Fault Lines
21 June 2017

Numbers? You Want Numbers? We Got Numbers!

Feb. 10, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — What jumped out at me as I was reading Tara Singh’s Fault Lines post, “Clergy & Child Sex Abuse: Quick Forgiveness Is Cheap Grace,” (besides the great title) was the statistic.

Only 38% of child victims report abuse

“Wow,” I thought to myself. And “Wow” again.  38%!

But it wasn’t actually the number itself. I mean 38% is either way lower than you might have thought or way higher or dead on with your guess.  Or mine.  No, it wasn’t the number.  It was the precision of the thing.

38%

Complete with a link. So really, that means that out of every 100 victims of child sexual abuse (however that might be defined), 62 of them never report it.

And what I thought, what inspired the Wow and Wow again, was that the proper number might as well be 7.  Or 73.  Or 14.  Because, really, who the hell knows?

OK, I’m not a statistician. I focus on street crime because I understand hitting someone over the head with a brick and taking their wallet   I get raping and pillaging.  I understand the mechanics of murder.  I don’t have the same basic understanding of things like fraudulent tax shelters; I can’t read spreadshits , er, spreadsheets (honest, it was a typo, but it makes the point) without major study. I’ve represented people in medicare fraud cases and fraudulent bankruptcies and the like, but it’s an extra layer of struggle, and not mostly worth it for me.

So numbers? Feh.

Still, if 62 out of 100 kids who are victims of sex abuse don’t report it, how do we know? Yeah, I get it that someone’s extrapolating from something.  But it’s a fucking secret.  So the result is, at best, a guess.

Consider the prevalence of campus sexual assault. Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 2 and 80% of women on college campuses are sexually assaulted.  20% seems to be the most commonly floated number in the mainstream media.  But the basic truth, even once you correct for definitional issues (no, leering is not sexual assault), is that nobody knows.  It’s all guesswork.  Oh, you can look at reports and then conduct surveys and ask how many people didn’t report, but then there are other issues – bias, uncertainty, and dishonest/confused responses.

Leave sex behind. What’s the percentage of factually innocent people in prison?  Well, the Innocence Project asks that question (actually, they ask “How many innocent people are there in prison”) and then offer this answer.

We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).

Okay. And how do they come up with those numbers? (Not the 20,000, that’s just arithmetic from the 1% hypothesis; but the 2.3-5% estimates?) Well, you look at the people who’ve been exonerated and then extrapolate.  But that assumes that the number of exonerated bears some meaningful relationship to the number of factually innocent folks.

You know, out of every 100 prisoners for whom we can do DNA testing, and in fact do DNA testing, ___% prove to be the wrong person.  But, of course, it’s not a random sample that we do the testing on.  Not even a random sample of, say, rapists where DNA testing is often possible.  So the numbers need to be massaged.  And then why the hell should we assume that the percentage of innocents convicted of bank robbery bears any relationship to the percentage of innocents convicted of rape.  And what about the rapists whose accurate defense was consent, so the DNA doesn’t exonerate but they’re innocent anyhow?

I need to be clear about this. I’m not saying that all numbers are worthless.  Sure, there are

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

As Mark Twain apparently inaccurately said Disraeli said.

Since 1976, there have been 1,427 executions in this country.  There have also been 156 exonerations.*  As of October 1, last year, there were 2,959 men and women on death row. That’s counting.

And I get how, for instance, through multiple regression analysis and the like (no, I don’t understand exactly how that works, but I get the general idea) and with careful and thorough raw data collection, we can tell that race of the victim is a major determinant of whether someone will end up sentenced to execution or death by natural means in prison.

But let’s go back to Tara Singh’s 38%. And then, well, a bit of context for it.

However, even the most stalwart supporter of clergy-penitent privilege has to concede that child sexual abuse is a heinous crime that must be curbed. Moreover, there are two significant public policy considerations that influence mandatory child sexual abuse reporting that need considering.

  1. Only 38% of child victims report abuse, meaning that the overwhelming majority of instances of abuse never come to the attention of the police; and
  2. Many (if not most) of sexual abusers will repeat their behavior, and without intervention, the offender will likely not stop his/her behavior. Sex offenders require specialized treatment and this treatment is most effective when ordered and monitored by courts.

The first part’s easy. Yeah, of course child sexual abuse is a heinous crime. Curb it indeed. But then there are those “public policy considerations.”

There’s the 38% which is essentially meaningless but usefully (for pandering purposes, at least) suggests that it’s extraordinarily common. (Though, you’ll notice, there’s no actual claim – not even an essentially meaningless extrapolated number – of just how common.) And then there’s the recidivism claim. Which is, certainly, what we’ve all been told, repeatedly. Except it’s nonsense.

What data exists suggests that in fact the recidivism rate among sex offenders is remarkably low. Consider the track record of sex offenders released from prison in 1994.

Based on official arrest records, 517 of the 9,691 released sex offenders (5.3%) were rearrested for a new sex crime within the first 3 years following their release.

Too many? Sure.  “Many (if not most)”?  Nope.

Does that mean Singh is wrong to argue that the clergy-penitent privilege should be eliminated where the penitent confesses to having committed a sex offense? Does it mean that Singh is wrong to advocate for making clergy mandatory reporters?  No.  It doesn’t mean either of those things.

It does mean, though, that the merits of the claims have to stand on their own, not on data that’s either made up or downright misleading.

How much is too much? Is any price worth it?  Is the game worth the candle?

* The link provides information about each of the 156 and also an explanation of the criteria for listing.

8 Comments on this post.

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  • Elle
    10 February 2016 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    Numbers numbers numbers. I have my own experience with numbers. Yes Let’s talk about numbers and rape. Let’s talk about numbers and sex trafficking. That’s been my experience as a sex worker rights activist- that false numbers are used to push narratives along with ‘save the children’ from sex trafficking. It’s highly effective to inflate numbers. Anti prostitutionists, vastly faith based non profits which get millions in federal funding to spout their ‘numbers’ took a study from 2001, a study called the sexual exploitation of children in the United states, canada and Mexico that ESTIMATED GUESSTIMATED rather, that between 1400 and 300,000 children were AT RISK for exploitation and they ran with the 300,000 figure. That’s the number that opportunistic legislators and anti trafficking groups use when talking about sex trafficking. However, when we look at FBI and DOJ data of the arrests of minors found in prostitution stings over a 32 year period- only 35,364 female minors were arrested (yes they arrest these children) so I scratch my head and ask how the 300,000 ANNUALLY number can even seem realistic to people. It’s not. According to the DOJ and FBI numbers, the lower guess of 1400 annually is far more realistic but won’t garner the shock that is needed to pass new laws to further restrict ADULTS engaging in consensual prostitution which is the true underLYING agenda. That same study stated that 96% of the child sexual abuse they studied was not commercially based and was perpetrated by a person in a position of trust- a minister, doctor, coach, teacher, relative, police officer, etc. Looking at the DOJ data we find hundreds of thousands of rapes and sexual assaults, many many more than prostitution arrests. Yet BILLIONS are being poured into the anti sex trafficking narratives (never mind that the majority of human labor trafficking is non sex related according to the state dept and virtually NOTHING is being done to address it). I think it is a profound shame that so much money is being invested in a false narrative while very little is being done in terms of rape and sexual abuse. How many untested rape kits are sitting around police labs? Over 100,000? It’s got to be many more than that I’m guessing. When those kits are tested if they ever are, what will that reveal?! It’s not going to be pretty.

    • Jeff Gamso
      10 February 2016 at 9:13 pm - Reply

      The rape kits nobody was interested in testing raises a host of other issues, some of which I’ve touched on here at Fault Lines. But it’s certainly true that insofar as we can tell, the folks with agendas push vastly inflated numbers of victims of sex trafficking and other forms of abuse to terrorize the public and energize elected officials to adopt highly punitive (and for some remunerative) measures that do little or nothing to help the purported victims or to curb the largely fantasized crime waves.

    • John
      15 February 2016 at 9:24 pm - Reply

      “How many untested rape kits are sitting around police labs?”

      Hate to comment on two different subjects on the same article, but I have special knowledge of this and got personally very annoyed at it. I worked at a company that developed forensic test kits. The FBI and various state agencies generated numbers of untested rape kits in storage. I am GUESSING this is because they wanted companies to develop test kits that could test various improperly stored and collected rape kits (this is a huge problem: the inability of trained nurses and police officers to follow simple instructions is astounding). They made sure we knew what a HUGE market there was. Back in 1999-2000, states were telling us they would buy thousands of units.

      We developed them (or, rather, friends of mine did: that was not my department). States that said they would buy thousands bought dozens for their favorite unsolved cases and left us holding the bag for non-recouped development costs. I swear, cops will tell any lie to get what they want.

      Were the police and FBI and states lying to us? Possibly. Or maybe not. They were certainly unwilling to buy even a tenth the number of units they said they were. A few major cities and states have tested thousands or tens of thousands of old kits, so at least some had huge numbers.

      Also, I can price everything in testing a rape kit, including technician time and lab overhead, from my old company’s web site. Doing it the most cost inefficient way I can possibly imagine, each kit is testable for under $400 (under $200 with reasonable efficiency, or cheaper with the economy of scale they should be able to get with ten thousand old rape kits). I do not know where they are getting thousands per kit. Perhaps they are paying attorneys to watch the technicians while they work?

  • John
    11 February 2016 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Surveys give us estimates based on assumptions. You can look at the methods section to see what those assumptions are. Maybe you feel these assumptions are wrong and that is fine. There is probably not a survey result in existence that the people who make surveys for a living would bet their life savings on being close to the mark.

    However, I note that I don’t see this kind of skepticism with unemployment numbers. I don’t see it with the consumer price index or Gross Domestic Product. I don’t see them when we talk about how many teenagers are having sex or how much birth control is prescribed in this country How is it unemployment numbers are taken without question by most people, burglary numbers are rarely questioned and sex abuse numbers are declared a guess (as if pulled out of nowhere) when they are generated the exact same way? I do not assume they have the same accuracy, but I rarely get the idea that the people attacking those numbers understand what they are saying.

    • Jeff Gamso
      11 February 2016 at 10:22 am - Reply

      As I said, I’m not a statistician.

      DOJ publishes crime reports tallying (with lots of inaccuracy because they recognize that not every jurisdiction reports or reports accurately or consistently)the number of burglaries (your example) in a given year, they’re actually just adding. When studies try to figure out the rate of burglary in an area, they take the number and do some arithmetic with the number of places in the area.

      I get it that survey research is different and involves assumptions about (if it’s to be reliable to a given degree of confidence) how much you can extrapolate based on sample size and demographic distribution and the like. And I understand that there are embedded questions used to track integrity in answers. I do get all that. And more, even. (I have social scientists in my family who understand that sort of shit and take me to task when I say really stupid things.)

      But when some surveys reveal that 80% of women suffer sexual assault and others 5%, I’m inclined to believe the numbers meaningless. When studies conclude that somewhere between 2.3 and 5% of the people in prison are factually innocent based on the number who have been exonerated out of a selection of . . . .

      Are they wrong? I don’t know. But much of the data flat out sucks. Garbage in garbage out as the computer guys say (or once said). And when every side of the debate uses drastically different numbers of the same fucking thing to prove that they’re right and the other folks are wrong, I call foul.

      • John
        11 February 2016 at 11:16 pm - Reply

        I was referring to burglary measured by survey in two publications I read, not counts of police reports. You get wide spreads depending on if you use the word “burglary” or not: that was not a randomly selected example.

        I would look into the weeds of how they define it, the method of collection, etc. I never read any claiming 80% so I cannot comment on those, but some peer reviewed papers claiming circa 20% and circa 5% for women by age 30 are differences of categorization or question wording, not differences in the underlying samples.

        It does not make a soundbite to say “20% of women claim they were either coerced or forced to have sex or had someone have sexual contact with them while they were passed out or too drunk to consent or had someone attempt to do so as long as words such as rape or sexual assault were left out of the question. Using words such as rape or sexual assault lower measured rate to 5%. Using words such as penetrative also changes measured rates.”

        I am sure there are plenty of bad data out there. I stick to peer-reviewed publications (a process I know is flawed because I have been through it many times and reviewed manuscripts myself, but those passed at least one safeguard). What political activists claim science says varies in quality with every issue. There is nothing special about rape in that regard.

        • Jeff Gamso
          12 February 2016 at 9:16 am - Reply

          No, there’s absolutely nothing special about rape or sexual assault or child abuse or whatever claims. Nor did I say there was.

          I got started on this with Tara Singh’s claim that “only 38% of child [sex abuse] victims report” because, well, because that was what set me off. I also carped about the claims regarding the number of innocent folks in prison.

          I don’t claim (and didn’t claim) that statistics are worthless or that survey research isn’t useful. I do claim (and did) that hurling controversially obtained numbers around, numbers that might as well be plucked from someone’s asshole – which is not all numbers – is no basis for serious argument and no way to go about determining sound policy.

  • POINT – COUNTERPOINT: The Alleged Brownsville Rape | Our Time Press
    11 March 2016 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    […] Again, the Brownsville Five case will set no such precedent. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office can be accused of many things, but soft-pedaling sex crime prosecutions is not one of them. The complex nature of how intoxication plays into consent is a valid topic for discussion. However, that discussion should be unencumbered by nonsensical statistics. […]