Sunday, October 28, 2007

There are Lies, Damned Lies and the Social Sciences

I figured somebody would call "Bullshit" on the latest claim that 1 in 4 women have been sexually abused, and the SST has today published such a call from Prof David Fergusson. The headline is "Statistical Abuse," which they used presumably because "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" was already taken.

It's usually best to ignore any social science reporting in the media, or even any science reporting based on statistical data (eg, just about anything to do with nutrition and health), because working out whether you should take it seriously or not would require you both to look at the actual published research to see what it really found, and then spend some time analysing the likely agenda of the researchers and how they might have massaged/manipulated the results to get the outcome they were looking for.

For instance, if you read that someone analysed survey data from 7 countries and discovered a clear correlation between dietary fat intake and heart attacks, you might need to spend a lot of investigative time figuring out that he decided to leave out of his article the survey data from a dozen other countries showing no correlation at all. Or, if someone writes that your favourite food increases your chance of getting toenail cancer by 30% (Shit! Stop eating that poison now!), you'll search the news story in vain for the level of absolute risk, which most likely turns out to be that enjoying this food could increase your absolute risk of toenail cancer from 0.02% to 0.026%. (Well, that is a 30% increase, isn't it? Surely that's fair reporting then?)

In this case, it was reasonably obvious right off the bat where the grift is. The obvious first question is "How did you define sexual abuse?" (An obvious first question that no journo seems to have thought to pursue - as usual.) In this case, sexual abuse seems to have been defined as anyone ever touching you sexually in a way that you didn't want. Well, on that basis 1 in 4 seems pretty damn low if you ask me. Hell, I've been sexually abused on that basis. Who are all these people who haven't been?

If you go look at the WHO report, as opposed to the sensationalist blather from locals, you can see that it's a fairly well-designed survey that does actually distinguish genuine sexual abuse from sexual activity you didn't initiate or that happened before you hit the age of consent. I blame local activists for trying to turn the results into "1 in 4 women sexually abused!" scare-mongering.

Fergusson's right - all that this kind of scare-mongering achieves is the development of skepticism in the general public, and a consequent skeptical attitude by the public to genuine claims of abuse.


Andrew Davies said...

It is easy to "prove" whatever you want. Just work out the answers you want and then design the questions to deliver the predetermined outcome.

These people usually give themselves away in the "solutions" they offer. Invariably they use the magic f word and call for more funding, as these "researchers" have done.

One of the main reasons we have so much social dysfunction is because of the vested interests that have built an industry around it. Have you noticed, they are the only ones allowed to offer ways of dealing with the problem. Anyone who comes up with something that might work gets shot down very quickly as they threaten the livelihood of the reef fish feeding on the carcase of dysfunction, whether real or imagined.

Get a social science degree, invent a problem and then call for funding. The best way to do this is to do a "survey". So it goes on.

Sean said...

Well written post Psycho Milt.

Off the topic but I wonder if the Blog admin can put the author's name at the top of the post, say, below the title. Every time I read a post I assume it is written by FFM (since he contributes the most).

Recently, FFM wrote a post and mentioned Adolf early on and with Adolf always referring to himself in the 3rd person, I assumed Adolf had written it!

Just a thought.

Andy Moore said...

Yes, very good point Psycho. Here's what Lindsay had to say about it...

I think you've both got a point.