Asking for it

July 4th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evidence, rape, telegraph | 52 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 4 July 2009

There’s nothing like science for giving that objective, white-coat flavoured legitimacy to your prejudices, so it must have been a great day for Telegraph readers when they came across the headline “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists”. Ah, scientists. “Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester.” Well there you go. Oddly, though, the title of the press release for the same research was “Promiscuous men more likely to rape”.

Normally we berate journalists for rewriting press releases. Had the Telegraph found some news?

I rang Sophia Shaw at the University of Leicester. She was surprised to have been presented as an expert scientist on the pages of the Daily Telegraph, as Sophia is an MSc student, and this is her dissertation project. It’s also not finished. “We are intending on getting it published, but my findings are very preliminary.” She was discussing her dissertation at an academic conference, when the British Psychological Society’s PR team picked it up, and put out a press release. We will discuss that later.

But first, the science. Shaw spoke to about 100 men, presenting them with various situations around being with a woman, and asking them when they would call it a night, in order to explore men’s attitudes towards coercing women into sex. “I’m very aware that there are limitations to my study. It’s self report data about sensitive issues, so that’s got its flaws, participants were answering when sober, and so on.”

But more than that, she told me, every single one of the first four statements made by the Telegraph is a flat, unambiguous, factually incorrect misrepresentation of her findings.

Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped?  “We found no evidence that that women who are more outgoing are more likely to be raped, this is completely inaccurate, we found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.”

And what about the Telegraph’s next claim, or rather, the Telegraph’s reassuringly distant and objective assertion that it is scientists who are now claiming that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped?

“We have found at the minute that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can’t say that’s an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn’t one of our main findings, you can’t say that. It’s not significant, which is why we’re not reporting it in our main analysis.”

So if the Telegraph are throwing blame around with rape, who do we blame for this story, and what do we do about it? On the one hand, we’re not naturally impressed with the newspaper. “When I saw the article my heart completely sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they’d got this study.” Since I started sniffing around, and Sophia complained, the Telegraph have quietly changed the online copy of the article, although there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate.

But there is a second, less obvious problem. Repeatedly, unpublished work – often of a highly speculative and eye-catching nature – is shepherded into newspapers by the press officers of the British Psychological Society, and other organisations. A rash of news coverage and popular speculation ensues, in a situation where nobody can read the academic work. I could only get to the reality of what was measured, and how, by personally tracking down and speaking to an MSc student about her dissertation on the phone. In any situation this would be ridiculous, but in a sensitive area such as rape it is blind, irresponsible, coverage-hungry foolishness.

Update:

Via @jackofkent, here are the articles Richard Alleyne of the Telegraph has written about recently. I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying. Is all.

www.journalisted.com/richard-alleyne


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52 Responses



  1. Tessa K said,

    July 4, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Jeez, it’s like feminism never happened. The misreporting of the facts is one thing, but the inherent sexism that publishing the article reveals makes me both angry and depressed. How many judges read the Torygraph?

  2. Bill Bigge said,

    July 4, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I think that if this happened to me then I’d start by writing to the editor demanding a public apology and a retraction of the story, that the journalist be sacked for fraud (selling their editor fabricated news stories) and threaten them with a libel case and lots of bad publicity.

    I’m not very forgiving when it comes to bad journalism.

    Keep up the good work Ben!

  3. Romeo Vitelli said,

    July 4, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    It sounds like the “slow news day” syndrome. Some journalist was hanging around the conference for something that might be spun out into an interesting news story and did a halfway accurate article that the editor spun out even further. Blatantly irresponsible.

  4. kim said,

    July 4, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Well, Tessa, if you want to get really cross, read the comments on Ben’s article on The Guardian website. There are some spectacularly stupid comments there. It’s enough to make you despair.

  5. hughcharlesparker said,

    July 4, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    It seems to me that the BPA and the Telegraph have both achieved their aims, and faced no consequences. Ben, were you able to find out whether the researcher has complained to the PCC or the BPA?

  6. Jess Meacham said,

    July 4, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    I thought this was interesting, on the BPS website:

    ‘Finding Media Friendly Psychologists:

    News and psychology have one key thing in common: a professional interest in people – what they do, why they do it and how they are affected by the world around them.

    Our PR Team have access to a database of psychologists who are happy to be interviewed and can apply the science of psychology to both news and features.

    Please see the areas of interest list to find out the sort of subjects we can help with, then contact the PR Team using the link above to be put in touch with appropriate contacts.

    Because we understand the fast paced nature of journalism, we aim to find contacts as quickly as possible

    Please note: Due to limited resources we are only able to respond to queries from bona fide journalists and media researchers. Regretfully this means we are unable to assist with queries from students or Public Relations Consultancies.

    Commercial organisations wishing to find a psychologist should try the Society’s Directory of Chartered Psychologists.’

    Do all Societies have a service like this? Am I being naive in thinking it’s a bit odd?

  7. cenderis said,

    July 4, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I agree, complaints ought to be made. The story was apparently “By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent”. He should know better, at least to read the press release properly.

  8. inseiffolliet said,

    July 4, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    lies, damned lies and journalism

  9. cyberdoyle said,

    July 4, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    I have been seriously misquoted in the press, and also on websites. Journalists will only correct the copy if they are publicly asked to on twitter! emails to them have no effect. Name and shame? I also find that twitter is merciless when someone says something wrong, whereas people are more passive when it is written in a newspaper or website, they tend to assume it is correct. It often isn’t.

  10. Tessa K said,

    July 4, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    @kim

    Just as well I have no weapons about the house. Oh wait, that just makes me a bitter man-hating harpy.

  11. muscleman said,

    July 4, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    @JessMeacham

    All universities and many other scientific institutions and bodies will operate such lists. I have provided information about my areas of expertise on a number of occasions. Sadly my expertise is not in demand, by anyone, let alone the press.

    The point is that because science and academia have gone to these lengths to make their expertise available to the press inaccuracy is even more unforgivable since it is seen to be crass laziness as well as no care for the truth.

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    July 4, 2009 at 5:59 pm

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  13. TriathNanEilean said,

    July 4, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    I loved that this story comes so soon after this one:

    www.badscience.net/2009/07/steve-connor-is-getting-eggy/

    Ben, this is surely another example of you not understanding the “pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under”. No doubt Steve will consider it arrogant for you to point out a science journalist making stuff up on a sensitive issue. For the rest of us, thanks.

  14. kim said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    @Tessa – that makes two of us.

  15. Bill Bigge said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    @Tessa – “Just as well I have no weapons about the house.”

    Ah, you see that is where it helps to have a man in your life. Men often come with sheds which will typically contain primitive tools like hammers and various club shaped wood off cuts with nails sticking out of them.

    All good weaponry!

  16. Tessa K said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    On reflection, I’m sure I could fashion something lethal from household items. Sharpened knitting needles, maybe.

  17. Synchronium said,

    July 4, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    #12, hilarious point.

    If these papers are making shit up, it’s no wonder they’re under tremendous pressure. *Rolls eyes*

  18. MJ Simpson said,

    July 4, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    While the Telegraph’s misrepresentation is appalling, the original study and its conclusion were incredibly bad. It purported to show that certain types of men are more likely to rape because they are prepared to go further in pushing their luck with an unresponsive or uninterested women before giving up. But giving up nearer to a point that would be classed as rape doesn’t mean they’re more likely to rape. If all the men said they would give up before the rape-point then none of them are likely to rape. It’s like saying that if there’s a train from London to York and another train from London to Newscastle, the second train will get you to Edinburgh first.

  19. Debi Linton said,

    July 4, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Oh, wow. Now I feel particularly ill, at the idea that ‘scientists’ should be used as a scapegoat for this kind of horrific victim-blaming.

    Why is the subject-verb agreement always skewed when people talk about rape? Victim don’t get raped, rapists rape victims.

  20. Jeremy Miles said,

    July 5, 2009 at 12:09 am

    I think the problem that the BPS has is that anyone can call themselves a psychologist, and it’s easier to spout drivel that sounds to the layperson it might be correct in psychology than it is in other sciences.

    The BPS is therefore proactive in getting actual bona fide psychologists to talk about things whenever possible, because if they don’t, then journalists will drag up someone who talks complete nonsense.

    Maybe they go too far sometimes. But maybe that’s the price we pay.

  21. Will Davies said,

    July 5, 2009 at 2:25 am

    Richard Alleyne is full of shit. I’m just saying.

  22. AndyD said,

    July 5, 2009 at 4:22 am

    The list of previous articles is interesting indeed. If two “scientists” on here say that Richard Alleyne is an idiot, could we all then blog “Richard Alleyne is an idiot, claim scientists”?

  23. richardjones said,

    July 5, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Ben, I’m surprised you’ve not posted this delightful Mitchell & Webb sketch “Homepathic A&E”:

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMGIbOGu8q0

  24. SteveGJ said,

    July 5, 2009 at 10:15 am

    I think it is worth pointing out that “more likely to” is not remotely close to the same meaning as “deserve to”. There are far to many commentators who the more neutral meaning and turn this into a statement of accusation.

    I should add, reading the press release stuff didn’t fill me with happiness either. The summary report was larded with all sorts of words like coercing and value judgements without any details of the particular questions being asked. I’m always suspicious of questionnaire/survey based exercises like this. Who, for instance, was the one rating the behaviours in the level of coercing going on.

    The wonder is that something like this is worthy of reporting at all without the methodology and the neutrality of the study being properly examined. It certainly doesn’t deserve lurid headlines.

  25. Tessa K said,

    July 5, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Seems its a weekend for Torygraph bigotry as they report today on the Bish of Rochester saying that gays should ‘repent and change’.

  26. ArchAsa said,

    July 5, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Considering how ludicrously easy it is for charlatans to sue critical journalists for libel in Britain, shouldn’t scientists start sueing newspapers for libel when they seriously misrepresent their research?

    After all, claiming a scientist stated something she didn’t is libellous in a real sense in my opinion.

  27. JHB said,

    July 5, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Before I get any further, I think the Telegraph is a horrible rag. However, unless they’ve changed the wording of the article, they don’t state that “Women who drink alcohol … are more likely to be raped”, as you’ve (para?)phrased it, above. They say that levels of drunkenness “do have an effect” or “had a bearing” on the chances of their being raped, but then go on to say that the correlation is a negative one.

    It’s still a crap article, mind.

  28. JHB said,

    July 5, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    P.S. Sorry! Have just noticed that you said that the online version has been changed, so take back my previous comment! Agree with the post, in case I didn’t make it clear before…

  29. naomimc said,

    July 5, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    @JHB

    *blantant self publicity* Here’s a link to my blog on this story with a screen grab of the headline from the previous version of the article:
    avaginadentata.blogspot.com/2009/06/men-no-women-are-responsible-for-rape.html

    Just about to post screen grab of full article. *runs to figure out how to do that*

  30. W Ritter said,

    July 6, 2009 at 2:23 am

    What I find particularly infuriating is that this study might show some pretty interesting things about male attitudes towards sexual coercion. That seems pretty important and potentially helpful in understanding rape, sexual harassment etc. But once a reporter gets ahold of it, it becomes ‘she had it coming.’

    It would be interesting to see the final study once it’s published for the purposes of comparison–the researcher seems understandably tight-lipped about what her conclusions are in the actual paper.

  31. Gadaffiduck said,

    July 7, 2009 at 8:59 am

    See today’s telegraph (page 4). Article title: Magnets attract scientists to devise a ‘thinking cap’. Read the article and bury your head in your hands.

  32. SteveGJ said,

    July 7, 2009 at 10:46 am

    @Gadaffiduck

    This is the article on the “thinking cap”.

    www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/5760078/Thinking-cap-that-can-help-the-brain-learn-moves-a-step-closer.html

    It does seem unlikely, but without access to the paper in the BMC Neuroscience journal, it’s impossible to say whether this is a misrepresentation or not. No doubt the “thinking cap” bit is a bit of journalistic whimsy, but if the report is true it’s interesting. However, I have a basic allergy to any stories about the magical properties of magnetic fields as there are so many charlatans and deluded folk hyping it as a solution for slmost ill; limescale, improving fuel economy and maladies of all sorts. That said, it’s certainly been shown that magnetic fields play a part in some migratory behaviour.

  33. SteveGJ said,

    July 7, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Amazing – the article is available as it is in an open access Journal. Ben will approve.

    Preliminary version here;

    www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2202-10-72.pdf

    No talk of “thinking caps” of course, and this was to do with establishing motor learning skills. Maybe of use if you want to learn to play the guitar or be good at video games. However, I thing I’d like to see others able to repeat this sort of stuff before I took it too seriously.

  34. ginamac said,

    July 7, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Are there not Media complaints commissions in every country for a reason? She should file a complaint. Yes journalists all do it, so do the media. I have seen countless reckless documentaries (pedigree dogs exposed BBC 1 comes to mind) with no scientific proof or facts behind them, simple speculation. Incredibly damaging to the project you work on, I speak from experience of the above mentioned damaging documentary. But there are procedures and governing bodies in place to protect the public and individuals from misrepresentation and people need to start using them.

  35. Craig said,

    July 7, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    @Gaddafiduck & Steve: that “thinking cap” research is about TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation). Apart from the involvement of magnetic fields, it has nothing in common with hippy “magnetic healing” woo or the low-intensity magnetic sensitivities involved in migratory behavior.

    In basic terms, TMS is a non-invasive way of affecting the activation of cortical neurons. It uses magnetic fields of a strength comparable to an MRI machine, and can be used to either increase neural activity or temporarily shut it down. TMS artificially forces neurons to fire; high-frequency repetitive TMS can also be used to exhaust a group of neurons, temporarily shutting them down. The stimulation can be aimed precisely enough that it can be used to selectively activate or inhibit specific cortical areas.

    Although the technology is new enough that the applications of it are still being explored, the mechanism of TMS is solidly understood. It’s a legitimate tool of neuroscience and psychology.

    There are quite a few people investigating the uses of it at my university. While some TMS researchers may be a bit prone to overly enthusiastic speculation (this is fairly common with any new research/therapy technique), TMS has significant potential as a tool for studying and treating the effects of strokes and other brain injuries.

  36. Jessicathejourno said,

    July 7, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Ginamac, are you one of the researchers who worked on this study, that the BBC largely relied on for the documentary you don’t like?

    If so, what’s your complaint? How do you feel misrepresented?

    If not, I think your comment, comparing Alleyne’s sexist, unprofessional idiocy to the BBC’s exposé of revolting breeding practices, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read since reports they’ll be showing Michael Jackson’s body on international television. Sadly, I fear the body-rumours are more likely to be accurate.

  37. SteveGJ said,

    July 7, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    @ginamac

    Good good – the pedigree dogs BBC program was full of facts. That the Kennel club has been promoting extremely unhealthy breeding practices through the promotion of “breed standards” is a scandal, all for the vanity of some obsessive owners. It wasn’t as if they were targetting gog lovers – who, for the most part, are much happier with a healthy dog rather than one compromised be breeding from incredibly narrow genetic pools. There was no speculation – many of the dogs that were bred are effectively physical freaks produced purely to satisfy human obsessions. In a proper world some of those breeders would have be culpable for inflicting suffering on animimals.

  38. SteveGJ said,

    July 7, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    @Craig

    I was a little more measured in my response I think. I wasn’t ruling it out of hand. The low intensity stuff was just to show that there could be brain/magnetic field interaction so it wasn’t complete fantasy. Of course there will no doubt be some new ageists who seize on this as evidence that their wholly unevidenced claims are right.

    Of course it’s still not a thinking cap, but food (or maybe magnetic flux) for thought.

  39. Jack of Kent said,

    July 8, 2009 at 7:56 am

    This prompted me into a Blog bit.ly/R0mWb

    I propose as a general rule that any “claim scientists” story on the internet which now does not link to the source is undoubtedly crap.

    (Thanks for the cite, Ben)

  40. Craig said,

    July 9, 2009 at 4:09 am

    @SteveGJ: my apologies. I wasn’t intending any criticism; just providing information…

  41. Gadaffiduck said,

    July 9, 2009 at 9:11 am

    @Craig: thanks for the reply. I have done some research on TCMS (at uni a few years back)so know that it is not woo woo (lol). My problem with the article was, as has been pointed out, that any aid in learning is to do with motor skills and not to do with the popular view of ‘thinking’.
    Back on topic…

  42. Kapitano said,

    July 10, 2009 at 6:17 am

    The original research looks pretty dumb too. It doesn’t seem to grasp the basic distinction between pushing for consensual sex…and nonconsensual sex.

    It’s not a good sign when a trained researcher (deliberately?) obscures the difference between persuasion and coercion.

  43. mrtgrady said,

    July 10, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I think the article says more about Richard Alleyne than the content of the study.

    It’s interesting to note some of his prior work at the Telegraph:

    tinyurl.com/nryre5
    tinyurl.com/ldb9l3
    tinyurl.com/ku2wtt
    tinyurl.com/42kra9

  44. Scrotley said,

    July 10, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    THE TELEGRAPH HAS PULLED THE ARTICLE!

    Moreover, they’ve put up a link to this page. I’m impressed that Ben’s article and the comments here and on the Telegraph page seem to have had such an effect.

    Mind you, the edit they have replaced it with doesn’t seem to be that much better. Typo of ‘baring’ for ‘bearing’ as well, which might be funny with other subject matter.

  45. Carl Zimmer said,

    July 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I can only find a page that says, “Sorry. We cannot find the page you are looking for.”

    No apology. No retraction. No correction. Just erasing tracks, as far as I can tell.

    No way to run a newspaper. (And I’m speaking as a newspaper writer myself.)

  46. ginamac said,

    July 13, 2009 at 11:16 am

    @stevieGJ and @jessicatheJourno. I don’t know science but I do know media and my comment was on the fact that if they have a problem with misrepresentation they should use the tools that the industry provides to fix the problem. If you have insults/opinions to throw about with regards to that programme I’m sure you will find plenty of forums to do so in, but it was not my intention to discuss it here and only used it to compare my experience (working for the Kennel Club) to that represented in this article. Yes there were facts in it but there was also misrepresentation just as there was in the above article.

  47. coatgal said,

    July 16, 2009 at 9:29 am

    So this apology at the Telegraph:
    www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/5818138/British-Psychological-Society-Miss-Sophia-Shaw.html

    What is the opposite? Women who drink are less likely to be raped? Men who drink are more likely to be raped? Anybody?

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  52. W Z said,

    December 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/5818138/British-Psychological-Society-Miss-Sophia-Shaw.html

    “British Psychological Society: Miss Sophia Shaw

    2:27PM BST 13 Jul 2009

    Owing to an editing error, our report “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists” (June 23) wrongly stated that research presented at the recent BPS conference by Sophia Shaw found that women who drink alcohol are more likely to be raped. In fact, the research found the opposite. We apologise for our error.”

    Note they did not apologise for nor correct the error and implication that is the title of the report.

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