On July 2, 2014, the prestigious science journal Nature retracted two heralded papers in the field of stem cell research, papers it had published only a few months earlier. The articles described a revolutionary process called STAP, where biologists subjected mature adult cells to physical stresses and transformed them into stem cells. Yet, in the editorial announcing the papers' retraction, Nature's editors reported that the "data that were an essential part of the authors' claims had been misrepresented" and that the authors' work was marred by "sloppiness" and "selection bias" ("Editorial: STAP retracted," Nature, vol. 511, no. 7507, July 2, 2014). All told, as the journalist Dana Goodyear has written, "a far-reaching and sensational conjecture" was "defeated by flaws that were at best irreparable and at worst unconscionable" ("The Stress Test," The New Yorker, February 29, 2016, pp. 46-57).
The authors of the retracted papers were willing to publish such dubious research, Goodyear tells us, because they were captivated by the initial hypothesis that mature cells could be transformed into stem cells almost effortlessly. The romance of the idea of STAP blinded them to contradictory evidence as it came to light. In the language of psychology, this is called "confirmation bias." She describes how, even after their false data was unmasked, one key scientist continued to stand by his conclusions; "his faith in the basic principles of STAP was unshakable," Goodyear writes.
And while most of us are not engaged in uncovering the basic principles of human life and the universe on a daily basis, none of us are immune to confirmation bias. Many of us know the pain of realizing that we hooked our cart to the wrong horse, so to speak. Sometimes we become so wedded to an idea that we close our minds to the possibility that that idea isn't all it's cracked up to be.
That's what happens in this week's Torah reading, Parashat Sh'lach L'cha.
Sh'lach L'cha is famous for the story of the twelve scouts whom God sent to explore the Land of Canaan.
Moses instructs the scouts, "Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land" (Numbers 13:17-20).
The scouts do their due diligence. They travel the length and breadth of the Land. They sample its bounty. At the end of forty days, they return to the Israelite camp and make their report: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey. . . . However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large" (13:27-28).
This information no doubt struck fear in the hearts of Israelite listeners. Ten of the twelve scouts went further, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we" (13:31).
Two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, however, disagreed. They exhorted the people, "The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. . . . Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey; their protection has departed from them, but the Eternal is with us. Have no fear of them!" (14:7-9).
Needless to say, things don't end well for the ten pessimists: They die in a plague, "Only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived" (14:38), we learn.
Our Sages sought to understand the motivation behind the "wicked band" (14:35) of ten scouts. How could two groups of people — of such lopsided numbers — encounter the same evidence and draw such radically different conclusions from it?
The Sages' answer lies in their meticulous reading of the Hebrew text.
When the scouts return to the Israelite camp, our translation reads, "They went straight to Moses" (13:26). But literally, the text says, "They went and they came to Moses."
Why, our Sages ask, does the Torah use these two verbs? We already know scouts "went" into the Land, so why does the text use this verb again?
The answer, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches, is that there must be some kind of equivalence between the scouts' "going" and "coming." "If they came back with evil counsel, they must have gone with evil counsel too," he says (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 35a).
In other words, the ten wicked scouts must have left on their mission predisposed to the notion that the Land was inhospitable — and everything they saw there only confirmed that bias. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were able to see the Land for what it was and what it could be — a land flowing with milk and honey, ripe for the taking.
Science, it turns out, isn't all that different from exploring a new land. It's about, as Goodyear says, "struggling to stay both radically open to insights and ruthlessly skeptical about them" (ibid., "The Stress Test," The New Yorker). Our lives aren't all that different either. In our relationships, our families, our professions, so often we see what we want to see and miss contrary evidence staring us right in the face. The message of our Torah portion is that a land of milk and honey awaits us only if we relinquish our preconceptions.
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation and a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University. He is chair of the CCAR's Worship and Practice committee.
I can accept Rabbi Skloot's argument, citing Shimon Bar Yochai, that the scouts led a biased journey from the start, but I question the nature of that bias. Rather than a predisposition against the Land itself, I see a bias against the entire idea of possessing the Land.
When the scouts initially return, they praise the Land itself and describe the formidable inhabitants dispassionately. But something happens as they consider the task ahead . . . when they had returned to the camp, visited their wives and children, and realized they could not commit to the difficulties of sovereignty. Emanuel Levinas has it right when he writes, "perhaps the explorers had moral qualms. They may have asked themselves whether they had the right to conquer what had been so magnificently built by others" ("Promised Land or Permitted Land," in Nine Talmudic Readings [Bloomington: Indiana University Press], 1990, p. 61). When they have time to consider the realities of controlling a land — military ethics, managing hazardous waste, establishing criminal law, balancing economic fairness — the confirmation bias emerges. They prefer the ideological freedom of the wilderness rather than the harsh realities of ideas applied. Their bias is in the rejection of the messy realities of running a state, working a land, and, yes, facing inhabitants.
After they see the scope of sovereignty, they "spread calumnies," and introduce the notion that the Israelites will have to face the mythical "Nephilim" (Numbers 13:32-33). Do we encounter this problem today in relation to the State of Israel? When faced with the ugly reality of war, injustice, terrorism, security, politics, corruption, and inequality, do we sometimes prefer "calumnies" and simplistic narratives? This is the true confirmation bias. A bias against the complexity the land forces upon them (and us).
Rabbi Michael G. Holzman is the rabbi at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia.
Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,107–1,122; Revised Edition, pp. 977–997;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 869–892
Haftarah, Joshua 2:1−24: The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,262−1,264; Revised Edition, pp. 998−1,000