Category: Politics

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.]


The Right’s reaction to Kavanaugh allegations is deeply ugly


As you are no doubt aware Brett Kavanaugh has been nominated to be an associate justice of the US Supreme Court and Congress is currently in the process of considering his nomination. His integrity has already come under serious doubt, there are concerns about odd financial activity and credible allegations that he may have committed perjury in the past. More recently an allegation of sexual assault committed by him when he was 17 became public.

Putting ideology and partisanship aside for the moment and even putting aside that allegations of sexual assault are far, far more likely to be true than false and putting on our extreme-benefit-of-the-doubt hats on…Clearly, this is an allegation that requires a careful investigation. The moral responsibility towards Kavanaugh alone implies that the allegation should be investigated — rationally, those who regard the allegation as an attempt to besmirch Kavanaugh should want the allegation investigated precisely because (if false, which it probably isn’t) Kavanaugh has already been besmirched.

The current risk for Kavanaugh is that he doesn’t get a very nice job for life. The risks for the Christine Blasey Ford, who made the allegation, are already apparent. Due to a sustained harassment campaign she has received death threats and has had to leave her home for her own safety.

This isn’t a complex ethical question. Questions around allegations of sexual assault are sometimes cast as a conflict between supporting victims versus due process/presumption of innocence. However, in this case, the due process is an option that is proposed and is available. The Republicans are not so keen, however. Investigations may slow down Kavanaugh’s nomination process which may imperil it all together in multiple ways (including giving Democrats time to look further into other aspects of Kavanaugh’s past).

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see a reaction from right-wing sources that is mind-bogglingly extreme. Here is Denis Prager in the National Review:

“It is almost impossible to overstate the damage done to America’s moral compass by taking the charges leveled against Judge Brett Kavanaugh seriously. It undermines foundational moral principles of any decent society.”

A foundational moral and legal principle common to British and US culture and legal history is that an ordinary person can seek redress for acts committed against them and expect people to take credible claims seriously.

Prager goes on to say:

“In any society rooted in Judeo-Christian values, it is understood that people should be morally assessed based on how they behave over the course of their lifetime — early behavior being the least important period in making such an assessment.”

That’s a very hand-wavey principle and it’s not one that the US Right or Prager himself can credibly claim to follow consistently. It is also irrelevant. Brett Kavanaugh is CURRENTLY saying that he did not commit the assault and therefore there is a credible question of whether he is lying NOW. If Kavanaugh was saying the allegation was largely or partly true or if he was saying the allegation was possibly true but he was too drunk at the time to say one way or another etc., then there would be a different discussion going on. But none of that is what is happening now — instead, there is an open question about Kavanaugh’s current capacity for honesty and acknowledging past mistakes, which all pertain to his character as a mature adult and what his character will be like on the Supreme Court.

I’m not going to directly quote the rest of the Prager article because it only gets worse from there: worse both in terms of the quality of argumentation and in terms of its ethical qualities. Essentially Prager goes on to minimise the impact of sexual assault and argues, in effect, that it is so common and so widely experienced by women that we shouldn’t worry about it too much.

The eye of the storm of the modern Right’s rape-culture paradox requires them to both deny that sexual assault is normalised & encouraged on the one hand, while claiming (as we are seeing with Kavanaugh) that sexual assault is commonly committed by young men and so ubiquitous as to reveal nothing about a man’s character. It is an odd defence to claim that Kavanaugh’s alleged actions are sufficiently common-place as the defence itself lends direct credibility to the concept they disagree with: that women should be believed when they make claims that they were assaulted.

Looking at blogs I visit more frequently, I can see similarly confused vehemence. Apparently naming or linking to certain blogs is a terrible form of persecution, so I shan’t do either. Notably at least one champion of free speech is demanding that Christine Blasey Ford be punished as well as anybody helping her. More alarmingly a common theme on multiple blogs is the idea that Kavanaugh’s alleged actions are ‘drunken groping’ and not assault or a crime, which is not the case: groping somebody without consent is very much assault under any definition and certainly is illegal (whether it is a misdemeanour or a felony in US law is another question depending on many factors).

Repeatedly, both in the Prager article and others, the writers include examples of either women they know or, in the case of articles written by women, examples they have endured of sexualised assault. The purpose of the examples appears to be to show that such assaults are commonplace (which, yes, we know sadly that they are) and therefore normal or quasi-acceptable (no, they’re not and under ages old definitions of assault they’ve always been assault – just not always treated that way by society) and that is all OK because the victims moved on. The plea then is to consider the perpetrators and ask that their lives not be ruined — which is a giant non-sequitur. Kavanaugh’s life being ruined is not the stakes here but whether he gets to sit on the US Supreme Court for a lifetime appointment. If being denied an opportunity to be nominated to the US Supreme Court is ruing somebody’s life then the Merrick Garland should be worrying them more.



I just finished that last post about authoritarians trying to control people by excluding those who won’t support them and hoped into my little boat to quickly sail around what remains of the Sad Puppy archipelago.

It’s not just that I don’t have to dig deep for quotes that exemplify the point, it’s also that the quotes are from the most current posts and are even more extreme than simply pointing at a group they like and saying ‘these are the real fans’.

At Mad Genius, Dave Freer and the consumption of human flesh:

“This doesn’t mean that I don’t think some people employed in publishing are nice people, but that’s just like some people in a tribe of cannibals are nice people. The nice cannibals are still cannibals and still going to eat people…”

To be fair to Dave, that’s partly just writers hyperbole. To what extent he means that to be taken seriously requires a broader grasp of his previous comments.

For somebody just making flat out false claims you need Sarah Hoyt:

“The left feels that way because they have a vast number of the maladapted and the mentally ill in their most vocal sectors. And therefore, if they are maladapted and mentally ill, someone must be oppressing them. The game after that is to claim the greatest possible oppression, because that justifies anything you might want to do.”

[NOTE: Please in the comments don’t compound Hoyt’s stigmatisation of mental illness with some of the more obvious response. Threading the needle of the hypocrisy there is too hard to do without repeating Hoyt’s error.]

It’s not enough for authoritarian’s to say that somebody is wrong, it is vital for them that they assert that other DO NOT COUNT and in huge numbers and broad swathes. Dismiss a whole industry as cannibals or a third of your nation as being led by the “maladapted and the mentally ill” is both intellectually lazy and reveals a dangerous desire for control.



How Coal Runs Australian Politics

The latest news in Australian politics is that ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull will resign his seat sooner than expected triggering a by election. I suspect this won’t bring down the government but it’s a more assertive act by Turnbull than I expected.

The Guardian has a report here:

Further down in that article is a comment from Turnbull’s son Alex, that confirms an observation I’ve made about this chaos:

“After Turnbull’s leadership loss last week, his son Alex Turnbull has started speaking publicly about his frustrations with the federal Coalition.
On Monday, Alex said he suspected a powerful group of coal mining companies on Australia’s east coast was having an “undue level of influence” on federal Liberal party policy.
He said the Coalition’s “singular fixation” on the Galilee Basin – a gigantic coal deposit in central Queensland – and on keeping ageing coal-fired power stations alive, had led him to believe “there are other forces at work” to explain the Coalition’s unproductive policymaking.”

“That there is an undue level of influence on Liberal Party policy by a very small group of miners who have some assets they probably now regret having purchased which did not make a lot of sense anymore and are trying to engineer an outcome which makes those projects economic,” he told the ABC on Monday.
When asked who the miners were, he laughed. Then he said: “People who own a lot of coal in the Galilee Basin.”

The observation certainly fits known facts. And here is a weird twist or perhaps an example of saying the quiet part loud: Denialist website Wattsupwiththat has an article loudly complaining that the press aren’t giving ENOUGH coverage to the fact that Turnbull was ousted because of climate policy:

How Women Don’t Get the Top Job

More inside machinations of Australia party politics for you all. This time though a brief look at the Prime Minister Australia didn’t get. Julie Bishop has decided to step down as Foreign Minister and to serve on the backbenches under Australia’s new PM, Scott Morrison.

Worth saying up front that a reactionary government led by a reactionary woman is still a reactionary government. Julie Bishop has been deputy leader of the Liberal Party for multiple leaders and has been active in pursuing the same terrible policies of that party. However, those policies clearly do evolve in a highly gendered climate where values coded as being masculine distort choices and attitudes. We live in a world of least-worst choices but even then the calculus becomes confusing.

In the recent leadership spill, rightwinger Peter Dutton sought to oust the more centrist Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull, realising that he wouldn’t survive as PM, used delaying tactics so that alternate candidates had a chance to challenge Dutton as PM. In the end, the Liberal Party MPs had a choice of three candidates:

  • Scott Morrison (who eventually won and is now PM)
  • Julie Bishop (at the time deputy leader and Foreign Minister)
  • Peter Dutton

Ostensibly the reason for the change in the leader was the poor showing of the party in opinion polls. However, of those three candidates the one who would have been most popular (according to polls) as PM was Julie Bishop. Simply put, the Liberals had a much better chance of winning the next general election (which could happen anytime but next May is likely) if they picked Bishop. So why didn’t the Liberal MPs pick Bishop?

The Guardian has acquired leaked WhatsApp messages from Liberal MPs showing the machinations that occurred:

Essentially high profile MPs likely to support her coordinated their votes to NOT vote for her so that Peter Dutton didn’t win. The fear was that if Morrison was eliminated in the first round of voting, some of his votes would go to Dutton. Given that the margin was small (in the end Morrison only beat Dutton by 5 votes), this assessment was probably right. Put another way, if it had come down to a contest between an unelectable (and possibly ineligible) rightwing man who appears to have had his charisma sucked out by a doomsday machine and a competent popular woman who just wasn’t quite evil enough, then the Liberals would have picked Dutton.

Whether to be happy or sad about that in these times is no simple matter. If Bishop had won the chance of three more years of the Liberal Party (including its extremist faction) would have been higher. However, if you have to have the Liberals in charge I’d rather it was the least worst option. For a benchmark of ‘least worst’ note that Bishop acted a lawyer defending mining giant CSR from compensation claims from people dying mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos at CSR’s mines.

It’s Important To Report Non-results

You get a hunch, form a hypothesis and gather a bunch of data to test it. Graph or otherwise interrogate the data and…your hunch isn’t right and there’s nothing remarkable about what you found. At that point you have two choices:

  • Throw what you did in the trash because there’s nothing worth saying.
  • Write it up anyway because non-results are important.

In proper scientific research, there is a inherent publication bias because of the first choice. Unremarkable results don’t get published as often because of multiple filters of humans discarding what is essentially dull. Those filters mean that what may be statistical quirks or the results of error stand a greater chance of being published than they otherwise should.

Of course there is another reason for reporting non-results: when you spent part of your day gathering data on a hunch about a publisher’s output only to find your hunch was wrong and now you have nothing to write about.


My hunch was that everybody’s least favourite Finnish publishing house had reduced their output of books. I collated data from Amazon and graphed it using a running total and…no, it’s pretty much the same rate of rubbish being published. Indeed, a bit more as I only counted books rather than their dire comics.


So, sorry but both research ethics and not otherwise having blogpost content means I have to.

The Right Don’t Need To Win To Stop Climate Policy

I perhaps didn’t emphasise this enough in recent posts on Australian politics. Yes, it is complex and factional and there is a lot going on around opinion polls and personalities and feuds. You particularly can’t ignore race and racism in this mess when, as Megpie commented on my last post “instead of the current Minister for Locking Children Up In Camps, we get the Former Minister for Locking Children Up In Camps”

BUT I’m going to focus on a single issue for a moment because it is a big one. Australia is a big country with a relatively small and urban population. The majority of its elected representatives believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity and that the government should take action on climate change. Successive Prime Ministers have promised to take actions on climate change. The non-urban population of Australia is also highly vulnerable to climate change and many Australian farming communities are currently suffering from an extended drought.

BUT Australia is a country with a lot of mineral wealth and a lot of that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy people. If a government tries to take action on climate change then the political right will move heaven and earth to stop it. There are lots of factors in Malcolm Turnbull’s downfall but it is notable that this specific toppling occurred directly around his attempt to pass a new energy policy – a very insipid policy watered down to extremes to get it past the right of his party but nonetheless, an energy policy.

Rudd, Gillard, Turnbull have each been successively punished by the right faction of the Australian Liberal Party, some select media outlets (two Murdoch controlled) and money from the mining industry. The conservatives in the Liberal Party just demonstrated that they’d happily trash THEIR OWN PARTY to use a kind of mutually-assured destruction tactic to hamper any moves on climate change. And that’s all they need to do – they don’t need to actually govern because ideologically they only need to wreck to achieve results for the vested fossil fuel interest.