Monday, May 07, 2001

Junk Science

American Jewry is awash is research and statistics, a pastime that puts us in the American mainstream even as it diverts us from more important tasks. Scarcely a week goes by without a new report chock full of statistics claiming that Jews believe or act this way or that. Demographers and statisticians have become our intellectual giants, which tells us a good deal about the current state of our communal IQ.

Statistical presentations come with a good housekeeping seal of objectivity and reliability. The numbers are, after all, nothing more or less than what the researchers have come up with. In fact, different surveys of the same issue or behavior often come up with conflicting data. We have become accustomed to incompatible claims, presumably based on objective surveys, of the presumed benefits or harm caused by coffee, milk, aspirin, alcohol and scads of other products. In Jewish communal life, we have had conflicting claims regarding intermarriage, Jewish education, Israel experiences and much more.

Statistics are not infallible, if only because they are the handiwork of mortals who inevitably make mistakes and who usually are limited in their capabilities.

There’s a world of difference between conventional research shortcomings and those that result from improper intent. When researchers approach their work with preconceived notions, their product is compromised before the first question is asked. Sadly, too much of American Jewish research is compromised in this fashion, so that despite assertions of scholarship, what we are being given often is junk science.

The debate over intermarriage and the impact on children is a case in point. Dubious statistics have been utilized to advance the absurd notion that these marriages can result in a significant measure of Jewish continuity. Apart from the customary research infirmities that may diminish the reliability of statistics, the data inordinately comes from survey participants who are not representative of the entire class because they are more involved in Jewish life than other such persons.

The following, from a front page story last week in this newspaper, illustrates the point: “The Web poll of children of interfaith marriages run by Lights in Action for the JOI [Jewish Outreach Institute] received 205 responses from college students after being advertised last year in campus newspapers.” The participants reported that 58% had a bar or bat mitzvah, 63% had participated in Jewish youth groups, 31% wish they had been given more Jewish education and 20% wished they had been brought up in only one faith.

These statistics are permeated by a response bias and they are not representative of the tens of thousands of collegians who are the offspring of interfaith marriages involving a Jew. If we accept these statistics as representative, it appears that the offspring of interfaith marriages are more Jewishly involved than those of in-marriages. The methodology used is similar to that employed in a 1936 project that produced the laughable result that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide.

A second illustration demonstrates the expanding tendency to employ statistics in service of a pre-conceived agenda. Much attention has been paid to an attractively prepared chart that offers population projections over the next several generations for Jews across the denominational spectrum. The point is to dramatically show that except for the Orthodox – and especially the very Orthodox – all groups would virtually disappear in several generations. This may eventually happen, although it is highly unlikely that it could occur to the extent presented in the chart which is based on faulty methodology, misinterpretation of data, the misuse of other researchers’ statistics and a lack of understanding of Jewish life. These formidable shortcomings have not deterred some from accepting the documents as holy writ.

As the new millennium opened last year, I was involved in a more egregiously distorted misuse of statistics, although I did not know it at the time. I was asked by people here and in Israel to comment on a privately-circulated memorandum that apparently demonstrated an extraordinarily high attrition rate in the contemporary period among Orthodox Jews in the U.S. The data struck me as contrived and that’s what I told those who had contacted me.

I recently learned that the suspect document was prepared for Marc Rich – an innocent, yet charitable, bystander in the episode – as part of an effort to secure from him a substantial gift for Birthright Israel. Mr. Rich had apparently questioned the wisdom of making a contribution in view of evidence indicating that, except for the Orthodox, American Jewry was experiencing rapid decline and loss. The function of the document was to show that the Orthodox were not doing much better in this regard. The individual who prepared it is a world class demographer, a scholar of considerable repute. At a recent meeting he told me that the goal of getting a substantial contribution for Birthright Israel justified the use of bogus statistics. What a brave new world we are in.

Obviously, surveys and statistics remain a key component of our communal life and we will continue to get a steady diet of new studies and numbers purporting to demonstrate this or that. While we cannot prevent the trend from continuing, we ought not be bewitched by statisticians called demographers who are deficient in understanding and insight and, at times, also in probity.