Friday, May 14, 2010

Of Statistics and Facing Reality

There is a popular expression that goes something like this. “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." I believe it originated with Mark Twain who attributed it to 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

It is supposed to mean that statistics are a means used to bolster big lies. The question arises, how is it possible to say that statistics that are arrived at scientifically can be anything but the truth? The answer is that statistics can be misleading in many ways. Questions asked about controversial issues can easily be and often are skewed to deliver a preconceived result. Even the body language or voice inflection of the questioner might elicit a response differing from what might have otherwise been said.

A clever but dishonest pollster might conduct a poll in a way that will get him the desired results. But even an honest pollster may inadveratantly inject his biases into a poll which will result in statistics that support his pre-conceived ideas.

This is a bit over simplified and there are ways to achieve more objective results. But one can certainly understand why Mark Twain said what he did.

Which brings me to former Shas Party Chairman Aryeh Deri (pictured) and the recent poll by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. They conducted a poll which revealed some devastating statistics about Charedim in Israel. Fully 65% of the Charedi men in Israel do not work. This is triple the percentage that did not work 30 years ago.

I don’t know how accurate those numbers are. But I think they definitely reflect the Hashkafa of that world. Charedi men have no education or training while they attend their Yeshivos and Kollelim. There is no preparation at all for the work force during that time. The very concept of Parnassa is not even on the radar screen of the Yeshivos. Charedi Yeshivos are all about learning Torah and nothing else. Usually in the form of Gemarah and its commentaries. You don’t need a poll to know that.

So whatever those statistics are they cannot be that far off. I think it is safe to say that the majority of Charedi men do not work.

That has understandably brought an onslaught of criticism from secular pundits. They worry about the future of the economy. Aryeh Deri takes exception to all of this and simply does not believe the statistics.

The funny thing is that Aryeh Deri - who speaks not only for his own Sephardi community but for all Charedim - does not seem to be proud of statistics that supports the Charedi ethic. He further claims those statistics are false, agenda driven and being used to combat Charedim. He has even called for the creation of a Charedi academic research center in order to "present the true data".

To support his contention that this poll is false and skewed against Charedim he points to various industries that have many Charedim working in them. While I’m sure that’s true, it would not contradict the statistics since the Charedim who work in those industries can easily be from among the 35% that do work.

The problem for Mr. Deri is twofold. The very accusation he makes about secular research centers will be true in reverse for the newly created Charedi research centers. The second problem is that I don’t believe an honest Charedi poll will result in statistics that are much different from those of the Taub Center. The percentages will probably be either be within the margin of error or very close to it.

He ought to face reality. Charedim in Israel do not as a rule work – even if one factors out the lack army service as an impediment.

Instead of blaming the messenger he ought to take stock of the realities of that community. Mr. Deri claims that it’s all a matter of PR. That Charedim have to develop a better PR machine and come up with their own statsics.

He also makes claims that by their sheer numbers their purchases which are directly taxed at the point of sale means that they contribute. While it is true that Charedim may have ‘cornered the market’ on baby food and paper diapers (to use his examples) this is not the sole measure of contributions to the economy. It is in fact a very minute one. If one doesn’t have the income one cannot spend the money. Many of these purchaces are heavily subsidized either by the government or from outside sources like foreign donations or parental support. One cannot run an economy on charitable spending and welfare subsidies.

At best Mr. Deri expresses wishful thinking. But it will not help his cause. That Charedim do not work is a serious problem. He has to know that. It is not about bad PR. And it is certainly not about bad statistics. Charedi statistics will be no more accurate than the ones the Taub Center came out with. Because what Mark Twain said about statistics applies to both sides of the equation.