Megan McArdle on the recently revealed problems in one of the most frequently used set of statistics on campus rape:
… a new article in Reason magazine suggests that this foundation is much shakier than most people working on this issue — myself included — may have assumed. (Full disclosure: the Official Blog Spouse is an editor at Reason.) The author, Linda M. LeFauve, looked carefully at the study, including conducting an interview with Lisak, and identified multiple issues:
- Lisak did not actually do original research. Instead, he pooled data from studies that were not necessarily aimed at collecting data on college students, or indeed, about rape. Only five questions on a multi-page questionnaire asked about sexual violence that they may have committed as adults, against other adults.
- The campus where this data was collected is a commuter campus. It’s not clear that everyone surveyed was a college student, but if so, the sample included many non-traditional students, with an average age of 26.5. Yet this data has been widely applied to traditional campuses, even though the two populations may differ greatly.
- The responses indicate that the men identified as rapists were extraordinarily more violent than the normal population: “The high rate of other forms of violence reported by the men in Lisak’s paper further suggests they are an atypical group. Of the 120 subjects Lisak classified as rapists, 46 further admitted to battery of an adult, 13 to physical abuse of a child, 21 to sexual abuse of a child, and 70 — more than half the group — to other forms of criminal violence. By itself, the nearly 20 percent who had sexually abused a child should signal that this is not a group from whom it is reasonable to generalize findings to a college campus.”
- The data did not cover acts committed while in college, but any acts of sexual violence; a number of them seem to have been committed in domestic violence situations.
- Lisak appears to have exaggerated how much follow-up he was able to do on the people he surveyed, at least to LeFauve: “Lisak told me that he subsequently interviewed most of them. That was a surprising claim, given the conditions of the survey and the fact that he was looking at the data produced long after his students had completed those dissertations; nor were there plausible circumstances under which a faculty member supervising a dissertation would interact directly with subjects. When I asked how he was able to speak with men participating in an anonymous survey for research he was not conducting, he ended the phone call.” Robby Soave of Reason, in a companion piece, also raises doubts about Lisak’s repeated assertions that he conducted extensive follow-ups with “most” of the respondents to what were mostly anonymous surveys.
In short, Lisak’s 2002 study is not a systematic survey of rape on campus; it is pooled data from surveys of people who happen to have been near a commuter campus on days when the surveys were being collected.
Before I go any further, let me note that I’m not saying that what these men did was not bad, or does not deserve to be punished. But if LeFauve is right, this study is basically worthless for shaping campus policies designed to stop rape.