Update: Just got an email from Sophia Shaw, the MSc student in question: “I am happy that they have made an apology , but I am very aware that a number of other mistakes were made that were not acknowledge in their statement. Sophia”
The media is a game-like world of blurry truths, where the vague narrative shape of a story matters more than clarity, accuracy and evidence. Three weeks ago the Daily Telegraph published an unpleasant article headlined “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists”. It was based on the unpublished and unfinished dissertation of a masters student and got the story entirely wrong. The title of the press release for the same research was “Promiscuous men more likely to rape”, which gives you some small clue as to how weirdly this story was distorted by the newspaper. I wrote about this two weeks ago here, documenting all of their errors in detail.
First the Telegraph changed the story, modifying it slightly, but it was still wrong. Then the story disappeared without explanation. Now the Telegraph have printed a correction. Here it is.
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.
I suppose I should be pleased, but this correction does not scratch the surface. That is not the only thing the Telegraph got wrong. They said that women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped. This was a litany of errors, on a very sensitive issue, based, laughably, on an unfinished dissertation by a masters student. Read their article for yourself. Every one of their key assertions was factually incorrect, as the student who did the work explained two weeks ago.
According to a Media Guardian story the BPS (who carry some serious responsibility for this piece in the first place, as I explained) and Sophia Shaw are delighted with this correction.
A British Psychological Society spokesperson said: “The society is pleased that following our complaint to the Daily Telegraph and their subsequent investigation the Daily Telegraph agreed to remove the online article and print a retraction and an apology. Both the society and the researcher are satisfied with this outcome.”
Why have the Telegraph not properly corrected their article? And why do the BPS not care?
Because this is a gamelike world of blurry truths, where for every player the vague narrative shape of a story matters more than clarity, accuracy and evidence. If you squint your eyes, and look very briefly, through the gaps between your fingers, the Telegraph have made a mistake, and they vaguely seem to have corrected it, and apologised. If you look a little bit closer, they’ve only corrected one part of it, nobody has learnt anything at all, and business will continue as before.
This is not just about the rights and wrongs of extrapolating from chance findings which have failed to reach statistical significance, when the researcher themself has told you that it is not a valid finding. This was a grim story about rape. It was littered with nonsense about “scientists claim”, it was entirely wrong, and it really rather blamed women for rape, to an audience of a million readers.
It wouldn’t have hurt them to explain the problems and correct properly.
In case you’re too lazy to click, here is my original takedown of the Telegraph piece:
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.