Evidence-Based Reasoning: Comments on a Blog Post

February 27, 2014

Evidence-Based Reasoning. This is a phrase you hear skeptics use a lot. We at CFI use it. We firmly believe in the importance of evidence-based reasoning and critical thinking. This is one reason I’m disappointed in Ben Radford’s recent post. Ben has done some good work for this organization over the years, but I’m afraid this latest post may have been written in some haste.

First, before going any further, I hope readers of our blog are aware of what we state in the About section of our blog, namely that viewpoints expressed on the Free Thinking blog represent the viewpoints of the individual blogger and not CFI. Ben Radford has offered his opinion; that opinion is not CFI’s position.

Now to Ben’s post. If you’ve read his post, you will know that he deals with false accusations of sexual assault, focusing on one case from Iowa in particular. Two observations by Ben in his post especially concern me. In the first paragraph, Ben notes, in referencing the Iowa case, that “The relative obscurity of this case suggests its prevalence.” No, it doesn’t. Obscurity does not imply prevalence. This is fallacious reasoning. Right now, someone in obscure, rural Latvia could be falsely accusing someone else of being a philosopher. The obscurity of this event does not imply that false attributions of philosophizing are prevalent.

More significantly, Ben asserts this: “the false report of a sexual assault is often used as a cover-story for consenting (but illicit) sexual activity.” The key word here is “often.” How often exactly? Ben doesn’t say. There is no cite to any report or article with supporting statistics. Yet as this is a critical claim, one would think a cite to supporting evidence is very much needed.

That false reports happen is not disputed. Nor does anyone dispute that for the individual falsely accused, it’s a very unfortunate, sometimes tragic, situation. But is this a widespread problem? That’s the key question. One might think so from the attention Ben has given to it and his use of the adverb “often,” but, actually, the evidence seems to indicate it is not a widespread problem. For example, a British study last year indicated that there were 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape during a 17-month period while there were 5,681 prosecutions for rape in the same period of time. The suggestion that false accusations of rape are commonplace does not appear to be supported by the evidence. Moreover, this suggestion can be very harmful if it persuades people that reports of rape should be treated with special suspicion.

Here’s the bottom line. All accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly. There is no a priori justification for treating the accuser with suspicion instead of compassion. The determination of whether a sexual assault actually occurred should be based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation of that case, not on generalizations about the behavior of people derived from other, distinct cases — however prominent or obscure.

Comments:

#1 oolon on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 3:03pm

There are many studies linking beliefs in rape myths such as high prevalence of false accusations with propensity to not convict in rape cases. Spreading disinformation like this has a real and damaging effect. So thanks for this post clarifying CFI doesn’t support Ben Radford’s post.

The centering of false accusations in discussion of rape and sexual assault cases is also used by MRAs and other assorted rape apologists to distract from the real issue. The lack of conviction in rape cases.
http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/rape-a-lack-of-conviction/

#2 WhyThaHeckNot on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 4:02pm

You are correct, sir, in stating that “All accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously,” but that’s where it ends. Any time an individual defines an experience as abuse, assault or rape, it is not our job to “investigate thoroughly.” It should be our task to listen and support. THAT is the bottom line.

I am extremely disappointed in your disclaim of Mr. Radnor’s post. Rape apologist tripe like this is deserving of thorough investigation, and outright renouncement. The disbelief, the myths and blatant falsehoods, the victim blaming demand to be called out and pushed back against wherever we find it, especially when it is propagated under the guise of reason.

#3 Lady Mondegreen (Guest) on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 4:07pm

Thanks, Ron. Radford’s post was really pretty awful, and the subject is too important to just let it slide.

#4 Astrokid on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 4:07pm

Really Ron? You zoomed in on a couple of statements and drew some conclusions looking at them in isolation?
Lets look at the 1st one, in context:

Though this incident occurred at a small Iowa university, other cases like this happen far more often than most people realize. The relative obscurity of this case suggests its prevalence. This was not an extraordinary, sensational case that made national news, nor was it featured on one of many true-crime shows like Dateline NBC. Instead, it involved two relatively unknown, ordinary people that resulted in extraordinary circumstances.

Now.. what is the author trying to do there? He is stripping the incident to its barest form. i.e demonstrating that there is no element that makes this a twisted case. say, of celebrity (presumably because there is the motive of jealousy/extortion by a whole lot of people), or national media attention. In short, it points to how mundane the setting was. And demonstrates that such a mundane setting also generates the false accusation scenario.  And that does suggest an idea..  why wouldnt other mundane settings also repeat these problems?

for e.g Eugene Kanin’s rape study in 1994 was performed in a very mundane setting.. in some small town with ample police resources to investigate each and every case thoroughly at leisure.. unlike big cities that are hard pressed for time. And his findings were that 40% of accusations of rape were outright made up.

Your “accuse someone of being philosopher in rural Latvia” analogy is weak. It does not contain mundane elements that lead to false accusations (such as the other scenario of people having sex, and dealing with consequences).

Lets look at the 2nd one:

Actually, Levitski’s reason is mundane and common: the false report of a sexual assault is often used as cover story for consenting (but illicit) sexual activity. There are any number of reasons why a person might falsely claim to have been sexually assaulted, including revenge, seeking sympathy or attention, or to cover up for some crime, indiscretion, or infraction. Here’s a few examples.

And you find fault with him for not quantifying how often it happens? What is one to do if there’s no good number on how often it happens? For e.g the Eugene Kanin study I mentioned said 40% in that small town. Elsewhere it could be different, like in your British study. But the issue is serious enough because in each of those cases, the damage done to impacted individuals is tremendous. And it has been demonstrated with anecdote after anecdote that it happens for a wide variety of reasons. Ben’s article gave a few examples. Plenty more with visual evidence are covered here:  The Crying Rape Game by Jim Goad.

How isnt what you did classic quote mining?
When you wrote your article about how “check your privilege” was being used to shut down discourse, did you specify how often? Did you quantify how often?

#5 oolon on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 4:49pm

Ahh MRA Astrokid cites a long debunked study and ignores the more recent set of stats provided by Ron.
http://amptoons.com/blog/2009/04/15/eugene-kanins-study-of-false-rape-reports/

Great example of how certain people misuse and distort the statistics to fit their own agenda.

TL;DR from the link above .. “Eugene Kanin famously found that 41%, or perhaps 50%, of rapes reported to police are false. Kanin’s study is both badly designed and unverifiable; more reliable studies have found that between 2% and 8% of rapes reported to police are false reports.”

#6 oolon on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 4:53pm

Also worth pointing out that the 2-8% figure includes cases like this one ... [TW/CN for discussion of rape]
http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2013/08/23/i-am-a-false-rape-allegation-statistic/

#7 M. A. Melby on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 5:13pm

The post is appreciated Ron.

I skimmed Ben’s article and got to the quote you mentioned: “The relative obscurity of this case suggests its prevalence.”

I was pretty sure, at that point, if I kept reading that I might incur a face-palm injury.  As several have pointed out already, that’s just not the case, and his flippant conjecture makes it appear as though he really hasn’t looked into this issue with any real depth or seriousness.

I skimmed down the article quickly after that, and could see no references at all.  Maybe I missed them?

At any rate, it seems that there is a crew beating up a strawperson - thinking that there is a sizable number of people who believe that all claims should be believed.  Not just “seriously considered” but believed - regardless of the circumstances or evidence.

To that end, as you probably know, false reports have been filed by Men’s Rights Activists as some sort of object lesson or something, to a college reporting system.

Some more trollish atheists have hurled accusations (essentially as jokes) at various personalities.

It’s asinine really and belittles the seriousness of the issue.

The message of “I believe her” is not an absolute.  It’s just a counter-point to: “She’s a crazy liar because *reasons*.” “She just regrets having sex.” and other go-to lies of rapists that they used to get away with rape and continue to rape.

Thank you for showing leadership with this.

#8 jacques cuze on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 7:41pm

Ronald Lindsey, I am glad you cited the Keir Starmer report. Sadly, you did not analyze it closely.

A better analysis can be found here:http://jacquescuze.tumblr.com/post/73933241211/that-time-when-wil-reblogged-some-bullshit-about-false where I discuss briefly what Starmer’s report got right and wrong and the political motivation behind it.

But Ronald, are you familiar with cotwa.info?

You refer to one very politicized report from the Crown Prosecution Service, but are you familiar with the scientific research as presented at COTWA.info or saveservices.org?

Are you familiar with the analysis of Heather MacDonald or Christina Sommers, or Cathy Young?

Can you tell me what Kanin found? What Fairstein said? What other academics and prosecutors have written?

Your pointing with an aha to the Keir report whose analysis you mangle and not discussing any of the other research and analysis mainly marks you as ignorant of the subject.

That is fine. You’re ignorant.

Don’t write like you are an authority or that the questions you ask are new or unanswered.

We know plenty about the motivations of people who make false claims. That is apparent EVEN in the Keir report whose findings you mangled.

And if you’re willing to listen, we know plenty about the prevalence of false claims as well.

#9 Eshto (Guest) on Thursday February 27, 2014 at 8:04pm

Look here’s the deal. Ben didn’t say victims should not be believed. False accusation is a real thing that happens, it can destroy lives, and furthermore when people make false accusations it totally trivializes and mocks the suffering real victims go through. If you care about victims, you’d care about this aspect of the issue too. If you consider yourself a “feminist” of any worth, you should be absolutely appalled, for example, that Amanda Marcotte famously championed false rape accusations against Duke lacrosse players and referred to people who disagreed as “rape-loving scum”. This did absolutely nothing to help any victim. It was an insult to real victims.

But Ben’s words are going to get twisted around anyway, by people who’ve already decided they hate him. And that’s because a handful of nasty drama bloggers and their fans (including oolon up there, who is a fairly irritating cyber bully/troll) LOVE false accusations. Because their blogs are dishonest, mean-spirited drama factories, that thrive on attacking and lying about people in their own movement. And I doubt anybody even knew what the hell an “MRA” was until crazies started calling people they don’t know that on twitter.

Also, maybe try READING an article before criticizing it, instead of just skimming it? I thought skeptics were supposed to be smart.

Finally Ron, you should know better, having already been through the ringer yourself.

#10 oolon on Friday February 28, 2014 at 1:24am

@Eshto/Ryan ... Did you just skim Ron’s post? He quoted accurately from Ben’s post and clearly articulated what he disagreed with. You seem to have unspecified complaints in general about Amanda Marcotte (WTF?) and unspecified “drama bloggers”. Maybe focus on something in the post that you think is incorrect as unlike Ben he actually cited stats to back up his point!

MRA is quite well known as “Mens Rights Activist”, and yes if they were not creating campaigns like this one ->
http://sinmantyx.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/just-because-you-regret-making-a-stupid-poster-doesnt-mean-it-wasnt-stupid-dont-be-that-movement/
No one would have a clue about a tiny number of bitter conspiracy theorists on the internet. Unfortunately they spreading lies about false rape allegations. You might have have missed astrokid cherry picking a flawed study above.

(Apologies if this is “cyber bullying/trolling”, I know how you and the other pitters get upset whenever someone “just disagrees” with you.)

#11 Bill London (Guest) on Friday February 28, 2014 at 4:20am

Two good points, Dr. Lindsay:

1. Ben’s use of “often” was problematic.
2. Ben’s argument involving obscurity and prevalence didn’t make sense.

But Dr. Lindsay, your second-to-last paragraph has its own evidence-based reasoning problems:

1.“That false reports happen is not disputed.” Maybe not by you or Ben, but I already encountered someone who has disputed the relevance to sexual assault of the recent Tavris e-Skeptic piece cited by Ben. (It takes only one black swan to show that not all swans are white.) Do you really think it’s hard to find people ideologically committed to the notion that false reports don’t happen?

2. You wrote: “... a British study last year indicated that there were 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape during a 17-month period while there were 5,681 prosecutions for rape in the same period of time.The suggestion that false accusations of rape are commonplace does not appear to be supported by the evidence.” But the comparison you presented is relevant to FALSE ACCUSATIONS only if it can be assumed that suspected cases of false accusations for rape are just about as likely to be prosecuted as suspected cases of rape. How can such an assumption be warranted?

Your presentation of evidence in a paper about evidence-based reasoning is astonishingly superficial. At best, it looks like a rush job. It doesn’t look like you carefully reviewed the relevant literature, noted the range of frequency estimates of false accusations of rape, noted limitations of various studies, and considered how difficult it is to draw evidence-based conclusions about the scope of the problem of false accusations of rape.

#12 Notung (Guest) on Friday February 28, 2014 at 7:43am

You’re quite right that obscurity does not imply prevalence, and that’s a poor argument by Radford. You’re also right to point out that the ‘often’ was unsubstantiated.

That’s two sentences that you rightly deem problematic out of a fairly long piece, but it’s puzzling that you’d find the whole thing ‘disappointing’ enough to distance your organisation from it as a result. I’d like to see Radford respond, either to justify these sentences (which I doubt he’ll be able to do) or to concede the points.

Your last part (the ‘bottom line’) is also right, but I didn’t read anything in Radford’s piece that contradicted it. Do you really think that he believes that there is an ‘a priori justification for treating accusers with suspicion rather than compassion’? If so, I wonder what parts of Radford’s piece gave you reason to think that.

I’d like for Radford to reply, clarifying that he does indeed believe that. Otherwise, it seems he has been rather seriously misrepresented.

#13 LadyHowdy (Guest) on Friday February 28, 2014 at 8:18am

Wow. I’m amazed at the quantity of MRA BS that’s shown up here in the comments section! The whole idea of Radford implying that rape accusations are an after-the-fact cover story completely abases the agency and personal boundaries of victims. I wonder how these MRA activists would characterize their own experience if, say, they picked up some sweet hot lady in a bar, fully and totally consented to having sex with her back at her place, and then halfway through the act she suddenly and without prior discussion pulls out a giant dildo and starts @$$-banging them with it. My guess is they would say, “Holy crap! She just raped me!” Never mind that they consented to sex—they *didn’t* consent to the particular sex act that they found offensive. Women have the same rights to consent to some forms of sexual expression while rejecting others. Trespassing on that lack of explicit consent is rape. Get over it.

#14 D4M10N on Friday February 28, 2014 at 9:32am

“The determination of whether a sexual assault actually occurred should be based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation of that case, not on generalizations about the behavior of people derived from other, distinct cases — however prominent or obscure.”

This sounds like anti-Bayesian reasoning, saying that no amount of statistical information about the prevalence of a particular crime or the prevalence of false accusations of that crime can be helpful in determining the apriori probability that an accusation is true. This is easy to see if we swap in some very improbable crime like “causing impotence via witchcraft” in the place of “sexual assault” above.

The truth is that we have good evidence-based reasons to believe that sexual assaults are fairly common, that false accusations are rather uncommon, and this leads us to conclude, by generalizing rationally about the behavior of people from similar cases, that the probability of false accusations in the case of this particular category of crime is low.

#15 jacques cuze on Friday February 28, 2014 at 10:27am

Just to be completely f*n explicit:

“You wrote: “... a British study last year indicated that there were 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape during a 17-month period while there were 5,681 prosecutions for rape in the same period of time”

THAT STUDY SHOWS *PROSECUTIONS* OF FALSE ACCUSATIONS BY THE CROWN PROSECUTION SERVICE ARE RARE.

IT DOES NOT SHOW FALSE ACCUSATIONS ARE RARE.

This is regardless of how the very politically motivated Keir Starmer tries to spin it, or how feminists spin it.

The report goes on to detail how often they intentionally do not prosecute false accusations because they feel it is not in the public interest to do so.

Ron Lindsay, you claim to be a lawyer and skeptic, read the ef’n report yourself and report on it. Read the case studies they offer. Note that they prosecuted the one male in their case studies, and intentionally never prosecuted charges against (IIRC) 7 of 8 women in their case studies.

Do your damn job as a “skeptic” for once.

http://jacquescuze.tumblr.com/post/73933241211/that-time-when-wil-reblogged-some-bullshit-about-false

#16 M. A. Melby on Friday February 28, 2014 at 12:00pm

Though this article does not explore the possibility of victims recanting due to pressure/threat or psychological stress sufficiently (which is a glaring omission); but it does an okay job of discussing the statistics intelligently, however.

http://www.theforensicexaminer.com/archive/spring09/15/

Most discussions about this confuse a lot of different things: a claim, a report, an accusation, a conviction; a recanted claim, a false claim, an unfounded claim, a false report conviction, a dismissed case, etc.

So, someone can generally just jumble these things into whatever configuration tends to give them the numbers they want.

For example:

The typical false report does not actually name someone as the rapist.  Only about 30% of reports thought to be false name someone that the accuser knows, in 50% of the false reports, they name nobody.  So, there is a report but no accusation.

Conflating false reports and false accusations then - HIGHLY over-estimates the number of false accusations.

And yeah, it’s complicated:

Someone who files a report about an actual rape sometimes accuses the wrong person when pressed because they are afraid of their actual rapist.  So the report is true but the accusation is false.

***

I think Ron’s point of not misusing statistics is a good one, though.  Even if the “false accusation” issue were as prevalent as the MRA crew seem to think it is, or if false accusations were nearly non-existent; when faced with a specific case, those generalities would only help us so much.

http://sinmantyx.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/assault-in-a-black-box/

But, I also think information about what form true and false accusations tend to take, and the reasons for them, is more useful information than prevalence of false accusations in general.  I think also, the piece that is missing here is information on the tactics of rapists - what they usually say, how they get away with what they do, etc.  The majority of rapes are committed by a small group of people who are serial rapists, and know how to play to their audience (us) and discredit their victims.

#17 scoutsadie (Guest) on Friday February 28, 2014 at 1:45pm

In comment #2, WhyThaHeckNot wrote:

“You are correct, sir, in stating that “All accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously,” but that’s where it ends. Any time an individual defines an experience as abuse, assault or rape, it is not our job to “investigate thoroughly.” It should be our task to listen and support. THAT is the bottom line.”

I suspect Ron was speaking as the head of an organization, in which case it is indeed incumbent upon the organization to “investigate thoroughly” if the accusation relates to people affiliated with the org.

#18 Steve (Guest) on Sunday March 02, 2014 at 9:09pm

Special suspicion? No, just normal suspicion. The suspicion that all criminal accusations should be met with. The suspicion that skeptics should apply to all claims.

#19 Mike (Guest) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 at 8:30am

The number of prosecutions for false reports of rape cited in the essay above leaves out one element that is potentially relevant, and that is the reality that a person who makes a false report who has a psychological issue is more likely to be referred for medical services than to be criminally prosecuted. Thus there is the genuine potential for the number of using prosecutions for false reports of sexual as a base line for how often false reports occur to be misleadingly low.
In comparison, The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine set the percentage of false reports of sexual assault in the UK at 9% in the July 2007 issue.

#20 Essential Saltes (Guest) on Thursday March 27, 2014 at 9:43pm

Thanks, Ron, for promoting the proper use of skepticism on an issue that inflames passions on both sides.

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