For those of you who, like me, sat through Statistics 101 thinking that it would be great if there was a long needle within reach so I could stick it in my eye rather than have to sit through any more lectures, much of the discussion about the “1 in 5” rape epidemic stat that has driven the hysteria upon which evisceration of basic due process rights is grounded is problematic.
Sure, we understand basic statistical flaws, such as the lack of random sampling and itty-bitty sample sizes. Or there’s the facile interpretation of responses to conform to the outcome desired by the people conducting the study. Or the problems when definitions are fudged to the degree that “some guy stared at me at a party” becomes “stare rape,” which becomes rape. Or rape is whatever someone decides it is the day after consensual sex.
But these are just the surface flaws. We’re not qualified to parse the details with a statistician’s eye, so we rely on those who know what they’re really talking about. One such person, new to the blogosphere, is Francis Walker.
Whether that’s a real name or a nym isn’t clear.* I’ve reached out to Francis Walker to get some additional information, but have yet to hear back. Maybe I will before the day is out. But what Francis produced at Data Gone Odd is so thorough, well-grounded and detailed as to stand on its own, regardless of who did the writing.
Before going to Francis’ posts, one point that demands making is that this isn’t some rhetorical challenge to statistics. It’s not the mere utterance of “the study was flawed,” or some shallow challenge to the obvious self-selected group of respondents who took the survey on a website dedicated to eradicating sexual abuse. This is what rigor looks like.
Francis has two posts, both of which are long, academic in style and highly detailed. They’re entitled “How To Lie And Mislead With Rape Statistics,” parts one and two. Despite their length and style, they are provocative in the sense that they go where the numbers lead.
As it turns out, only 7.8% of rape reports are true.
I know that may seem hard to believe, but I didn’t just make it up. Technically, it is completely true. It is also completely horse shit. It is so misleading and built upon so many undisclosed caveats, that most people would consider it as good as lying if they knew how it was actually derived. The thing is, that “only 2-8% of rape allegations turn out to be false” figure you may have heard? Not only is it just as misleading (if not more), it actually comes from the exact same data set.
In a discussion in the comments to this post, the typical empty rhetoric was propounded to perpetuate the phony “1 in 5” stat, not because the commenter believed it to be accurate but because
there are many good reasons to suspect that the .61% significantly undercounts, and that its source – the NCVS – finds an extremely low rape prevalence rate compared to almost any other study of rape prevalence.
Are there “many good reasons”? What about “almost any other study of rape prevalence”? Neither assertion offers anything remotely resembling a well-grounded argument. These are conclusory assertions without basis, meaningless rhetoric. Francis goes through the studies at length. Unlike Barry Deutsch, the commenter who offered these empty assertions, as if one could run through the faults in meaningful detail in a blog comment, Francis performs the rigorous scrutiny required.
Francis’ posts address primarily the issue of false rape allegations, that claim at issue when advocates contend that all “survivors” must be believed, and that there are minimal, if any, false claims. Francis picks apart the studies, the methodologies, the assumptions and the biases behind the numbers. It’s tedious work, but if we’re to work with statistics to make a point, it’s critical work since we only blowing smoke if the stats are crap.
But many of his points reflect the failure of rigor that confuses well-intended but misguided advocates in all aspects of this issue:
A multi-site, multi-year study? Seems like we actually have some good data to work with here. They then give a website where you can find out more information about the MAD Project, http://www.evawintl.org. Clicking through you’ll find out that their primary source for a “methodologically rigorous” study on the number of false rape reports comes from the organization End Violence Against Women International. If someone tried to present their view that the number of people killed by cigarettes each year is actually pretty low and their primary source was a study done by Phillip Morris, how much credence would you lend that research? What about a study on gun violence done by the NRA? And yet, for some unknown reason, the authors don’t seem to think that End Violence Against Women International might in some way be biased as to frequency of false rape reports.
When I embraced the DoJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics report (notably not one of my personal favorite sources of information since the DoJ and I don’t tend to see things eye to eye in most instances), Deutsch ironically accused me of being guided by my political bias.
So you’re saying that all studies that don’t show the outcome you want are politically biased? And you think I’m the one making desperate wishes?
No one has ever accused me of trusting the Department of Justice too much before, or sharing a political bias with them. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with bias, political or otherwise, despite claims by those who would rather cling to statistics that are conclusively known to be false.
If there was, in fact, an epidemic of rape and sexual assault, as those offenses are legally defined rather than offenses based on how women feel about things the next day, then it would demand redress. We would still argue whether the evisceration of due process is the right solution, but at least it would be based on a problem that existed in fact rather than fertile imaginations.
But it’s people like Francis who do the yeoman’s work of parsing the numbers, the studies, the details, to arrive at a founded conclusion as to whether a problem exists or we’re being whipped into phony hysteria. It’s not about anyone’s political bias, but merely accuracy and sound statistics. The outcome goes wherever the numbers lead, and there is no hyperbole or hysterical crying that changes the value of the statistics.
* I’ve since heard from Francis Walker, who has provided me with his bona fides, but informed me that he would prefer to remain anon so that the work, and not the person, does the talking. I’m satisfied that Francis Walker is the real deal, and will honor his decision to go by a nym.