NEW YORK — Americans have a shallow knowledge of the Nazi Holocaust but few doubt that it happened, according to an American Jewish Committee report correcting a misleading survey that caused alarm last year.
“Less than 2 % deny the Holocaust in a committed, consistent way,” Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago, author of the AJC report, said Thursday.
Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, analyzed more than a dozen surveys, including 2 Roper polls conducted for the AJC.
The first poll, taken in 1992 and released in March 1993, has been widely criticized by pollsters as a case study of how one badly worded question can produce highly publicized misinformation. Burns W. Roper, whose company was responsible, has publicly apologized.
The question required a cross-section of US adults to untangle a double negative: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?”
Twenty-two % said it was possible the Holocaust never happened and an additional 12 % said they didn’t know. Many must have been confused, because later polls got different results by asking the question differently.
In March, Roper interviewed 991 adults in person and asked them: “Does it seem possible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened, or do you feel certain that it happened?”
One percent said it was possible it never happened, 91 % said they were certain it happened and 8 % did not know.
Smith and AJC research director David Singer said the organization had acknowledged doubts about the 22 % Holocaust denial figure several months ago, but wanted to do a thorough analysis before making any statements.
Everett Ladd, editor of the Public Perspective, a polling journal at the University of Connecticut, expressed dismay Friday that the AJC could not correct its error more promptly.
“You don’t need to have a study. That’s disingenuous,” Ladd said. If Holocaust denial was as high as 22 %, he said, that would mean the US population was so ill-informed “democracy would be untenable.”
Smith said surveys indicate 19 in 20 Americans have heard of the Holocaust but their knowledge of it is “shallow, incomplete and imperfect.”
Comparing 1992 and 1994 AJC-Roper surveys, he found a “modest overall gain in knowledge,” including a 7-point increase in correct definitions of the Holocaust. Media attention to the openings of Holocaust museums and memorials in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and the movie “Schindler’s List” probably contributed, Smith said.
Mainly, though, how much people know about the Holocaust depends on how much education they have. In the latest survey, the percentage who knew what the Holocaust was ranged from 55 % among those with less than a high school education to 92 % among those with advanced degrees.
Those who lack knowledge of the Holocaust are much more likely to have doubt or unsureness about whether it occurred, Smith said. Uncertainty or doubt rises to 69 % among those who cannot correctly answer even one of 5 factual questions about the Holocaust, Roper found.
“Uncertainty and doubt about the Holocaust is mostly a function of ignorance, not the absorption of the neo-Nazi party line,” he said.