Friday, May 23, 2014

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Bamidbar 5774 – Torah as Anecdote-It’s a Good Thing

This is called Random Musings. I generally stay close to the parasha or the related haftarah, but sometimes I just wander, simply using those as a jumping-off point. Bamidbar. Numbers, we call it in English.

I’m not big on numbers. Now don’t get me wrong. I did go to the Bronx HS of Science, and I like mathematics and I’m good at it. I like playing with numbers, reading good fact and fiction books that revolve around numbers and math, enjoy a good movie like “Pi” (not the Tiger movie, the computer nerd/Jewish numerology one.) Yet despite having a strong affinity for numbers, I have a much stronger affinity for words, and I do believe words can tell us things that numbers cannot.

Maybe a better way of saying this is that I’m not particularly enamored of statistics, or censuses (yes, that’s the correct plural, look it up) and things of that nature. These things have their place, I guess, but I don’t find them as useful as others do. I am the “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” guy. I am the “give me anecdotal or informally collected information over survey statistics any day” guy. Statistics require analysis. Analysis can be biased. It’s like Neil deGrasse Tyson (another Bronx Science alumnus) said on a recent episode of his remake of Cosmos. I can’t recall the exact quote, but the gist of it was this: science has rigid rules and standards, and is reliable. Scientists, however, are human, and do not always live up to the standards. (This may very well be something Carl Sagan said as well in the original series.) So there’s the thing. The Pew people do this wonderful survey. People analyze the data collected. Not to impugn any reputations, but how do we know that every analyst was completely objective and unbiased? In fact, I wonder if we can simply assume that, because the analysts are human, there has to be some bias in their analysis.

Many years ago, a wise man taught me the concept of MBWA – managing by walking around. In my career I have often found I learn more through this management technique than I ever could through surveys, time and motion studies, focus groups, collected and analyzed statistics, etc. when I move into a new position taking over for someone else, I less interested in whatever written records they may have left behind than in sitting down with them (and the people who worked with and for them) and asking them “so what’s not in the reports?”

I’m active in a large community of Jewish professionals working to envision and shape Jewish education and Judaism in general for the 21st-century and beyond. There are a few people in this community that are ever-insistent on being shown the data. Now I will readily admit that statistical data can be useful, and it can be particularly useful when one is trying to be efficient.  Statistics, data, analysis, survey, focus groups, etc. are tools, and we need to see them as such. They are only a part of the tools and techniques we need to utilize. Anecdotal and informally obtained data can be just as useful (and, in my experience, often more useful.) The thing about polls and surveys is that people lie, or fudge answers. Pure statistical data is like Schrodinger’s cat. Once you bring in an observer to the data, you influence or force an outcome. The data is only pure when it is unobserved, analyzed.

Yes, the science of statistics attempts to take into account such variables. Good survey design allows for the fact that people do lie or fudge their answers, or try to answer based on what they think the questioner wants to know, that how questions are asked can affect how they are answered. What more proof do you need that the words are more powerful than the numbers, because the words influence the numbers.

Sometimes collecting data is a necessity. If you’re going to manage a bunch of people traveling through the wilderness, you do need to know how many of them there are to feed and protect. You do need to know how many are in a  particular tribe that has been assigned to carry your portable sanctuary and its accoutrements. If you’re running a Jewish institution (school, synagogue, charity, etc.) it helps to know the numbers for your target populations, your potential market, and so much more.  Numbers ARE useful.

I’d be willing to bet, however, that you’d learn more about your current and potential clients/stakeholders in a casual conversation in the aisle at a Home Depot or the supermarket or in line or seated at Starbucks. Your religious school parents might learn more about what’s going on in their children’s classroom in a casual conversation after bumping into the teacher (or another more active parent.)

Where are you going to learn more: from a formal exit interview with a  disgruntled congregant who is leaving, or a casual conversation between them and another congregant who is not an officer or staff member? My thought is that you should probably strive to do both.

If Moshe had given more attention to anecdotal information, he might have seen the coming rebellion of Korach and nipped it in the bud with some proactive efforts. I’m not sure what sort of statistical data might have given Moshe the same clues. By the same token, acting upon anecdotal information, Moshe may have gone and made some serious blunders. Anecdotal information is no panacea (then again, neither is statistical analysis.)

What’s going to tell me more as a school administrator – viewing a student’s statistics from an online supplemented study program, or stopping them in the hall and informally assessing the knowledge they may have acquired? Yes, test scores can be one piece of valuable information, but we have given them far more weight and importance than they should have.

Yes, words have their failings too. Midrash and commentary are ways we compensate when the words are inadequate, incomplete, unclear. I daresay we use midrash just as much to compensate when the numbers and statistics fail us. Anecdotal information just that – anecdotal. It can represent a very small sample, and one that is just as easily cherry-picked as statistical data. It is, essentially, unscientific, and not evidence-based. It is often true that anecdotal sources are statistical outliers. I’m not suggesting we base our decisions solely upon, or even largely upon anecdotal evidence. It is, however, an oft overlooked tool.

Consider this, as well. Collect enough anecdotal information, and you can have  a pretty large data set that can be analyzed and utilized.

Unscientific? Perhaps. Then again, we are talking religion and faith here. Science and faith can inform each other, but they cannot be used to explain each other. What we do in our synagogues and day schools and JCCs, etc. is not science. A dependency on the tools of science to tell us how best to teach subjects of faith seems questionable to me.

Science is science. Numbers are numbers. Faith is faith,  People can and do believe and rely upon all of them. However, we are the weak link. We, scientists, mathematicians, believers. We are not always true to the standards and ideals of science, math, and faith. So how reliable are any of them?

This is not an anti-science screed. I love and embrace science. I am not a fan of pseudo-science, and I recognize that pseudo-science often utilizes anecdotal data to support its claims. That which can be verified through repeatable scientific experimentation is, until such time as it is disproven through newly acquired evidence or displaced by a newer theory and experimentation, the way the world is.

Torah is a form of anecdotal evidence. That’s why it cannot and should not be used to question or contradict scientifically verifiable facts. However, consider the value of Torah to us in so many ways. Its stories are anecdotes. They cannot be verified, they probably represent a small sample, and the stories may have been twisted and molded to fit particular agendas over time. Yet we learn so much from it. Can we truly work if we hold our scientific apparatus in one hand and our Torah in the other? I believe the true brilliance of humankind is our ability to do just that. Science, uninformed by faith ethics, morals, empty of meaning. It’s not just the facts. It’s what we do with them.

Me, I like to throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. It may be inefficient, but it works for me.

Well, I’ve mused my way down a wandering and truly random path. I hope the trip has given you as much food for thought as it has given me.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2014 by Adrian A, Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bemidbar 5773 - Who Really Provides?
Bemdibar 5771 - Moving Treasures
Bemidbar 5770 - Sense Us
Bemidbar 5769 - That V'eirastikh Li Feeling
Bamidbar 5767-What Makes It Holy? (Redux & Revised 5761)
Bemidbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
Bemidbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
Bemidbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
Bemidbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
Bemidbar 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5761-What Makes it Holy

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