Data not Anecdotes
A little over three months ago, Family First published a symposium with women involved in kiruv in far-flung communities, removed from the major Orthodox population centers. At least one reader took strong issue with the symposium for having omitted any questions about the impact on their children of constantly being surrounded by friends and schoolmates whose religious standards are less rigorous than their own.
I agree that a question about the challenges of child-raising in such circumstances would have been appropriate. But the irate reader went much further, in effect accusing Mishpacha of having attempted to conceal the tremendous damage done to children of kollel-style families of living in communities with few yungeleit. She mentioned three instances of friends of hers in kiruv positions who had children either off-the-derech or whose standards of dress were far lower than those of their parents. She concluded by advising the editors of Family First to include in their next symposium on the subject a question to the effect: "Is the future of Smalltown USA's unaffiliated Jewish children worth the future of your children's neshamos?
That particular letter happened to trigger one of my pet peeves – the substitution of anecdotes for data. The writer assumed, armed only with her three anecdotes as evidence, that children raised by parents in kiruv or chinuch far away from the major Torah centers are far less likely to emulate their parents religious lifestyles than are children raised in Lakewood, for instance.
But surely it has not escaped her attention that Lakewood is not without its problematic teenagers too. Such rebellious teenagers make their appearance in almost every serial by Dov Haller in these pages. Now, I'm no more inclined to bring proofs from fictional characters than from anecdotes about friends' children. But were those characters unrecognizable to those living in Lakewood, Haller's series would not command the rapt readership they do.
I assume that there are risks – and advantages -- to raising children in communities in which they stand out from most of their peers. Some of those advantages were very effectively pointed out in a response from Nechama Feder, whose husband runs a kiruv organization in Boca Raton: Her children are constantly witness to their parents presenting Yiddishkeit with enthusiasm to newly frum college students from non-observant backgrounds eager to emulate our lives.
And I assume that there are different but very real advantages to raising children in Lakewood, and no less real risks. Which risks or advantages are greater, and for what type of child, I do not profess to know. But I'm reasonably confident our irate reader does not know either.
I do remember being told by one of the world's most prominent marbitzei Torah, as we chatted on a transatlantic flight, that the most insular and tightly-controlled Torah communities have the highest incidence of drop-outs. And when I mentioned this observation a few hours later to another equally prominent Torah figure, as we waited for our baggage, he looked at me as if to ask why I was taking up his time with something so obvious.
My point, however, has less to do with the specifics of any debate about child-rearing and more to do with the way we as a community approach issues. The different and overlapping challenges of out-of-town and Lakewood parenting are not incapable of being studied. But as a rule, we do not do so. We content ourselves with anecdotes, like those adduced as proof by the letter writer in question. But those anecdotes can be wildly misleading, and certainly no basis for providing guidance to parents or for finding community-wide solutions to pervasive societal challenges.
NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING psychologist Daniel Kahaneman provides an interesting example of the danger of reaching conclusions based on small statistical samples in Thinking Fast and Slow (Chapter 10). Part of the research for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economics demonstrated that even statistically-trained social scientists are prone to rely on too small sample sizes.
Let us say, that you were told that the counties with the lowest rates of kidney cancer in the United States tend to be sparsely populated, rural counties. You might furrow your brow and try to develop a theory about why that is the case. My own hypothesis was that rural dwellers were not less likely to develop kidney cancer, just less likely to be diagnosed because of reduced access to sophisticated medical care. Epidemiologists might have been tempted to look at factors such as diet.
But now let us add another fact: The counties with the highest rates of kidney cancer tend to be sparsely-populated, rural counties. So much for all the theories developed up until now. All that we are seeing is an example of the rule that small sample sizes are more likely to produce extreme results. The only relevant factor in this example is the sparse-population of the counties in question. The smaller the sample the more likely it is to produce extremely high or low rates of kidney cancer.
IN LAW SCHOOL WE WERE TAUGHT hard cases make bad law. Hard cases are defined as those where the facts create a compelling emotional push for a particular outcome. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has made an entire career of roaming the world in search of the saddest cases of human suffering and abuse he can find. And many of them are indeed gut-wrenching.
The problem lies not in Kristof's journalism, but in the policy prescriptions that flow from it. Over the years, he and others like him have published numerous columns about those denied insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions or of those too poor to purchase insurance coverage. The problem of the uninsurable or the uninsured – many of whom turn out to be young "invincibles" who can afford insurance but conclude, not altogether irrationally, that they would rather allocate their budget to more immediate pleasures – created much of the impetus for the passage of Obamacare.
The inability with people with pre-existing conditions to obtain insurance was a real problem. So were millions of uninsured Americans. But they were finite and did not require a complete overhaul of one-sixth of the American economy for their solution. Other countries, such as Switzerland, have dealt with these issues, while achieving better health results and spending less government money than America before Obamacare, and certainly afterwards.
In short, over focus on one or two problems, fueled in part by emotionally charged stories of individual hardship, led to a failed Rube Goldberg design that will create many times as much individual hardship and tragedy as the system it was designed to cure. The selling of Obamacare is another example of the power of stories to mislead.
Both as individuals and a community, we face enough challenges to start taking seriously the need to collect proper data and not just rely on anecdotal evidence in charting our future course.
My Mother for Always
When our kids were young, one of their favorite children's books featured panels of mother-son interactions, from the day the young mother first rocks her infant son in her arms to the two-year old toddler, who has just emptied every drawer in the kitchen, to the teenager who has taken up the electric guitar, which he practices at maximum amplification. At the end of each panel runs the refrain: "I'll love you forever; I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."
In the penultimate frame, however, it is the son, now a grown man, holding his elderly mother in his arms and singing to her: "I'll love you forever; I'll like you for always. As long as you're living, my Mommy you'll be."
The earlier frames offered great happiness to my wife and security to the children sitting on her lap as they would chant together, "I'll love you forever; I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be." The final frame was then a long way off in the distant horizon.
Well, this week brought back memories of that old refrain of a mother's love for her son. I had a surgery to remove a polyp from my vocal chord. Despite the thoroughly minor nature of the surgery, my mother called me every day for two weeks prior to the operation for non-existent updates and with questions about the doctor, second opinions, my voice care regimen, etc.
My brother who once remarked on our mother's ability to view a one-in-a-billion chance (e.g., drowning in a beanbag chair) as a near certainty in her mind's eye would have had ample evidence from those phone calls.
I pointed out to my mother that she has over fifty other descendants, and surely she could find at least one of them to worry about in place of me for a day or two. But fifty or not, I am the firstborn son, and so I was the beneficiary of her full concern. (I'm confident that had any other descendants given her the slightest pretext she would have been equally involved with them.) The day before the surgery Mom announced that she would pick me up in a cab prior to the surgery and accompany me to the hospital and wait there until she was fully assured that all was well.
All this attention was a bit suffocating. Yet I must confess that even at my age – I'm 62 and my mother is older still – there is something comforting about knowing that there is one person in the world who is thinking about you constantly. And that is why our parents remain so important to us no matter which of those life panels we have reached.