Thursday, June 2, 2011

Do not keep it for yourself: A research plan

If you see your brother's ox or his sheep wandering, do not go by without helping, but take them back to your brother. ‬If their owner is not near, or if you are not certain who he is, then take the beast to your house and keep it till its owner comes in search of it, and then you are to give it back to him. ‬Do the same with his ass or his robe or anything which has gone from your brother's keeping and which you have come across: do not keep it to yourself. (Deut.22:1-3)
לא תראה את שור אחיך או את שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך׃ ‬
‫ואם לא קרוב אחיך אליך ולא ידעתו ואספתו אל תוך ביתך והיה עמך עד דרש אחיך אתו והשבתו לו׃ וכן תעשה לחמרו וכן תעשה לשמלתו וכן תעשה לכל אבדת אחיך אשר תאבד ממנו ומצאתה לא תוכל להתעלם׃ ‬

I have a research project that I cannot afford to implement, but I’d like to explain it and build my hypothesis. My question is simple and complicated at the same time. Does religion make people better human beings?
Of course this is a relative question because the baseline is illusive. What is a normal human being without religion? This is the first question I ask. Next, I want to know what religion is in the context of my question. But let’s leave the critique for a moment. How can I test this question?
My study would take a fixed number of wallets and disperse them in the public realm in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Whether I should do more cities is a detail for conjecture. In each wallet, I would put personal identification and five, twenty shekel bills.
If you want to really be scientific, you could say that the amount of money has to be greater to make the stakes worthwhile and the ID has to be varied. After all, people might return money to a woman before a man or an elder before a student. Also there is the question of the transgression threshold. When is the transgression worthwhile? Do you keep the money at one hundred shekels or do you wait for one thousand before you mess with the Big Guy?
There are lots of details with my study that will always be refuted, but leave that and join me in forming the hypothesis. What do we think we will learn about our subject? This is an essential question for designing the survey. What information will we gather from people who try to return the wallets? Here are some of my questions. Some answers are quantitative. They will give me statistics like X% of people who returned wallets consider themselves secular. Some questions will have to be qualitative because we need to understand what secular means to someone who defines herself that way. The better the qualitative questions and answers, the more useful the statistics.

a. Do you define yourself as religious?
b. Do you believe in a deity?
c. Are you Jewish?
d. Christian?
e. Moslem?
f. Do you believe in the afterlife?
g. Do you believe in a deity that is involved with the world and human life?
h. Do you believe that you will be judged by your god?
i. Do you believe that there is a concrete instruction manual from which you can understand what your god expects of you?

I try to write my qualitative questions in a way which will leave the answerer feeling comfortable to answer in the way that best represents her opinions and provides the most qualified information.

a. How do you define religious?
b. What do you think happens to human beings after they die?
c. If you believe that your deity is involved with the world, how does that effect the free will of human beings?

I could go on, but I think my point is clear. No research is free of the inherent biases of human language, in general, and of researchers, specifically. When we read research, we are not reading truth. There is no world to be discovered. It is framed. Our research defines the answers we get and the world we discover.
The common term for putting too much credibility in scientific methodology and conclusions is called scientism. I would claim that for much of the western world, scientism has replaced or joined religion as the answer to questions which might be better served by addressing them with doubt. For example, my wife is an acupuncturist. Her profession is built on thousands of years of practice. Some people swear by it. Others wouldn’t take a needle if their life depended on it. Western medical science, as we know it, is a baby in comparison to Chinese medicine. It has only been around for about two hundred years, and it constantly changes and contradicts itself. When I was an infant, my mother was told to bottle feed me because science knows exactly what nutrition I need better than my creator’s body. My mom put her faith in science (which may explain my many deficiencies.) Which medicine do you turn to? Why?

I have some hypotheses about my research and some prior assumptions. Almost everyone reading this assumes that Jerusalem has more religious people. We could turn to statistics to answer this question, but what good would it be without qualitative research? Religious people don’t all define themselves the same way. Having a Commander in chief is a form of religiosity, but some commanded people believe they will be judged in this world and others in a world to come. What does it mean to say that 60% of the wallets returned to their owner came from self-defined religious people? Would it mean something different if we learned that half of those wallets came with some or all of the money missing?

Living in Tel Aviv, as I do, I cheer for the home team. I want my city on Spring Hill to be the home of good human beings because I am one of them. I have a logic I have built to support it. Jerusalem is on top of a mountain. It has its head in the clouds. It is disconnected. Tel Aviv is fresh. It is renewed with every wave that hits our beautiful shoreline. Even our religious in Tel Aviv are better than in Jerusalem. They live pluralistic lives among the secular masses. Just walk down Rothschild Boulevard on a Shabbat morning and you will see what I mean.
In the Talmud, when Rabbi Eliezer tries to convince the rest of the rabbis of his righteousness, he brings the Bat Kol to speak for God. It speaks and proclaims his righteousness, but the rabbis will have nothing to do with it. They make two claims; the Torah is no longer in heaven and it (the Torah) instructs us to lean toward the majority. How can we listen to God when He has created the circumstances by which we are to be in charge of our own destiny?
I’m sorry that I don’t have the money to do my research study. Research is a fun and interesting job. It helps me pay the bills with dignity. But maybe I’m better off not participating in a system that has all but replaced faith for so many people. Six of one, half a dozen of another is such a brilliant algorithm because it explains exactly what I mean. At the end of the day, it is not science or religion that proves anything. Both are systems that demystify the mysterious, and both are matters of faith. At the end of the day, we have to make choices, and the important thing is that we are willing to be critical of ourselves and the systems within which we make them. This is my Torah and if you give me enough money, I’ll give you a study that proves that I’m right.

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