Supplemental: The way we present important statistics!


No one knows what this means:
Are we humans really “the rational animal,” as Aristotle is said to have said?

Not exactly, no.

This morning, the New York Times ran an op-ed column about rates of rape and sexual assault. Iconic statistics have been floating around in discussions of this subject, each one a bit shakier than the rest.

Right at the start of her column, Callie Marie Rennison presents a relatively new statistic. This new statistic has been getting some play.

We don't know what it means:
RENNISON (12/21/14): Lately, people have been bombarded with the notion that universities and colleges are hotbeds of sexual violence. Parents fear that sending their teenagers to school is equivalent to shipping them off to be sexually victimized.

But the truth is, young women who don’t go to college are more likely to be raped. Lynn A. Addington at American University and I recently published a study based on the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey data from 1995 to 2011. We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students. This is nothing to be proud of, but it is significantly lower than the rate experienced by women that age who don’t attend college—eight per 1,000. In other words, these women are victims of sexual violence at a rate around 30 percent greater than their more educated counterparts.
Professor Rennison makes an important point. Young women who aren’t in college seem to be assaulted more frequently than young women who are in college.

Why does all the attention go to sexual assault in colleges? We’ll let you ponder that question. For today, consider the statistic Professor Rennison presents:

“We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students.”

Do you understand that statistic? Frankly, we do not.

As you know, “6.1 per 1,000 students” is less than one percent. That may seem like a low percentage, since current discussions often turn on the claim that one woman in five—or even one woman in four—will be the victim of rape or sexual assault during her time in college.

Here’s the problem:

Professor Rennison doesn’t specify the time period covered by her statistic. Are 0.61 percent of college women assaulted every year? Every month? Over the course of their four years in college? During the seven years of life from the start of age 18 through the end of age 24?

Professor Rennison doesn’t explain, and her editor at the Times didn’t require her to do so. For that reason, we have no idea what her statistic means.

This is a college professor writing about an important subject in our most famous newspaper. She starts her piece with a key statistic—a statistic which goes undefined in an important way.

“Man [sic] is the rational animal,” Aristotle is said to have said. The famous saying constitutes proof that Aristotle, for all his brilliance, never had to come to terms with the work found in the Times.


  1. As long as the time period is the same for the college and non-college groups, then the comparison still makes its point -- that the rate is lower for those in college. It doesn't say that the time period is the same but it is strongly implied because it wouldn't make any sense to compare rates calculated in different ways to each other.

    That doesn't excuse the omission, but I think the conclusion still makes sense without fully understanding the basis for it.

  2. I don't agree with Bob's complaint. A rate in a study like this would normally be per year. In any event, as AnonymousDecember 22, 2014 at 8:29 PM points out, the Professors surely would have used the same period for both groups.

    I have a different concern. I don't know how "rape" and "assault" are defined in the survey. Is it possible that college women might tend to interpret these terms differently from non-college women of the same age group?

    1. I think any "interpretation" would be on the part of the authorities receiving the complaints, not the women making them;.

    2. You're right. On some campuses, rape is sex without a consent form signed by the male. Wish that were a joke.

    3. Why? Shouldn't sex be consensual? Shouldn't it be a decision not taken lightly, especially given that these are often kids who are sexually inexperienced? We used to reserve sex for marriage, so how is signing a piece of paper a more restrictive commitment than that? Efforts to reform hook-up culture strike me as a good thing.

    4. @ !0:54 "Wish that were a joke."

      It's OK. You are enough of one on your own,

    5. 12:02, I don't think you thought it through. Would the form be required at all ages and within marriage? Why not? The only practical way of addressing the issue is to assume accused rapists are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, if one also wishes to preserve the ideas of justice and fairness and rights of the accused.

    6. If a form were signed that would establish consent and protect someone accused of rape. Seems like men fearful of false accusations should welcome this. In fact, nothing prevents men from asking for a signed consent. Sort of like a pre-prenup.

    7. Under California law, a signed consent form wouldn't necessarily be adequate to prove that college student sex was consensual. A participant has the right to change her (or his) mind at any point and withdraw the consent.

    8. Good point David. Something else that protects someone from accusations of rape is the public assuming they are innocent instead of assuming they are guilty. Unfortunately too many "progressives" decide to believe unfounded allegations as long as they hurt the right (bad) groups.

    9. How too does conflating assault with rape help with the understanding?

  3. OMB (By the Numbers With the OTB)

    "Right at the start of her column, Callie Marie Rennison presents a relatively new statistic."

    By any rough rule of thumb, the number isn't new. But then BOB has had his thumbs up his cherry picking pooper about statistics ever since we began reading his work.

    Pray for a Polish Miracle to strike St. BOB. If it strikes he may do better with numbers.

    For the rest of the rubes:

    1. You jerk. The comparison is new. That's why the scholarly article was published. Journals don't publish articles about things people already know. You're really desperate to criticize Somerby this morning, aren't you.

    2. What did your buddy Bob find troubling?


      “We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students.”

      Do you understand that statistic? Frankly, we do not.


      That statistic has Bob troubled, not the comparison.

      Pardon us for being a jerk. We are such big jerks we also understand the statistic on annual income comparsions between women who work full time and men who work full time. BOB demonstrates problems with that set of numbers as well. Neither are new.

    3. ZK, isn't it always wonderful when a Bobfan explains to us that the words Bob actually uses really mean something completely different, if not totally opposite?

    4. Bear in mind that these statistics involve cases REPORTED to police.

      To get an idea of the ACTUAL number of sexual assault and rape cases, reported and unreported, we would need a much more comprehensive and confidential survey -- such as the one MIT did.

      But poor Bob couldn't "understand" that survey either, so he mocked it.

      After all, ignorance is bliss.

    5. It may be called "Dowdifictionalization." We'd have to ask David in Cal.

      OTOH (now that we've mentioned DinC) we think it is wonderful BOB still has a fan. And a quite devoted fan at that.

    6. Yes, but remember there is also deadrat, who spends hours upon hours here agonizing over why other people spend hours upon hours here.

      He should realize that the Zimmerman Defense Team has long abandoned Bob despite the new bait of Ferguson.

      Bob is indeed grateful for every click he gets, pro or con, and especially at Fundraising Time.

    7. A jerk is someone who responds to a single post multiple times, using different pseudonyms. A jerk is someone who doesn't read and responds to something someone didn't say instead of what they did say. A jerk is someone who may or may not have a valid point but has to call others names regardless because civil discussion is beyond him.

    8. Yes, it is so civil to refrain from calling people we disagree with such juvenile names as "jerk,"

      You have learned The Ultimate Lesson of Somerbyism at the feet of the Master, Grasshopper!

      Which is: "Preach to others, but never, ever practice!"

    9. @Noon,

      You know how much time I spend here. You know I'm in agony. And you know the level of TDH's gratitude. Which isn't surprising, I guess, since you're on a first-name basis with him.

      Very impressive all around.

  4. Hints for Howlers from Heloise:



    /ˌdɛf əˈnɪʃ ən/ IPA Syllables


    the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, idiom, etc., as found in dictionaries.





    search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google.

    "I recently googled "crime rate definition"

    Google Crime Rate Definition

    First Result:

    crime rate

    Also found in: Wikipedia.


    1. crime rate - the ratio of crimes in an area to the population of that area; expressed per 1000 population per year

    1. This does not relieve the author of this article from the responsibility of explaining to readers how the crime rate is calculated. Readers shouldn't have to look up such things in Wikipedia in order to understand what is being said. The word "annual" was obviously omitted. It is a mistake and Somerby is correct to point it out.

    2. This does not relieve the author of this post, who regularly presents himself as having some expertise on statistics, from pretending ignorance in order to mislead.

      Unless of course, he is ignorant and has no expertise. Then he wouldn't be pretending. Just misleading.

    3. There was nothing misleading about this post. Somerby is correct that someone reporting a rate needs to also state the period over which that rate is calculated. The author failed to do that, despite being a professor and presumably having an editor who reviewed the piece. A statistic is by its nature more precise than words. To report it incorrectly makes it meaningless and undermines that precision. Somerby is correct and it is fair for him to hold professors to a higher standard than other writers. They are, after all, presenting themselves as experts. He is correct to ask that they be more careful.

      You seem to want to refocus this discussion onto Somerby and his failings. That makes you a troll.

    4. So which part of this sentence from Rennison's column did you fail to comprehend:

      "I recently published a study based on the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey data from 1995 to 2011."

      Hmmmmm. " . . . from 1995 to 2011." Kinda sounds like a "period over which that rate is calculated" to me.

    5. Anonymous @ 12:11

      "You seem to want to refocus this discussion onto Somerby and his failings. That makes you a troll."


      "No one knows what this means:
      We don't know what it means.

      Do you understand that statistic? Frankly we do not."

      To me, it was Bob who focused attention on his editorial plural self and pointed out his failings for all to see.

      My understanding a statistic that Somerby says nobody understands does not make me a troll. Your body of commentary demonstrating you are less knowledgable than Somerby does not make you stupid. It simply suggests you would seem a tad smarter not to call anyone a jerk.

  5. You know, a very good case against the misuse of statistics could have been made when Rennison uses REPORTED case statistics to reach this conclusion:

    "But the truth is, young women who don’t go to college are more likely to be raped."

    The statistics don't tell us that. They only tell us college students REPORT rapes and sexual assaults at a lower rate than non-college students. Maybe college students are raped at a lower rate. Maybe not. We don't know that from the statistic Rennison cites.

    But does Bob go there? Nope.

    1. This is true no matter what kind of statistic you are discussing. A statistic is a measurement and there is always a gap between the measure and what is being measured. Unless you can suggest a reason why the under-reporting should be different in the two groups, this is not a reason to set aside the study. If you go to the actual journal article I am sure they discuss this.

    2. Yes @ 12:34. And those statistics also tell us college students report reporting rape at lower rates than non college students report they report them.

      This might explain why some collegians are enjoying healthy, active sex lives during the campus years, unlike Anonymous @ 10:54 further up the comment box, who it seems can't get any males to sign a written consent form and therefore is not getting enough.

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  8. So Capehart, the Post's "postpartisan" reporter, will have no more talk of "post-racial" this or that. That's very noble, perhaps Kingly, but I have to align myself with that other well-dressed political thinker Warren Beatty, who said that the only way to get rid of race as a factor in American society was for all of us to f**k each other into one big mongrel tribe.Beatty said that as Sen. Bulworth in his last interesting -- yet mostly unrealized -- film.

    Speaking of liars, damn liars, and the other thing, The president was on NPR this morning, being interrupted and corrected by Steve Inskeep, the world's fastest talking newsreader. Inskeep, sounding like the guy who reads the side effects at the end of pharma commericials, threw a juicy stat at Obama, citing a study that concluded America had become more racially divided in the Obama years. Obama, plainly put out by Inskeep's lack of deference, cited the old saw about stats. Then he cited a few numbers of his own to the converse.

    So, when speaking of increased tribalness, does Howler really believe it, understanding as he does the subjective nature of objectively quantitative studies? He could easily go, and probably has, to Stephen Pinker to learn that mankind has in fact grown continually more peaceful as the millenia has rolled by, according to the numbers.

    The fractiousness, it seems, occurs among the political and what used to be called the chattering classes, while the rest of us actually get along rather nicely as we tune in nightly to catch up on the latest ruckus. I hate to agree with George Will, but he's constantly saying it was the wisdom of the Founders that our politicians be prevented from cooperating in postpartisan fashion. God help us should our government ever succeed in running as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. It's the American equivalent of living in interesting times.

    In his hubris, Howler has been poking a jovial stick -- in the spirit perhaps of good old Will Rogers, crackerbarrel, American antiintellualism -- at Aristotle, that king of would-be know-it-alls from Ayn Rand to the Catholic Church. Man a reasoning animal? Well, garsh and shucks, I reckon from what I reads in the papers that man must not be such a reasoning critter after all. I ain't a member of no organized party...yada, yada, yada...

    I don't know Greek, so I can't say what it was that Aristotle actually said. But I'll give him credit for understanding that man, unlike other critters, has a capacity for reasoning, but merely a capacity. That's no guarantee that any one of us knows how to use it, or bothers to.

    Living in a time when the number one bestseller was about how two nations got into a 10-year war because one guy stole another guy's trophy wife, Aristotle must have got that.

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