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Letter to the Editor: Crown Center innumeracy: what counts?

Published: February 10, 2006
Section: Opinions


Brandeis's Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies and its resident fellow Khalil Shikaki have only just emerged the from media spotlight, where Shikaki was accused of being a terrorist facilitator and sympathizer. The Zionist Organization of America got Shikaki in its sights;

others defended him. Brandeis's response was that we're assumed innocent until proven guilty (good), and that anyone who has real evidence should fess up (true), and that we have complete faith in the American law enforcement system (I'm not so sure). The eerie reminiscence of this scenario to 1950s-era accusations of being a Communist or fellow traveller are lost on no one, to say nothing of the hesitancy of contemporary institutions to make false positive or negative identifications. (Don't forget that there really were Communists.)

Martin Kramer, a contemporary Mideast commentator with impeccable Bernard Lewis credentials, who easily could have ended up head of the Crown Center, and who spoke at its inaugural, showed what sticking up for your friends and colleagues ought to look like. “I know Shikaki, he's no terrorist or terrorist sympathizer” wrote Kramer, bluntly, at his website (see here). Kramer is no nobody: his book, Ivory Towers on Sand, is the blueprint for the Crown Center.

But the real news about Shikaki, as Kramer puckishly points out, is that this “respected pollster” (as he's always called), renowned as an expert on Palestinian opinion, and who directs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, profoundly misread the Palestinian election. He got the numbers wrong.

In late December, Kramer writes, Shikaki reported 43% for Fatah and 25% for Hamas;

his latter number increased to 35% by mid-January. The final numbers, as Shikaki confims in the Feb. 6 international issue of Newsweek, showed Hamas with 45% of the popular vote. Even more striking, Kramer reports that Shikaki's exit polls at the election predicted 58 Parliament seats for Fatah and 53 for Hamas;

the numbers turned out to be 45 and 74. Suggestions by Crown Center supporters that other Middle Eastern research centers at American universities are intellectually second-tier, or that their intellectual negligence was responsible for the surprise and shock of 9/11, now look less credible.

It's hard to predict, especially the future. It's hard to be right, and we all make mistakes. We forgive in our friends what we would not countenance in our enemies. The big secret of University life, from the world of research (“What caused the French Revolution?”), to tough scientific questions, and even to the quotidian world of University administration, is that nobody really knows. That was Socrates's big idea. We make our best guesses, often in more darkness than we'd like to admit. Even in science research, the care of the review process is highly variable. The stringent, careful peer reviews of research often emerge exactly when a colleague claims to have solved something that a lot of competitive peers wish they had solved.

Furthermore, if the Crown Center wants objectivitywhich is surely a direction, but always an impossible goalthen “policy” and “survey” are better off disassociated. Martin Kramer observes that Shikaki went out and told policy makers what they wanted to hear: “Shikaki's polls have become a font of conventional wisdom…

Complicating the picture is the fact that Shikaki isn't only a pollster. He's a political analyst, and even a political activist.” (Kramer's politics aren't mine, but I admire his charm and intellectual joie de vivre.) Now the State Department and Condoleezza Rice want to know why they didn't see the Hamas victory coming, reports the New York Times.

Policy is a consequence of ideology;

surveys depend on numbers. They need each other. But like church (or synagogue) and state, you want to keep the two separate. Politics is about wish fulfillment (and research, even scientific research, is often as well), but you try like hell not to have your wish fulfillment compromising your data gathering and analysis. It's even true in University politics.

Scientists have a big advantage—we're typically not part of the processes we study. We're not mice in mazes, DNA, or computer programs. But a Palestinian, from an ubiquitously political climate, who is a pollster, and also wants to be a policy analyst and political player in Israel and the Occupied Territories—that's a much tougher job. Polling might well be better left to, say, Armenians, if they could only be interested in the task.

Coincidentally, the University has also recently launched the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, a Jewish demography center whose inaugural was called “By the Numbers”. Its benefactor, Michael Steinhardt, says that “substantive, accurate data is important for the Jewish community.” He also told the United Jewish Communities/Federation that whether Jews “lay tefillin or keep kosher will matter less than whether they throw their lot in with the Jewish people.” But who's counting? And what for?

Surely life is more complicated than numbers, and it's amazing what you can do with numberstake it from this computer scientist. If you don't believe me, try Shakespeare when Cleopatra wants to know if she is loved, she asks: “Tell me how much.” Marc Antony responds eloquently, “There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned.”

Harry Mairson is a professor of computer science.