Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Well Does Bill Maher Understand That Pew (2013) Survey Report?

My article "A Fact-Check of Bill Maher and his Critics..." described how Pew Research (2013), in their full survey report on the opinions of Muslims in numerous countries, made two different presentations of the levels of support for some harsh elements of sharia. For example, for the death penalty for apostasy, Pew presented data for Muslim respondents in general (p. 219) and for the subset of those Muslim respondents who favored sharia as the official law of their country (p. 55). I described how there was much confusion in the popular media and on the internet about these data, with many commentators apparently unaware of the general sample data on p. 219 of the full report. Some writers assumed erroneously that there were no general sample data in the report on the apostasy question. Some apparently didn't read the report carefully enough and mistook the subset data (e.g., on p. 55) for general sample data.

I noted that, when Maher claimed "like 90%" of Egyptian Muslims supported death for apostasy, his approximation happened to be close to the figure of 88% reported by Pew (2013). I didn't simply say he was correct, because I did not know whether he obtained his number appropriately from the 88% support in the general sample (p. 219), or inappropriately from the 86% of support in the sharia-favoring subset (p. 55). Statements about Egyptian Muslims in general would have to be based on the general sample data. In the case of Egypt, the numbers for the general sample and the sharia-favoring subset were close enough, and close enough to 90%, that Maher could have based his approximation on either of those numbers.  

Now, a recent statement by Maher quoting precise numbers suggests that he does not understand that the data shown on pages 54 (adultery) and 55 (apostasy) of the report are for the subsets of sharia-favoring Muslims. Instead, he describes them as though they are for Muslims in general. His statement occurred in the latest episode of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher (May 15, 2015), where he and guest Ayaan Hirsi Ali discussed their view that many liberals drastically underestimate the levels of fundamentalism among Muslims worldwide, including in Muslim-majority countries that are often cited as relatively moderate and tolerant. To illustrate this point, Maher says (starting at about 5:00 into the linked clip):

"And we know uh, sharia law is popular in, in many more countries than you even named. I mean, when I have liberals on this show, one of the big arguments is ‘Well, you’re painting with a broad brush. Of course Saudi Arabia’s backward, but what about Indonesia, and Turkey, and Jordan?’
Well, I looked up Indonesia, and Turkey, and Jordan.
And uh, well here are some of the statistics here [pulls out cue card and reads from it].
Uh, in sharia law. 72% of Indonesians favor it. Jordan, 71%.
Stoning of adulterers. Indonesia 48% popular. Jordan, 67%.
Death for leaving Islam. Jordan 82%.
These are their bastions of freedom and democracy."

As one can see from Pew's (2013) full report, however, Maher's numbers for stoning adulterers and death for apostasy come from the sharia-favoring subsets (as shown on pp. 54 and 55, resp.), not from the general samples (pp. 221 and 219, resp.).

The percentages of Muslims in the sharia-favoring subsets who favor stoning adulterers are as follows (with general sample data in parentheses for comparison): Indonesia 48% (42%), Jordan 67% (65%), Turkey 29% (9%).

The percentages of Muslims in the sharia-favoring subsets who favor death for apostasy are as follows (again, with general sample figures in parentheses): Indonesia 18% (16%), Jordan 82% (83%), Turkey 17% (8%).

The numbers Maher mentioned support his point; even the corresponding general sample figures in those instances would support his point. However, he omitted the numbers for Turkey which do not as strongly support his point, or which support his critics' contention that he's painting with too broad a brush. Large majorities of Muslims in Turkey oppose stoning for adultery (88%, p. 221) and the death penalty for apostasy (89%, p. 219), respectively. Maher mentioned the sharia results for Indonesia and Jordan, which show high levels of support for sharia as the law of the land, but he omitted Turkey, where 12% favored it (p. 46) and 77% (p. 201) opposed it. Of course, even those comparatively low levels of support for sharia and harsh elements of sharia in Turkey are high enough to warrant concern to secular liberals. Moreover, apart from these Pew data, there are other data that suggest greater cause for concern in Turkey (e.g., see this). But the fact that Maher took up the challenge of his critics, presented Indonesia, Jordan, and Turkey as example countries, and then only reported a few example results that supported his point and omitted the ones that could have given some support to his critics, suggests bias on his part.

Maher has cited this major Pew (2013) survey report often over the past couple of years, resulting in much controversy in the popular media about his numbers. Despite these recurring controversies, he seems remarkably casual in citing the numbers. For example, a couple of months after his famous argument with Ben Affleck and the ensuing controversy in the media over the apostasy numbers, in an interview with Sally Kohn for Vanity Fair, Maher said (my brackets and emphasis):
"A Pew poll of Egypt done a few years ago said, I think, 90 percent of Egyptians felt that if you leave the religion, that's [the death penalty is] the appropriate response.”
"I think"? After all of the controversy over the numbers, and over that number in particular, he's not sure? He's not sure about numbers that he passes on to millions of people? He doesn't have a clear, confident understanding of a survey report upon which he relies heavily? Maher can and should do better.


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