Rape: a helpful non-correction from the Telegraph

July 16th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evidence, telegraph | 34 Comments »

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 It was based on the unpublished and unfinished dissertation of a masters student and got the story entirely wrong.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.

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

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:

Asking for it

July 4th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 46 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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34 Responses



  1. Unbekannt said,

    July 16, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    “…it really rather blamed women for rape, to an audience of a million readers.”

    Maybe I am just naïve in thinking this but nowhere did the article specifically claim that women are responsible for being raped. I guess you could argue that this was implied, but I am not so sure about that.
    Even if it was true that women who dress in a particular way have an x times higher chance of being raped the blame would lie entirely with the rapist.

    Also it seems kind of intuitive in a rather superficial and uninformed way that the appearance of women would be a good indicator of how likely it is that they are raped.
    So I think that its aim was not necessarily to blame women for rape, or even to imply that, but rather to support the authors presumptions about the issue.

    I really don’t think that a statement such as “women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped” is particularly offensive and it puzzles me that people find this any more offensive then if somebody would say “The Sun is the center of the universe.” Both are just statements advocating a rather weak position. But maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture here…

  2. Dead Badger said,

    July 16, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Can’t agree, Unbekannt – the word “provocatively” implies volition; it says that the woman, by so dressing, knowingly provokes sexual urges in men, and runs a commensurate risk.

    You’re quite likely correct that the author simply wanted something to confirm his own prejudices, but I don’t see how this is exculpatory in the slightest. When a writer completely misrepresents research to make his prejudices seem empirical, then seeks to pass it off as an editing error, I think this is most certainly worthy of note and censure.

  3. tequilaslammer said,

    July 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    > I guess you could argue that this was implied, but I am not so sure about that.

    All newspapers have social and political agendas. If this article has completely twisted the findings of a study, enough to make the headline the reverse of the title results of the study (according to the press release) I think it’s perfectly valid to look at what’s ‘implied’.

    Given the conservative nature of the paper (and the fact that the most of the people reading the paper already have a conservative world-view) the change in ‘slant’ of the article makes a lot of sense… On top of being incredibly sinister.

    As Ben pointed out, how many judges read this paper? how will the idea that women dressing provocatively invite a greater chance of rape, now supposedly legitimised by ‘scientists’, affect the outcome of trials?

    > Both are just statements advocating a rather weak position.

    From a completely objective viewpoint, yes.

    When read by a human being, however, one statement is far more significant and emotive than the other.

    Not that I’m saying you’re not human of course!

  4. SaraDee said,

    July 16, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    “Maybe I am just naïve in thinking this…”

    I think that sums it up nicely. I’m not trying to be rude – it’s just that there is a long, long, well-documented and well-analyzed history of the use of these sorts of rationalizations that go on in the legal system and society at large, and that support the robust rape culture that exists in the western world (elsewhere, the rape cultures are different).

    Rapists do actually avoid conviction by using the “but she was dressed provocatively” or “she was drunk” charge. Even if they do not avoid conviction entirely, the sentence will be reduced by sympathetic judges. And more than just in the court, since most women avoid the humiliation of having their character attacked in court in order to bring a rape charge up (basically, if you have ever had consensual sex before or since being raped, are single, have ever been drunk in public, worn anything anyone might find sexy, etc. it will be used against you in the vilest possible language, regardless of whether any of it is related to what happened during the event in question) – women who are known to have been raped sometimes receive verbal and physical attacks from people at school and work, and are ostracized from their families for “getting themselves” raped and being an embarrassment.

    There is a phenomenal amount of victim-blame in rape culture, and this article was practically a textbook manual on all the old saws that are flung out, only with the spin of some scientific legitimization. It’s really, really real-world damaging to actual people, unlike vague statements about whether or not the sun is the centre of the universe.

  5. bob_bura said,

    July 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Ben,
    more regarding your original piece really, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the unpublished research aspect in regard to conferences. Given that there is surely a place for ‘work in progress’ or unpublished work at scientific conferences, and given that these are public events, journalists are always going to be able to cover them by picking things up from the conference programme or simply attending. So is it better for press offices to do a media release in an attempt to ensure accurate coverage, or is this unwise shepherding?

  6. richie78 said,

    July 16, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Unbekannt, with regards to the Telegraph’s take on dress and appearance increasing the chance of being raped: what strikes me is that whilst it could be said to be acceptable that a newspaper adopts a generalised summary (“blurry” and “vague”, perhaps) of the findings of such a study, it would surely not be acceptable to completely ignore the author’s own analysis of the findings.

  7. Jut said,

    July 16, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    here’s my big issue, millions will have seen the original article yet the correction will go unread by many due to it being tucked away somewhere in a quiet corner of the paper.
    Verdict-original article in the eyes of the reader will be correct.

  8. Health Pain said,

    July 16, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    There are many ways to control chronic pain, and one of them is through anxiolytics, which are medicines that have obtained a better result than other drugs such as naproxen, aspirin, ibuprofen, medications that relieve pain but are not effective for these chronic cases, as these pains are more like a back pain that the world is one of the most common causes of absenteeism in findrxonline as indicated in your article on back pain and chronic pain, and opioid medications are as vicodin, Lorcet, Meperidine to soothe the pain caused by this disease and we must be very careful.

  9. Tessa K said,

    July 16, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    <>

    Except that ‘Women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped’ is news (or what passes for it) whereas ‘Oops we got it wrong’ is not. Sadly.

  10. Dr Aust said,

    July 16, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    From the Press Gazette:

    Richard Alleyne made Telegraph science correspondent 14 October 2008 By Dominic Ponsford

    Daily Telegraph reporter Richard Alleyne has been promoted to the new post of science correspondent working across the daily and Sunday titles as well as Telegraph.co.uk.

    His promotion follows the exit of Roger Highfield after 20 years as Daily Telegraph science editor to become editor of New Scientist magazine.

    Alleyne has worked for the Daily Telegraph since 2000 as a general news reporter

    Looking over some of his bylines I was rather taken by this one from a couple of years back.

  11. sockatume said,

    July 16, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    I don’t see how “found the opposite” is a factually correct statement.

  12. Matt_D said,

    July 16, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    To Unbekannt:

    Saying “women who dress provocatively are morelikely to be raped” is more or less saying “If you dress provocatively, you’re asking for it”. Pretty sick.

  13. nekomatic said,

    July 17, 2009 at 9:08 am

    To those who are defending the Telegraph headline, the problem with it is not the ‘more likely’ bit but the ‘dress provocatively’ bit. Are you seriously suggesting that the word ‘provocative’ doesn’t imply an intention to provoke? And anyway, to provoke what? If you say someone’s dressed ‘provocatively’ what kind of provocation do you have in mind – presumably not to wonder if she’s getting cold?

  14. cvb said,

    July 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

    sockatume said

    —- I don’t see how “found the opposite” is a factually correct statement. —-

    I agree. That means that the report said that women who drink alcohol are less likely to be raped. That is not what it said at all.

  15. katieg said,

    July 17, 2009 at 10:55 am

    I agree with nekomatic – the word ‘provocative’ is incredibly loaded. Synonymous with ‘sexy’, ‘tempting’ and ‘seductive’ according to one thesaurus I looked at. And yet in the article it is translated as ‘wearing a short skirt’. How short and who decides what exactly is provocative? And not that I’m delighted with the title of the press release either, but using ‘promiscuous men more likely to rape’ instead would have put a whole different spin on it. Scurrilous reporting IMHO.

  16. Teapot said,

    July 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    I have to diagree with comment 9.

    Saying “women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped” is in no way at all the same as saying “if you dress provocatively you are asking for it”.

    Of course, the pseudo-story was in the Torygraph so they might well have been trying to imply this, but it doesn’t make it a correct implication.

    Lets put it another way. People who leave the house to walk to the shops are more likely to be run over than people who stay at home. Is this the same as saying that if you leave the house to walk to the shops then you are asking for it?

  17. Teapot said,

    July 17, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Oops, that should say “disagree with comment 12″.

  18. TriathNanEilean said,

    July 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    @Teapot says: “Saying “women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped” is in no way at all the same as saying “if you dress provocatively you are asking for it”.”

    and then mentions an analogy about getting run over. But it is a poor analogy. Increasing your chances of being run over is indeed a consequence of taking a walk, but an unwanted, an unsought consequence.

    Very different from doing something provocatively. Leave aside the overused phrase “dress provocatively”, and the synonyms ‘sexy’, ‘tempting’ etc. Doing something provocatively is to attempt to provoke some thought or action in another person. The person being provocative is indeed ‘asking for it’, for provoking a response is exactly what is intended.

    We can argue what kind of response is sought, but one certainly is being ‘asked for’.

  19. lasker said,

    July 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    The claim was:
    “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped.”
    But to provoke is defined as:
    “To rouse or incite” (Oxford dictionary).
    So if it is humanly possible to incite rape by dress then the statement is tautological. If not then the statement is meaningless.
    The scientific approach would require dress to be standardised and the rate of rape to be measured.
    Ie: Are women displaying Xcm2 of exposed breast and Ycm2
    of exposed leg more lkely to suffer rape than those displaying 1/2X and 1/2Y respectively.
    It could possibly be acheived by a retrospective study and this would provide a conclusion of scientific, sociological and criminological value.
    It would not of course alter the moral and legal issues.

  20. Daniel said,

    July 17, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Dead Badger
    “Can’t agree, Unbekannt – the word “provocatively” implies volition…”

    Point taken. I agree that the Telegraph has some rather poor word choice and the article is extremely loaded and I hereby retract any statements that could be interpreted as defending the Telegraph.

    I wrote my reply primarily to address the magically morphing of statement such as “Women’s clothing have an impact on rape” to “Women are responsible for being raped.”

    Now that’s not meant to be a critique of Ben Article I rather agree that the Newspaper has a duty to keep their articles neutral and at the very least factual.

    I’m just perplexed that so many people seem to be so offended by the statement even in a context where it is simply presented as a fact (wrongly, obviously) with no social implications or hidden agendas attached to it.

    It is as if, if it turned out, that it was true, it would suddenly become the women’s fault if she was raped.

    The aim of my comment was not to defend the telegraph, but rather to point out that the rapist would be to blame either way and it therefore shouldn’t matter, what the women wears.

    I realize of course that we don’t live in a utopia, and “should” does not equal “is”, but really the statement can only be used offensively by constructing a completely fallacious argument in the reader’s mind, that couldn’t be true even if its premise was.

  21. Daniel said,

    July 17, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    I should probaly say that my display name was previously Unbekannt. – just to avoid confusion.

  22. nel said,

    July 17, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Ben, i’m glad you didn’t let this lie. There really should be more people challenging the many myths about rape and the media wankers perpetuating them. Good work. Maybe, just possibly, if you’re persistant enough, journalists will think twice about this sort of thing. You never know.

  23. mickeh62 said,

    July 17, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Something is wrong with the world !

    read this scary horrible rotten story that has been hushed up.

    doctor-cheat.blogspot.com/

  24. Michael Gray said,

    July 18, 2009 at 7:46 am

    @mickeh62

    That site reads like a UFO kook’s recycle bin after a binge on LSD.

  25. Bill Bigge said,

    July 18, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Well I hope my angry accusatory letter of complaint to the editor helped. I seem to remember calling for them to consider employing honest and competent science correspondents in the future…

    Time will tell…

  26. Dead Badger said,

    July 19, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    @Daniel:
    “The aim of my comment was not to defend the telegraph, but rather to point out that the rapist would be to blame either way and it therefore shouldn’t matter, what the women wears.”

    Sure, absolutely. Puts me somewhat in mind of the arguments about whether homosexuality is genetic or not; seemingly important, but utterly irrelevant to the fundamental issue of gay rights. But then you know it’ll be used as ammunition by bigots/sexists, so you end up getting drawn in to a complete sidetrack. Ah, debate. :-)

  27. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 20, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    “Owing to an editing error…”

    Ah, yes. The editing error commonly known as “printing a completely untrue story”.

  28. Craig said,

    July 21, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Ben, you might to remove comment #8. Drug pusher spam.

  29. Craig said,

    July 21, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    *&!%^$$&# non-editable comments! Insert “want” in the obvious place in the previous comment…

  30. Cardiff Drunk said,

    July 21, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    How in the name of everything can that be down to ‘an editing error’?

  31. mikewhit said,

    July 22, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Yes, Health Pain *is* a link-spammer and I claim my £5 !

  32. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 22, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    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”

  33. mikewhit said,

    July 28, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Well according to some well-known religious rules, a woman not being covered up is, to some people, enough to send heterosexual men into a frenzy of lust.

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