‘Bad Studies’ columnist responds

KYLE DAY, Opinion Columnist

I have experienced more feedback from my article about sexual assault and bad social science last week than any other piece I’ve written.

First off, what took you all so long? I’ve made far more controversial claims in my past year as a Northern Iowan columnist (at least, I thought so, until this week), and I’ve faithfully made myself available for in-person discussion as described in my first column of the semester. All of three (you read that correctly) people have taken advantage of my offer. Where have you all been?

Much of the feedback has been either willful distortion of my claims, character assassination in lieu of an actual argument, outright lies or just plain nonsense that needs no response (“Re-victimization”? Really?) Yet in this sea of fury and falsehood, a couple islands of challenges are worth addressing.

In retrospect, some of my language choices opened myself up to criticism that at best distracted from the substance of my article and at worst made me seem ignorant and insensitive.

In my zeal to alert my readers to the reality of bad social science fueling nationwide panic over a nonexistent epidemic of sexual assault, I overlooked the technicalities behind the relevant terminology and (at least appeared to) unnecessarily disconnect rape from other sex-related crimes. That was mistaken, as it may have misled or confused some readers and unintentionally disturbed others, and I apologize for the lapse.

One would be mistaken, however if one took this to mean that my larger point (and indeed, my central argument) doesn’t still stand. It does (which is probably why the feedback has resoundingly failed to address it).

The original statistic of concern (“1-in-5 college women will be sexually assaulted”) still fails to meet the standards of reliable social science. The rhetorical game of “unwanted kissing” (for example) becoming “sexual assault” and then “rape” still plays out in public discourse, misleading the majority of people who (quite reasonably) don’t have the time or energy to verify it. At best the “1-in-5” figure only means “1-in-5 college women will experience some sort of forced or fraudulent sexual activity, from deception to emotional manipulation to physical coercion in all possible forms.”

Not only is that not a great sound bite (such that some activists have taken to saying verbatim “1-in-5 college women will be raped” despite it’s obvious falsity), but it still doesn’t take into account any of the other methodological flaws that plague virtually every one of these studies I’m criticizing (non-representative samples fraught with non-response bias caused by low response rates from self-selected respondents, etc.).

(For the record, all of these methodological flaws corrupt all other estimates found in these studies as well. The 1-in-71 claim for men, for example, is just as unscientific.) It turns out that even the researchers themselves are aware of their failures.

The sexual assault survey put together by the Association of American Universities (AAU) in 2015 led with the caution that the “1-in-5” figure is “not representative” of US institutions of higher education, and found that some of their own estimates were likely “too high” due to non-response bias in the sampling (as non-victims were far less likely to participate). Their cautions against hyping and oversimplification seem to fall on deaf ears, at least in the cases of activists, most journalists and many politicians.

In light of these strangely pervasive methodological flaws (seriously, why is it so hard to find a study on sexual assault that doesn’t suffer from them?), the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) still reigns supreme as the most reliable set figures. The 1-in-53 estimate is confirmed specifically by the BJS’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) published in 2014, which maintains great methodological rigor by securing high response rates from large and truly representative samples of survey respondents, not by merely going off the number of reported crimes (contrary to the claims of one of my fellow columnists).

There are limitations to the NCVS (as there are in even the very best that social science has to offer), but it is still more reliable (which is the language I used in my initial column, by the way) than virtually anything else about which activists choose to make noise and over which media outlets write attention-grabbing headlines (and that’s why the NCVS is relied upon by the RAINN to the exclusion of most other studies and sources).

As I implied in my initial column, just one sexual crime of any variety is too many. But grouping them all together under a single estimate is misleading at best, and it contributes to (indeed, is arguably the source of) this nationwide panic about campus sexual assault under which we find ourselves. That in turn motivates measures like the kangaroo trials that are now frequently taking place on campuses, the unjust sanctioning of fraternities for the mere accusations against just one of their members, and lofty consent policies that essentially criminalize seduction among college students (looking at you, California).

My appeal is no different than in my original column: be more like the researchers, and not the activists. Do what you can to ensure that cool heads prevail over the hysteria and ideology that corrupt most sexual assault awareness campaigns.

I appreciate legitimate criticism of my argumentation and even my rhetoric. I don’t appreciate potshots at my graduate program, and at the faculty, students, and staff that comprise it, and I don’t appreciate the reduction of my opinion to my genitalia. I expected better than that, especially from my fellow columnists.