Part 1—Chancellor Barnhart knows best: What is the nature—the actual nature—of our nation’s public discourse?
Consider a news report in last Tuesday’s New York Times. The news report treated an extremely important topic.
At some (alas) undisclosed point in time, MIT conducted a survey among its students about sexual assault on its campus. At the start of last week, the institution released a bewildering report on the survey’s findings.
People shouldn’t get assaulted on MIT’s campus or anywhere else. As he started his news report, Richard Perez-Pena presented the headline finding:
PEREZ-PENA (10/28/14): In a rare, detailed look at sexual assault and harassment on a university campus, M.I.T. revealed Monday that among undergraduates who replied to a survey, at least 17 percent of women and 5 percent of men said they had been sexually assaulted.Perez-Pena praised “the clarity” of the survey. With genuine sadness, our analysts simply said, “Wow!”
That is similar to the findings of a handful of other studies, including a frequently cited survey in which 19 percent of undergraduate women said they had experienced sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault. But there have been few surveys that looked at experiences and attitudes at particular colleges—and victim advocates said they knew of none with the clarity and depth of the M.I.T. survey.
In truth, the clarity level of the survey strikes us as very low. As an example of where that can lead, consider paragraph 11 in Perez-Pena’s report:
PEREZ-PENA: Yet when asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted, only 11 percent of female and 2 percent of male undergraduates said yes.“Sexual assault” is a somewhat imprecise term. For ourselves, we can’t tell you how many students get assaulted or raped at MIT during their undergraduate years.
That said, the topic is extremely important—but uh-oh! Despite the clarity of MIT’s work, we’d already received two different numbers about what undergraduate women said in the survey, which may have been conducted last spring or maybe in the fall of this academic year.
(Yes, this would make an actual difference, if we actually want to know how often such conduct occurs.)
In the first paragraph of his report, Perez-Pena reported this fact: At least 17 percent of undergraduate women said they had been sexually assaulted during their time at MIT.
By paragraph 11, the number had changed. According to that paragraph, 11 percent of undergraduate women said they had been raped or sexually assaulted.
More accurately, “only” 11 percent of undergraduate women made that claim, according to that second passage. Therein lies one of the many tales which emerge from this extremely murky, multiply-bungled survey cum news reports.
In fairness to Perez-Pena, a reader can tease an apparent explanation for his dueling statistics. Below, you see the fuller presentation surrounding that second, smaller statistic.
We highlight the apparent key words:
PEREZ-PENA: M.I.T. asked about several forms of unwanted sexual contact, from touching to penetration, “involving use of force, physical threat or incapacitation,” that it said clearly constituted sexual assault—the kind that 17 percent of undergraduate women and 5 percent of undergraduate men said they had experienced. In addition, 12 percent of women and 6 percent of men said they had experienced the same kinds of unwanted sexual contact, but without force, threat or incapacity—some of which, depending on the circumstances, can also be sexual assault.According to that passage, it looks like 17 percent of undergraduate women said they had been sexually assaulted—if you accept MIT’s definition of the term.
Yet when asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted, only 11 percent of female and 2 percent of male undergraduates said yes.
But when they were directly asked, alas! “Only” 11 percent of undergraduate women said they’d been assaulted or raped.
Does that explain the dueling statistics in Perez-Pena’s report? We can’t say we’re entirely sure.
The MIT survey was so voluminous that you pretty much had to drop out of school for a year to answer all its questions. The survey was also remarkably murky.
In our view, MIT’s report on its findings is also quite unclear.
After several attempts to figure it out, we can’t say we’re entirely sure how MIT derived that larger percentage, which may well understate the amount of misconduct women experience during their undergraduate years. But then, confusion and chaos seem to be the hallmarks of this survey, and of the news reports about its findings.
At best, Perez-Pena’s statement in his opening paragraph was incomplete and thus highly misleading. Viewed in a less charitable way, his statement was simply false.
There’s certainly nothing new about that in New York Times news reporting! On the other hand, you can’t completely blame Perez-Pena for the confusions which suffuse his high-minded report. We’d say that MIT’s performance in this matter was incompetent throughout.
What happens to undergraduate women during their four years at MIT? In part because of this murky survey, we have no clear idea.
That said, there is one statistic in this report which is fairly easy to state and interpret. Among undergraduate women who completed the survey, five percent directly said that they had been raped while at MIT.
That strikes us as an horrific figure, especially if we understand the nature of this survey. In a survey of undergraduate women, many of them still in their freshman year, five percent said they’d been raped during their time on campus.
That number strikes us as horrific. Apparently, though, the number wasn’t large enough for MIT’s chancellor, Cynthia Barnhart, a civil engineering professor.
In this New York Times news report, Chancellor Barnhart clucks about the real problem here. An insufficient number of students said they’d been raped or assaulted!
(Out at Oklahoma State, Professor Foubert also knew best.)
Are we the American people able to conduct a real discussion of any serious topic? This MIT survey raises that question in brilliant fashion. So do the floundering attempts to write “news reports” about the survey’s findings.
Is everything just “storyline” now? Perez-Pena is whispering to us:
Yes, he seems to have said.
Tomorrow: A monument to confusion
Again, links to MIT documents: Perez-Pena didn’t link to any MIT documents. We checked several other news reports. They too provided no links.
We had almost decided that MIT didn’t release the text of its survey. Finally, we found a news report which did provide a link.
Prepare to be confused:
For the text of the voluminous survey, you can just click here. For MIT’s report on its findings, you can just click this.