Pinker on the Kosher Switch

April 16, 2015 • 10:00 am

The Kosher Switch post I put up yesterday, showing how some clever Orthodox Jews can circumvent the regulations not to turn on lights during the Sabbath, got 169 comments—three times more than the much harder-to-write post on the evolution of human altruism. Professor Ceiling Cat wept. Are kosher switches that much more interesting than why humans have behaviors that seem hard to explain by evolution? Well, readers have spoken!

But, like Maru, I do my best.  In the “Kosher Switch” post, I expressed doubt about whether the device was real. After all, is it really eliminating “causation” to turn on a light switch that simply removes an impediment to a randomly-activated beam of light? Wasn’t the whole thing just an enormous and clever joke?

I emailed the link to Steve Pinker, for, as fellow secular Jews, we exchange Jewish jokes as well as bizarre issues of Judaica. Steve responded, and I reproduce what he said, with permission:

It is absolutely not a joke – there is a significant industry in using technology to work around the laws on what you can do on Shabbos (many Israeli hotels have an elevator that stops on every floor on the Sabbath so no one has to press a button and complete an electrical circuit, which is tantamount to lighting a fire, which is work). But Rebecca has told me that most Orthodox Jews would not sign on to such deliberate and complex evasion – there is a sense of obeying the spirit and not just the letter of these laws.

In The Stuff of Thought I go through the philosophy, linguistics, and psychology of causation, and this would have been an excellent case. In common sense and the ordinary language of causation, interpolating a link in a causal chain that is seen as having some degree of autonomy (a human agent, the weather, a device that goes on unpredictably) is seen as severing the causation between the first and last link. So Mike can “break a window” by chucking a rock through it but not by startling a carpenter who’s installing it. You can “open a door” by grabbing the knob but not by opening a window and letting the breeze do it. You can “dim the lights” by sliding a switch but not by turning on the toaster. The law has a similar notion of causation, though as you can guess, this allows for considerable leeway for how many links of what kind are considered to nullify causation and hence mitigate responsibility. Many episodes of Law and Order play these debates out. In one real-life case that I describe in Stuff, a chef at Benihana tried to fling a sizzling shrimp into the mouth of a customer, but it was badly aimed and the customer ducked, sprained his neck, needed an operation, and died of a surgical complication. His survivors sued Benihana but the jury decided there were too many links in the causal chain. In another, President James Garfield was shot by an assassin, but the bullets missed his vital organs and arteries, and he died months later because his doctors applied crackpot 19th-century medical techniques that led him to die of starvation and infection. The assassin argued at his trial, “The doctors killed him. I just shot him.” The jurors were unconvinced and he was hanged.

I’m always impressed that Steve can apparently remember everything he ever wrote (I’m sure he didn’t look this up, because I’ve seen the same kind of performance in person). I can’t even remember some scientific papers I wrote earlier in my career. Further, he has the amazing ability to instantly come up with examples for any point he’s trying to make, as in our latest discussion about whether it would be good for society to pretend that people had libertarian free will, even though we know they don’t. Steve simply rattled off several examples of situations when it’s not necessarily good to know the truth. But I’ll leave that issue for another day.

73 thoughts on “Pinker on the Kosher Switch

  1. I worry about your worrying about the number of comments your science posts get. 🙂

    I look forward to reading the discussion about pretending to have free will because I’m the kind of person that wants to know everything even if it harms my fragile psyche.

    1. Comment numbers do not equate with number of those reading posts either, wouldn’t you say? I read many in my email rather than here on the page…

      1. I’ve just started looking at the page views (which, granted, have problems as stats), and they pretty much mirror the comment numbers: science posts are viewed less than others.

        That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m going to ratchet down the science posts or eliminate them. That won’t happen, because it’s one of my greatest interests.

        1. Good, because some of us are here just for the science. I don’t really care much what some silly religious goofballs do, but the science posts keep me coming back. (…not that I ever do anything other than lurk – I’ve been reading from day one and this is like my fifth ever comment)

        2. Page view counts may be distorted by repeated returns driven by comment exchanges. Unless WP has a way to eliminate duplicate IP addresses, or something like that. If Ben makes 20 comments on a page, does he get counted 20 times or just once?

          1. Hey! My SIWOTI isn’t that bad, is it? And besides — I almost never visit the Web site and do pretty much everything but subscribe through email.

            As to the bigger question…Jerry, you know how much easier it is for you to write the fluff pieces than the straight-up science ones? It’s also a lot easier to comment on the fluff pieces than the straight-up science ones. And, since it’s easier, more people comment more on the easy ones. Low-hanging fruit and all that.

            It’s also easier to read the fluff than the science. I’m going to circle back to Greg’s Bayesian post later today because I don’t have the brains nor time right now to give it proper attention, but I’m really interested to read what he wrote.

            The fluff is generally a lot of fun and feeds the addictive nature of the Web site…but it’s the science that makes it all worthwhile and lets me enjoy the diversions of the fluff without excessive guilt. I mean, I might or might not revise my take on statistics later today, and that could significantly alter my understanding of the world for quite some time. Even if I don’t comment more than “sub” on that one — or not even that much — it’s going to mean far more to me than anything about Jews being flippin’ silly. And that’s just a single guest post from the period after Hili and before nine this morning!


          2. There’s a bunch of foo you can do to separate all that fun stuff out and I think WP does do that with their site stats.

            1. I’m trying to figure out if “foo” is a metasyntactic variable or an iPadism…but, yes — statisticians have already applied themselves to this sort of analysis many times over and the only real question is the quality of the analysis that WordPress is performing.


        3. Your concern is with the number of times the article is read. Page views is a bad measure. When I leave a comment the page refreshes. And then when someone replies I respond etc. A better measure would be unique ids reading the page. But even that could be inflated on posts with comments if, as I do, readers use multiple IP addresses and devices to read the site.

          1. It’s a subject better addressed qualitatively rather than quant.

            Most of the metrics can be misleading for the reasons already stated. Multiple audiences, repeat visits to see comments, willingness to comment on some but not all topics, etc.

            So. Qualitative. Is PCC (the moat important audience) happy with the post? Are subsequent replies productive/provocative/entertaining? Mission accomplished, stats be damned.

        4. Jerry, I think you should write what you want. It’s your site, and it’s up to you what goes on it, and that should only be stuff you enjoy writing about.

          Some topics just invite more comment by their very nature. As soon as I post this comment, a second hit from me on this page will be recorded. If I comment ten times, eleven hits will be recorded.

          Your knowledge in several areas is such that my comment would just be “wow” or “very interesting”. I feel like that’s wasting your time and clogging up the emails of those who’ve subscribed to comments.

          Just like you shouldn’t equate silence with agreement, you shouldn’t equate it with lack of interest. If you were delivering your articles on scientific stuff, for example, to an auditorium, you’d get feedback in terms of concentration, nods of agreement etc and finally resounding applause. That type of feedback isn’t obvious in this environment.

        5. Please don’t ratchet down the science posts Jerry!

          For what its worth, I don’t click the link to the individual articles and read them on a separate page.

          When I’m reading your excellent posts, I simply start at the top of the page and read each post that interest me working my way down to the bottom of the page. And I don’t read the comments for every post, just the ones that really interest me like every science, religion, food, boots, and travel post. Sorry, I don’t read the Hili dialogues, but I do look at the pictures.

          I don’t click the link to each individual article and read it on a separate page. Therefore, I don’t think I’d be included in the page views for any individual article. I guesstimate that I’m not the only one who reads your work in this way, so the page views may be really skewed.

          So again, please don’t stop the science posts!

        6. “I’ve just started looking at the page views (which, granted, have problems as stats), and they pretty much mirror the comment numbers: science posts are viewed less than others.”

          Since you post full versions of posts on the home page I read them on the home page, unless I want to read or participate in the discussion. So I do read more than I click on.

          The science posts are the fiber of the website. I know they well written and are good for me, but the religion posts are like tasty, sugary treats. I can’t resist them. 😀

        7. Exactly, this is your living room, most of us come here because we like what you´ve done with the place, and you should keep doing what you want!

          1. Agreed. I like coming here, if only to browse the home page and see what’s new, because Jerry just does what he wants. Even though I am a more chaotic, haphazard, and irregular visitor than other users, the few times I do come here, I consider it time well spent.

      2. I typically only visit the website when I comment. So when I read science posts it is only through email, and like many others here, I’m not qualified to add any meaningful comments to most of the science posts, but will occasionally peruse them for reader comments from more knowledgeable people on the topic. But Professor Ceiling Cat usually provides quite enough thorough information to try to digest on the science topics.

        1. I read both the science, and religion posts. That being said I feel much more well versed where religion is concerned, and tend to comment, not so much so on the intricacies of evolution.

    1. Technically, even breathing is work, in a physicist’s sense. Or standing still, since that requires minute muscular control to adjust the balance of the body.

      But you know, colloquial uses of words aren’t like scientific ones. They’re not required to make sense, for a start. 😉

  2. Well shit, that teaser at the end really leaves us hanging. I have found most examples of “where its better not to know the truth” lacking. Would be great to see Pinkers thought process on this.

  3. Consider the difference between sitting as a student in your science class on the one hand, and, on the other hand, discussing social issues with you in a bar afterward. In your class we are there to learn; in the bar we have no compunctions about offering our opinions. Maybe we readers implicitly recognize that difference, even if you don’t intend there to be that difference.

  4. I recently watched Bill Maher’s “Religulous”, and he interviews a guy who has what I think is the most brilliant justification for these funny little work-arounds. The argument is quite elegant, in its own ridiculous way.

    You see, since God is perfect, then all of God’s rules are also perfect. But if there’s a loophole in a perfect rule, it must be deliberate. In other words, the loopholes wouldn’t be there if God didn’t intend for us to use them.

    1. I’d forgotten that! Great example of religious logic.

      And now, as the page refreshes as I comment, I’m recorded as visiting this page a third time.

    2. “But if there’s a loophole in a perfect rule”

      Then it’s not a good rule, much less a perfect one. A loophole is, by definition, a means of subverting a law.

      It can’t be a good law if both following it and subverting it are consistent with its being perfect. Then again, apparently world suffering is just a perfect tool for a good god to help people be good, so this kind of convenient contradiction is mere child’s play for this kind of mind.

      1. This is before asking the obvious question: what’s perfect about an arbitrary ritual like the Sabbath?

  5. Can I point out that both posts have a commonality in that they both are a study in the tortured logic of erring humans? It may, however, be easier for the lot of us to pick apart a religious issue that a scientific one. After all, only one of those arguments actually requires an education. Even bad science is higher up on the tree than the low-hanging fetid fruit of religious stupidity.

  6. Still, the part I find amazing that any serious person would expend a single nano watt of energy trying to get around absurd man created bits of nonsense just to satisfy little more than ancient cave wall scratchings.

    It is no wonder there are great unanswered questions while great minds spend there time picking fly shit out of pepper.

  7. I did a search on postings about altruism on WEIT and the 1st 4 to pop up now have 297 comments on them. Altruism for the win!

  8. Good analysis, that seems to cover it. I remember seeing ‘links in a causal chain’ re jurisdiction before, and I guess it has to mitigate responsibility.

    And we are not condemned solely on intent, as I was implicitly assuming yesterday.

    In the case of the switch, it will be hit until it switches the light according to intention. There seem to be a gap in the law here.*

    *Somewhat analogous would be a driver trying to kill a pedestrian by repeating attempts until succeeding. My layman guess is that a court would simply judge the ‘links in a causal chain’ after the ‘shortest’ chain.

    1. I think intent is a key aspect of this issue.

      For example, in the case of a door opening due to changes in air movement caused by a person opening a window, if the person intended to open the door by performing the action of opening the window then in any meaningful context anyone could choose to consider, that person caused the door to open.

      On the other hand, if the person did not intend to open the door, then in the context of “responsibility” it could be reasonable to decide that the person did not cause the door to open, depending on any other relevant details.

      1. As religious rituals go, it certainly doesn’t rank as overtly bizarre because intentions do in fact matter in life. The better parts of our penal system rest on this fact.

        But, intentions are not everything and this is where SJWs go off the rails–Because they aren’t everything, they have a strict dichotomy stating they must mean nothing. A drunk driver could rationally say that they intended only to arrive safely at home. Almost no one would then say that drunk drivers should not be punished since they intended no harm. This is a perfectly reasonable argument at the surface to disregard intentions altogether. This is not too different from the critique many make of Israel in that Israeli soldiers should not fire into a crowd where they know innocent civilians will be used as shields.

        But, intentions cannot be viewed in a vacuum. There has to be a corresponding reason to believe that the action taken has a good chance of resulting in the intention being achieved. The drunk driver cannot say he had sufficient reason to believe driving 100 mph in a 40 mph zine while drunk is safe. The Israeli soldier can reasonably say that firing at Palestine is less bad than no defense and letting a genocidal army invade with a shield of innocent children to ward off any return fire.

        1. Yes, relevant details do matter. Both positions, intention has no relevance and intention is of primary relevance, are untenable. People have a penchant for creating such false choices. Reality is much messier than that.

  9. I originally posted this in wrong thread!

    “Are kosher switches that much more interesting than why humans have behaviors that seem hard to explain by evolution? Well, readers have spoken!”

    It is simply easier to comment on ridiculous stories, such as the kosher switch. I read most every entry, but I don’t think I am up on latest research to comment meaningfully on altruism or group selection.

    So, number of comments is not a useful gauge of interest in a topic.

  10. Twisting the reality with plastic switches is interesting but the religious belief that many people in the religion try to maintain or hang on to is the more interesting point. If the original reason they believed it was proper to pass up pork but chicken is just fine, made no sense thousands of years ago, how does religion make them continue this practice in the 21st century.

  11. Perhaps the philosophical distinction between necessary and sufficient causes is really important to God.

    While my flipping the switch is necessary to the light turning on, it is not a sufficient cause of the light turning on.

  12. It is more likely that readers will post on a topic that requires little more than an opinion. Commenting on a topic that requires knowledge/understanding by those who have little of either is rare.

  13. I’m always so envious of people like Steven Pinker, who have a great memory. Mine sucks.
    It would be my Achilles heel if I ever attempted a public debate – no instant recall of handy facts.

    Sam Harris is another speaker who seems quite in command of the facts he needs for his argument.

    Christopher Hitchens is of course the gold standard.

    Though I have to say Bible Scholar Robert Price is up there with Hitchens. I’ve been following his “Bible Geek” podcasts for years and he basically just takes questions about the Bible and riffs on them in answering. He’s another person who reads voraciously and remembers everything he reads, and can remember every author.

    Now where did I put my keys?….

    1. I could probably hold my own pretty well in an email debate…but I’m quite dubious about my abilities to do so in a live debate where I don’t have instant access to Teh Innerwebs. Here, if I think it’s important enough, I can spend a few minutes chasing down that half-remembered obscure Bible verse or science fact or quote or what-not. In a real-time conversation? Not a chance.


  14. But Jerry! We told you, we love the more in-depth science articles just as much as the anti-theist stuff and the cat stuff but often we don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to comment on it!
    Please don’t lose heart, there are so many that love this website even if we rarely make comments. I love reading it, following your links to videos and other articles and I particularly love the MIX of cats, science and anti-theism- it’s almost like it’s made for me.

    1. Besides, the quality of my comments has declined significantly. Mostly I am all about puns and other smart ass remarks so I should probably stay away from science post comments as I will probably just make it worse. 🙂

  15. The shortage of comments on science items has been discussed here before but for me, it’s quite simple. If I could think of something to say about the science topics I would – but as someone with a degree in, ahem, geography, and a lifetime of work experience in commerce (procurement actually, some of it in one of the UK’s best university, I’ll have you know!) I know when I’m out of my depth with people who are much, much cleverer than me. It doesn’t mean I don’t like reading and admiring the pieces though.

  16. I love the science posts. I often learn something of interest to me. I hope that you will continue them.

    I’m not surprised that the clicks on the articles mirror the comments counts.

  17. Wouldn’t the real question be how many clicks or reads a post gets? Especially if a small number of the readers starts a controversial discussion, comments might be unrepresentative of how much interest a post finds.

    I found the scientific one more interesting, didn’t even read the one about the Kosher switch.

  18. Professor Ceiling Cat wept. Are kosher switches that much more interesting than why humans have behaviors that seem hard to explain by evolution?

    I feel your pain, but as others have said, comment count is a poor proxy for level of interest. In fact I’d argue that there’s an inverse correlation. If every science post had 150+ comments, those posts would become much less interesting to me, because an important aspect of them — on-topic commentary by well-informed readers — would be massively diluted, and my incentive to subscribe to and participate in those comment threads would be eliminated.

  19. ‘… complete an electrical circuit, which is tantamount to lighting a fire…’

    Some years ago I represented an Orthodox Jew in a criminal RICO trial in Atlanta on charges relating to his alleged distribution of a large quantity of counterfeit and stolen goods. The main witness against him was another Orthodox Jew, a young man who had served as my client’s apprentice. At trial, the witness testified that he had removed identifying stickers from some of the goods with the aid of an electric hairdryer.

    The government had presented the witness in court as being mentally retarded. When, however, the court granted my midtrial request for discovery of additional FBI investigative reports, we learned that the witness in fact was not fully fluent in English, that Yiddish was his first language. The government had declined to present his testimony through a translator — the better, I believe, to control him and keep him from volunteering exculpatory information.

    Something that had always puzzled me — until now, after reading the posts yesterday and today — was the witness’s testimony that the electric hair dryer he used to remove the stickers operated on the principle of “fire.” (I had previously written this odd locution off to either his purported retardation or his lack of facility with English.)

    Postscript: After learning of the government’s machinations with the witness, we sought and received a mistrial, since the witness clearly should have testified through an interpreter. Before retrial, I filed a motion to dismiss the charges on Double Jeopardy grounds, contending the defense had been goaded into asking the mistrial by governmental misconduct. After a hearing at which the Judge indicated there might be some merit to my motion, I approached the prosecutor and resolved the client’s case for a short term of probation. (If convicted after trial, he was facing over 10 years in federal prison.)

  20. I am currently editing a chapter for a book on the life of a Hidatsa Indian who lived from 1849-1934. The chapter is the story (very long and very involved) about a revenge raid on a group of Sioux. Almost every action is bathed in symbolism from simple to complex. Stealing a horse, sighting an enemy encampment, being a scout (potentially very dangerous) or riding into a group of Sioux to demonstrate one’s bravery – frequently lethal), touching an enemy (counting coup) and more. All of this is recorded in memory of the participant and the memories of the participants and related on many occasions to other members of the group. Exaggerations and fabrications are eliminated at these public events (which are frequent). Deeds are coded and displayed in body paint, tattoos, dress, many symbols such as tufts of hair (human), feathers cut and painted in a multitude of ways, symbols such as a wooden knife worn in one’s hair would mean the heroic deed involved knives, people danced re-creations of their deeds, people sang songs, told stories of past events. Groups selection depended on concepts, beliefs, symbols. Risk taking had rewards as well as injuries and death. “Primitive warfare” has been considered to be “less lethal” than modern warfare, but because one participated of much of one’s life the odds were that a warrior would be injured or killed were far higher than say being injured or killed in World War II.

    Read Napoleon Chagnon’s well documented data on the Yanomamo of Venezuela in the 1960s and 1970s. Anthropologists literally drove him out of anthropology for a time for suggesting that humans (the Yanomamo) were “fierce.” Holt Rinehart and Winston removed the word “fierce’ from the title of one of his widely used books (I used it for thirty years and five editions). “Fierce” was considered pejorative even though the Yanomamo used the word as a compliment. In his time “out of” anthropology Chagnon wrote a substantial book castigating the academics who had attempted to smear him and his data (the best there is in anthropology on kin selection). Much of anthropology still rejects his work because it is politically incorrect to suggest that a) people have been or are primitive, and b) that humans can be quite naturally nasty. Richard Lee of Toronto found that the !Kung of Botswana and South Africa had a murder rate higher than that of Detroit – and he really wanted to believe the prevailing view that they were “the harmless people.”

    Thus the ultimate gene for altruism seems unlikely to be identified when all people have the capacity for violence when provoked by whatever mechanism (including greed) and that this violence is recorded in memory and symbol to be passed up through the cultural lineage. And finally that behavior which protects the group and its interests is reinforced by verbal and mnemonic means.

    1. That’s not even the worst that’s been thrown at Chagnon: in 2000, Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel had the chutzpah to send a letter to the American Anthropological Association (namely about the contents of Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado) accusing him of fabricating and even staging his evidence to help justify an invasion of gold miners in Yanomamo territory, even though Chagnon had been a staunch defender of the Yanomamo and his findings had been borne out by other studies. James Neel was also singled out as a co-conspirator of a plot to infect the Yanomamo with measles for a eugenics experiment.

      The bullshit Turner, Sponsel, and Tierney promoted was disproved almost immediately. Worse, their own writings reveal that they were anti-Darwinian ideologues who were against what they saw as the immoral consequences of the discipline. So not only are they monstrous liars and slanderers, they’re also stupid in a partisan, ignorant way.

      The whole sordid affair is nicely summarized in Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Chapter Six. It’s a breathtaking example of ideologically motivated character assassination, aided by two fumblewits who couldn’t tell a dominant gene from a gene for dominance.

  21. Number of comments is a terrible guide for anything. I read everything from the website home page. I don’t comment on everything. You can have no idea which posts I read carefully, which I skim, and which I skip over. I read almost all, but comment on less than a quarter. Sometimes a post is not very interesting to me, but I’m home with nothing else to do, so I leave a comment. Other times I love a post and very much want to comment, but I don’t have time and when I can get back to it someone else already made the point or it’s a day later it feels too late.

    And science posts are just harder to comment on. And less likely to start a big disagreement in the comments, which drives up the number of comments.

    The Bayesian post today is a good example. I loved it and wanted to comment very much, but I was on my phone and didn’t want to type that much on my phone, so I didn’t. I now have the time, but it’s almost midnight and I need to go to sleep. It’s easier to comment about commenting than about heavy statistical analysis, so I’ll leave this comment and go to sleep. But I value that post much more than this one. The group selection/DSW post and the tall Dutch people posts are my two favorite recent posts, but I commented more on other ones for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual posts.

    Anyway, thanks for all your hard work. Please keep it up. It’s all greatly appreciated.

  22. “Are kosher switches that much more interesting than why humans have behaviors that seem hard to explain by evolution?”

    No, just easier to understand and to comment on without needing expert knowledge.

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