouble understanding how a mask can stop a virus? Why can’t we heed Maimonides' millennia-old insight that “wrong beliefs will kill you?”

To explore these questions, we delved into impediments to science such as religion, superstition, ideology, habit, and just plain suspicion. We also identified how the incompleteness of science encourages us to seek support for our beliefs, rather framing them in a way that evidence could cause us to change our minds.

Last week’s Science magazine contained a long article called “Political sectarianism in America.” Science, along with Nature, is one of the two most prestigious journals in the world, and the article was written by 15 political scientists from many of the most prestigious universities in
the United States.

The authors provide convincing data that show three periods of escalation of out-party hate. First, in the 1980s in-party love was much higher than out-party hate. Next, in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a large reduction in the difference, but in-party love was still higher. Third, in the last decade, out-party hate actually exceeded in-party love.

They called this change “political sectarianism” and go on to cite many sources that show how it consists of three core ingredients: othering—the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion—the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing
partisans; and moralization—the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. 

If we accept the links of suspicion to othering, religious differences to trust-mistrust or alienation issues, and ideology to moralization, our Tanakh Talks came close to identifying all three factors. Rabbi Edery concluded our discussion with the admonition that “We are committed to accept what we know is true and reject what is not true. If we don’t know, you have freedom, but you should choose based on good, solid reasons. If you see no evidence, logic, reason, then you shouldn’t believe it. Why would you believe? Not because of authority or pleasure, but a solid reason.”

The Science article provided potential remedies for political sectarianism that give us clues to “solid reasons” for making decisions. The first of these includes an insight I learned from the many designers that I interviewed at the Savannah College of Art and Design: You can’t collaborate with someone else until you learn what they know that you don’t. The article’s first remedy facilitates this knowing: Learn your opponents’ arguments and commitments without
necessarily agreeing, communicate in their moral language, and explain your point of view (which is often more similar than either party believes). The article goes on to recommend that, in discussions, we should ask for mechanisms of how policies would work rather than legalistic justifications.

There were also two recommendations that work on a society level. We should spend more time teaching ways to check the accuracy of social media claims (e.g., converging evidence from divergent sources), and we should find ways to reform gerrymandering and political financing (large donors are likely to more polarized than small donors).

It may be hard to change the mind of someone who has used the same justifications for fifty years. But our Tanakh Talks have been going on for well over a decade, showing that a few score of people who have held some views for that long are still seeking “solid reasons” to enrich them. Do you suppose they would help us increase mask wearing in our communities?

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782