On Monday, Vox ran an article by Dara Lind detailing the “growing consensus” that the rate of false rape allegations is between 2 and 8 percent. But when someone in politics says there is a consensus, there is quite often not a consensus.
As I noted in the wake of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” controversy, the 2 to 8 percent claim is highly misleading. Researchers classify a rape allegation as false only when it is provably false — i.e., the accuser recants, the accused has a bulletproof alibi, etc. In a large number of cases, however, the police cannot determine either way whether a rape occurred. For example, in an oft-cited study from 2010, 5.9 percent of rape allegations were provably false, but 44.9 percent “did not proceed” — meaning there was insufficient evidence, the accuser was uncooperative, or the incident did not meet the legal standard of assault. The “did not proceed” cases are not counted as false, even though some unknowable fraction of them would prove to be false if there were more evidence.
So the fact that 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are provably false does not imply that 90-plus percent of cases are true. The percentage of allegations that are true could still fall anywhere within a wide possible range.
Lind never makes that clear in her 2,500-word piece for Vox, even though plenty of people are confused about how to interpret the numbers. For example, here’s what a New York Times writer had to say in reaction to the Rolling Stone incident:
According to the most reliable peer-reviewed research, between two percent and 10 percent of rape reports are bogus. As one ponders this discomfiting information, though, it’s important to keep in mind what the flip side of these numbers reveal: Between 90 percent and 98 percent of rape allegations are true.
And here is a writer for The New Republic:
It isn’t hard to find the kind of stories [Rolling Stone’s] Erdely meant to report. If someone says she was raped, she is almost certainly telling the truth. (Multi-site studies suggest the accuracy of reports of rape is between 90 and 98 percent.)
I realize it is tempting for advocates to immediately embrace any data that seem to support their positions. But when it comes to invoking science, both sides need a healthy dose of skepticism and humility. We simply do not know what percentage of rape allegations are false, and it’s hard to imagine how we ever would.