Rant of the Week

...and Statistics


I have heard this figure quoted numerous times in the past six months, usually in connection with another suspected campus rape:  according to psychologist David Lisak's 2010 study, only 2% to 10% of sexual-assault reports are false.

I didn't dig into it at the time I first heard it-- I just assumed that it belonged in the category of "30% of women in the military report being sexually assaulted", which is based on a definition of sexual assault that includes inappropriate comments and "leering" behavior or standing too close.

In any case, the Wall Street Journal dug into it a little more deeply and reports that Lizak's statistic is based on the assumption that all reports of sexual assault that are not categorically proven to be false are therefore true. 

Think about it.  There is a percentage of cases which are clearly proven to be true, as when there are witnesses and physical evidence or a confession.  There is a percentage which are definitively proven to be false, as in the now notorious case at the University of Virginia reported in Rolling Stone Magazine by Sabrina Erdely in an article which has since been retracted and discredited.  And then there are all the cases for which there is no proof either way.  Mr. Lizak seems to assume that proof is only required to demonstrate that an allegation is false.  Otherwise, it is assumed to be true.

One of the lame arguments presented in defense of Sabrina Erdely's work for Rolling Stone was the usual "re-victimization" trope: that the idea of actually needing to confirm a victim's story is itself a form of "re-victimization". 

Incidentally, you may have been left with the impression-- as I was, for a time-- that the victim in the University of Virginia case, "Jackie", might have really been a victim, but of somebody else, somewhere else, on a different day.  She was traumatized and confused so she conflated different fragments of experience into the one damning narrative. 

Okay-- that sounds a bit absurd now, but I was trying to be fair.  The trouble is that Jackie actually went though some effort to deceive her friends about the issue: she actually made up a fake former boyfriend (whom she claimed set up and encouraged the gang rape) using the picture of a former classmate and created an anonymous SMS account from which "he" sent texts to her friends.   She wrote fake love letters to the fake former boyfriend that she showed to her friends, which appear to have been copied from "Dawson's Creek" episodes.

Lizak assumes that all of the other cases, which have not been proven either way, are actual sexual assaults.  This is a scurrilous assumption.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some earlier studies have placed the percentage of false reports at 40-50%.   You might say that those are just some studies.  So is Lizak's.

You might also say-- as I have heard frequently-- that women just "don't make those things up".  I don't know why anyone would believe that, given the overwhelming evidence that, in fact, women do sometimes make it up, as in the two thirteen-year-olds who destroyed their Grade 8 teacher's life successfully even though it was later shown that they were lying.  Among other things, they claimed it happened in a room that had not been built at the time they said it happened.  They later confessed they had made it up.

By that time, the teacher's career and marriage had been destroyed.  If you like think that we live in a world in which school boards and ex-spouses then say, "oh, I'm sorry.  I'll make it up to you", you are delusional.

The two girls?  They were not punished.   We don't punish people for the real harm that they do  (or half of the Wall Street brokers would be in prison) but on the basis of what is required politically.  That is why the Wall Street Journal is more sympathetic the victims of false accusations than the New York Times.  The Wall Street Journal is more conservative.  It's an issue I think they might be right about.

Why did the two girls make it up?  It's not congenial to anybody, it seems, to inquire into that. 

Some people cite the number of women claiming to have been drugged and raped by Bill Cosby as proof that he's guilty.  On the other hand, the similarity of the stories might also suggest that the alleged victims are cribbing from each other.  I am skeptical of the "drugged" angle: there is a widespread belief out there that there are drugs-- Rhoponal and GHB-- that turn women into compliant zombies who will forget that they were raped.  The reality is that these drugs are no more or less effective than alcohol at achieving the results claimed.  Read their stories: the use of these drugs is almost always within the context of the victim drinking a lot.  Some studies suggest that the symptoms the women describe, of having been drugged, are more indicative of a simple hangover.  But even the Ministry of the

I have no problem believing that vulnerable and impressionable young women, believing that Bill Cosby could give them a big break, an acting role in his tv series or movies, or whatever, might end up willingly going to his apartment or hotel room and drinking with him.  Perhaps he forced himself on them.  Perhaps they were willing and then disappointed that he didn't promote their careers as they hoped he would.