Howard Goldsmith

Howard GoldsmithCommunity Contributor

Rabbi Howard Goldsmith is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester, a Reform synagogue in Harrison.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

In A Post-Fact Age, Where Should We Look For Truth?

“Climate change is real. Science is real. Facts are real. Just believing hard enough does not turn an article of faith into reality.”

The radio display on the dashboard said 100.3 FM but that could not possibly be correct.

The guest continued telling the morning program hosts, “We could solve the real problem of climate change. We could be up to 70% renewable energy in 15 years.”

Z100, known as New York’s #1 Hit Music Station, is better known for their “Phone Tap” pranks and ridiculous interviews with celebrities. What were they doing discussing climate change? Unfortunately, I had to get out of the car so I would never know how Bill Nye the Science Guy ended up on Z100 that morning. Nevertheless, hearing the snippet of conversation highlighted two important things: 1) We can find truth in strange places. 2) People easily disregard truth for confirmation of their own beliefs.

Where Z100 used to only deal with fun and frivolity to get people going in the morning, they now apparently deal with issues ranging from climate science to breast cancer along with pop music and prank phone calls. Who knew that truth could appear in the middle of the radio dial right along with Katy Perry’s latest ode to teenage angst and joy? Kudos to whoever figured out that Z100 could serve as a conduit to share facts and ideas through media that people already enjoy. And sharing facts these days is more important than ever, no matter the medium. As Bill Nye discussed on Z100, a sizeable part of the American population rely more on their beliefs about an issue than on the scientifically or historically demonstrable facts on those same issues. Indeed, most of us do.

Of course, that has always been the case. People rarely change their minds when presented with facts and evidence. In their ground breaking book, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schacter report on the mindset of cult members when their leaders’ predictions fail to materialize. “Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.” This is true not only for cult members. Indeed, studies show that all people think this way, weeding through evidence to find that which supports their beliefs and reject that which contradicts their beliefs.

That the ancient rabbis stressed the importance of truth shows our tendency has always been to disregard truth. In the Talmud they taught: “There are seven things that characterize a boor, and seven that characterize a wise man. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or age. He does not interrupt his fellow’s words. He does not hasten to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to latter things later. Concerning what he did not hear, he says ‘I did not hear.’ He admits when he’s wrong. With the boor, the reverse of all these is the case.” In other words, it is wise to follow the facts and boorish to ignore them.

Z100’s morning show is all about interrupting the other hosts, answering quickly, using non-sequiturs, and deploying sarcasm to entertain and distract. So there is a bit of exquisite irony in hearing facts from Bill Nye The Science Guy in the midst of a boorish – if fun – morning radio show. Still, while the ancient rabbis may have chosen NPR over Z100, in this age of alternative facts we need to seek truth and accept it wherever it might reside.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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In A Post-Fact Age, Where Should We Look For Truth?

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