In the context of a criticism and defence of modern orthodoxy, Prof. B. Barry Levy, Emeritus Professor of Jewish and Biblical Studies at McGill University in Montreal, argued the following:-

‘Our greatest challenge today is not Reform, or Reconstructionism, or Conservativism, or Liberal Orthodoxy, or Centrist Orthodoxy, or Hasidism, or ‘Harediism.’ Our greatest collective problem—though it affects different groups in different ways—is Mindless Orthodoxy. This is the uncritical following of a fixed religious life whose most minute details are controlled or invented for us, that avoids rational debate in favor of faithful adherence to rituals.’

In so doing he was proposing that the modern orthodox stance has to encompass what he calls – believers, heretics, and critics – indeed that individuals should try to balance all three orientations in themselves – belief, heresy, criticism. I don’t think this should be confined to Modern Orthodoxy, it seems applicable across the spectrum – we should all be on the lookout for our own specific forms of Mindless Orthodoxy and avoidance of rational debate – and constantly seek to balance belief, heresy, and criticism.

Now what happens if we replace some of Professor Levy’s words with others from beyond the confines of Judaism? How about …

Our greatest collective problem—though it affects different groups in different ways—is Mindless Orthodoxy. This is the uncritical spreading and following of misinformation particularly using social mediaresulting in the suppression and avoidance of rational debate in favor of faithful adherence to formalities (e.g. ‘liking’ on Facebook and ‘retweeting’?) that disseminate that misinformation …

Before early 2020, people were probably aware of the ways in which the internet, particularly in the form of social media, has allowed the spread of misinformation or disinformation, particularly since the appearance of Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005, but the COVID pandemic has ratcheted things up several levels.

Just to clarify ‘misinformation’ – is “false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead.”  The earliest use of the term dates back to the 16th century – half a millennium ago. If you are spreading information around that is wrong, but you don’t know it is wrong, then you are spreading misinformation.

Disinformation on the other hand is knowingly spreading misinformation; and in its earliest forms was associated with the military and espionage. The term itself was popularized by Stalin who set up a government department, linked to the KGB, in the Soviet era with the name dezinformatsiya – using what he thought sounded like a Western term.

Disinformation – deliberately spreading misinformation – has been around for a long time, Exodus 23 states ‘Do not spread false reports’, and it has been an increasingly common component of government and opposition strategies across the world.

But our current plague of disinformation is somewhat different. It is increasingly self-inflicted through the web and social media. In fact in November 2019 – before the COVID pandemic – Tim Berners-Lee was already lamenting what had happened since 1989 when he had created and launched the world wide web. He marked its 30th anniversary by announcing a global action plan to save the web from political manipulation, fake news, privacy violations and other malign forces that threaten to plunge the world into what he termed a “digital dystopia”.

The term dystopia is an unsettling and disconcerting one, eliciting a range of images, in many cases drawn from literature and dramatic films or TV series. It can, for instance, evoke an Orwellian ‘Big Brother’, all-seeing, privacy-destroying authoritarianism. It can also refer to an economic or ecological melt-down, leading to massive social deprivation and immiseration; an imagined world or society in which people lead dehumanized, fearful lives.

In an interview for The Guardian in November 2019, Berners-Lee said: “I think people’s fear of bad things happening on the internet is becoming, justifiably, greater and greater. If we leave the web as it is, there’s a very large number of things that will go wrong. We could end up with a digital dystopia if we don’t turn things around. It’s not that we need a 10-year plan for the web, we need to turn the web around now.” … and then along came the COVID pandemic.

In the 1990s the web was heralded as a way of putting everyone in touch with one another, leading to a friendlier world. So what went so wrong? The web is built upon the internet – the network of networks that was developed in the 1960s. Vint Cerf, one of the internet pioneers (not spelt SURF!), pre-empted Berners-Lee by 2 years when he wrote an article with the title ‘What Hath We Wrought’.

“While we have yet to determine what, exactly, is the online moral equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, it seems clear that societies that are significant users of online resources need a way to cope with a wide range of harms that malevolent users might visit upon others. The need is transnational in scope, and users aren’t exempt from responsibility. Adopting safe networking practices (supported by cooperating online services companies) should be a high priority, and providing technical means to implement them should be the business of the computing and networking community. Finding mutually supportive legal agreements between nations to sanction harmful online behaviors will be a challenge worth exploring.”

Cerf’s title was no accident. It is taken from the King James Bible—Numbers 23:23. ‘Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, what hath God wrought!’ Samuel Morse used it in May 1844, when he sent the first message by telegraph from Baltimore to Washington. Even more significantly ‘What Hath Man Wrought!’ was the title of the editorial in The United States News written by David Lawrence, its founder, in the wake of the detonation of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 1945. Cerf’s use of the phrase deliberately evokes these cries of anguish, and this is echoed by Berners-Lee.

Interestingly Vint Cerf now works for Google where his job title is ‘Chief Internet Evangelist’! So maybe we haven’t left the religious world! Make of that what you will.

Now recall that I began by using the words of Barry Levy, but then adapting them so that in part they read … Our greatest collective problem—though it affects different groups in different ways—is Mindless Orthodoxy. This is the uncritical spreading and following of misinformation particularly using social mediaresulting in the suppression and avoidance of rational debate in favor of faithful adherence to formalities t(e.g. ‘liking’ on Facebook and ‘retweeting’?) that disseminate that misinformation …

As we are now beginning to understand, the web is a potent mechanism for propagating and amplifying misinformation and disinformation, but this doesn’t just happen by itself and it is no longer something only under the control of governments – which is not to ignore the ways in which governments, private agencies and organizations make use of the web for manipulating public opinion. The world wide web has not put us in touch with one another, on the contrary it seems to have allowed us to form silos and echo chambers; groups of people who share and amplify the same views and are impervious to alternative ideas. This is exacerbated by the algorithms that underlie many social media sites which reinforce the biases and prejudices of specific groups of social media users. In 2016 Microsoft set up an automated speech-recognition device – a  chatbot – called Tay, which was then given its own Twitter account and allowed to interact with the public. It turned into a racist, pro-Hitler troll with a penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories in just 24 hours.

I am fairly certain that each one of us has at some point in the past 18 months or so, since the onset of the pandemic, come across something on the web or TV, radio or even in a newspaper, which has provoked the response ‘well how could anyone believe that!? – it is just preposterous’. Such responses can often lead to shouting at the computer screen, TV or radio, which may be futile but can also be quite cathartic and effective as a form of emotional release!

But there are several problems with this. Although some particular item or items may have caught one’s attention, does that mean that all those that passed by without such a response were accurate and well-founded? What if some of the people who seem to believe or uphold those ridiculous ideas have similar responses to things I take for granted or openly acknowledge as true or believable, making them throw their hands up in horror, wondering how anyone could accept such notions? And to what extent do each of us pass on items to others without questioning their validity and truthfulness?

In mid-August I came across an article by Konstantin Kisin, someone I had never heard of beforehand. He is a Russian-British comedian and podcaster – and apparently the current Jewish Comedian of the Year (I am not sure who awards that title, so treat that nugget of information with some suspicion). The article appeared in the Jewish magazine Tablet – NOT The Tablet, which is a Catholic publication. As far as I am concerned, its appearance in Tablet gives it some credibility. Kisin’s article, ‘Why don’t they believe us?’ had the strap line ‘You’re struggling to understand where all this vaccine hesitancy comes from. Let me help you.’

Imagine you’re a normal person. The year is 2016. Rightly or wrongly, you believe most of what you see in the media. You believe polls are broadly reflective of public opinion. You believe doctors and scientists are trustworthy and independent. You’re a decent, reasonable person who follows the rules and trusts the authorities.

Imagine your shock, then, when Brexit, which you were assured couldn’t happen because it was a fringe movement led by racists for racists, happens. The polls, which widely predicted it wouldn’t happen, were wrong. The experts and pundits who told you day after day that it wouldn’t happen were also wrong. “Oh well,” you say, “these things happen.”

Imagine that soon after Brexit, [still in 2016] Donald Trump is running for president. You are told by the most trustworthy media outlets that he is going to lose. Some experts say his opponent has a 99% chance of winning. Imagine waking up the morning after the election to discover that the pollsters, experts, and politicians you still trusted were wrong again. Now the racist monster who you were told would never get near the White House is the leader of the free world.

“How did this happen?” you ask yourself. How could everyone I rely on for good information be so wrong? “It was the Russians,” they tell you. “The Russians did Brexit, and they got Trump elected too.” Imagine that for the next three years, day after day, the media and politicians you still trust keep you up to date on this story of Trump’s collusion with Russia. They tell you the how, when, where, and why: the dossiers, the whistleblowers, … . Imagine your desperation for things to somehow make sense again.

That is a telling phrase that Kisin uses: Imagine your desperation for things to somehow make sense again.

We really do want to believe the experts and the authorities. We all have to take some things for granted, a life of total suspicion would be very tiring and challenging. And then in late 2019, early 2020, the COVID pandemic breaks out.

It starts in China, but soon you are watching the scenes of sick people from Italy. There is widespread unease, and governments seek to allay these fears with daily press conferences involving accredited experts who offer explanations and strategies for dealing with the escalating situation.

Kisin’s article goes on …

President Trump shuts down travel to the United States from China. He has been widely condemned as a racist repeatedly in the past, and the same explanation is given this time. [people] tell you Trump is racist for calling a virus that emerged in China a “Chinese virus.” In response, the mayor of Florence advises Italian citizens to fight Trump’s anti-Chinese bigotry by “hugging a Chinese person.” Shortly after, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, visits Chinatown in San Francisco to explain that “there’s no reason tourists or locals should be staying away from the area because of coronavirus concerns.”

Then Trump doubles down on his racism by claiming the virus may have come from a lab in Wuhan.

Anyway, you decide to try to protect yourself and your family. You see that many people in Asia are wearing masks and so try to buy some surgical masks or make your own cloth ones. But you are then told by some of these same experts that you do not need to do this, and that the key ways of combatting the virus are to stay 2 metres apart, take care not to touch exposed surfaces – suddenly everyone uses the term fomites – wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching your face. But then a few months later these same people tell you that in fact you should wear masks as the virus is spread by droplets in the air, but these are heavy and fall to the ground fairly rapidly and in close proximity to their source.  If you are wondering who these people are – they include the WHO and many scientific advisors to governments across the world. It then transpires that in some cases the advice from the authorities that masks were not necessary was given to allow these items, at the time in limited supply, to be more accessible for healthcare and medical workers.

And all the while people are living in various levels of lockdown, but stories keep emerging of politicians, and other high-profile people flagrantly breaking the rules, and in some cases offering excuses that insult our intelligence.

Kisin summarizes the ways in which we have all been victims and probably propagators of misinformation – the inevitable effect of all the efforts at disinformation that have been going on.

The same people who told you Brexit would never happen, that Trump would never win, that when he did win it was because of Russian collusion … that you must follow lockdowns while they don’t, that masks don’t work, that masks do work, … that COVID couldn’t have come from a lab until maybe it did, that closing borders is racist until maybe it isn’t, … [these] are the same people telling you now that the vaccine is safe, that you must take it, and that if you don’t, you will be a second-class citizen.

And his conclusion packs a punch as he asks ‘do you understand vaccine hesitancy now?’

Please do not misunderstand me – I’ve been double vaccinated and consider myself enormously fortunate to be in that position. The efforts to produce the vaccines in such a short time have been quite astounding, based on messenger RNA research dating back to the 1960s that would probably never have been funded in our current ‘impact-crazed’ research assessment context – permit me this heart-felt aside! I am not in any way concurring with the anti-vaxxers or COVID conspiracy groups. On the contrary I regard such disinformation efforts as pernicious and wicked.

But unfortunately not all things are as clearly demarcated. The early idea that the virus was spread by contact with surfaces – fomites – was eventually shown to be highly exaggerated. The downplaying of mask wearing was seen as a deliberately misleading tactic to ensure that the limited supplies were not bought up by the general population. Attention then shifted to spread by droplets, but this was challenged by those who explained that it was in fact spread by airborne particles, aerosols, which are far more long-lasting and widespread since they do not fall to the ground close to the source but linger in the air. Let’s face it, Perspex screens may not be a good idea!

Currently the jury is out with regard to the origins of SARS-COV2 – did it come from a wet-market, or from a laboratory leak, or from something else entirely? How does the virus spread – by droplets or aerosols; the latter seems to be the case. Do some of the treatments touted on the web and elsewhere actually work – for instance ivermectin, or some anti-inflammatory drugs? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask.

Politicians have taken up the phrase that they will ‘follow the science’ or use ‘data not dates’ – but their subsequent actions indicate that they do nothing of the sort. Indeed the idea that there is something called ‘the science’ is nonsense; science is a social process involving dialogue and critical discussion. And it must not be constrained by political or financial pressures. Insightful and productive scientists are at one and the same time; believers, heretics, and critics. Hence the current debates about booster vaccines, different forms of treatment and behavioural advice and so on. Scientific debate and research never comes to a definitive conclusion, at best it offers some fairly secure and well-tested stopping points from which other research and ideas can develop. It is not assisted by misinformation, and can be significantly harmed by disinformation.

And just to place the ironic cherry on the cake, just last week it was reported that a landmark study from nearly 10 years ago that endorsed a simple way to curb cheating is going to be retracted after a group of scientists found that it relied on faked data. This was work done by Dan Ariely, a highly-regarded – well he was highly regarded – behavioural economist. In fact some of Ariely’s other work has been questioned/criticised. In a famous study in 2008 he claimed that prompting people to recall the Ten Commandments before a test cuts down on cheating, but an outside team later failed to replicate this, another study in 2004 has now been found to have severe statistical discrepancies. And in 2010 Ariely claimed that he had found that dentists often disagree on whether X-Rays show a cavity, citing a specific insurance company as the source of his data; but he had to retract this when the company said it could not have shared that information with him because it did not collect it. The person who literally wrote the book on dishonesty has now been found to have been dishonest. And just note that it took rather a long time for the scientific community to get on to these issues, indeed the group who uncovered the fraud in his work stated that the length of time it took was ‘a failure of science’.

So as we embark upon this period of 10 days of penitence starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, we should each reflect upon the ways in which we may inadvertently have spread misinformation, and how we may have criticised and scolded those who hold views at odds with our own without reflecting on the possibility that those who hold such views may have good reasons for doing so and will view our opinions in the same manner. We should also, as far as possible, turn the critical lens through 180 degrees, examining our own ideas and assumptions in a critical and potentially heretical manner. Something to bear in mind on YK when we recite oshamnu we have sinned.

In the words used by Barry Levy we should seek to balance belief, heresy, and criticism in all our exchanges and relationships with others – real and virtual; aiming to avoid mindless orthodoxy, instead fostering constructive and sympathetic rational debate. In that way we may help in some small way to counter the slide towards the digital dystopia that quite understandably alarms Tim Berners-Lee and many others – making 5782 a year of constructive and enlightened dialogue.

Shanah Tovah; G’mar chatima tova: a good and final seal.