Discover more from Moneyball Judaism
Or- Why Josh Loves Church Literature
“Details create the big picture.”
-Sanford I. Weill
Every time I am asked a big question about synagogues, the first thing I do is read a book about churches.
No, that is not a typo, but I won’t blame you if this sounds strange.
Join the Revolution
When faced with questions about the future of the Jewish people, it can seem counter-intuitive, even heretical, to argue that the best way to better understand Jewish institutions is by looking at a completely different religion.
However, early in my career I realized that while the Jewish people may be “chosen” (however one defines what that means), at no point are we told that modern Jewish institutions are chosen. I can thoughtfully disagree with my Christian brothers and sisters on messianic questions, but the reality is that synagogues and churches face relatively similar challenges regarding membership, education, social justice, Gen Z engagement, and so on; the differences are the exception, not the rule.1 And since there are hundreds of millions of Christians in North America, when trying to understand how societal trends will affect religious institutions of all kinds, the wide angle lens of churches has always been a better starting point for me than the relatively small Jewish population.
If you understand my thinking, but still find this problematic, I’m OK with that. Hardwired into our brains is a desire to see the examples closest to us as somehow more indicative of the bigger picture, and while the Barnum Effect focuses on how we look at data about ourselves and apply it too broadly, the same applies to how we look at other people.
Take Pharaoh. Pharaoh is afraid of the Israelite population growing too fast in the beginning of Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus), even though it’s highly unlikely that the Israelites would ever approach numerical parity with the Egyptian majority.2 But, in Pharaoh’s case then and our case today, when our needs are threatened, logic gets thrown out the window. We prefer to believe our lying eyes.
Meet Tom W.
However,4 Tom W. is of high intelligence, although lacking in true creativity. He has a need for order and clarity, and for neat and tidy systems in which every detail finds its appropriate place. His writing is rather dull and mechanical, occasionally enlivened by somewhat corny puns and by flashes of imagination of the sci-fi type. He has a strong drive for competence. He seems to have little feel and little sympathy for other people and does not enjoy interacting with others. Self-centered, he nonetheless has a deep moral sense.
Based on this profile, write down the five college majors you think Tom W. is most likely to select.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used Tom W. in an experiment with graduate students to demonstrate what becomes known as the base-rate fallacy, the idea that people overvalue individual examples over large, statistical trends.
In the case of Tom, when Kahneman and Tversky’s students were asked to write down the ten most popular majors without any profiled person, their answers were far different from how they answered that question about Tom. For example, even though participants correctly guessed that the humanities and education are more popular majors than computer science,5 participants predicted that Tom would choose computer science, ignoring the “base” statistic and gravitating to their assumptions about Tom as presented in the description.
Kahneman and Tversky argue that this is one of the reasons why leaders need to cultivate what they call an “outside view” and an “inside view” when making predictions.6 Essentially, the “outside view” is how a problem looks through statistics, societal trends, and other pieces of information not dependent on insider knowledge, and the “inside view” is basically the views one develops when in the thick of the work.
Returning to the base-rate fallacy, the story of Tom W. is an example of how our minds are pre-disposed to the inside view; once we learn details about Tom, we draw conclusions based on the details given. The mind does not immediately go to the “outside view,” where predictions should be driven by data, leading to all kinds of mental mistakes and poorly understood problems.
The Data Detective
Tim Harford is one of the most effective writers at explaining data-science to non-data scientists. Harford argues that “Good statistics are not a trick…but they are a kind of magic” because they can help us learn things about the world that “we would not be able to see in an other way.”7 And since I am not a data scientist and last took statistics twenty years ago,8 I found Harford’s book The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules To Make Sense of Statistics clear and comprehensive.
Harford points out that we live in a world that makes it easier to “selectively misremember” facts that challenge our assumptions. He writes:
“These days…we don’t need to mess around with a static-reducing button. On social media we can choose who to follow and who to block. A vast range of cable channels, podcasts, and streaming video lets us decide what to watch and what to ignore. We have more such choices than ever before, and you can bet that we’ll use them.”9
In terms of process, given Kahneman and Tversky’s notion of the “outside view” and the inside view,” Harford argues that, when trying to understand a big problem, it is better to start “with the statistical view…and then modify it in the light of personal experience than it is to go the other way around,” because the personal, inside view has “no sense of scale.”10 Frankly, our personal frame of reference on large scale questions is not that useful, and if we start from the outside, we will at least understand our personal experience in a larger context before letting our personal view scum our take from the start.
This brings me back to my love of church literature.
For years, I was asked how synagogues could better attract millennials; today, it’s how can synagogues attract Generation Z. This is a complex question, but the truth is that Jewish millennials are not, on the whole, that different from millennials, in general. As a result, if I want to give a decent answer, I should look at the literature focused on the hundreds of millions of Christian millennials living in North America to see if a better answer has been found (i.e. the “outside view”), because if I can find that answer, this answer is likely to be applicable to the much, much smaller Jewish population (i.e. the “inside view”).
Jewish leaders may be tempted to see our communal challenges are unique, and some undoubtedly are. But the default assumption should be that the challenges facing Jews fit into larger paradigms, and we need to find a way to avoid the base-rate fallacy when answering questions about these tectonic shifts.
How We Used Zoom in 2022: While “Zoom Fatigue” is real, Zoom is now one of the essential tools to the modern workforce. Here is data from Zoom on how people used Zoom in 2022, and what we can learn from it.
How Amazon Automates Work (And How We Will Soon): I make jokes about a robot taking over my job because I believe there is a real possibility that artificial intelligence will change what I do in ways I cannot anticipate. Here is a post about how Amazon already automates work, and why they are a leading indicator on what the future holds for all of us.
How The Cheesecake Factory Knows What You Want: In the restaurant world, The Cheesecake Factory defies the odds of a successful restaurant formula; here is an analysis of how they do it. Personally, you had me at “cheesecake,” no matter the content.
Why Must I Relive My Deepest Trauma To Convince Donors to Fund My Organization?: While some of the best fundraisers are those who fund a cause that personally affects that fundraiser, there is a darkside. Here is a powerful piece from The Chronicle of Philanthropy with one fundraiser’s story.
I’ve noticed that open rates are always high when I include a podcast recommendation, so here is a great one for this of Ezra Klein and Judith Shulevitz:
For example, the way a synagogue confronts issues of anti-Semitism and how an African American church confronts issues of racism will diverge in terms of how each disease of hatred presents itself to each community. However, many of the practical questions raised by these issues, such as security or political advocacy, are actually quite similar.
I’m not aware of any rabbinic commentaries who say that the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied to the point where there were more Israelites than Egyptians. But if such a commentary exists, feel free to let me know. That said, even if that commentary exists, it is not the dominant interpretation.
You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Gregs…
This paragraph about Tom W. is copied word-for word from this article for rhetorical purposes. See Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “On the Psychology of Prediction,” Psychological Review, Volume 80, Number 4 (1973), 237-251.
I have no idea what the most popular majors are in 2022, but even if they are different it’s irrelevant. The base-rate fallacy is less about specific majors and more about approach to answering the question.
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Volume 5 (1992), 297-323. Kahneman also talks about the “outside view” in great detail in chapter 23 of Thinking Fast and Slow.
Tim Harford, The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics (New York: Riverhead Books, 2021), 9.