Comment of the Day: “The President’s Irresponsible And Untrue ‘One in Five Women Are Raped’ Claim”


Rich (in CT) adds a superb and learned enhancement to the day’s post about President Obama’s dubious rape claims during the Grammy Awards.  It raises a question I hadn’t considered before: is part of the problem that researchers are as clumsy in their understanding of language as liberal arts types are in their use of statistics and numbers? The word “rape” has meaning; this is no place for Humpty Dumpty’s habit of using words to mean whatever one pleases. [“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.”—― Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass” ] Rich writes, “This data is important, as mental health and sexual disease propagation is affected by such contact, even if the traditional criteria imaged for “rape” is not met. ” I’ll concede that the data is important, but shouldn’t important data be clearly and accurately described? The data isn’t about rape! It’s about a variety of conduct linked by the researchers that they chose to call “rape,” knowing, presumably, that people who never read the data will take the misleading “rape” description and use it to confuse, persuade, deceive, and engage in scaremongering for political gain.

Rich writes that “not enough evidence is given to suggest that either study is unethical in and of itself.” Isn’t using vague, overly broad and misleading terminology for a study that is going to be made public intrinsically unethical—irresponsible, incompetent, untrustworthy?

Here is Rich (in CT)’s enlightening Comment of the Day on the post “The President’s Irresponsible And Untrue ‘One in Five Women Are Raped’ Claim”:

“No survey’s perfect.”

This is the truest statement in the article, although not when used as an excuse for using misleading data.

“Later in the article, Kessler reveals that the CDC study was based on interviews with more than 14,000 people, with a response rate of 33 percent….less than 5,000 people, from which the study extrapolated what would happen to 23 million women. Res ipsa loquitur.”

Statistically speaking, it is perfectly valid to use a sample of 5000 people to draw conclusions about a very large population (even in the millions). However, all statistical methods produce a confidence interval, which is vitally necessary for interpreting the data.

Even the two apparent conflicting government surveys are not totally unreasonable estimates when considered together. As a very rough and crude explanation, 350,000 total rapes might be the low end estimate; 1,900,000 total rapes the high end. The actual number of rapes for 2012 might be somewhere in between.

(I acknowledge a clinical tone in the following when speaking of rape; I do not wish to diminish the suffering caused by rape, but rather to focus on discussing the underlying statistics in the two studies.)

Ideally, both studies independently published the confidence intervals for their estimates. To clarify my rough example above, each study produces a predicted number of annual rapes (0.35 and 1.9 million for the NCVS and CDC studies respectively). They then each publish a confidence interval, which produces a high end and low estimate, based on the size of the surveyed group. The size of this interval varies, based on how “confident” the researchers wish to be that the actual number of rapes falls between the upper and lower bounds.

For the 2012 data, we see rates of 0.35% of women raped and 1.9% (given a population of 100 million used by the CDC). Given sample size for the CDC study of 5000, we expect a confinence interval of +/- 1.1% or 1.4%, depending on the our needs.( Assuming a similar sample size for the the former, we estimate ranges of [0% to 1.7%] and [0.4% to 2.3%]. There is thus considerable overlap between the two studies.

The two studies further appear to use separate criteria to serve two different purposes (NEITHER, I should stress, meant to give the president facile political talking points…) The CDC study wishes to capture all poorly planned and/or unwanted sexual contact, and used broadly phrased language to capture this. This data is important, as mental health and sexual disease propagation is affected by such contact, even if the traditional criteria imaged for “rape” is not met. The NCVC, meanwhile wished to capture the number of victims of criminal sexual contact that may need services.

Yet despite the different purposes, the two confidence intervals still overlap considerably. The absolute values admittedly appear to fluctuate considerably, but when when considered as relative percentages of the total, they only differ by a few percentage points. A meta-study combining the two may be able to narrow the range further.

The numbers are estimates of the needs of slightly different populations. Using the unqualified results, without clear explanation, to scare the public into accepting the political cause du jour is certainly unethical; however not enough evidence is given to suggest that either study is unethical in and of itself. I do not dispute that there may be flaws, such as the vague timeline alluded to in some questions.

Statistics is a complicated and nuanced field. There are rarely hard numbers produced that are easily digested by the public, but ranges of values that likely contain true value sought. It is very distressing that as many as 2.3% of adult women have had some sort of unwanted sexual contact in 2012.

Is also distressing, although less distressing in the absolute sense, that the President extrapolated ” has some sort of unwanted contact” to “were raped”.

7 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “The President’s Irresponsible And Untrue ‘One in Five Women Are Raped’ Claim”

  1. Let’s see:
    rape (above. Also, according to official statistics, “being made to penetrate” isn’t rape no matter how it’s accomplished or which body parts are involved.)
    racism (anti-muslim is racist, whites can’t be racists, any attack on obama is racist, etc…)
    equal pay for equal work (77%)
    thought crime (tacking on punishments based on bigoted thoughts isn’t criminalizing those thoughts)
    free speech (that principal a few weeks back among MANY other offenders. the claimed hate speech exception)
    illegal (tacking on punishments based on bigoted words isn’t criminalizing those words)

    I’m noticing a pattern primarily on the left (all the examples I can think of off hand, but I’m too cynical to assume the right is completely innocent in this) of redefining terms to shape the rhetoric in dishonest and misleading ways. Humpty Dumpty approaches to politics are detestable nonsense that worsen community relations even worse than they already are. Is there anything useful we can do about it though? I kind of feel like I’m tilting at windmills when I try to point out that someone’s argument is based on a dishonest redefinition.

    I had an argument with you once about the definition of harm. Although I don’t intend to rehash it, I wanted say that this sort of thing is part of why I prefer to use strict definitions. Fuzzy definitions lead to fuzzy thinking, which over the long run doesn’t help anyone. I would actually argue that embracing fuzzy definitions in general fails Kantian ethics, because communication becomes impossible if no one means the same thing when they talk.

      • I probably shouldn’t comment when I’m about to head to bed. Our discussion about Harm way back when was an instance of me trying to be precise. All those other things I mentioned here are part of why I tend to think that way. In hindsight, there was really no reason to even mention it.

    • What the study does is create a category of “Rape”, and places completed or attempted forced penetration, as subsets, with individual numbers given. It then gives a separate statistic on how many incidents are “drug facilitated”.

      While the study does use the word “rape” when discussing incidents in the category, when communicating with the public, the President had duty to elaborate: 20% of women experienced rape or attempted rape (2/3 were “completed” penetrations). I actually have heard this more responsible definition used in public health/awareness campaigns.

      Being “Made to Penetrate” was always in a separate category of “Other Sexual Violence”; not under the “Rape” category. (Categories listed in Table 1:

      In my second response in the original column, I take the language apart a bit further. The issue is in part that the journalist linked to a weekly briefing – “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)”, rather than the full report.

      • Their defined categorization is inherently misleading. They do not define the word rape. I define it as sexual intercourse without consent, which is a definition I would expect everyone to be comfortable with. I suppose it’s possible I’m the odd one out here though. Oddly enough, the CDC doesn’t even define rape when they define everything else.

        The primary effect of exclude “being made to penetrate” is to erase almost all instances of females raping males. Defining it to include only forcible penetration is common but unethical. Given that the study you mentioned is using a broad definition in other areas to capture as many instances of they can, turning around and eliminating such a huge number of rapes is insupportable. There are about as many female victims of forced penetrations as male victims of being made to penetrate for a 12 month period. That doesn’t fit the narrative though…

        • Just found it. In the original NISVS report, they do define the term and explicitly only include penetration. They don’t include that definition in the summary you linked to, but the full report had it.

          • Do they define consent? Most of what I see in colleges these days is a redefinition of consent in the most paternalistic sense possible. Go into a bar in a college town on Friday night and look around. By the current definition, possibly 50% of the women in the room are going to be ‘raped’ that night. With such definitions, 2% a year is really low.

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