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‘Statistical Voodoo and Elastic Definitions’

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Such is the substance of the campus rape “epidemic,” as I explained Wednesday (“Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But George Will’s Column Raped Me”) in rejecting the claim that skepticism toward feminist rhetoric is morally equivalent to rape.

Feminism’s hegemonic dominance within elite academia has been achieved because cowards are easily intimidated by intellectual bullying, but George Will refused to play along with that charade. His reply to a group of Democratic senators is a masterpiece of concision:

Dear Senators Blumenthal, Feinstein, Baldwin and Casey:

I have received your letter of June 12, and I am puzzled. You say my statistics “fly in the face of everything we know about this issue.” You do not mention which statistics, but those I used come from the Obama administration, and from simple arithmetic involving publicly available reports on campus sexual assaults.

The administration asserts that only 12 percent of college sexual assaults are reported. Note well: I did not question this statistic. Rather, I used it.

I cited one of the calculations based on it that Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has performed . . . So, I think your complaint is with the conclusion that arithmetic dictates, based on the administration’s statistic. The inescapable conclusion is that another administration statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college is insupportable and might call for tempering your rhetoric about “the scourge of sexual assault.”

What Will wrote in his original column was this:

The administration’s crucial and contradictory statistics are validated the usual way, by official repetition; Joe Biden has been heard from. The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent.

The arithmetic is indeed “simple,” and the administration’s claims about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus don’t add up. Even if we accept the claim that only 12% of sexual assaults are reported, multiplying the number of reported sexual assaults eight-fold still does not yield a number equal to 20% of female students.

Where did this ginned-up phony rape “epidemic” originate? What is the source of the “one in five women” number? A 2007 Justice Department survey that has been helpfully analyzed by Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post. Anyone familiar with social science methodology can examine the questions asked in that survey and see that the fundamental problem is how the questions were phrased: Respondents were asked about “unwanted sexual contact” and even attempted “unwanted sexual contact.” In other words, if your boyfriend even tries to do something “unwanted,” you’re a victim.

Perhaps the people who designed that survey did not deliberately bias the results in a way that exaggerated the incidence of “sexual assault.” Perhaps the researchers did not even think about how their survey might be hijacked for political purposes. Perhaps it is, in some sense, ultimately impossible for researchers to quantify in any definitive way the content of people’s sexual experience.

On the other hand, however, feminists have spent the past four decades trying to convince women that male sexuality is inherently violent and oppressive. (How many times must I recommend Daphne Patai’s valuable 1998 book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism as an analysis of this troubling phenomenon?) It’s not just deranged radicals — “PIV is always rape, OK?” — who embrace feminism’s demonized view of male sexuality and, when I encounter social science research which appears designed to confirm that view, I am not inclined to accept claims that the methodological flaws of the survey are entirely coincidental. Glenn Kessler comments:

On its Web site, the National Institute of Justice notes . . . that “researchers have been unable to determine the precise incidence of sexual assault on American campuses because the incidence found depends on how the questions are worded and the context of the survey.” It said that two parallel surveys of American college women were conducted in 1997 and came up with very different results, with one survey showing rapes were 11 times higher than the percentage in the other survey. The reason appears to be because of how the questions were worded.

If it is a known fact that the wording of survey questions can affect results in this way – multiplying by a factor of 11 the reports of rape — the reliance on such surveys to generate statistics that are clearly inflated cannot be accepted as a mere coincidence. The conclusion of George Will’s reply to the Democrat senators:

I think I take sexual assault much more seriously than you do. Which is why I worry about definitions of that category of crime that might, by their breadth, tend to trivialize it. And why I think sexual assault is a felony that should be dealt with by the criminal justice system, and not be adjudicated by improvised campus processes.

This is the real crux of the problem: University officials have insisted on treating accusations of sexual assault as disciplinary infractions rather than as matters of criminal justice. Why? Because the vast majority of such accusations involve “he said/she said” situations where a felony conviction would almost certainly be impossible.

The Brown University case of Dan Kopin and Lena Sclove may not be typical, but it demonstrates the fundamental problem. No one wishes to minimize the seriousness of sexual assault, but when such an incident is cited as evidence of universities tolerating “brutal rape” on campus, we’ve gone through the looking glass into an alternative reality where words have no fixed meaning.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

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