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.
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.