The Zombie Study That Just Won’t Die

Michael Stern opens with an appeal to authority, which isn’t surprising as there’s a fairly good chance his otherwise tepid observations would never get real estate at USA Today.

I used to prosecute sexual assault cases. Here’s what I learned and how it could help us.

And according to Stern’s website, he was indeed a prosecutor.

30 Years of experience as a litigator:  25 years as a Federal Prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, 3 years as an Assistant District Attorney.

For the unwary, federal prosecutors don’t prosecute sex crimes. It’s a state crime, so his experience comes from his first three years rather than the last 27. Yet, his point would have been just as obvious, and just as benign, had he been the guy selling hot dogs outside the courthouse, so what might otherwise have been considered a bit of rhetorical hyperbole doesn’t present any real problem.

Part of the ramped up fervor that comes with a public allegation of sexual assault is the anticipated reaction that people will believe, or not, before the facts are revealed. This reaction may be human, but blindly cheering for one “side” or the other does a disservice to both.

One of the few cases I dismissed as a prosecutor was a rape case in which the “victim” ultimately admitted she falsely claimed consensual sex was rape, after her boyfriend found out about her affair with another man. I spent months investigating before the truth came to light.

He prosecuted a case that ultimately turned out to be false? Who would have thunk except, well, everybody. That there are false accusations comes as no surprise, and really doesn’t require some monumental depth of prosecutorial experience to note. Of course there are cases, and to say so is about as uncontroversial at it gets.

But then Stern takes his otherwise pedestrian observations down a rabbit hole.

While false accusations of sexual assault occur, statistics show they are rare. A widely respected 2009 study, authored in part by a University of Massachusetts professor, concludes that 92 to 98 percent of sexual assaults, in which the suspect is a nonstranger, are real. The same study explains why women who have been sexually assaulted often do not react in the same way as a victim of car theft or credit card fraud.

A study? Wow, we love studies, as they’re very empirical and we love empiricalish stuff. So who is this University of Massachusetts prof who did this “widely respected” study?

Dr. David Lisak, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts

Uh oh. Lisak’s study isn’t “widely respected,” but thoroughly debunked.

Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the wild west of campus sexual assault hysteria would know that the study by David Lisak was utterly, thoroughly, totally debunked. And, for a brief shining moment, it disappeared from the dialogue, relegated to the trash bin of “fake news.”

And yet, here it is, again, this time given the ascribed cred of being “widely respected” because it was authored in part by a professor, and obviously Stern finds Lisak’s academic credentials impressive. Except the study was crap, a lie that won’t die because people like Stern keep repeating it despite the study having been debunked.

David Lisak had been a bulwark of the rape culture movement.  It was his research, cited more often than anyone else’s, that provided the foundation for the existence of a rape epidemic, that false rape accusations were below 10%, that serial rapists were responsible for 90% of college rapes.  This guy was the mother lode, and everybody took for granted that he was, if not necessarily correct, legitimate.

It turns out that Lisak’s study was just as much crap as anybody else’s.

Aside from Stern’s reliance on a false study, his op-ed is generally fine if hardly as bold as he seems to believe it is.

I have a clear understanding why “believers” come out swinging before the gun powder has settled from the opening shot. Historically, women who have been sexually assaulted have faced an uphill battle in getting police, prosecutors and the public to acknowledge the truth of their assault. You can’t place a brick wall between a victim and justice and act surprised when it calibrates the push.

Why Stern’s understanding is any more clear than the hot dog guy’s is unclear, but if he says he’s got some special grasp of the problem, whatever.

There are two choices. We can keep up the scorched-earth battles over public allegations of sexual assault. Or, we can make a choice to consider the facts before letting our partisan impulses get the best of us and bring out the worst in us.

Consider the facts? Amazingly, that’s what’s considered a controversial assertion these days. Thankfully, we can fall back on Stern’s experience during his first three years as a prosecutor, to the extent he did sex crimes as to the other cases he handled during those years, to arrive at the idea of considering the facts.

But if we’re going to consider the facts, let’s not spew malarkey like the Lisak study. And let’s not enhance it by calling it “widely respected” when any person knowledgeable on the subject is painfully aware that the study was a sham. Lisak’s study needs to die a brutal painful death, and former prosecutors who want to get their names in the paper have to stop resurrecting it like the walking dead. Especially if they want to offer the exceedingly obvious notion of considering the facts before deciding whom to believe.

19 thoughts on “The Zombie Study That Just Won’t Die

  1. wilbur

    You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Unless you cite Professor Lisak. Then it’s literally assault to question the facts.

    Does any retort advance a discussion less?

  2. B. McLeod

    Even Lisak’s “study” acknowledges an incidence of false accusation as high as 8%. That isn’t “rare,” and can’t justify a “believe the accuser” mantra.

    1. SHG Post author

      And since that’s an inaccurate stat, why repeat it? Yes, we all got your point, but it’s irrelevant because its false.

          1. B. McLeod

            I don’t think Blackstone postulated that it was OK to punish an innocent person for every ten guilty people who were released. Academic, because, per the “believe the accuser” approach, we would simply imprison the guilty and innocent alike, and nobody would go free. That formulation would be, “It is best to punish ten guilty and one innocent person than for anyone to go free.”

            1. B. McLeod

              Were it but Tuesday Talk day, we could all be listening to “Hand of the Almighty” right about now.

  3. ShelbyC

    Your post seems to be referring to two bogus Lizak studies. Your links refer to a 2002 study, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists”, which has been debunked. Stern, however, links to a 2009 study, “False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault”

    But even the 2009 study doesn’t say, as Stern claims, that “92 to 98 percent of sexual assaults, in which the suspect is a nonstranger, are real.” The study finds that 2-8% of reports are classified by police as false. Stern simply assumes that reports not classified as false are real.

    1. SHG Post author

      Lisak has been discredited. Lisak’s studies have been discredited. The false rape stats have been discredited in a dozen posts here. But if you’re unaware of any of this, then it’s important for you to point it out since everything is about you. I apologize for not including every link to every post every written on the subject here just for you. Because it’s all about you. You are the center of my universe and I exist for you. I hope this makes you feel better.

      1. ShelbyC

        Perhaps my comment was unclear. Your link in the line, “Lisak’s study isn’t “widely respected,” but thoroughly debunked.” appears to be intended to show that Lisak’s 2009 study has been debunked. But instead it points to an SJ post about Lisak’s debunked 2002 study. Of course you are correct that both studies have been debunked.

  4. Nemo

    The answer to the question you posit, more or less ‘why won’t/when will this horrible study go away’, unless I’ve missed your meaning, is contained within the body of your post:

    “David Lisak had been a bulwark of the rape culture movement. It was his research, cited more often than anyone else’s, that provided the foundation for the existence of a rape epidemic, that false rape accusations were below 10%, that serial rapists were responsible for 90% of college rapes.”

    If his study goes away, so does the foundation of the whole “rape culture fact (Or theory, to some, but it is neither.)” thing has no support. Or not enough. To admit that the study was non-factual is to give up an ideology and its doctrines. It means admitting that all one’s activism was based on a falsehood, and nothing you fought for would do any good in the world.

    Activists are too invested to do that, so they won’t. Instead they’ll do what they have done all along, indifferent to the fact that they are continuing to be dishonest on the topic. What’s a little dishonesty, when your cause is so noble?

    Unfortunately, activists don’t necessarily have to be right to stay in the game. Usually being loud is enough. Hypocrisy’s a mitzvah, not a sin, to such people.

    “Love you too won’t cut it, dear.”


  5. Allen

    2 to 8 percent refers to the percent of alll police cases which had a completed investigation that were found to be false to a high degree of certainty. This excludes baseless accusations in which the events described did not fit the definition of the crime. It also excludes all cases where the investigation did not conclude.

    In the largest American study cited (EVAWI MADD report), 29% of the cases the accused niether succeeded or attempted the crime for which they were accused. Of these a slight majority were classified as baseless rather than false.

    The remaining 71% of completed cases were deemed to have probable cause to believe they occurred. Probable cause is a lower burden of proof that was used for the false and baseless cases

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