Be careful when researching antisemitism

Oof, this is another post about a post and its comments. What am I doing with my life, what a loser. But it’s so consuming.

So, my message is be careful because the topic is charged. Some people don’t want anti-semitism to be recognised. A few sickos actually want it to exist. Some people set a very high bar of evidence. Some people are actively looking for evidence that Jews “cry wolf”. Some Jews and anti-racists are scared and uncritical.

For example, we need objective measurements about whether or not antisemitism constitutes a threat, and if it does we need evidence to convince policy-makers to worry about it. There is some stuff around which isn’t quite all it could be. For example, I would have been more satisfied with Joel Kotek’s book Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media if it had included a comparison between the way Jews are dealt with in political cartoons and the way other social groups are dealt with by the same, or different, political cartoonists. Reading it left me with questions – are any other groups depicted so enduringly with tentacles, or brooding over the earth, or as vampires? I suspect not, but it would be helpful to know because the strategies for dealing with particular hatred of one social group would be different from those dealing with hatred aimed at minorities with less discrimination (no pun intended).

In The Boston Review, Malhotra and Margalit are disturbed by inadvertant stereotyping of Jews and I think that although their study is valuable, they made a similar omission.

They recount an experiment to try to find out more about whether antisemitic attitudes shape individuals’ preferred measures to combat the financial crisis. After asking a question about how much to blame the Jews were for the financial crisis, they moved on to the next part:

“Participants in a national survey were randomly assigned to one of three groups. All three groups were prompted with a one-paragraph news report that briefly described the Madoff scandal. The text was the same for all three groups, except for two small differences: the first group was told that Bernard Madoff is an “American investor” who contributed to “educational charities,” the second group was told that Madoff is a “Jewish-American investor” who contributed to “educational charities,” and the third group was told that Madoff is an “American investor” who contributed to “Jewish educational charities.” In other words, group one did not receive any information about Madoff’s Jewish ties; group two was told explicitly that Madoff is Jewish; and group three received implicit information about Madoff’s religious affiliation. In a follow-up question, participants were asked for their views about providing government tax breaks to big business in order to spur job creation.”

Among non-Jewish respondents the variation was statistically significant, and you can probably guess in which direction – read on.

This piece proved highly controversial on Crooked Timber. Indeed there was no peer-reviewed research report, the methodology was incompletely set out, and the investigators didn’t ask about other ethnicities – for example there is also a tendency within US society which blames African American borrowers with sub-prime mortages for the financial crisis but this was not accommodated in the questionnaire. So it is not possible from this research to form an impression about whether blame is mono-causal, or whether one group is blamed more than another, or whether political affiliation is associated with blame of one or other ethnicity, or whether if you blame one group you are more likely to also blame another. I suppose my concerns are about demonstrating the specificity (singling-out) or otherwise of antisemitism. We also don’t know about the response rate, recruitment or sufficient demographic data.

Crooked Timber queried the methodology and then posted the authors reply. I gingerly ventured there (not a regular, it’s very clever but I don’t know what it’s for) and found, below the piece, depressing lethargy about antisemitism and deep interest in burrowing into the methodological minutiae while ignoring the big picture. There was a lot of discussion about the formulation “the Jews”, and some about the mention of Jews at all:

“the only possible “answer” to a question about “the Jews” is f—off.

That’s exactly what I thought. How about adding an option saying “I don’t like loaded questions designed to make me look like an anti-semite” in the next survey.”

Alternative methodologies for surveying the worrying area of antisemitism were overwhelmed by cynicism and methodological head-shaking. I’d be inclined to pick my response items from the media and bury ‘the Jews’ in amongst them to avoid salience bias. Even so, if bias was introduced by the question format then some respondents were readily susceptable to that bias – you can’t elicit stuff that isn’t at least latent. As Malhotra points out to a commenter who complained that asking questions which implicated ethnic groups in unfavourable circumstances introduces bias:

“Henri, you might be right about what we would get if we asked that question, but surely it would reveal something disturbing about the survey respondents? What would you have said in response to the questions? I assume you would have said ‘no’ to both; if you hadn’t, I would think less of you. If all that is right, then I fail to see how this is garbage.”

Safe to say that his work did not go down at all well on Crooked Timber, with one commenter suggesting that some others coordinate the task of going round the blogs raising the problems with the findings. I don’t know this person, but it seemed very important to him either that bad science should not stick, or that nobody should think there is more antisemitism than he has decided exists. And I think it’s the latter – he’d be busy elsewhere with higher-stakes stuff otherwise. There’s more weirdness.

Crooked Timber commenters are far more sophisticated in their diminishment of antisemitism than I’m used to. CounterPunch contributor Tim Wilkinson devoted himself to discrediting Malhotra’s and Margalit’s findings, penning a vignette that the researchers had an agenda to foment antisemitism where there was none. Somebody else cast aspersion on the motives of the researchers. I was reading for a long time before somebody said they were uncomfortable with the slurs and somebody else asked whether deep critics of Malholtra and Margalit had equally gone for Mearsheimer and Walt with their far flakier non-peer-reviewed thesis. I find Crooked Timber depressing, it’s so high brow and sophisticated but you get the same quota of crap below the post, you just have to spend more time deciphering it while the chill of the place eats into your bones.

(In contrast there’s a glow, warmth and rollicking that emanates from Harry’s Place like the brothel in the model village in Beetlejuice.)

What we know from Malhotra and Margalit is that a mention of a corrupt businessman’s Jewish ethnicity was associated with a significant drop in support for tax breaks for businesses, and this was enough to lead Malhotra and Margalit to feel disturbed, and make the modest conclusion that:

“The media ought to bear these findings in mind in their coverage of financial scandals such as the Madoff scam. In most cases, religious and ethnic affiliations have nothing to do with the subject at hand, and such references, explicit or implied, ought, then, to be avoided.”

My “be careful” is a caution to researchers of antisemitism to watch their backs as well as their methods. There is certainly a need for this kind of research and Malhotra and Margalit deserve praise for undertaking it. I look forward to the next iteration. Just as a final thought Malhotra is right to predict the end of peer review as we know it, but there’s a lot of leeway between a journalistic piece and a peer-reviewed one. I would really like to see the authors modify the study, conduct it again, produce the report and data as a wiki (non-editable), let peers review it on the Web, and adapt it accordingly. That way Neil Malhotra will never again have to defend being topical. Although, if they were British, this would butter them no parsnips in the confounded, evil Research Assessment Exercise.

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7 thoughts on “Be careful when researching antisemitism

  1. Lovely piece of writing, Flesh. I read that CT post too, and also the comments on it, and I entirely share your reaction to it. It was very striking how some of the commenters raised the bar of methodological acceptability far higher than is usual in these discussions, and it’s hard not to believe that the content of the research played some part in this.

  2. Thanks Eve. It took me a little while to figure it out – I thought maybe that was the culture on that blog, to do Devastating Critiques of methodologies. But it gradually took form as an effort to discredit the whole venture of investigating antisemitism. Par for the course, shouldn’t be surprising, but it does surprise me, particularly when it’s so polite.

  3. Yes – it did look as if what really worries them is the possibility of false positives. I don’t recall seeing so much concern there about the possibility of false negatives.

  4. Yes, I also found the discussion there depressing in its focus on the methodology without asking about the possible relevance of the findings. I didn’t understand why the article and the commenters on it were so focused on trying to say that the results were unlikely. Haven’t they heard of the old anti-semitic canard about Jews and money? It was a very unhistorical way of looking at anti-semitism and its possible re-emergence during a time of economic stress.

  5. we all read the same 🙂

    I looked at it as well and thought, for professionally clever people those CTers didn’t seem too bright on this topic.

    We need some simple text cards, pictures with pointers to show the connections, then they might say “ahh I see….” or maybe not?

  6. I dunno. It seemed there was a will to diminish and discredit the preliminary findings. I do know that the authors are doing further iterations and writing up for peer reviewed publication. And that’s good to know – it’s important to study antisemitism in the US during a financial crisis some sections blame on Jews.

    Very helpful John Wight review, incidentally Mod.

  7. I try my best 🙂

    Wight’s a bit special, his stuff really sticks out, and as with such people he returns to the same obsessive themes time after time, which is a bit of a give-away.

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