Part 2—“Clarity,” as seen by the Times: It’s a bit like what they used to say about New England weather:
If you don’t like the weather, wait a while.
So it was with Richard Perez-Pena’s New York Times news report. The report appeared atop the front page of last Tuesday’s National section.
For part 1 in this series, click here.
In his opening paragraph, Perez-Pena delivered an unpleasant statistic: “among undergraduates who replied to a survey, at least 17 percent of women [at MIT] said they had been sexually assaulted” during their time on campus.
If you didn’t like that statistic, you just had to wait a while. In paragraph 11, Perez-Pena delivered a different number: “when asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted, only 11 percent of female...undergraduates said yes.”
Whatever! If you read Perez-Pena’s report, you can tease a possible explanation for the dueling statistics, each of which seems quite troubling to us. That said, the confusion starts with MIT itself, which composed a bewildering, less-than-coherent survey, then produced a report on its findings which defies cogent analysis.
How confusing is MIT’s report—a report produced by one of the world’s leading educational institutions? The report is very confusing. In Table 2.3, to cite one example, two consecutive lines of data seem to report contradictory findings:
Table 2.3Those may be the dueling statistics with which Perez-Pena was wrestling in his report. They appear in consecutive lines of data in MIT’s brilliantly confusing Table 2.3.
Total number of respondents experiencing sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault, and other unwanted sexual behaviors while at MIT:
Been sexually assaulted or raped, combined from Table 2.1: 11 percent
Sexual Assault: Experience of unwanted sexual behaviors while at MIT, involving use of force, physical threat, or incapacitation from Table 2.2: 17 percent
Can we settle this apparent contradiction from looking at Tables 2.1 and 2.2? We’d have to say we cannot. In Table 2.2, we seem to be told that 17 percent of undergraduate women said they had experienced one or more of a set of “unwanted sexual behaviors while at MIT, involving use of force, physical threat, or incapacitation.”
That too is a troubling statistic. But in MIT’s introduction to Table 2.2, we seem to be told something different:
We seem to be told that something like half the complaining respondents said those factors were involved in the unwanted sexual acts in question. Simply put, confusion is MIT’s trademark all through its bewildering work.
Whatever the state of affairs on campus, MIT’s work is quite unclear all through its survey and its report. But so what? Inside the bubble of the elite, Perez-Pena quickly praised the institution for the unusual “clarity” of its work!
MIT’s work is a ball of confusion. The Times found it brilliantly clear.
Given the current state of elite culture, are we able to conduct coherent discussions of serious issues at all? Again and again, we’d say the answer seems to be no. With that in mind, let’s get clear on one more aspect of MIT’s puzzling work.
To his credit, Perez-Pena warns his readers, two separate times, about a limitation built into the MIT survey. We highlight the dual warnings:
PEREZ-PENA (10/28/14): M.I.T. asked all of its nearly 11,000 graduate and undergraduate students to take the survey, and about 35 percent did so. Dr. Barnhart cautioned that it was not possible to say how different the results would have been if everyone had taken part.Only 35 percent of MIT students responded to the survey. (Among undergraduate women, the response rate was 47 percent.)
John D. Foubert, a professor of higher education at Oklahoma State University who studies campus sexual assault, praised the M.I.T. study, noting that “very few schools have publicly released any data.” But he expressed concern that different surveys have not asked the same questions, or have worded them differently, making comparisons harder. He added that a survey of a random sampling of students, with a high response rate, might carry greater weight than M.I.T.’s self-selected sample.
And not only that—this sample was “self-selected.” It wasn’t a random sample.
Students who have been assaulted might be more likely to respond to a survey of this type, as compared to other students who haven’t been assaulted. Barnhart and Foubert offered sensible words of warning, which Perez-Pena didn’t clearly explain.
That said, at least one other aspect of this survey should have been explained in the Times. It suggests that the numbers generated by this survey may be misleading low.
Duh. In line with the general state of confusion surrounding the MIT report, the institution doesn’t seem to have said when it conducted its survey. It may have been conducted last spring, at the end of the academic year. It may have been conducted this fall, at the start of the new school year.
Presumably, that would make a substantial difference. First, though, understand this:
This wasn’t a survey of MIT seniors as they approached graduation. Presumably, those numbers for undergraduate women also involve responses from quite a few women in their freshman and sophomore years.
If the survey was conducted this fall, the first-year women had been on campus for only a couple of weeks. No one had been on campus for anything like four years.
Presumably, this aspect of the survey would tend to drive numbers way down. Presumably, the percentage of students reporting misconduct would be substantially higher if you surveyed undergraduate women at the end of their senior years.
In the MIT report, there is no sign that Chancellor Barnhart, or anyone else, gave this matter any thought:
MIT didn’t say when its survey was conducted. Invariably, high-end reporters like Perez-Pena simply fudged this point in their “news reports.”
MIT also didn’t report how many freshmen and sophomores are included in the overall numbers for “undergraduate women.” It didn’t occur to Perez-Pena that he should clarify so basic a point about the survey he was praising.
Is anyone here even trying to play this game? MIT’s survey and report concerns a very important subject. But the institution’s work is an unholy mess. And at the New York Times, the reaction was obvious:
At the Times, MIT was quickly praised for the “clarity” of its performance!
When our highest elites function this way, we are learning something basic about the state of our culture. We’re learning something that has been fairly obvious for a fairly long time.
We’re learning that our highest elites don’t have the focus, or the smarts, to conduct real discussions of serious topics. Are our nation’s public discussions really “storyline” all the way down?
Come back tomorrow to see what we find as our discussion continues.
Tomorrow: Professor Foubert knows best