Why Nate Silver Should Listen to Abraham Joshua Heschel

We Need More Than Data Too

Data-Driven: Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight blog aims to use data to address thorny public issues.
Wikimedia
Data-Driven: Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight blog aims to use data to address thorny public issues.

By Elissa Strauss

Published April 04, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Nate Silver has pissed a lot of people off lately.

In an interview with New York Magazine about the then upcoming launch of the new FiveThirtyEight site, the data-journalism enthusiast took a jab at traditional opinion journalism. He told the interviewer that pundits might “have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically.” He went on to say that the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, “don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them.”

Silver’s approach, as he explains it, is more quantitative, rigorous and empirical. Whereas others rely on ideas, his relies on the invincibility of numeracy. He never outright says that this makes what he does better than what opinion journalists do, but he does imply that data journalism is better suited to deliver large truths.

The purpose of journalism is to maintain an educated society, a populace that has the facts in hand to make good decisions for themselves and the wider world. Silver thinks his research-based approach, a blending of numbers and analysis, can better fulfill this mission. Oped columnists and outspoken Silver critics like New York Times Paul Krugman and the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier disagree. They see data as important, but, in Krugman’s words, “never a substitute for hard thinking.”

So what is the best way to get people to better understand themselves and how they should behave? Is it evidence or exegesis, computations or consciousness, data or deliberating?

The answer, for the Jews, has long been been all of the above. Substitute the word of God for science, and you’ll find that our tradition is built of these two opposing forces whose coming together formed the great texts that have served as the nucleus of our mostly nation-less people for a long, long time.

The Jewish canon, which includes the Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Zohar, and other texts, is a mixed bag of law, poetry, and stories, stories about stories, including some super-duper strange hallucinatory tales. At its center is the Torah and its laws; the facts, as, many long-believed and some still do, which were given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. Embroidered around it are a thick tapestry of projections, opinions, fantasies and doubts, all of which, in my opinion, contribute greatly to its strength and endurance.

Law is different than data, sure. But in the context of the Jewish canon law serves the same function as Silver’s formulas serve today. They represent the immutable, the fixed ideas, and are set in contrast to all that is immutable, the ideas in motion. Our history is proof not only that these two categories can coexist, but that they can and do derive their power from one another.

The practice of making meaning from the Torah is split up into two types of writings. There are the halachic ones that deal with matters of law and behavior, and then there are the aggadahic ones that are the more interpretative ones and often appear in the form of a story or commentary that aim to fill in, or illuminate, the many narrative gaps in the bible. Over the years Jewish tradition layered these rabbinic commentaries one upon another rather than determine one more authoritative than the other. This is our system of belief.

In his refutation of Silver’s deification of data, the New Republic’s Wieseltier points out how opinions and ideas in contemporary journalism function in a similar way:

“An opinion with a justification may be described as a belief,” he writes. “The justification that transforms an opinion into a belief may in some instances be empirical, but in many instances, in the morally and philosophically significant instances, it will not be empirical, it will be rational, achieved in the establishment of the truth of concepts or ideas by the methods of argument and the interpretation of experience.”

Wieseltier’s words are very much in tune with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s thoughts on halacha vs. aggadah. Heschel says that aggadah is how we take something as abstract as a law and transform it to make meaning for an individual.

According to Heschel, “Halakhah gives us knowledge; aggadah gives us aspiration. …Halakhah gives us the norms for action; aggadah, the vision of the ends of living. Halakhah prescribes, aggadah suggests; halakhah decrees, aggadah inspires; halakhah is definite; aggadah is allusive.”

And later, as if predicting this very debate: “Halakhah thinks in the category of quantity; aggadah is the category of quality.” As we move to a new moment in journalism, when technology allows us to know more about ourselves through numbers than ever before, let’s remember this and not fall too deep under positivism’s spell. Because forms and patterns will never bring us closer to those ineffable truths than our thinking, feeling, meaning-making minds always have and always will.

Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.