NEW YORK (May. 24)
A question in a survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee which found that nearly a quarter of Americans believe the Holocaust might not have happened has been disavowed by the pollster who conducted it.
Burns Roper, the now-retired chairman of Roper Starch Worldwide, which conducted the poll, said the question meant to gauge Holocaust denial used a confusing double negative, which elicited a response opposite of what many respondents intended.
A Gallup poll conducted in January that asked a similar question, without the double negative, found that only 9 percent of respondents expressed doubt that the Holocaust had occurred.
Results of Roper’s April 1993 survey had sent shock waves through the Jewish world and elsewhere, eliciting incredulous responses from concentration camp survivors and contributing to fears that Holocaust deniers may have made real inroads into mainstream American life.
Addressing a conference of professional pollsters earlier this month, Roper said the whole incident was destructive and unfortunate.
“We should never have approved the question, and we certainly never should have written it,” Roper said.
Doubts about the wording of the faulty question were raised soon after the survey was released in April 1993.
But David Harris, executive director of AJCommittee, said his organization chose not to report possible flaws in the widely publicized survey until its findings had been re-tested.
“The issue was: If in fact there was confusion, what does one do? One tests it,” Harris said.
Harris said the wording of the question was given additional credence when it was later used in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. There, responses that the Holocaust may not have happened ranged from 5 percent to 8 percent, findings more consistent with expectations.
ENTIRE SURVEY TO BE REPEATED
The AJCommittee has since commissioned Roper to repeat the entire survey, eliminating the double negative from the problem question. The results are set to be released by June.
Harris said Roper had rightfully assumed full responsibility for the mistake.
“We’re not experts in the wording of questions. That’s the reason you turn to polling firms,” Harris said.
The controversial question was: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?”
In his address to the American Association for Public Opinion Research on May 13, Roper said the survey question was a rewrite of one that had been submitted to his organization by the AJCommittee, and which was ultimately approved by both groups.
He said that pollsters had focused on avoiding phrasing the question in a way that would influence a respondent to give an affirmative answer. They had failed, however, to recognize the confusing double negative.
Roper said the faulty question was not identified in the pre-publication analysis stage because its statistical results were consistent with results from the other 16 questions in the survey.
Responses to that question showed that 22 percent of adults and 20 percent of high school students surveyed said it was possible that the Holocaust did not happen. Twelve percent of adults responded that they did not know if it was possible or impossible.
The survey, called “What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust?,” was based on questionnaires filled out by 992 adults and 506 high school students.
In the January Gallup poll which asked, “Do you doubt the Holocaust actually happened or not?” only 9 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative. When Gallup asked an even more specific question, less than 3 percent of respondents said the Holocaust “definitely” or “probably” did not happen.
But when Gallup repeated the wording of Roper’s double negative question, 33 percent of respondents said it was “possible” that the Holocaust did not occur.
Deborah Lipstadt, author of “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” said the AJCommittee poll was still noteworthy because of the responses to some of the other questions. Some of these results reveal an “appalling American ignorance of the most basic facts of the Holocaust,” she said.
According to the poll’s published results, 38 percent of adults and 53 percent of high school students either “don’t know” or incorrectly explain what is meant by “the Holocaust.”