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Of particular interest to skeptics

Huh. The stars must be aligned. Or is it the fates? Or the demons? Something. There was another post by a Big Skeptic yesterday on the subject of False Allegations of Sexual Assault. Two in one day. How about that!

It almost looks planned, doesn’t it. Arranged. Timed to coincide.

This one is by Ben Radford. It’s very long and much of it is very particular, but he also does some generalizing.

False accusations are of particular interest to skeptics because skepticism has often been at the forefront of giving voice to the wrongly accused. From the Salem witch trials (in which innocent young women were falsely accused of being witches) to the Satanic Panic moral panic of the 1980s and 1990s (in which dozens of innocent men and women were falsely accused of sexually assaulting children and others) and hundreds of examples in between, skeptics have often been there to remind the public to ask for evidence before rushing to judgment. Indeed, the brilliant CSI Fellow Carol Tavris just recently wrote an e-skeptic piece about this in relation to recent accusations against Woody Allen.

Indeed, and how helpful that it was published not “recently” but the same day Radford posted his piece. His “Indeed” looks rather artificial there, as if he’s claiming a coincidence that isn’t a coincidence. (He remembers the Salem witch trials wrong, by the way. The young girls were the accusers; the accused were older.)

Anyway. Sure, false accusations are of particular interest to skeptics, and rightly so. But that interest shouldn’t obscure the interest of non-false accusations, and how many of those get dismissed or worse. False accusations are a bad thing, and so are true accusations that are not believed. It’s especially bad when accusations are not believed because the people making them have less power and influence and status than the people they accuse. This is a situation that’s not unknown, in fact it happens quite a lot.

Think of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia for instance. It’s notorious that they are treated like dirt and that their employers can abuse them with impunity. Then again, maybe some exhausted domestic worker has made a false accusation against an employer – although it seems unlikely, since no one cares about non-false accusations, so why would anyone bother to make a false one? But maybe it has happened. That’s a bad thing, but all the abuse is a bad thing too.

I find Radford’s attention to false accusations somewhat…pointed.

Comments

  1. Jason Dick says

    That attitude annoys the hell out of me. Two things:

    1. Priors. There are far, far more true accusations than false accusations. If one wants to be correct most of the time, the default position should therefore be that the accusations are likely to be true.
    2. Harm. Believing a false accusation results in far, far more harm than failing to believe a true one.

    Whether you look at it in moral/fairness terms or in purely skeptical terms, the default should always be to believe the victims of sexual assault. If we ever got to a situation where the number of false accusations started to get close to the number of true accusations, then it would be worthwhile to revisit this discussion. But we are nowhere near that situation now. All that people worrying about false accusations are doing in today’s world is making it easier for rapists to get away with rape.

  2. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    All that people worrying about false accusations are doing in today’s world is making it easier for rapists to get away with rape.

    /looks at person who wrote this article, then the person the person who wrote the other article works for

    I think that’s their point.

  3. Chris J says

    Skepticism is about waiting for, and acting on, evidence; not about waiting for proof. The Salem witch panic was a situation where people came to a conclusion and then invented “evidence” to prove that conclusion, ignoring all common sense. They latched on to irrelevant details like looks or dress, took for granted the stories of one party while creating impossible hurdles for the other. That it was the accusers, and not the accused, that were being believed isn’t the important bit; the important bit was how broken of a process it was, how divorced from reality it was.

    So when statistics show that rape occurs far more frequently than rape convictions, when it is well known that police interrogate victims about their lifestyle and dress rather than the situation, when whole communities come to a decision that accused couldn’t possibly have been a rapist, and invent or latch on to details in order to push that narrative forward, who needs our skepticism?

    Even if “skepticism has often been at the forefront of giving voice to the wrongly accused,” our current culture more often accuses rape victims of lying than the wrongly accused of raping. Until that situation changes, our efforts need to be to give rape victims the voice they so badly need.

  4. Shatterface says

    Huh. The stars must be aligned. Or is it the fates? Or the demons? Something. There was another post by a Big Skeptic yesterday on the subject of False Allegations of Sexual Assault. Two in one day. How about that!

    It almost looks planned, doesn’t it. Arranged. Timed to coincide.

    Since this issue has been all over the internet – not least in the online skeptic community – for weeks, two similar blog posts on the subject appearing the same day are hardly a sign of something sinister, and even if both writers had discussed the matter and chose to publish the same day, so what?

    This is also a situation that’s not unknown, in fact it happens quite a lot.

  5. corwyn says

    who needs our skepticism?

    Everyone. Once you decide you are only going to be a skeptic for one group, or on one side, you are no longer a skeptic. Simple as that.

  6. Chris J says

    Just read the linked post… Hoo boy. It presents a case, and tries to imply that case is an example of something that is common because it didn’t make national news, where a girl who accused a man of abducting and assaulting her. I’m going to take the case at face value because I want to address this line from the post:

    It also provides insight into how easy it is to make a claim, and how difficult it can be to disprove it. It took Levitski only a few minutes to make her claim to her grandmother, and then perhaps an hour to repeat the accusation to police. Investigators, however, spent many days on the case conducting multiple interviews, researching phone records, analyzing key entry data, and so on. This is as it should be: a thorough investigation into a young woman’s serious accusations and a young man’s life and liberty were on the line. But it does demonstrate the gross imbalance between the time and effort it takes to make a claim and the time and effort it takes to prove or disprove it.

    Yes, claims are much easier to make than prove or disprove. This is true of all things; it’s very easy to say words, but much harder to back them up. The police apparently did their due diligence, and eventually reached the truth. But then Ben does something rather revealing:

    It is much easier to prove that something did happen (a positive claim) than to prove that something did not happen (proving a negative). False reports drain an enormous amount of time and money on police departments-time and money that could have been spent on investigating real crimes, with real victims.

    It’s subtle, but Ben is making an analogy. Making an accusation is to disproving an accusation as proving a postive claim is to proving a negative. As if the accusation was, in the police’s minds, all the proof required to prove the positive, while all the hard work and due diligence that lead to rejecting the accusation was in fact an attempt to prove a negative. That’s not how the police work, in fact it’s usually the opposite. This seems to reveal that Ben believes that launching an investigation in the first place indicates that the police already believe the accusation.

  7. Gemma Mason says

    If you’re going to apply “skepticism” to claims of sexual assault, you should start by noting that it’s not one of those extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence, and is therefore rather different to most of the subjects with which skeptics concern themselves.

  8. Chris J says

    Everyone. Once you decide you are only going to be a skeptic for one group, or on one side, you are no longer a skeptic. Simple as that.

    My point is not about being skeptical for only one group. My point is that we have evidence we can use even before looking at a specific accusation. The evidence of statistics and of the experience of rape victims tells us we should be more skeptical of the accusation being false than of the accusation being true. This notion is a radical departure of our current system.

    Sometimes, taking evidence into account means the scales don’t start off balanced.

  9. Al Dente says

    I would have thought Ben Radford would keep away from discussions of sexual assault. Does he think we’ve forgotten the accusations of Karen Stollznow? Or maybe he just doesn’t care, since CFI’s punishment was to fire Stollznow and for Radford to have a timeout in France.

  10. ChasCPeterson says

    I’m the most skeptical person I’ve ever known–I basically don;t believe anything anybody says–but it’s not a decision or identity; it’s just the way my mind works naturally, bolstered by scientific training. However, I refuse to refer to myself as a skeptic (much less a Skeptic), because the people I’ve seen who make it their identity are all jackasses, so far.

  11. Chris J says

    *facepalm*

    And, around 30 paragraphs in (!), 30 paragraphs of bemoaning how terrible false accusations are, how common they are, how twisted the false accusers must be, Ben throws this in:

    Of course, most reports of sexual assault, abduction, and other serious crimes are true. The vast majority of the time when a man says he was carjacked, or a woman says she was assaulted, it really did happen. No one doubts or denies that, and that is part of the reason that victims are believed-as they should be, unless further evidence and investigation reveals that it did not happen. As Alan Dershowitz pointed out during a recent appearance on BBC News, most people who are accused of a crime are in fact guilty. …

    So basically, the message is this:

    False accusations are bad!

    Really really really bad!

    Not only are they bad, but they’re really common! And random!

    Look at this false accusation!

    Now look at this one!

    Ooh, and this one over here!

    This one resulted in death!

    Think of how terrible false accusations are, what consequences they hold!

    (oh by the way nearly all accusations are true and the police did exactly what was required in each case, and it is correct that we tend to side with the victim unless evidence shows otherwise)

    Ooh, but think of how terrible false accusations are! Maybe that will teach us to not make assumptions (that the victim must be telling the truth) when an accusation appears!

    False accusations! FALSE ACCUSATIONS!

  12. ticktock says

    He doesn’t think we forgot about Stollznow. That’s why he wrote it. Perhaps he has a defense worth considering for libel. Would that convince people who justifiably doubt him? He either has evidence or he doesn’t. We will see.

  13. brianpansky says

    The vast majority of the time when a man says he was carjacked, or a woman says she was assaulted, it really did happen. No one doubts or denies that,

    no one doubts that?

    um, um, yes lots of people do. even some police do.

  14. Silentbob says

    @ 1 Jason Dick

    Believing a false accusation results in far, far more harm than failing to believe a true one.

    You meant ‘less’ not ‘more’, I think.

  15. screechymonkey says

    Jason Dick @1, Silentbob@16,

    It seems to me that the balance of harms between “believing a false accusation” vs. “failing to believe a true one” is very context-specific. Who is the person doing the “believing,” and what if anything are they going to do in reliance on it?

    It’s the “good juror pose” that Ophelia wrote about all over again. Yes, we want jurors in criminal cases to decide based on the premise that it is better that ten guilty people go free, etc. etc. But that’s a very particular context, and it’s based on the reality that locking someone in prison for a long time is a very drastic punishment.

    When you change the context even slightly, from a juror in a criminal case to a juror in a civil one, then we no longer apply the same lopsided standard. Civil jurors are generally asked to make a finding based on the “preponderance of the evidence,” in other words, whether the plaintiff’s claim is “more likely than not” to be true. Basically, the civil justice system generally doesn’t buy the notion that it’s better to deny a true accusation than to believe a false one. And that’s despite the fact that the stakes in civil litigation, while not quite as high as in criminal prosecutions, can still be fairly serious. (All the people who cry out in despair over whether Some Famous Skeptic will lose speaking fees or book sales should note.)

    Most of the time, the consequences either way are slim to none, because I don’t interact with the accused or the accuser. But if I do have some interaction? If it’s with the Accused, then wrongly believing a false accusation means maybe I deprive myself of the pleasure of the company of Falsely Accused Person, and deprive Falsely Accused of the (dubious) pleasure of mine. Not exactly earth-shattering. Whereas wrongly denying a true accusation could put me in danger from Correctly Accused Person.

    Similarly, if my interaction is instead with the Accuser, then I guess it’s the risk of wrongly denying sympathy and support to someone who really needs it, versus the risk of … giving sympathy and support to someone who doesn’t really need it?

  16. Jason Dick says

    No, Silentbob, I made no mistake in what I wrote. It may have been somewhat convoluted, but it accurately represents what I meant to say.

    Yes, screechymonkey, it is very context-specific. In our current culture, accusers of rape or other forms of sexual assault face far, far worse social consequences than those accused of rape or other forms of sexual assault.

    We might imagine some world where the accusers didn’t face such horrible blowback, but we don’t live in that world and until we live in such a world it’s worthless to try to argue that false accusations of rape are a problem.

  17. Simon says

    Is Mr Radford trying to say that witchcraft is real but unfortunately in Salem things got out of hand and there was a spate of false accusations? Is he telling us that satanic ritual abuse is real but unfortunately in the 80′s and 90′s there was a sudden surge in false accusations?

    What possible equivalence can there be between accusations of something that is very real and disturbingly common and accusations of things which are, by definition, false?

  18. screechymonkey says

    Another problem with using the Satanic abuse panic as an analogy is that, at least in the accounts I’ve read, the panics didn’t come because everyone simply believed what the alleged victims were saying. Instead, parents and police and therapists took mildly troubling allegations and then led the children, though poor interrogation techniques, into adding more and more accusations.

    Here’s an example from a recently-exonerated case:

    The trouble started when Christy Chaviers, a 3-year-old girl who was an infrequent visitor to the day care during the summer of 1991, told her mother that Dan had spanked her. With coaxing from her mother and her therapist, Donna David-Campbell, whom Christy had been seeing to deal with acting-out issues, an incident of spanking turned into something much worse—Dan Keller, the little girl said, had defecated on her head and raped her with a pen. From there, the stories Christy told David-Campbell became wilder: The Kellers “had everyone take off their clothes and had a parrot that pecked them in the pee-pee,” they made her smoke a cigarette, they “came to her house with a chainsaw and cut her dog Buffy in the vagina until it bled.” David-Campbell concluded not that Christy was an imaginative child having trouble with her parents’ divorce, but that she was the victim of ritual abuse.

    I have also seen the videos, seven in all, provided by sources close to the Keller case. At first glance, the videos look familiar for anyone who’s a parent of a young child: Christy is 3 years old, and it’s difficult to get her to sit still or remain on the chair or even in the room. Asking her basic questions is even harder: In one video, Christy turns her face petulantly into the back of the chair and says, “No, I’m not gonna talk!”

    It becomes more uncomfortable to watch once the anatomically correct dolls, floppy rag dolls with floppy rag-doll genitalia, come out. The interviewer, armed with the now nude dolls, asks Christy to show her what “Danny” (Dan Keller) did to her at the day care. Christy is unwilling. “You tell me,” Christy says. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to claim that in a way, Travis County forensic investigators and well-meaning therapists did.

  19. corwyn says

    Sometimes, taking evidence into account means the scales don’t start off balanced.

    That is unfortunate. However, evidence is the only thing that ensures a *correct* outcome. Outcomes based on evidence are more important than outcomes based on ‘balance’. No amount of statistics that outcomes are particularly one-sided is evidence in any particular case.

    Skewed outcomes is a cause for looking for systemic biases, and rooting those out. But skewed outcomes does not mean that such biases must exist.

  20. Jason Dick says

    @corwyn, #21:

    I take it to mean that the sentence starting “That is unfortunate…” was intended as a reply to the preceding sentence?

    It may be unfortunate in some sense, but it’s just basic Bayesian inference, which demonstrates that it is actually impossible to assume a fundamentally neutral stance in the face of any inference problem: even if you attempt to assume a “neutral” stance, you are implicitly making an assumption about the underlying probability, and that has an impact on the results of your inference. This fact is made much more clear in the context of estimating numerical parameters, where it’s easy to change variables and demonstrate that the results depend upon which variables you choose to estimate (e.g. should we estimate P(x) or P(log(x))?).

    So to do it correctly, we really have to expend some thought and estimate the prior probability: the probability that a claim is likely to be true before any evidence specific to the claim is considered. In this case, a reasonable prior probability is the proportion of true rape claims against a specific attacker vs. the number of false claims against a specific attacker. And while that proportion is hard to know precisely, it is clear that it is exceedingly lopsided: there are vastly, vastly more true rape claims than false ones.

  21. theoreticalgrrrl says

    In my experience volunteering in the past as a Rape Crisis Advocate, it isn’t so much that cops and friends and family think the person is making a false accusation as much as believing they must have done something to provoke/deserve/ask for being sexually assaulted. And if they did provoke/deserve/askforit, no real crime was committed.

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