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The Baker, the Dentist and Our Biases

There is a fascinating Sifrei which the Chofetz Chaim quotes in the seventh chapter of his work, Sefas Tamim. The Sifrei states that seeing truth is a Torah mitzvah of v’halachta bidrachav, one must walk in His ways. Since Hashem’s midah is that of truth, we must seek truth in all of our endeavors and not doing so is a negation of this Torah mitzvah. This week, I asked Rav Shaya Kanievsky, shlita, the son of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, whether this Sifrei is halacha l’maaseh, practical applications. His response was that it clearly is, without question.

Part of seeking truth is to identify and remove our negi’os our biases.

Imagine this conversation between a baker and a dentist.

Baker: I don’t care what you say, I know for a fact that adding sugar to beaten egg whites is what gives lemon meringue its glossy sheen. It is a perfect toothpaste and will make for super bright teeth, not just for me, but for my children too.

Dentist: Listen, brushing your teeth with sugar will cause tooth decay. It will lead to rotten teeth and cavities.

Baker: Oh, I see where you are coming from. I come to your office and see all of these free toothpastes that you give out. The big toothpaste manufacturers have bought you out against us.

Dentist: No really, I went to dental school. I know what I am talking about. Streptococcus mutans is the very harmful bacteria that is responsible for dental decay. It contains an enzyme called glucosyl transferase that binds together a long string of sugars molecules called dextran. Dextran forms plaque and lactic acid that this bacteria creates. This acid allows the calcium and phosphorous in the tooth enamel to dissolve. The harmful bacteria is cemented to the tooth in the form of plaque and produces more acid. We need to starve the harmful bacteria from the sugars, not add to it.

Baker: Baloney macaroni! Tell it to less gullible people than I. Have a good day, doctor. You are being paid off by the toothpaste companies. But every day, I see lemon meringue and its glossy sheen, and I know that this will make my teeth and my children’s teeth much brighter, cleaner and better. You are being blinded by the money that the toothpaste companies give you.

* * *

What we have here is a case of a baker, who is negating the view of experts, of science and of proven studies. He attributes everything to the money that the dentist receives.

What follows is a discussion of the multiplicity of negios, biases, that exist within us, yet, nonetheless must be identified and removed in order for us to fulfill the mitzvah found in the Sifrei. It will also serve to help us not cause harm in this world.

The biases are:

  • A cognitive bias
  • A pattern recognition bias
  • A negativity bias
  • A needs an explanation bias
  • A why do it bias

Without meaning to be insensitive to people, chalila, in essence, our baker is not very different from those who erroneously attribute SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), autism and various other afflictions and possible deaths to vaccines. We never look at how many deaths existed beforehand; we just see one as a result of another.

Autism diagnoses are definitely on the rise, but because it is unknown what exactly causes autism, people try to make sense of it themselves. Hashem placed these systems and biases in place because, in general, they help us. Nonetheless, we must use our saichel hayashar, our Divinely endowed intellect, to overcome them. We all have a cognitive bias, which means anything that changes how we view, process and interpret information. We hear explanations and think, well that makes sense—even though it doesn’t fit with the math, the statistics or what trained and educated experts say.

We also need to understand how people first see that their child has autism. Parents see a delay in language skill development or a cessation of overall development. We all have a need to recognize pattern recognition bias, to fit things in a neat box. We have a need to be able to figure out what behaviors and strategies lead to positive outcomes.

But even more than that, we have a natural ayin ra’ah, evil eye, (See Pirkei Avos 2:11) that needs to be checked on. We are often on the lookout for things that lead to negative outcomes. This is a form of negativity bias.

Let’s imagine you are driving to the Brightstone Hall in an area in New Jersey that is foreign to you, and your Waze or Google Maps stops working—you spend time wondering what happened. But if those apps are working, we think nothing about it. We spend far more thought and time attempting to figure out why a bad thing happened than we do trying to figure out why something good happened. This is explanation bias.

When the most recent thing that happened was the vaccination, we blame that even though there are dozens of
peer-reviewed papers that have found no correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine—or any other vaccine.

Google it and you will find bakers who claim a link. And like our baker, the government or big pharma is covering it up.

There is also the shaiv v’al taaseh bias. Why do it? “Let’s just leave well enough alone” bias. The problem with this is that when it is statistically and medically proven by competent doctors—there is a mitzvah to do it. I have a friend who is deaf in one ear because he got the mumps as a child, before they gave the vaccine for it. He gets upset when he hears people not taking that vaccine. Nowadays, people are entirely unfamiliar with how scary polio was. When Jonas Salk invented the vaccine against it, he was a national hero.

The existence of those who are anti-vaccine or vaccine risk-aware is because of the successes of the polio vaccine and more.

Rav Tzvi Koshelevsky (Toras Tzvi, Parshas Chayei Sarah) writes that if we do not address eliminating our biases we will never be able to fully see truth. The vaccine risk awareness person will often turn things around, but let’s ask ourselves, who is more likely to have the correct knowledge base?: In other words, who is the baker and who is the dentist?


The author can be reached at [email protected].

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