Friday, January 21, 2011

R. Slifkin and Mental Illness

Debating R. Slifkin has never been a pleasant task. There are serious problems with his scholarship and with the techniques he uses to refute those who critique his scholarship. This makes it difficult to have a civil yet vigorous debate.

After the whole incident of “Mike the headless chicken”, even Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky Shlita (who initially was supportive), gave up on him. R. Slifkin had challenged the Talmudic rule פסיק רשיה ולא ימות with the story of Mike the headless chicken who survived decapitation. R. Slifkin omitted to say that the scientists at Utah University reported that Mike was not completely decapitated: “most of his brain stem and one ear was left on his body. Since most of a chicken's reflex actions are controlled by the brain stem Mike was able to remain quite healthy”. The Talmudic rule is speaking about a completely decapitated chicken, so obviously there is no difficulty at all. R. Slifkin attempted to use this case as a basis for his general approach that Chazal were prone to error in their statements about the natural world, a continuous refrain on his blog.

R. Slifkin is, of course, perfectly sane. But, in the latest round of discussion he quoted anonymous sources to the effect that his disputants are insane and mentally ill for reasons that might very well apply to his own behaviour. On his blog today he wrote that he had to explain eight times to his opponent that he was entirely fabricating R. Slifkin’s position before his opponent acknowledged that R. Slifkin was correct! “Is that normal?”, he asked.

Now he does not provide an entirely accurate summary of the discussion but I leave it up to readers to check it our for themselves. It is R. Slifkin’s right to analyze his disputants and their right to correct the record. At least, in the end, as R. Slifkin conceded, his disputant acknowledged that he had been sloppy and changed the sentence in question to reflect the discussion.

But let’s see an example of how R. Slifkin reacts to a simple question, repeated no less than five times. Not once did he answer the actual question posed. What he did do was attempt to deflect the discussion away from the question and then ended with a vitriolic attack against his disputant. Having achieved the concession that he wanted, he waived goodbye, and then blogged about the mental insanity of his disputants. Smart but not nice!  Emphasis is added in the following snippets:

clip_image002YSO said...R. Slifkin, can you provide the precise words of the Rishonim where they explicitly write that Chazal as a group believed that the rakiya discussed in Pesachim 94b is literally a solid dome? January 7, 2011 12:30 AM clip_image001

clip_image002Natan Slifkin said...The words of Chazal in the Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Midrash about the nature of the rakia and the sun's passage on both sides of it are explicit, and none of the Rishonim claim that Chazal were not speaking literally. Perhaps you would like to discuss the different sugyos, and the words of all the Rishonim that I cited in my monograph, and give your own explanation of all these sources?January 7, 2011 4:36 AM clip_image001[1]

clip_image002[1]YSO said...R. Slifkin, I don't see how you have answered my question. Can we start with at least one Rishon? I.e., can you provide the precise words of one Rishon who explicitly states that Chazal as a group believed that the rakiya discussed in Pesachim 94b is literally a solid dome?January 7, 2011 7:07 AM clip_image001[2]

Instead of answering this very simple question, R. Slifkin went off on a tangent. He presented his own interpretations of Chazal and other such displacement activity. But that was not what was being asked. The question posed to R. Slifkin was whether he had an explicit prooftext from the Rishonim for his thesis. These prooftexts never materialized. Instead,  after the fifth request for explicit prooftexts from the Rishonim or an admission that he did not have that level of proof, we get the following response:

clip_image002[2]Natan Slifkin said...... Now you are issuing the fantastic claim that Chazal did not mean what they plainly appear to mean and what the Rishonim understood them to mean and what everyone acknowledges the Rishonim understood them to mean, or that there were other members of Chazal who held differently. Please back this up with a prooftext. Present even a single contrary source from Chazal or from the Rishonim (concerning Chazal's views), or stop with your silly diversions which make you sound like an obfuscating fundamentalist idiot.January 9, 2011 12:01 AM

Actually, at that point, the disputant had not claimed anything. He merely asked for prooftexts. When the same conversation and request for prooftexts continued in a subsequent post, the insults came even sooner:

clip_image002[2]Natan Slifkin said...…you opened your post with two falsifications of my views. I pointed this out, and yet you refuse to back up your charges or retract them; instead you tried to change the topic. This is why I don't engage you in discussion, …  You're plain dishonest and scurrilous. January 18, 2011 10:58 AM clip_image001[3]


12 comments:

  1. YSO:

    I clearly say that you believe G-d guides evolution. The problem, if anything, is your sloppy language when you write that "the blind watchmaker thesis need not be incompatible with Judaism."

    Above, you state that R. Slifkin is guilty of, at most, using sloppy language.

    Yet you continue to refuse to retract your initial assertion that R. Slifkin believes that evolution’s blind watchmaker thesis is compatible with Judaism. The basis for your assertion is a quote from R. Slikkin's book from a chapter where it is objectively clear and obvious that R. Slifkin means to say the opposite of what you state R. Slifkin believes. (I agree that the one sentence that you quote, especially when taken out of context, can be construed as sloppy.)

    However, your original assertion is wrong, and after this was pointed out to you repeatedly, in this post and in a previous one, you continue to assert it. That is dishonest.

    In light of your dishonesty, I will no longer engage you in conversation. You have lost credibility such that, for example, I do not trust your analysis of the the Rishonim on the Rakiya.

    Which is a shame, because I am hoping to fully understand R. Slifkin's detractors. I will continue in that endeavor, but you will no longer be a source of learning for me.

    I wish you well.

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  2. Sorry, I failed to see the smoking gun here.

    In regard to "Mike the headless chicken", RNS himself acknowledged his mistake in the way that he wrote that essay.

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  3. 1. What is the relevance of the "Mike the Headless Chicken" case to this post?

    2. "IIRC, R. Slifkin had challenged the Talmudic rule פסיק רשיה ולא ימות with the story of Mike the headless chicken who survived decapitation." This is misleading. IIRC, his point was that the Talmudic rule is NOT challenged by this case.

    3. "R. Slifkin omitted to say that the scientists at Utah University reported that Mike was not completely decapitated: “most of his brain stem and one ear was left on his body." You omitted to say that he readily admitted his error and apologized for it. But IMHO his retraction was too hasty and inconsistent with his own statements about Chazal's knowledge of physiology. Who says that Chazal would deem a brain stem and an ear to be significant?

    4. You omitted to say that according to R. Daniel Eidensohn, Rav Moshe Sternbuch of the Edah Charedis thought that RNS' point about Psik Raisha was entirely correct and he didn't understand why Rav Kamenetsky was bothered. And according to R. Eidensohn, it was just a "way out" for Rav Kamenetsky, who couldn't take the pressure anymore.

    5. Rabbi Coffer already pointed out the obvious reason why RNS would not respond to your question. It was not designed to reach clarity about the Gemara or RNS' views. You knew full well exactly what the sources say and do not say. Rather, it was designed to obtain a sound bite that you would disingenuously use against him.

    6. "at that point, the disputant had not claimed anything." So you're not claiming anything? You accept the idea that Chazal believed in a solid dome - which is a standard view, but which you prefer to refer to as the "Slifkin solid dome theory"? Of course you don't. You're being disingenuous again. It's no wonder that everyone gives up on debating you.

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  4. Dear Nachum, you are quoting from a previous post and this is not really the place to address R. Slifkin's use of the BWT terminology. This post is about his use of anonymous sources who attribute mental illness to his critics. I wonder if you agree with his approach?

    My own statement (from Oct20, 2010) about his beliefs is point #2 here. Feel free to critique it.

    I have asked R. Slifkin to clarify what he means by his his use of the BWT treminology in his book. Despite numerous requests, he has yet to respond. My question is very specific. Now feel free to answer for yourself whether he means #1a or #1b, but I am actually waiting for his answer.

    Question from a prior thread to R. Slifkin

    In your book on p297 you write "So far we have only discussed the argument that the blind-watchmaker-thesis need not be incompatible with Judaism.

    And just to be clear as to the what the definition of the blind watchmaker thesis is, I take it in the standard way as it it is used in Dawkins' book and in the scientific literature. As I pointed out, even the religious Roman Catholic anti-ID biologist at Brown, Ken Miller (I believe you quote him at times in a different context), is co-author of a classic biology textbook that in all its editions has stated that: “Evolution works without either plan or purpose — Evolution is random and undirected.” (Biology, by Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine (1st ed., Prentice Hall, 1991), pg. 658; (3rd ed., Prentice Hall, 1995), pg. 658; (4th ed., Prentice Hall, 1998), pg. 658)

    Here are two possibilities as to what you might mean (maybe there are more).

    (1a) I Natan Slfkin believe that the blind watchmaker thesis is compatible with Judaism.

    (1b) I Natan Slifkin believe that the blind watchmaker thesis is incompatible with Judaism.

    Do you mean #1b? If not, what do you mean precisely?

    If you refuse to respond to this very simple question then you must expect that I and others will have to interpret your views without the input that only you can provide. You will thus have no cause for complaint.

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  5. Dear Yissacher can you provide me with Rav Moshe Sternbuch's writings in defense of R. Slifkin's headless chicken claim?

    And yes, it is good that R. Slifkin retracted. I am all for it. The retraction came as a result of others who are concerned for our mesora researching R. Slifkin's sources and publicizing his mistake. But the point of the headless chicken example was that he has alienated even his initial supporters among Gedolei Yisroel with his behaviour.

    This post is about R. Slifkin's use of anonymous sources who attribute mental illness to his critics. I wonder if you agree with his approach?

    Rav Sternbuch statement in the aftermath of the Slifkin affair can be seen here.

    I did not see R. Coffer address this issue. Perhaps you can quote his precise words. Even better, let him speak for himself.

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  6. To answer your question, I disagree with R. Slifkin's act of posting an anonymous source attributing mental illness to you. However, I cannot judge him for that act because I don't know what it feels like to have to defend oneself against intentional and public false allegations and misrepresentations.

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  7. Dear Nachum, as R. Slifkin acknowledged, the sentence he was concerned about in my post has been revised.

    I referred you to my analysis of his position in my prior comment, but let me quote myself explicitly (Oct, 2010): As a religious Jew, R. Slifkin’s view of science is actually something quite different from the scientific consensus. His view is that G-d guides evolution—contradicting the scientific consensus of accidental unguided evolution. Indeed, contra R. Slifkin, evolution’s Blind Watchmaker Thesis is incompatible with Torah

    If your comment about intentional misrepresentation is directed at me then you are making serious and unsubstantiated allegations that have no basis in fact!

    R. Slifkin has yet to explain his own views on his use of the BWT terminology, so perhaps you can ask him to clarify if it is #1a or #1b?

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  8. Yissacher -

    5. Rabbi Coffer already pointed out the obvious reason why RNS would not respond to your question. It was not designed to reach clarity about the Gemara or RNS' views. You knew full well exactly what the sources say and do not say. Rather, it was designed to obtain a sound bite that you would disingenuously use against him.

    Wow! I said all that? I must have been drunk on that day. Can you please tell me where I wrote that so I can delete it from the record? It is embarrassing enough to be an alcoholic. The whole world doesn’t have to find out about it!

    Oh, and if you can’t find it anywhere, would you consider joining AA yourself? I’m kidding around with you Yissacher. But all kidding aside, I think you’re confusing me with someone else.

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  9. Dr. Ostroff, your constantly repeated objection about Blind Watchmaker Thesis is something that has been addressed NUMEROUS times in SEVERAL comment threads by several people - myself, Rafi, Moshe Raphael, and others. It was also explicitly addressed by R. Slifkin himself at length, both in comment threads here and in his book. Do you really have no idea what anyone said about this? No idea whatsoever?

    This is exactly like your complete inability to acknowledge R. Slifkin's objection to your misrepresenting his views on science, which he had to repeat eight times before you understood his clear words. Except that in this case, it's already been about twenty times that people have made the same point, and you're apparently still completely oblivious to it.

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  10. http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=41414

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. B"H
    Dear Yissacher,
    You wrote:
    But IMHO his retraction was too hasty and inconsistent with his own statements about Chazal's knowledge of physiology. Who says that Chazal would deem a brain stem and an ear to be significant?

    IB:
    Welcome back to this blogspot.
    If Natan Slifkin agrees with your position, then he can post a retraction from his retraction.

    ReplyDelete