The Pundit’s Fallacy and the Jews

eJewish Philanthropy. June 20, 2019.

The best way to get elected is to campaign on the policies I prefer.

That’s the essence of what political writer Matthew Yglesias has called “the pundit’s fallacy.” It’s a useful concept for any kind of strategic thinking, not just politics. We all sometimes accidentally tip the scales of our empirical judgments in favor of the things and people and actions we like.

Now, the pundit’s fallacy isn’t technically a fallacy in terms of propositional logic. (I would even humbly suggest that “the pundit’s bias” would be a more accurate term, but I admit that doesn’t land as well). To put it another way, you can’t discredit any argument by reference to the pundit’s fallacy, because you can “commit” the pundit’s fallacy and still be correct. Your bias could lead you astray, or it could lead you to what happens to be a correct prediction.

So the usefulness of the pundit’s fallacy isn’t in evaluating any given argument, but in evaluating complete bodies of punditry work. It’s a litmus test for identifying thinkers who are able to distinguish their wishes from their analyses – to recognize what philosophers, paraphrasing David Hume, call the “is-ought problem.” If a pundit sometimes says her preferred policy in one area is an effective strategy, but admits for other issues that her personal preference would be counterproductive, then she is probably a nuanced thinker offering useful strategic judgments; if, by contrast, a pundit argues in every case that the most effective strategy just happens to be the option he wants on its other merits, then he’s probably a hack, practically unable to separate the “is” from the “ought.”

Once you start looking for the pundit’s fallacy, you’ll see it everywhere. (Yes, yes, because of a different bias: confirmation bias. But still – it’s there!) Examples abound in politics, sports, arts and entertainment, and more, but this is a Jewish article in a Jewish publication, so the more relevant point is that in the Jewish communal world, we commit the pundit’s fallacy as much as anyone else. And that’s worth pausing over.

For just one example, how often have we heard the argument, from people who passionately believe that intermarriage is beautiful and a positive good in its own right, that intermarriage will not cause the Jewish community to become numerically smaller? It just so happens that their empirical interpretation of demographic studies matches their moral and aesthetic preference. Who would have thought?

The same is true for many traditionalists who decry intermarriage as an inevitable watering down of Jewish substance and commitment and who are also convinced that intermarriage means the end of Jewish continuity in America. Lo and behold, they predict that what they dislike will lead to decline – what a coincidence.

One of these groups may indeed be right about the demographics, but I find myself wonderingwhy this is and the ought always seem to line up so neatly.

They don’t need to. Prof. Shaul Magid, for example, once argued that the anti-intermarriage partisans are correct in their demographic analysis but still wrong on policy. The numbers will go down, Magid acknowledged, but creativity/quality is much more important than numbers. I find this argument thrilling, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a welcome break from such an otherwise unbroken chain of pundit’s fallacies on this topic.

I have yet to encounter anyone making the inverse of Magid’s argument – that intermarriage will be bad for the vibrancy and quality of Jewish culture, but will cause the Jewish population to increase – but it’s an interesting one, and speaking as a Jewish traditionalist with no strong opinion about how to interpret the demographic controversies, I don’t see why it isn’t at least apossibility worth considering or trying to envision.

Another Jewish issue steeped in the pundit’s fallacy is the set of questions about dialogue over Israel. Who should get to speak at Hillels? Should Jewish leaders share platforms with non-Zionists or anti-Zionists?

If you look at the takes on these and related questions, you’ll notice that, generally, those who are most right-wing in their Zionism also believe (and how could anyone see this coming?) that the best or only way to “win” the hearts and minds of young Jews and keep them proud and engaged is to ban and shun anti-Zionists in every context. Meanwhile, Jews who are non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, or left-wing in their Zionism just happen to conclude (golly Moses, what a shock) that the only way to keep rising generations of Jews engaged is to embrace nuanced, open, and honest dialogue about Israel featuring the entire spectrum of voices.

There are, of course, exceptions to these neatly-aligned arguments in the meta-conversation over Israel dialogue. (More exceptions than in the intermarriage wars, anyway.) But they can barely be heard amid the constant roar of pundit’s fallacies.

As fun as it is to spot other people’s biases, the best use of the pundit’s fallacy concept is for each of us to examine our own arguments. Again, for any given issue, finding that your empirical analysis lines up with your preference doesn’t necessarily mean that your prediction is wrong. But any time it does line up so neatly, it should make you just a little bit nervous. It should make you go back and think it over one more time, and, ideally, consult smart people who disagree with you, to make sure you’re not missing something or trapped by wishful thinking.

Furthermore, if you look back on many analyses you’ve made over time about many different issues and find that your empirical analyses have always bolstered your preferences – if you can’t find even a single case in which you perceive that the policy you prefer would be ineffective at achieving some goal – then you should be more than just a little bit nervous. You should realize that you have been systematically deceiving yourself.