The Pew Study: What the stats can and can’t teach us

It’s probably one of the first things that I learned from my time as a social science researcher – the short research and academic career that I had before deciding to turn to the Rabbinate … correlation does not always mean causation. Statistics are very good at demonstrating the former but, by themselves, cannot determine the latter without further investigation.

So, for example, a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level. Most of us would recognize that there is a third factor – age – that accounts for both.

Then there’s the joke about the lunatic who wants to demonstrate to his doctor that he can control spiders. He speaks to the spider ‘Go left!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the left.  Then he calls out ‘Go right!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the right. Then he says to the doctor, ‘but that’s nothing – watch this!’ He proceeds to pull the legs off the spider. When he calls out ‘Go left!’ and ‘Go right!’ again, the spider doesn’t move. ‘See!’ says the lunatic, ‘If you pull a spider’s legs off he’ll go deaf!’

In the past 24 hours there have been multiple reports and responses to the Pew Portrait of Jewish American life in major newspapers, blogs, and conversations on Facebook pages. It has sparked many interesting and reflective responses, all containing good observations. But there is also the tendency to misread the data, jump to assumptions about causation when only correlation has been determined, and to focus in on some of the data while ignoring other parts. I have found conversations about what part of the data has been most shocking/surprising/unexpected particularly interesting. Some are shocked by the statistic that 34% said that you could still be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah, for example. Many are concerned that, of those who identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish, 2/3rds of them are not raising their children Jewish in any way.

One of the things that I learned as a social scientist is that there are many ways of seeing, based not so much on what lies before us, but rather on who is doing the seeing. The artist, the developer, and the farmer can all look out at exactly the same field and see completely different things. So it is that those of us who work within institutional Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, look at this data with one set of concerns, whereas those who have created new Jewish cultural projects that seek to engage Jews outside of those traditional institutions would look at the data quite differently.

The full Pew study is over 200 pages long. I have not had the time in the last 24 hours to read and digest it. So it is not my intention to add my own layer of analysis to those that are already out there at this time. Rather, to caution us to think about our framing, how we are approaching and responding to the data that has been collected, and to be careful about jumping to conclusions. For example, if I add my own voice to those that have highlighted what is most interesting to them, I would draw attention to something that is mentioned but which hasn’t received a great deal of comment in the analysis so far. On the Pew Forum’s own summary page of the report, with regard to the youngest generation of Jews surveyed who show an increasingly ethnic but not religious sense of identification, they state:

This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).

This piece of data should immediately alert us to the likelihood that there are a combination of factors that are shifting the culture of American society in general, to which we in the Jewish community are not immune. Does that mean that we who are Jewish professionals throw up our hands and give up on our attempts to keep Jews Jewish, help interfaith families make Jewish choices, and demonstrate the meaningful connections to our faith and heritage that we wish to share with younger generations? Of course not! But it does mean that we cannot jump to conclusions about what does and doesn’t work, what can and can’t be achieved, and what our expectations are, without reference to the larger cultural context in which we are living and working. And perhaps most of all, an awareness of the trends in this larger cultural context can help us keep our emotions in check. Instead of the hand-wringing and angst that sometimes drives a narrative that can sound a little too desperate as we mourn the ‘ever-dying Jewish people‘, if we acknowledge and even embrace the reality that we live and work in today we can more joyfully reach out and share what we have to offer, and are probably more likely to connect with Jews who identify differently to us because we are more present to who they are and will be less likely to try and make them fit inside our pre-existing structures.

I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.

Posted on October 2, 2013

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