Investment, Disclosure, and Skepticism

As you read this, you may want to know that I’ve been accused of falsely accusing someone of rape. In fact, I’ve been accused of falsely claiming a consensual encounter was rape. You can read all about it here.

You may also want to know that I’ve previously reported on the incidence and profile of false reports. When I did, I was careful to differentiate between false reports and other types of cases that don’t end in prosecution. While I did use examples, I grounded them not just in statistics from the scientific literature, but also in the factors that affect how those statistics are produced. You can read all about that here.

A rendered picture of an unbalanced set of scales.
“balance scales” by winnifredxoxo. Some rights reserved.

After reading those, you may decide I have a vested interest in keeping people from being believed when they accuse someone else of making a false report of sexual assault. Or you may decide that I have an interest in making sure the scientific evidence on the topic is examined and understood. Or you may come to a different conclusion. In any case, you’re informed about where I stand as you read.

I asked my social media lists this morning, “Q. for the hive mind: If I were to write a skepticism piece on an issue that affected me personally, would you expect/want me to disclose?” The answers varied considerably for reasons including how specifically or directly I was affected by the issue and whether this would require me to disclose something private. I didn’t ask anyone for permission to quote them by name, so these are all anonymous here.

On the question of how personally I was affected:

  • I’d expect it if it affects you directly as you may not be as objective as is needed for a piece that would qualify as “skepticism.” IE: If you have cancer and are writing on a treatment that is making you feel better, you are more likely to cherry pick the benefits
  • SUPER important to point out the diff betw “affects me as Named Person specifically” and “affects my rights and privileges.” This is often used to try to disqualify minority members from speaking about their oppression. “They’re not objective.”

On how public the situation already was:

  • If it was something you felt ok w/ sharing, yes, disclose as fully as poss to better frame the arg, else no, I’d respect your privacy
  • One would think, if you didn’t use your own example, you would make it clear objectivity may be an issue. Full disclosure, etc.
  • I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, I tend to come down on the side of “disclosure is always a good practice when writing an essay”, which you would be doing…but on the other hand, if it’s very personal to you, and something you’d rather keep private, does that mean you shouldn’t write about the issue? I would argue that’s unfair too.So…I dunno. Guess it depends on the issue?
  • I think it would depend on the specifics of the case—the nature of the issue, your involvement/role, personal consequences, etc. If it’s an issue you had been linked with publicly in the past, you would at least owe due context.

A few answers didn’t provide context:

  • yes. Always disclose possible bias.
  • Not at all require in my mind. “Affected anonymously person” is allowed to be you.

This is the most nuanced and educated take on the topic, I think:

Hmm…well, as someone who went through journalism school back when there still were, ya know, journalistic ethics, I always prefer to err on the side of disclosure as, for me, even if I understand a piece to be editorial from the outset, I feel the person is being more ethical and I feel the author is more respectful of the audience and less overtly/unknowingly biased if disclosures are made, potential bias perceptions acknowledged. I am allowed to assess for myself the merits of the arguments and whether I think bias may play a role. A well made and well-supported argument is a good argument regardless of whether I wholely agree with it or what potential interest is disclosed. On the other hand when I discover a potential bias *after the fact*, I feel lied to and lose respect for/trust on the writer.

All that said, though, I may be old fashioned bit this regard. The rules of the bloggosphere in this day and age seem to be “say any damned thing you want, don’t check your facts and don’t disclose anything that might not suit the image you want people to have of you.” So…that might cause others to perceive disclosures very differently than I do.

RE: the difference between disclosing how you specifically affected vs. simply disclosing that you are a member of a group or class of people that are or may be affected, yes, I agree that is a relevant consideration. There are situations in which disclosing too much of the former is not necessarily appropriate, even unprofessional. As with everything, how much to disclose depends a lot on 1. the topic, 2. the intent/nature of the piece, 3. the media/forum/vehicle, and 4. the audience.

Fwiw, I’ll offer the example that if I was writing an Op-Ed for the [local paper] about a policy issue that specifically affects rape survivors and women who’ve experienced sexual abuse, I would probably disclose in some way that I have a connection to the issue through personal and professional experiences–whether that be simply disclosing a place I’ve worked that is known to work with women in this situations, or simply saying that I have had personal and professional contact with issues in this area. I probably would not disclose any information about my own, loved ones, or client experiences, and probably would not explicitly disclose my own survivor status. However, in an article about the experience of working in this policy area or what these policies mean in real-human anecdotal terms on a women’s support site, I may disclose more detail.

I’ll note that my friend who went to journalism school is not part of the skeptical community. This is relevant because my question, while framed as applying to me in the hopes of eliciting the most charitable feedback, was actually about Ben Radford’s post at CFI this morning on false rape allegations and his similarly terrible post about false rape allegations on the same blog less than two months ago. Some people certainly realized that.

Yes, these are both terrible posts, particularly as posts for a skeptic site. Ron Lindsay has already ably discussed how today’s was bad, between obviously wrong and unsupported claims and argument propped up with logical fallacy. I don’t think I need to go into that that further or explain how distressing it is to find that sort of work somewhere like the Center for Inquiry. However, I do want to thank Lindsay for his prompt attention to the issue.

The January post is just as bad for different reasons. In a post subtitled “The Tragedy of False Accusations”, Radford conflates the behavior of the alleged rape victim (the person considered to be the “accuser” when we study false rape accusations) with that of the police. This is a practice well-known to those who have seen men’s rights activists point to The Innocence Project and people accused of rape who have been cleared with DNA evidence as proof that women falsely accuse men of rape. One would hope, however, that a skeptic who familiarized himself with the evidence on his topic would do better.

Not only is Radford’s example of a “false allegation” one of the most infamous and clear-cut cases of rape to have occurred in my lifetime, but the victim in this case made no accusation. She couldn’t. She’d been beaten into unconsciousness and, like many trauma victims, retained no memory of the event when she awoke.

What Radford called a “false allegation” is not a false allegation of rape but a case of police railroading suspects for a crime. Railroading is a serious problem, and it does require attention. However, blog posts that treat Tawana Brawley and people reading newspapers as the problem–instead of racism, classism, and the unearned trust and lack of oversight that law enforcement is granted–aren’t going to do anything about railroading.

What that post and today’s post may do, however, is provide a vivid counterpoint to the statistical, scientifically studied reality of allegations of sexual assault. They may cause an emotional reaction in people faced with the uncomfortable task of reacting, as we all have to do sometime in our lives, to the allegation that someone we know has committed sexual assault. They may, with the help of the availability heuristic, cause people to believe Radford’s unsourced and incorrect assertions about the frequency of false allegations.

A 2005 study by the British Home Office gave examples of police officers’ statements of their beliefs that rape allegations are “common” as coverups of consensual sex. Their observation on the effects of this belief? (pdf, pp 51-52)

The interviews with police officers and complainants’ responses show that despite the focus on victim care, a culture of suspicion remains within the police, even among some of those who are specialists in rape investigations. There is also a tendency to conflate false allegations with retractions and withdrawals, as if in all such cases no sexual assault occurred. This reproduces an investigative culture in which elements that might permit a designation of a false complaint are emphasised … at the expense of a careful investigation, in which the evidence collected is evaluated.

Blog posts like the ones I talk about here don’t help anyone accurately assess rape allegations. They don’t contain the rigor necessary for that. They may, however, aid someone with an interest in not having an allegation that he committed sexual assault believed. Like Lindsay, I think that’s wrong.

Here’s the bottom line. All accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly. There is no a priori justification for treating the accuser with suspicion instead of compassion. The determination of whether a sexual assault actually occurred should be based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation of that case, not on generalizations about the behavior of people derived from other, distinct cases — however prominent or obscure.

Is his involvement in this topic why Radford is writing terrible posts on it? I don’t know. I can’t speak to his motivation. I can say, however, that these posts are terrible treatments of the topic. I can say that inculcating doubt over allegations of sexual assault benefits him. I can also say that Radford falls into both the class of people who are affected very directly by an issue and the class of people whose connection to the issue is already public.

Should Radford continue to be allowed to post on this topic at the CFI blog? That isn’t my call. That depends on CFI’s tolerance.

However, if they do continue to allow Radford free reign on a topic on which he writes so badly, with so little regard for the weight of evidence, I’d suggest they strongly consider requiring him to disclose his interests in the matter whenever he does. Most readers don’t have my background in researching rape myths and reading the literature on the topic. Journalism has long since used this sort of disclosure as a corrective for bias, understanding that whether we approach material with trust or caution makes a difference. In the interest of skepticism and sharing good information, perhaps it’s time major skeptic organizations do as well.

Investment, Disclosure, and Skepticism
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13 thoughts on “Investment, Disclosure, and Skepticism

  1. 3

    Excellent point, and honestly not where I thought you would be going with this when I answered your question on Facebook. Not that I mind at all.

    I can adjust my answer a bit now that I have context: Disclosure of a connection to a topic is always a good thing for authors to do when it does not put them at undue risk of harm, of course, but I think it’s vital when their connection to the topic could easily be construed to give them a vested interest in reporting or analyzing the topic dishonestly. That said, if the author cares about getting the facts and logic right regardless of their personal connection, and they do a good job with the research and the argumentation, the essay’s argument will be sound regardless of whether or not they disclose their personal connection.

    For instance, I don’t feel the need to question what connection Thomas Macaulay Miller of Yes Means yes has to issues of rape, molestation, and sexual abuse and harassment, because his reporting is top notch, well-sourced, and above all, squares well with the actual research that he reports on.

    But in this case, Radford’s personal connection to the topic of sexual assault, and its perpetual boogeyman cousin, false accusations, presents a basis for arguing that he has a vested interest in muddying the waters on the issue. If, that is, his essay turned out not to be well-founded, turned out to be based on specious reasoning, bad research, and cherry-picked or misrepresented data, there would be ample cause for questioning whether or not he was being deliberately dishonest.

    And, in a shocking twist, well, that’s precisely what we find. I guess it’s not much of a twist after all.

  2. 4

    Of course it would be wrong not to disclose your own situation regarding false accusations when writing an article about false accusations.

    However, since Radford in fact did do the things he was accused of, he was never _falsely_ accused, and so has no bias regarding false accusations to disclose.


  3. 5

    THat quote, it basically says that people are totally not allowed to set their own boundaries with regards to potential perpetrators. Which I think is exactly what Radford is about: making sure that perps who are not convicted (i. E. most of them) keep having access to more potential victims.

  4. 7

    Do you ever wonder why none of those people who just think Lindsay should have gone into more depth on rates of false allegations don’t, say, drop a post like the one I mention in my disclosure here into the comments so people can be more informed on the topic?

  5. 8

    Question: If you are a rape victim who cannot or will not be public about your history for whatever reasons, do you have an obligation not to publicly comment on or write about anything to do with rape?

    Not an accusatory question, by the way, just one I’m curious as to the answer to.

  6. 9

    I think that’s one of those places where the class/individual distinction is worth looking at. A hell of a lot more people have an interest in seeing issues around rape treated responsibly than just those who have been raped. Besides, as a feminist, it’s assumed you have an unhealthy interest in the topic anyway. :p

  7. 10

    Question: If you are a rape victim who cannot or will not be public about your history for whatever reasons, do you have an obligation not to publicly comment on or write about anything to do with rape?

    Not an accusatory question, by the way, just one I’m curious as to the answer to.

    This is precisely the reason why I answered as I did: the rape victim who feels he or she cannot, for whatever reason, be public about that fact, was the situation I had in mind when I phrased both of my answers.

  8. 11

    Ben Radford’s post at CFI this morning on false rape allegations and his similarly terrible post about false rape allegations on the same blog less than two months ago. Some people certainly realized that.

    there were TWO of them?


  9. 12

    Radford starts out by showing his ignorance and goes downhill from there. Those innocent women falsely accused during the Salem Witch trials? Not including those accused and found not guilty, who were found guilty and pardoned, who were found guilty and escaped, twenty-one people were found guilty and executed.

    They ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s and six were men. Most of those killed were between 39 and 81.

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