Talmudic Journalism

The debate has ramifications throughout the entire Talmud up until our present day. Which is stronger: Nature or Nature? The answer not only solves this long-standing debate, but also teaches us something surprising about the news we read and write.


Photo Credit: Babylonian Talmud, copied by Solomon ben Samson, France, 1342 (Photo of Exhibit at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv, CC-SA)

By Yonatan Gordon

The Two Camps

We know politics are polarized into two camps (conservatives and liberals). But there was once hope that journalism was different somehow.

Most of us today realize that journalism is not immune to this polarization. For instance, if even the facial expressions of news anchors can affect a presidential campaign, then how about a journalist that has a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda to present?

As we all rely on the news for information about current events, obviously we would like this medium to be as objective, and truly “fair and balanced” as possible. While we can’t stop an anchor from curling up the corners of his lips, what we can do is deepen our search for this elusive thing we call “objectivity”.

There are two approaches to achieving this objectivity. While both are based on empiricism, on contextualizing headlines based on objective information (and not opinions), their methodology is as polarized as the political arena they both cover.

On the one side is Data Journalism, led by Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight.com website. On the other, Explanatory Journalism led by Ezra Klein and his Vox Media, Vox.com website.

What is the road is objectivity?

Both Nate and Ezra recently wrote manifestos to explain their respective approaches (you can click on their names to read). But instead of quoting from each, I’m going to sum of their positions. After reading their manifestos, if you have questions about this analysis, I would be happy to explain further.

Data Journalism: Nate says that generalizations about new events can be extrapolated from old data: “Suppose you did have a credible explanation of why the 2012 election, or the War of 1812, unfolded as it did. How much does this tell you about how elections or wars play out in general, under circumstances that are similar in some ways but different in other ways?”

Explanatory Journalism: Ezra says that math skills stop mattering when they come in conflict with something called Identity-Protective Cognition. This means that we care more about what people in our social groups think about our opinions, than the facts, the math behind the subject itself. Ezra hopes that by explaining stories clearly, readers will become open to seeing past the reactions from one’s social groups.

Data or Explanations?

So which is it? Does infusing news stories with data make reporting more objective, or does clearly explaining a topic help to whittle away the effects of social pressure? The answer is actually both. Although it may seem that Nate and Ezra are operating at two polar extremes, in actuality their approaches read like two sides of the same coin.

Whereas explained in the past we explained that Nates approach corresponds to the sefirah of chochmah (wisdom), and Ezras to binah (understanding), what we did not mention was the means to reconcile the two.

Our search for common ground led us to travel back in time about 1700 years.

Nature vs. Nurture

You probably recognize this heading. But now it’s time for you to ask the prize winning question: What does the nature vs. nurture debate have to do with Nate Silver and Ezra Klein’s approaches to journalism? I’m glad you asked!

While we will not now go into the details of the Talmudic dispute (Kidushin 80a) between Reish Lakish and his brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan (see here), what is important for us to realize is that the debate between stems from each’s psychological assessment of human nature and behavior.

Reish Lakish says that our assessment based on the facts of the case is stronger, whereas Rabbi Yochanan says that our original disposition, what today we would call the status quo, is stronger.

Is Nature or Nurture Stronger?

This debate between Reish Lakish and his brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan have ramifications throughout the entire Talmud. But what was true then is also true for our present day. Any modern nature vs. nurture debate can be traced back to this timeless account from the Talmud.

Nurture: Reish Lakish so trusts his psychological appraisals and assessments of human nature, that he says that it is stronger than the constancy of physical nature and cancels it.

Nature: But Rabbi Yochanan places more weight on the physical continuity in nature. Thus he holds that politically the status quo is very strong, so if you are planning to change things all at once, you won’t succeed. Instead, at most you can cast a doubt on the status quo, and then slowly things will begin to change from there.

Debate over Reality

This debate isn’t just an example of an intellectual sparring match, but has ramifications throughout reality. For instance, which is stronger: the psychological nature of reality or physical reality? In physics, this is what we can call the debate between:

  • The Nature of Classical Physics: Where objects have objective existence. And,
  • The Nurture of Quantum Mechanics: Where their existence seems to be predicated upon psychological states (the questions that we ask about the universe).

While both Nate and Ezra are concerned with changing the status quo, their missions are very different from one another.

Nature: If you ask Nate what his main work ambition is (and many have) it is to encourage journalists to write more objectively by means of data and other empirical evidence. For Nate, each topic is viewed as an objective object to study; the world of classical physics and Rabbi Yochanan.

Nurture: But if you ask Ezra (and many have) it is to create a more understanding news media. He wants people to tune back into the stories that matter with an open mind. Ezra’s main ambition is to change the status quo, but not in gradual, incremental steps. Like the instant, far-flung leaps possible in quantum mechanics, Ezra would like to see each new moment filled with fresh assessments about those things that matter — Reish Lakish’s approach.

What is New about the News?

There is a dispute between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan about who is considered greater, the first sages or the last sages? Rabbi Yochanan says that the earlier the sages, the greater they are. This certainly sounds plausible (this is what many of us were brought up with). But, Reish Lakish holds the opposite, that the later the sage, the greater he is. This is exactly the mindset of the “depth of the end”, to rule like the final, the most recent sages, the mindset of binah. If you have a mindset of chochmah though, you rule that the first sages (“the depth of the beginning”, as chochmah is called in the Book of Formation) are greater.

Now let’s flash forward again to our world of journalism.

The “depth of the beginning” relates to Nate Silver’s Data Journalism approach, since the analysis of any new story is predicated on a prior set of facts and figures.

What about Ezra? Each of the stories on his Vox Media site are published as a stack of cards. The focus is on what card will come next, the “depth of the end”, not necessarily what the first card was predicated upon.

For instance, this is the first “card” of the “What is Bitcoin?” ongoing storyline:

bitcoin better snip

Put simply,

Data Journalism: both relates to the sefirah of chochmah (depth of the beginning) and the nature of reporting, whereas

Explanatory Journalism: relates to the sefirah of binah (depth of the end) and “nurture”.

Resolving the Debate

The problem is that we are still left searching for objectivity. Given that there are these two approaches ingrained not only in journalism, but into the fabric of the cosmos, how can we reconcile the two?

Although not everyone can be the brother-in-law of Reish Lakish, since they spoke openly and freely with each other, their debates resulted in lucid and profound Torah lessons. When Reish Lakish passed away, Rabbi Yochanan was close to losing his mind because he had no one to spar with. And in the merit of the “sparring match” we quoted in the beginning, we learn a great principle that spans the entire Talmud (with ramifications till today).

Since this article is not a history lesson, we’d like to resolve the nature vs. nurture debate right here and now. Are you ready? The way to resolve a debate is to fully appreciate the other side, even to the extent of explaining their arguments in a clear and lucid manner. But more than a rhetorical technique to gain audience interest, the hope of understanding the other side is that some common ground will result.

We recently witnessed a glimmer of this call for common ground in a nature vs. nurture debate between David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell, written about in, “How to Have an Honest DataDriven Debate.” For those who are familiar with David’s book Sports Gene, or Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule from Outliers, you probably realize that David was the nature side of the debate, and Malcolm the nurture. But what is relevant for our present discussion, and why this Harvard Business Review article was written, was because of the hope that such a debate inspires.

I said this debate reflects only a “glimmer” of this call for common ground because while being able to debate the other side shows open-mindedness, it still doesn’t explain the connection between the two sides. For instance, in physics, either you have Albert Einstein’s relatively stable world of classical physics, or Richard Feynman’s chaotic world of quantum mechanics. The challenge is not in understanding the other side, but in uniting these two approaches into one Grand Unified Theory.

Talmudic Journalism

Now comes the real reason why this essay (or manifesto) was called “Talmudic Journalism”. While it is praiseworthy to relate to the other side of the debate — between Nate and Ezra, David and Malcolm — the unification between opposites only occurs under the tent of Torah. When a Torah debate is done for the sake of Heaven, then no matter what the ruling, both views are equally correct.

This is of course counter-intuitive. Either one side is correct and the other wrong. But as explained in Rabbi Ginsburgh’s Lectures on Torah and Modern Physics, science has become more counter-intuitive as well, especially during these past hundred years. For instance, according to quantum mechanics, two states (e.g. electrical charge) can coexist simultaneously.

The answer then to the nature vs. nurture debate is the same that we can give to the most heated debate today, creationism vs.  evolution: Both sides are true, and both sides are true simultaneously.

Since Torah is the great equalizer, the great reconciler of divergent but valid opinions, this is also the place where common ground is reached. Once topics are explained under the tent of Torah, one objective lens emerges.

To be a Talmudic Journalism means to be able to explain both sides of the debate, by showing their common source in the wisdom of the Torah that God has given us.





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