Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel: A new look at corona conspiracies

Ancient worldviews take on a completely different meaning today in an age when information is so accessible, so available and yet so confusing.

The Western Wall (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The Western Wall
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

The Talmud tells us that the two great houses of Rabbinic thought had widely differing views regarding students and Torah study: Beit Shammai only accepted “worthy” students, but Beit Hillel believed Torah should be taught to anyone, in the expectation that they would repent and become worthy.
These highly controversial worldviews take on a completely different meaning today in an age when information is so accessible, so available and yet so confusing.
Confusion arises from being bombarded with too much information, the uncertainty of being able to earn a livelihood, and raw fear about what’s coming next – a toxic mix.
As for “the crowd,” the days of tolerance for those in charge have gone. They want to see change and when this is delayed, the credibility of – and trust in – government officials, professionals and medical research is severely undermined.
Medical research and science can very easily defeat conspiracy theorists. Out of distress and sheer ignorance, conspirators crawl on their knees scooping up random pieces of inaccurate information.
They listen to the wrong “experts” read the wrong articles, and thirstily imbibe the noisy, colorful, intriguing and highly attractive liquor of crazy schemes, plots, collusions and evil plans. A perfect picture for an amusing reality show: frustrated lab mice hurtling crazily around a maze.
Except for this small twist – these “mice” have a huge impact on our lives and future. They have the vote and will determine government policy on the involvement of science and research in our lives going forward. Thus they will vote emotionally with their beliefs about research and science, no matter how off the mark they may be.
Those who support the conspirators also bear personal responsibility for what spews from their keyboards, yet they also deserve some leniency for at least two main reasons:
A. The public is not trained or educated from an early age to correctly process scientific information
B. Scientifically-based analysis itself is far from being the “perfect host”. It can be confusing to those who do not know how to implement it. It produces a lot of information, but without a central narrative nothing can be done with the information at best, or opposing conclusions will be drawn and acted on, at worst.
There is also another view that requires attention from both sides. It is now obvious that science carries increasing implications for our lives.
“Science, not the rabbi, decides if there will be a minyan today,” someone jokingly wrote. Therefore, there is a real desire to know more and to understand how it all works.
Many people are no longer interested in the conclusions and instructions that someone else has already chewed for them. They want to understand the essence of the issue, what’s happening behind the scenes. The masses realize there is a lot of knowledge out there; many processes that influence fateful decisions and the day-to-day choices directly affecting them.
At the end of the day, trust should be established between the experts and the public. The crowd will never be able to specialize and become expert in these realms. The scientific community must thus not allow extremists to lead, but must control different voices in a measured way. It must also ensure that science is accessible to the common man and more specifically, it must earn the public’s trust.
Both sides need to make a change. Here are some concrete ideas:
• Followers of conspiracy theorists: Understand that researchers are not engaged in malevolent plots. Do not declare your desired result and then look for information to back it up. That is not where the truth lies. There is a proven method to gaining the correct information, and more effort must be invested in delivering it. There is no black or white but there is eventually much satisfaction, even if the conclusion is different from your original hypothesis, or even if there is no clear answer. Have the courage to stand up and say “we don’t know yet.”
• Scientists: Many serious scientific bodies and associations are making science accessible to the public. But it could be a case of “too little, too late.” Not enough people are yet in the loop.
The thirst for knowledge needs to be quenched to advance more accessible science; to correctly apply the principles of scientific methods and to allow for better and clearer orientation of our knowledge. We need to filter the noise from people who deliberately or even unintentionally are exploiting mass curiosity and feeding the need for instant gratification.
One doesn’t need a decade in academia, a white robe or a serious face. Just be curious, tolerant, open and sincere to reach your own conclusions after actual observations and findings – and not in advance. ■
The writer, an entrepreneurial business and market development professional with more than 20 years of experience and achievements, describes himself as a “passionate science communicator, a problem-solver and value-creator”