The danger of sensationalist headlines

You’ve probably heard that statistic floating around saying that one third of college men are okay with rape (as long it’s not called rape). However, you might not be aware that this statistic is nowhere close to factual.

News sites such as the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan and Newsweek all ran stories with the same headline claiming that one third of college men admit they would rape if it wasn’t called rape.

It wasn’t just the headlines either. The first sentence of the article in Newsweek about this study (which was the first site to run this story) said “Nearly one-third of college men admit they might rape a woman if they could get away with it, a new study on campus sexual assault claims.”

The study they are referring to was not in a peer reviewed journal, but was instead a study conducted by UND’s own Sarah Edwards.

Now, I must be clear in saying that I am not denigrating this study in any way.

However, there seems to be a few facts that most people seem to forget when they throw this ‘statistic’ around.

First of all, the study was conducted of exactly 86 individuals, only 73 of which produced any usable answers. Over 90% of the participants were white, and they all identified as heterosexuals.

Think about that, 73 usable responses. UND has over 14,000 students. Let’s assume about half of them are men. So we have 73 men out of 7300 men. That is a sample size of 1%.  With a sample size that small that’s not even enough to say a third of men on this campus are okay with rape, much less a third of all college men.

That’s like picking five guys at random, one of them turns out to be  a serial killer and then making the claim that 20% of men are serial killers.

Or perhaps in more directly analogous numbers, say you surveyed 100 Christians in Los Angelas, of those surveyed, about 33 of them admitted to being homosexual. Would you then be able to say that a third of all Christians are homosexuals?

The fault does not lie with the study itself. Edwards was very clear in the interviews with the media that these findings were merely preliminary and had demographic limitations (because of the reasons I listed earlier).

Also, the study’s findings are certainly interesting. Even if there are only around 20 people who admitted to being fine with rape, that’s still 20 more than there should be.

Sexual assault is a very serious issue, and it definitely needs more attention, however the way to do it is not with inaccurate statistics.

This statistic is simply false since this conclusion cannot be logically drawn from the results of the study, and Edwards was very clear about that in her interview.

You don’t even need fake statistics to talk about sexual assault. You can use real statistics like the fact that  the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study suggests that as many as 20 percent of undergraduate women suffer sexual assault.

Or that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 43.9 percent of women “experienced some forms of sexual violence during their lifetimes.”

As far as the study itself goes, I have no doubt there are men who are fine with rape (clearly there are given the amount of collegiate sexual assaults), I also have no doubt there are other men who are rapists who don’t think of themselves as rapists besides the ones in this study. No one thinks they are the bad guy in their own story, they always have an excuse. A terrible awful unreasonable excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.

However, to make the claims that many of these articles made is downright irresponsible. If you have any concept of how the scientific method works at all, you would know that these conclusions would not logically follow from the results of the study.

The scientific method, for those who might not remember, involves formulating a hypothesis, testing it, and then testing it again, and then testing it again, and again and again, attempting to account for multiple variables that may influence the result of the experiment.

It is not, formulate a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, then the hypothesis is automatically confirmed.

These types of headlines and throwing this statistic around also hurts the study itself. The study has many fascinating results and conclusions that can be logically drawn from those results, but those results are overshadowed by the misleading headlines.

This statistic also lends more credence to the nonsensical concept that men are inherently violent.

Violence is always a choice, no matter what, there may be factors influencing the violence, but it is always a conscious decision. It is not something that is simply natural and unavoidable. This type of thinking merely encourages more violence.

Yes, some men are more prone to violence, but that does not make all men inherently violent.

This statistic is insulting to the original study, to men in general and to the scientific method itself.

As I said, sexual assault is a very serious issue and it needs all the attention it can get, but the way to do that is not to make misleading claims unsupported by evidence.

Mike Rauser is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. He can be reached at [email protected].