Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Misusing Statistics

You know the problem with arguing from statistics? It's really easy to project the stats onto whatever your personal perspective is. Just look at politics: when one party gets 52%, it's considered a "mandate"-- never mind the 48% who think they're crap (or, say, the millions who didn't vote in the first place).

So too with cultural statistics. Have an agenda to promote? I'm sure there are some statistics, somewhere, you can use to prove your point.

Example 1: Our blogging compatriot Lady Light.

An article on Israel National News indicated that a CBS survey showed more and more Israelis are becoming observant in their Judaism.  Life just has more meaning, when you believe there is more to it than merely the physical world in which we live, when you believe there is an underlying reason for our existence.
There are a few problems with this one. First, the survey didn't use any internal criteria to actually measure observance levels. It just asked people if they felt they were more observant. Considering how many Israelis skew secular, this could range from merely wearing a yarmulke, starting to keep a higher level of kashrut, or joining a synagogue (even, gasp, Reform!). For all we know, they planted a tree on Tu B'Shevat. It's an opinion poll, no more.

Second, the survey said that although 21% reported becoming more observant, 14% reported being less observant than they were "in the past." That's hardly a big spread.

Third, Lady Light's particular gloss on the significance of the poll is entirely her own; there's nothing in the article to suggest that the survey asked respondents what their motivation for becoming more religious was. If Judaism answers all the big questions for LL, that's great for her. Clearly, a big part of the observant Jewish worldview is that God is involved with humanity and that there are reasons and meaning behind what happens in the world. However, deciding that the people in this survey are lighting Hanukkah candles, going to a seder, or fasting on Yom Kippur because Judaism solves their existential angst is total projection. Sorry.

Example 2: A.J. Jacobs' favorite kooky uncle, Gutman Locks, trying to argue that being frum is actually "easier" than living in the secular world.

Have you ever heard a rabbi say, “You have to accept upon yourself the yoke of Torah”? Apparently, this rabbi agrees with those who say that a Torah life is very hard. The truth is that life without the Torah is the life that is too hard, and when you bring the Torah into your life, it makes life much, much easier.
...What a wonderful thing the yoke is. The animal loves its yoke. The yoke saves the animal from so much pain and suffering.
... In America today: 27% of the non-religious, white, teenage girls, and 50% of the non-religious, black, teenage girls, have one, two, or three different types of venereal diseases. Fifty percent of the babies born to non-religious girls are born out of wedlock - i.e. mommy is not married, no father at home. Sixty-five percent of the non-religious marriages end in divorce.
According to one popular talk show host, in 85% of the non-religious marriages, one of the partners, every once in a while, sleeps with someone other than their spouse. That life, the non-religious life that they live, is the life that is “Too Hard,” not the Torah life.
If you will keep Shabbos (which, in fact, is a pleasure), and your wife will cover her hair (to be modest), if you put on tefillin (to pray), and if the home is kosher (so even your eating is holy), if the kids get a Jewish education (so the Jewish people and values continue), then none of these statistics will apply to you and your family.
Now tell me, which is the life that is too hard?
Here Gutman grabs a bunch of statistics without any sources ("popular talk show host?" I love that guy! Is he still writing for "I read it somewhere" quarterly?) and lobs them all at "the secular world" to prove its infamy. Of course, he doesn't actually care enough about statistics to offer any regarding the religious world, implying that these problems are so infintesimal there that it would be a waste of time or statistical impossibility to try to measure them.

Hmm. Did I miss something? Did the rabbinate abolish divorce over the High Holidays when I wasn't looking? Also, if Gutman is going to claim to be so scientific, why doesn't he suggest a study to examine or compare the rate of STDs or extramarital affairs among different groups of Jews? For all we know, it's lower among frum Jews than their secular counterparts. But that wouldn't serve his agenda, which is to paint the religious life as having no strife at all, as opposed to merely less than average. That's the mark of the missionary-- your life is terrible, mine is perfect. Join us...

I'm also annoyed that Gutman doesn't bother trying to dissect any of the statistics-- what factors could be at play that cause black girls to have more STDs, for example? How do the stats define non-religious? That's not important. What's important is that secularism gives you herpes, while religion gives you an intact marriage with at least eight kids, keina hora.

Seriously, guys. If you want to promote kiruv, go nuts. But I kind of doubt that you're going to get any converts by showing them a poll.


techelet said...

Statistics can't be trusted - it's far too easy to manipulate the math. It's like a saying we use sometimes in Chemistry - "plotting the data to fit the curve".

CA said...

"Statistics can't be trusted"

That's going a little too far. Sure, in the cases mentioned by the holy Friar, the stats are suspect, but more important, even if the stats had some meaning, they don't support the interpretations.

And even if, on average, one is more likely to find more contentment and less hassle in being frum than being "secular," even the statistics given by the frum apologists suggest that there is a significant minority of people who would be better off in the "secular world."

hosein said...

Friar Yid said...

Sorry hosein, but your picture's BS. Israel's a reality. The only way to abolish Israel would be through war-- a very bloody one, I might add. And, were Israel to collapse, something tells me that the Arab states would not exactly welcome former Israelis with open arms. You can't condemn "genocide" while calling for another one.