Claims and false claims

[A content warning: this post discusses sexual assault reports.]

All reports of a crime have potential consequences. We live in an age where false reports of crimes lead to death and where “SWATting” is a murderous prank. However, only one class of crime leads to constant concern from conservatives that false allegations are sufficiently common to require a kind of blanket scepticism. Amid the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, conservatives are pushing back against treating allegations of sexual assault at face value. This is part of a long history of people demanding that sexual assault crimes, in particular, require additional scepticism and scrutiny. That history pushed an idea that rape claims are made by women to ruin a man’s reputation even though historically the consequences of speaking out have always fallen more heavily on women than men*.

A piece by David French at the conservative magazine National Review attempts to pushback against modern feminist advocacy for supporting victims of sexual violence:

“It happens every single time there’s a public debate about sex crimes. Advocates for women introduce, in addition to the actual evidence in the case, an additional bit of  “data” that bolsters each and every claim of sexual assault. You see, “studies” show that women rarely file false rape claims. According to many activists, when a woman makes a claim of sexual assault, there is an empirically high probability that she’s telling the truth. In other words, the very existence of the claim is evidence of the truth of the claim.”

The tactic here is one we’ve seen in multiple circumstances where research runs counter to conservative beliefs. FUD, fear-uncertainty-doubt — everything from cigarettes to DDT to climate change has had the FUD treatment as intentional strategy to undermine research. Note the ‘how ridiculous’ tone of ‘In other words, the very existence of the claim is evidence of the truth of the claim.’ when, yes the existence of somebody claiming a crime happened to them IS evidence that a crime happened to them. It is typically the first piece of evidence of a crime! It isn’t always conclusive evidence of a crime for multiple reasons but yes, mainfestly it is evidence. The rhetorical trick here is to take something that is actually commonplace (i.e. a default assumption that when a person makes a serious claim of a crime there is probably a crime) and make it sound spurious or unusual.

The thrust of the article rests on an attempt to debunk research that has been done on the issue of false rape allegations. To maintain the fear of men suffering from false rape allegations, the article aims to emphasise the uncertainty in the statistics to provoke doubt (and uncertainty) amid its target audience.

After a broad preamble, the article focuses on one study in particular and to the article’s credit it does actually link to the paper. The 2010 study in question is this one False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases by David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa and Ashley M. Cote. The specific study looks at reports of sexual assault to campus police at major US Northeastern university. However, the study also contains (as you might expect) a literature review of other studies conducted. What is notable about the studies listed is that they found frequencies of flase allegations were over reported. For example a 2005 UK Home Office study found:

“There is an over-estimation of the scale of false allegations by both police officers
and prosecutors which feeds into a culture of skepticism, leading to poor communi-
cation and loss of confidence between complainants and the police.”

The space were David French seeks to generate uncertainty around these studies is two-fold:

  1. That sexual assault and rape are inherently difficult topics to research because of the trauma of the crime and social stigma [both factors that actually point to false allegations being *less* likely than other crimes, of course…]
  2. That there are a large numbers of initial reports of sexual assault were an investigation does not proceed.

That large numbers of rape and sexual assault reports to police go univestigated may sound more like a scandal than a counter-argument to believing victims but this is a fertile space for the right to generate doubt.

French’s article correctly reports that:

“researchers classified as false only 5.9 percent of cases — but noted that 44.9 percent of cases where classified as “Case did not proceed.””

And goes on to say:

“There is absolutely no way to know how many of the claims in that broad category were actually true or likely false. We simply know that the relevant decision-makers did not deem them to be provably true. Yet there are legions of people who glide right past the realities of our legal system and instead consider every claim outside those rare total exonerations to be true. According to this view, the justice system fails everyone else.”

The rhetorical trick is to confuse absolute certainty (i.e. we don’t know exactly the proportion of the uninvestigated claims might be false) with reasonable inferences that can be drawn from everything else we know (i.e. it is very, very, unlikely to be most of them). We can be confident that cases that did not proceed BECAUSE the allegation was false (i.e. it was investigated and found to be false) were NOT included in the 44.9% of cases precicesly because those cases were counted in false allegation. More pertinently, linking back to the “fear” aspect of the FUD strategy, the 44.9% of cases also led to zero legal or formal consequences to alleged perpetrators.

I don’t know if this fallacy has a formal name but it is one I see over and over. I could call it “methodological false isolation of evidence” by which I mean the tendency to treat evidence for a hypothesis as seperate and with no capacity for multiple sources of evidence to cross-coroborate. If I may depart into anthropoegenic global warming for a moment, you can see the fallacy work like this:

  • The physics of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect imply that increased CO2 will lead to warming: countered by – ah yes, but we can’t know by how much and maybe it will be less than natural influences on climate and maybe the extra CO2 gets absorbed…
  • The temperature record shows warming consistent with the rises in anthopogencic greenhouse gases: countered by – ah yes, but maybe the warming is caused by something natural…

Rationally the the two pieces of evidence function together: correlation might not be causation but if you have causation AND correlation then, well that’s stronger evidence than the sum of its parts.

With these statistics we are not operating in a vacuum. They need to be read an understood along with the other data that we know. Heck, that idea is built into the genre of research papers and is exactly why literature reviews are included. Police report statistics are limited and do contain uncertainty and aren’t a window into some Platonic world of ideal truth BUT that does not mean we know nothing and can infer nothing. Not even remotely. What it means is we have context to examine the limitations of that data and consider where the bias is likely to lie i.e. is the police report data more likely to OVERestimate the rate of false allegations or UNDERestimate compared to the actual number of sexual assaults/rapes?

It’s not even a contest. Firstly as the 2010 report notes:

“It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifica-
tions, the lower the rate of false reporting detected. Cumulatively, these findings con-
tradict the still widely promulgated stereotype that false rape allegations are a common occurrence.”

But the deeper issue is the basic bias in the data that depends on reports to the police.

“It is estimated that between 64% and 96% of victims do not report the crimes committed against them (Fisher et al., 2000; Perkins & Klaus, 1996), and a major reason for this is victims’ belief that his or her report will be met with suspicion or outright disbelief (Jordan, 2004).”

Most victims of sexual assault do not report the crime at all i.e. most victims aren’t even the data sets we are looking at. Assume for a moment that the lower bound of that figure (64%) is itself exaggerated (although why that would be the case I don’t know) and assume, to give David French an advantage, that 50% of actual sexual assaults go unreported and that half of the 44.9% figure were somehow actual FALSE allegations (again, very unlikely) that would make the proportion of false allegations compared with (actual assaults+false allegations) about 14% based on the 2010 study’s campus figure. It STILL, even with those overt biases included, points to false allegations being very unlikely.

It makes sense to believe. The assumption that rape in particular is likely to draw malicious allegations is a misogynistic assumption. That does not mean nobody has ever made a false claim of rape, it just means that we do not place the same burden of doubt on people when they claim to be robbed or mugged etc. People make mistakes and some people do sometimes maliciously accuse others of crimes but such behaviour is unusual and, if anything, it is particulalry unusual with sexual crimes where, in fact, the OPPOSITE is more likely to occur: the victim makes no allegation out of fear of the consequences and because of the trauma involved.

Somehow it is 2018 and we still have to say this.

*[I don’t want to ignore that men are also victims of sexual violence, perhaps at far greater rates than are currently quantified, but the specific issue here relates to a very gendered view of sex and sexual assault.]

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17 responses to “Claims and false claims”

  1. Camestros –

    Normally I leave joking and/or snarky comments here, but on this subject I’ll pass. This is a very good write-up of a very troubling subject and one that I’ll recommend to any and all I meet. Of course, it makes me want to drink myself into oblivion, but still a truly impressive analysis. Thanks for doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this. I am a survivor of sexual assault who did speak out … and was written up for “use of inappropriate language in the workplace” when I screamed at the perpetrator (an Army sergeant) to get the eff off of me. He got a slap on the wrist, because “we need to protect the soldier’s reputation.” I wish I were making that up. The command made a joke of it. “Oh, Sergeant Olsen … are you coming in here to sexually harass me?” my supervisor said in a tone loud enough for me to hear outside her office (just to name one example … and it was beyond mere harassment in any event.

    When the sergeant in question retired, the unit JAG officer came to my desk with the file copy of my letter of reprimand, tore it up in front of me, and said “This bullshit never happened.” He was furious at how the command handled the issue … which was in their jurisdiction because it happened on military property … and powerless to do anything about the fact that they cared more about the “soldier’s reputation” than that he basked me into a corner and committed frottage while I screamed and no one did anything but get ticked off at my use of blue language.

    I understand completely why so many women don’t bother to report. Sexual assault is the only crime I can think of wherein, if the victim is female, she is put on trial. No one ever questions the veracity of men who were abused by priests during their childhoods. -/

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The past two years of hte news cycle have been truly and deeply soul-sucking. I feel tired in a way I have not felt before. The sheer brutish cynicism and venal corruption of this Supreme Court hostile takeover/ farce (and the intense misogyny component) has been enough on its own to end any shred I had that democratic institutions qua institutions had any autonomous counterweight to bad faith actors. And these actors are very very bad faith indeed. Kav is a malign character, and McConnell may be one of the most destructive persons in US government history. The lower courts are stacked; the fix is in.

    But the story this week that left me feeling nauseous and panicked and angry and teary all yesterday was the one about the Alaska air traffic controller who offered an indigenous woman a ride home, then kidnapped her, choked her unconscious, raped and masturbated on her and left her for dead — he got no prison time. Apparently the judge and prosecutor felt he’d been punished enough by losing his job (which they referred to as “a life sentence”). Actual quote: “But I would like the gentleman to be on notice that this is his one pass,” prosecutor Andrew Grannik said in court Wednesday.

    I think I’ve reached the point where I think I’ve turned Jacobin and it’s April 1793. I get it on a visceral level now.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The only good news I can offer is that the unhappiness and sense of exhaustion is felt on the other side as well. It has been sad but revealing to see people on the right for once be honest and declare that actually they don’t care if Kavanaugh is a rapist or not, they just want to win. Conservatism is not just dead now, its little more than a vengeful ghost but sadly one with the capacity still to do harm.

      Liked by 2 people

      • But what, really, is winning in that scenario? It’s an fathomless abyss that will make their own live worse too. I mean, I get the racism and fear and our-side-ism and all that, but the sheer nihilism and sadism that has been unleashed, amplified and affirmed has challenged who and what I thought was sharing the streets with me. Even the vocabulary we have is now outdated, weak, fraught and unsatisfactory (ex: I thought we’d made “progress”? word now too 19th century-teleological-darwinist/ “rule of law” — the law is an ass(assin). “civil rights”? can’t be civil with uncivil people who want to hurt and annihilate you, the concept of civility benefits status quo).

        I have reason to be watching the original A Man for All Seasons (1966) this week, in a nice ironic twist of the schedule.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Also: recommitting to giving more than just financial support for the MIssing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) campaign. I am really shook by the fact that a violent sexual predator got no jail time and what amounted to a shrug and a “sorry for the inconvenience” from the state. And that there are tens of thousands of these stories unreported. I understand the appeal of vigilantism revenge right-the-wrong wish-fulfillment stories now (and have to work through the unhealthiness of that impulse).

        Liked by 4 people

    • I am crossing my fingers that the next news out of Alaska will be about an impeachment — Alaskan citizens should be so lucky!

      And I hadn’t noticed before that the woman was a native. Suddenly it all makes more sense. 😦


  4. “But what, really, is winning in that scenario? It’s an fathomless abyss that will make their own live worse too. ”
    They don’t care. I mean, they care when bad things happen to them, but it’s not as important as imagining liberals and feminists crying.
    “They came for the Jews, and I was not a Jew so I did not speak up” — a lot of them don’t want to speak up. They’ll be horrified and outraged at the end, when someone comes for them, but it’s Totally Different than when someone came for the Jews, the socialists, the gays, etc. Some of them are undoubtedly aware that their own freedoms are safer if everyone’s freedoms are protected, but they’ll gamble on that for the pleasure of seeing The Other ground into the dust.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. A few years ago, there was a high profile rape case here in Germany. A TV personality assaulted and raped his girlfriend. The woman did everything rape survivors are supposed to do. She immediately reported the crime and did not shower or wash herself, so that evidence could be taken from her body. She also had visible injuries. The guy claimed the sex was consensual – of course, he did – and that she liked it rough. In the end he was aquitted, because – quote – the woman might have injured herself to make her boyfriend look bad. Because women obviously cut themselves with kitchen knives to get back at men. Even worse, the jerk who got away later sued her and also sues everybody who talks about the rape case. He’s no longer on TV, but he writes newspaper columns and is on Twitter all the time. I blocked him, so I won’t have to see his tweets when I search certain German news hashtags.

    And few years later, there was another high profile rape case, where a reality star and adult film actress was raped by several men. The men filmed the whole thing and it was obvious that the woman was drunk and unable to physically resist, but that she said “no” several times. Once more, the perpetrators were aquitted, because she didn’t resist (because she couldn’t) and because a mere “no” wasn’t sufficient according to the then valid German law (which has since been amended against resistance, because nasty woman could hurl false allegations at the poor widdle menz). The victim was later also sued for supposedly false rape allegations.

    It often seems to me that the only cases where a rape victim is actually believed are those where the perpetrator is not a white German man, but a foreigner, preferably a muslim refugee. When those cases go to trial, the perpetrators also usually get high sentences. Coincidentally, one of the most notable false rape accusations of recent times involved a teen girl who’d run away from home to stay with friends and later claimed that muslim refugees had kidnapped and raped her. The police quickly figured out that the girl’s story did not add up, but there were massive protests to “protect our duaghters from foreign rapists”, so the police had to go public to point out that the alleged rape never happened.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Anything that to them might challenge their sense of power, social influence and opportunities for money thereby has to be challenged, decried, denounced, dominated with violence. Lies, contradictions, rationalizations, etc. are completely justified in the righteous cause of holding the superior identity. A central question in political science is whether political leaders seek primarily power or security by being political leaders. In the case of those who have invested their social identities in status quo hierarchies, relentlessly seeking to hold and increase power for their “side,” even if it does not give them personally power or even lessens their personal power, is seen as security of their identity, protecting that identity in the culture.

    Equality shifts make maintaining those identities insecure and less stable (which is why their “intellectuals” and politicians go on about chaos all the time.) If the repressed narrative of the marginalized changes, the cultural narrative of the superior who rightfully owns things and is owed things by the marginalized and society in general also changes, is dismantled.

    So what they want to “win” is the security that their identity is still dominant, superior in the culture, on top of ye old hierarchy. The more they can control, the more they feel secure. So when Trump eked out a “win,” that made a lot of them feel secure in their identities as the righteous superior in control. But they discovered that a lot of the people they knew then hated their guts, that the cultural atmosphere was not that they were the righteous superior but instead villainous, that they did not have the security of that identity as dominant and best, were not able to force it on the culture despite Trump being president.

    So if Kavanaugh is not put through to the Court or is forced to resign the nomination, it means that their cultural identity lost and is insecure in the culture as the top of the repressive hierarchy. (Kavanaugh himself does not matter except as someone who will support their identity.)

    This Twitter thread from Jeet Heer is on target:

    Especially this quote:

    “It’s important to understand that going back to the French Revolution (blamed on the Illuminati & Masons) the right has always preferred to see radical political change as a result of conspiracies rather than caused by large social forces & democratic mobilization…If they acknowledged change came from mass mobilization of groups with grievances (workers, women, POC) then they’d have to acknowledge real grievances. So instead of acknowledging politics based on mobilization against real problems (economic injustice, patriarchy, racism, imperialism) the preferred theory is to blame some small group of eggheads (Illuminati, Masons, Fabians, Frankfurt School, Soros, etc).”

    Sound like some Puppies you know, plus all these other groups? Scientific data is simply refuted because it does not support their cultural identities and would force them to admit that their status thereby was from the hierarchy, not innate superiority. Which would mean they would have to give ground and share resources and power with others who were suppressed, which presents for them uncertainty about their identities, etc. The fossil fuel industry successfully promoted that environmental concerns were only from the leftie hippies who were doing all that annoying civil right stuff — a threat to the security of cultural identities. And so each piece of science about very real environmental problems and the need for cooperative human behavior across the globe to combat them must be rejected for the security of the cultural identity based on current hierarchies.

    Even those who are less right-ward and authoritarian will still defend hierarchies if they fundamentally support their cultural identities of themselves. White liberal women will turn on black women who point out the white women using racial privilege and controlling leadership positions and benefits, feminist men will still whine that women should be more polite in talking to them about sexism and how it lets men control leadership positions and benefits, etc. Because it is less secure, would require more change and a change of cultural status. So they all try to cycle through a litany of defenses to secure their culture identities, even if it hurts their own lives. The sense of who you are becomes more important than how you are.


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