When Dara Lind wrote at Vox that there was finally a consensus, it was a huge and critical point of dispute lifted off the discussion. After all, among the various problems confronting the discussion of whether there is an “epidemic” of rape and sexual assault, most notably on college campuses, but in broader society as well, one of the backlash fears is that the evisceration of due process and shifting of burdens onto the accused is a terrible thing.
But how terrible? The response of proponents of extreme change to grossly favor rape accusers was that false rape accusations very rarely happen. Almost never. And so, we should default to believing that every accusation is true, because who would anyone falsely accuse someone of a rape?
Of course, the reaction was that it happens, and has happened in notorious cases, like Duke Lacrosse and more recently Jackie/UVA, Mattress Girl and others. But were these outliers? What was the frequency of false accusations? Dara Lind set out to narrow this down, if not exactly answer the question.
For one thing, research has finally nailed down a consistent range for how many reports of rape are false: somewhere between 2 and 8 percent, which is a lot narrower than the 1.5 percent to 90 percent range of the past.
If so, this could reshape the debate. Not that 2 to 8% was inconsequential, but it wasn’t 90% either, right? So I immediately turned to my statistics guru, Francis Walker, and asked whether Dara got it right. As it turns out, maybe not.
My first problem with this is that there aren’t any US studies that I am aware of that actually use the 2-8% range. The only place I’ve seen that range used is in the The Voice article which, as I’ve previously discussed, isn’t exactly peer-reviewed research. Even Lisak, who is a listed author of The Voice article says the range is wider at 2-10%. I asked Lind about this and here is her response:
A: […] I almost certainly relied too much on Lonsway, between the interview I conducted with her and her response to Lisak.
So we begin with a problem, that not only is there no consensus of 2 to 8 %, but in fact no study that ever said 2 to 8 % at all. Rather, the Lisak study suggested 2 to 10%, but the two percent differential is, as it turns out, a relatively small problem.
To her credit, Dara Lind was very forthcoming about the bases upon which she drew, and to critique of her methodology in reaching the conclusion that there is a consensus. Unfortunately, this also meant that there was no consensus, and that her 2-8% statistic was, at best, a particularly misleading stat.
People think the question these studies answer is “What percentage of rape reports are false?” In reality, the question they are really answering is “What percentage of rape reports can we classify as false with a high degree of certainty?” As a result, these studies don’t give us binary outcomes. This isn’t necessarily a result of flawed design studies either. Statistics isn’t a magical art form capable of diving absolute truth from thin air. When it comes to sexual assault, unless you physically were able to witness what happened, it can be very difficult to classify a report as either true or false.
To the extent that the 2-10% false accusation statistic is valid, which itself is subject to significant criticism, what it reflects are accusations that can be characterized as false with a sufficient degree of certainty, which is “a pretty high bar to clear.” In the Lisak study, the specific number attributed to false accusations was 5.9%.
In contrast, accusations are assumed to be true if they weren’t proven false.
Next up is “Case did not proceed” which was the most used classification at 44.9% . . . Next is “Insufficient information to assign a category” at 13.9% . . . Finally, we have “Case proceeded” at 35.3%:
This classification was applied if, after an investigation, the report resulted in a referral for prosecution or disciplinary action or some other administrative action by the university (e.g., the victim elected not to pursue university sanctions, but the alleged perpetrator was barred from a particular building).
It may be tempting to view this category as “true,” but compare these criteria to the extremely strict definition of a false report.
In other words, the “true” accusations category was defined as cases that proceeded, which ignores that the commencement of an action, whether disciplinary or criminal, doesn’t make an allegation true, but merely “true enough” to pursue. But even so, it still leaves a division as follows:
Definitively False: 5.9%
What this tells us is that there is no consensus, nor anything approaching a consensus, as to the percentage of false rape and sexual assault accusations, and that anyone suggesting otherwise is wrong, whether intentionally or ignorantly.
Don’t blame me. It’s just what the numbers say.
The question is whether this research is going to get acknowledged, or if false accusations are going to continue to be treated as an unknowable X-factor in rape cases. It used to be a genuine mystery — but we now know a few things. We know that police tend to overestimate how many allegations are false, and we’re moving toward a consensus about how frequent false allegations really are.
Understanding statistics is hard, but there is an answer to Lind’s question: the research is being acknowledged. It just doesn’t show what she thinks it does.