(Edit: I would be remiss not to reference other work critiquing Unz’s point from other angles – particularly from Nurit Baytch or Janet Mertz, both of whom have more thoroughly considered documents which similarly challenge Unz’s claims).
Several years ago political activist Ron Unz wrote a lengthy essay suggesting that elite universities have held Asian applicants to much higher academic standards than other groups, particularly Jews. He cites the disproportionate number of Jews at top universities relative to the population in general, and uses some questionable analysis of PSAT winners to conclude that elite universities are part of a vast Jewish conspiracy (not that you’ve ever heard this story before…):
Taken in combination, these trends all provide powerful evidence that over the last decade or more there has been a dramatic collapse in Jewish academic achievement, at least at the high end.
Unz reaches this conclusion based on looking for Jewish last names on various lists of high performers, especially National Merit Scholars, who seem to be overly Asian, at least by last name. Without disputing that this may be true – though there is significant bias given that one can with near certainty identify a name as Asian, but would have a relatively harder time achieving such power with Jewish names – it certainly isn’t a good way to measure bias.
There have been a number of criticisms of this article, based both on new evidence and identifying flaws in Unz’s article. The point of this post is to conclusively add to the repository of new evidence that Unz had no basis beyond racially-charged intuition to write his essay. In particular the point here is not to make any new claim based on data I’ve gathered as much as dispute everything that has been written on the subject so far (edit: I specifically mean in relation to writing in favor of this thesis – there has been plenty of writing that deals with other and similar flaws in Unz’s article much more throughly than mine.)
If the claim is that an admissions committee is biased towards Jews and therefore holds Asians to a relatively higher standard, it would follow that the academic profile of admitted Jews falls below other ethnic categories. The honest way to test this hypothesis would be to look at the academic performance of graduating students and test whether ethnicity is at all associated with academic performance.
Maybe Unz and others were too lazy to compile this data but, given what it reveals, they probably just didn’t like what it reveals. While universities don’t explicitly make available academic performance of accepted students by race, let alone ethnicity, this information can be inferred from public data.
Specifically, a number of universities publish a PDF of commencement programs, which usually contain the names of all graduating seniors, their department of study, and important academic honors they’ve received (Latin honors, prestigious scholarships, and the like).
The somewhat similar structure of these documents (for example, see the University of Pennsylvania or Princeton) makes it possible to parse the PDF files for the underlying information (it’s a somewhat messy task – send me an email if you want the code). Since these files are available from 2007 or so, with various omitted years for various universities, it’s possible to generate matched data of name, graduation year, major, school, and any academic awards received.
It is also not remarkably difficult to infer gender from the first name, and not catastrophically harder inferring ethnicity from the last. The method for identifying someone as various subcategories of Asian consisted of a simple cross reference to a large list of common last names (from the Census and other sources). The false positive rate here is extremely low (that is Varun Agarwal is extremely unlikely not to be Indian).
Identifying Jewish, specifically Ashkenazic, names is harder, as there is commonality with European, especially German, names. Further, plenty of Jewish-Americans have generic names that makes powerful identification challenging. However, for a given name, using an extremely large list of common Ashkenazic last names, and adding the score of the top 3 matches based on a Levenshtein distance fuzzy matching algorithm, it is possible to get some sense of probability that a name is Ashkenazic.
Since I don’t have verified data on the ethnicity of graduates by name, it’s difficult to test or train this strategy. That said this doesn’t really disturb the results. For one, this error is probably random – i.e. associations between ethnicity and achievement, if any, are unlikely to depend on the conviction with which an algorithm can determine ethnicity. To the extent there are attenuated coefficients, the bias will be in favor of Unz’s claim – i.e. odds appear to be lower than expected by a factor proportional to the ratio between classification error and total error. Furthermore, even if there is a strong association one way or the other between Jewish sounding names and odds of success, we propose that as an interesting finding in and of itself without making any further judgement.
For a flavor of the classification strategy, the table below charts 10 randomly sampled names at various thresholds. Clearly there is a link between strictness of threshold and what one might consider to be typical Jewish-American last names.
Then to estimate the order of attenuated variables, you can compare the estimated coefficient on Jewish odds by threshold of an “Ashkenazi score” determined as outlined above:
When including scores above 100 (which includes pretty much every non-Asian name, and some Asian names as well) the variable has little explanatory power if any – the measurement error dwarfs the residual error because this factor is true for pretty much every name. Clearly as we increase the threshold at which we admit a name as Jewish, the associated variable increases. This doesn’t imply anything about those who have more obviously Jewish surnames as much as give an order of magnitude estimate of attenuated coefficient bias, which is obviously significant.
It’s worth discussing what exactly we mean by academic achievement. To maintain comparability over time by school, Phi Beta Kappa and equivalent honor societies are used as proxies for underlying academic achievement, exactly the dimension along which Ron Unz seems to think Jews underperform. Phi Beta Kappa (and equivalents for engineering and business majors) is composed to students roughly in the top 10% of their graduating classes by GPA, with additional input from faculty recommendations.
There could easily be bias ingrained in the election process. That said, it is unlikely that this bias is somehow systematically focused against Asians in favor of Jews and, moreover, is moderated by the fact that the dominant theme is the GPA requirement. This does not settle the question, but if Ron Unz wants to argue that Jewish students with a 3.8 GPA are somehow academically non-performant relative to Asians with the same GPA, I would be interested in hearing that story indeed.
And here are the results based on regression on almost every Penn graduate over the past decade:
The important point is that, controlling for graduation year, gender, school, and dual-degree status, the odds of being in an academic honor society increases by about 1.5x for those very likely to have Jewish last names.
I have been able to compile similar data for Brown and Princeton, where I notice similar trends (though no variables of significance for Princeton).
The point of this data – to be clear – is not to make a judgement on the academic achievement of various ethnic groups and therefore a claim on how admissions offices should operate. Other factors are probably much more important – however this data is a useful antidote to anti-scientific crusaders bent on ascribing one story of bias or the other that maligns large groups of people, without realizing that the underlying statistics on these questions are inherently complicated and do not yield easy interpretation.
Frankly, the set of vapid claims Ron Unz makes (and the New York Times editorial page approvingly cites) is predicated on bogus data. Not only does it fail to make any effort to identify Jewishness beyond perfect matching on to 100 lists, it fails to use data on actual achievement at school in favor of questionable data from PSAT scores.
Further, without even looking at a broad scope of data on graduate achievements – instead looking at meaninglessly small lists on Putnam exam winners or IMO olympiad results – Unz and everyone citing him favorably has decided to decree that an entire ethnic group has realized a “dramatic collapse in achievement”.
This is of course sloppy data work in general, but also evidence of complete disregard to any scholastic standards whatsoever before committing to a negative story about an entire category of students, which would be a cautionary tale if it was not so laughable in face of actual results.
Be careful when citing this post. You might notice that while Jews perform extremely well relative to baseline in every school where there is a significant variable at all, the coefficient for engineers is low (even though math and physics would be included in the first category where performance is fine). Ron Unz has an explanation for that:
We should also remember that Jewish intellectual performance tends to be quite skewed, being exceptionally strong in the verbal subcomponent, much lower in math, and completely mediocre in visuospatial ability; thus, a completely verbal-oriented test such as Wordsum would actually tend to exaggerate Jewish IQ.
He reaches this conclusion, of course, based on some colorless tale of ultra-religious orthodox Jewish reproduction patterns in urbanized environments (or something like that I didn’t actually bother to figure out what he meant). Unz might be banking on the hope that Jews are too mathematically illiterate to see through his lies.