Friday, May 19, 2006

Our Numbers Games

The Forward of May 7, 2004 carried a story with the headline, "Survey Released on Jewish Women's Sexuality." I recently tried to locate this study in a publication or on the Internet, only to learn that it hasn't been published and won't be for another year or two, meaning three or four years after it was "released." Months earlier, I had no greater success trying to get a Hillel report on the attitudes of Jewish collegians, only to be told that what I saw about it in a newspaper was prematurely released data. The report is still not available. A couple of weeks ago, there was a story on American Jewish youth released by the American Jewish Committee, a group that has produced top-notch scholarship. This study is also not available.

I could give additional examples. There is something badly amiss in the burgeoning world of quantitative Jewish research. We are awash in statistics, in parades of numbers that purport to tell us all that we need to know about contemporary Jewish life. Our newspapers dutifully report the figure and feature "Jews by the Numbers" graphics. Federations, private philanthropists, organizations, think tanks and research centers are actively engaged in quantitative research. It is impossible to keep up with the barrage of statistics because there are so many and also because the documentation frequently isn't available.

It is easy to see why we invest heavily in numbers games. There is an aura of objectivity and precision. We know - or think we know - what a number or percentage represents. There are no vague adjectives or adverbs to fret about. Quantification seems to simplify complex sociological phenomena. When research findings are reduced to a handful of key numbers, we are capable of understanding the world around us.

The aim of research is to enlighten and to permit scholars to examine the findings and to see how they fit in with their work. This goal is undermined when research is reduced to press releases, as too often is the case in our community, and there is no way to examine either the methodology that was employed or the substance of the findings. The damage is usually not repaired if the full study is first available much later. By then, newspapers and nearly everyone else are off to other races and no longer interested.

Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Cornyn have introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act that would require government agencies to publish online articles containing research funded with Federal grants. The obvious point is that scholars need to have access. Our community should abide by appropriate scholarly standards in the research that we are financing. The rush to release isolated statistics extracted from a report that is not year completed may serve public relations ends, but what we are getting is p.r. and not scholarship. I have been involved for nearly two decades in the Avi Chai Foundation, established by Zalman Bernstein who set a high standard for Wall Street research. He imposed that standard on research conducted or supported by his philanthropy. Avi Chai does not release data before the research and report are completed.

There are other lapses. Too much of what is now produced for communal consumption is shoddy or half-baked, as when organizations or projects seek to prove that what they are doing is meritorious, in much the same way that pharmaceutical companies employ what they refer to as research to demonstrate that doctors prefer their products. There is a Gresham's Law at work, with bad research driving out good research, a tendency that has been exacerbated because the handful of respected demographers have more opportunities for research than they can handle in a responsible fashion.

There is the corollary failure to connect the dots, to consider how what has been learned in previous studies has a bearing on new research. As an example, there is the claim that Birthright Israel, an initiative that deserves support, is a transformative experience, this despite parallel research that shows an ever-bleaker picture of Jewish identity and commitment among the teenagers and young collegians who are Birthright's primary clientele.

Even with good intentions and adherence to scholarly standards, much of our research would be problematic. This is a primary lesson of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, which although significantly discredited continues to serve as a source for those who find certain of its data to their liking. The difficulty with NJPS and current Jewish demographic research that aims to examine overall trends in American Jewish life is that it is no longer possible to accurately count American Jews, which is to say that except for when the focus is narrowed to a particular group, it is scarcely possible to figure out who should be surveyed.

Demographers adhere to a loose - by which I mean encompassing - sociological definition of Jewishness, rather than to a far narrower halachic definition, and it probably could not be otherwise. Because of the wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity and connectedness, this inevitably results in the undercounting of the number of Jews, the point being that there are a lot of people who are Jewish who do not respond to any Jewish messages, including surveys. The further consequence is that there is an over-counting of adherence to Jewish practices and beliefs or other forms of involvement in Jewish life. These points help us understand why NJPS and other national surveys have generated much controversy.

There is a clear need to conduct quantitative research. There is no need to rush to publication, to make the research in which we have invested so much a shoddy enterprise that instead of serving scholarly ends serves the tawdry goal of publicity and promotion.