Friday, May 05, 2006

The Abuse of Research in the Jewish Community

American Jewry is awash in statistical research. Scarcely a week goes by without a new contribution to the numbers game. Since statistics are not supposed to lie and numbers always have the appearance of objectivity, there is an understandable tendency to accept the data as holy writ. Few of us bother to examine the research behind the data or, in fact, whether the research is available for examination.

A case in point is a purported survey of Jewish women's sexuality that was reported on in the Forward on May 7, 2004. We were told, among other things, "that 15.7 percent of Jewish women claimed to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 13 and 9.9 percent after 13." These statistics are cited by Hella Winston in a recently published book called "Unchosen." What concerns me here is something else: the dubious presentation of statistics.

After I read Winston's book and got a hold of the Forward story, I assumed that certainly the study from which the data come must be readily available, either in a scholarly journal or some other publication and if not in either of these, then on the Internet. It turns out that there is no such publication, no paper. Two years after the Forward article, one of the principal researchers told me yesterday that the document is nearing completion and will probably be published in about two years. Is this acceptable? Is this scholarship? By the time the publication is available, the data shall have been cited perhaps dozens of times by other writers and researchers, without any of them being able to check whether the data are being properly used by those who cite the original statistics.

It turns out that while Winston uses the data to refer to sexual abuse among Chassidim, the research actually covers other subgroups of Orthodoxy, including, I was told, a significant number of baalei teshuva who doubtlessly were not Orthodox when they were thirteen.

What we have here is an abuse of scholarship, one more example of how statistics are being presented in ways to make Orthodox Jews look as if they engage inordinately in wrongful behavior.