Tuesday, June 28, 2005

California is a large country and there is no substitute for firsthand experience

California is "a large country of the West Indies. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island." So reads the entry on California in the first edition of the august Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1768.

You've got to experience things to really make authoritative prounouncements about them, and even then, with limitations. I've noticed that almost without exception when I know a lot about a subject (there are a few things I know a great deal about ;) ) and I read something about it that is not written by a real expert it will contain errors, sometimes minor and sometimes embarassingly obvious. I have to assume that's true for the many things that I do not know a great deal about. An expert mohel told me that he's spotted mistakes in every New York Times treatment of circumcision in the science section over more than 50 years. In other words, most things you will read that is written by jack-of-all-trades types, newspaper treatments, popular books and even the Encyclopaedia Britannica (I think they've corrected the California entry) will make mistakes, whether mistaken assumptions or facts. It may be that a really good article or book gets 99% right, which is really impressive, but the erroneous 1% won't come with a footnote identifying itself as an error.

I was thinking about this because of something I read in Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine. Levine spent a year in Crown Heights living and interacting with Lubavitch teenage girls. It's a good book, find it and read it. When she told her PhD advisor at Harvard (this is from memory -- when I get home I will check and make sure that's who it was) her intention to study the girls he basically expressed doubt if girls in such a male-dominated and restrictive society would even have individual personalities. Levine is happy to report that they do; they're happy, they have hopes, dreams, crestivity etc. When I read that I knew that even though I was not a Lubavitcher I am an Orthodox insider and really consider the preconception that these girls would be automatons absurd. Because I know better. I know that Orthodox Jews, even haredim, love and laugh and think. But you wouldn't know it if you didn't, well, know it. That's a limitation that some books about things have.

What's the solution to this problem? Nothing really, apart from trying to get your information about a subject from multiple sources, but also to have some healthy skepticism.

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