We all know that you can manipulate the way statistics are presented to change their meaning, but you probably haven’t given much thought to the way their presentation affects how you see the world. I’m not talking about trusting a misleading statistic and believing in a policy or position that isn’t true. I’m talking about the way statistics influence how we define problems and consequentially what solutions we spend time and energy looking for.
Consider crime. Most crimes have two sides to them: those who commit the crime, and those who are victims of the crime. But the statistics we collect are inevitably obsessed with the victims. Google “Odds of being murdered” and hundreds of reports come up with authoritative sounding numbers. Here’s one from The Economist. Here’s another from Yale University.
Now try finding the odds that you will BECOME a murderer.
That’s not nearly as easy, which is odd when you consider it is virtually the same set of numbers that we have already collected. We just need to change what we’re counting.
And yet… Here’s an informal back-of-the-napkin calculation from Deadspin on your odds of knowing a murderer. Here’s something from Reuters about gun ownership increasing the risk of suicide or murder.
There are of course studies exploring the odds that a convicted murderer will kill again. There are odds of you getting AWAY with murder. There are stats on the male/female breakdown of roles when murder’s do happen. But there are virtually no statistics on your odds of one day killing someone.
On the surface this might seem like a trivial, almost obnoxiously pedantic issue. Why would anyone ever need to know their odds of committing a crime? You can control whether you commit a crime! Being a victim of a crime involves a certain amount of chance, so of course knowing your odds and how those odds are influenced by certain factors must be useful in protecting yourself.
But there’s one very big problem with this type of thinking: it automatically focuses us on solutions that prevent (or otherwise decrease the odds of) victims becoming victims, instead of preventing criminals from becoming criminals. From an individual point of view, looking for ways to minimize your risks makes a lot of sense. As an individual you can’t control anyone else and you might have little recourse after the fact. You focus on your decisions and behaviors because that is what you can actually do something about.
However, the same cannot be said for society as a whole. Society does have the ability to tell people what to do, and the power to enforce consequences when those prescriptions are violated. One would think society would also have invested interest in minimizing the number of criminals. Criminals, generally speaking, are not fully productive contributing members of society. From the society’s point of view criminals cost way more than victims.
And yet we devote a fraction of the narrative to exploring the factors that lead to people becoming criminals. About the only time you will see any statistics on this topic is when discussing low income neighborhoods, and even then the stats are usually the odds of a person ending up in jail.
Not everyone in jail deserves to be there.
Sexual Assault and Statistics
You cannot possibly develop a solution for a problem if there is no discussion of the problem in the first place. If the conversation does not happen, people do not think about it. If people do not think about it, they do not recognize opportunities for solutions.
And in this case, by ignoring one half of the criminal-victim dynamic, we may also be ignoring the most effective solutions.
Consider rape. You probably realize already that a lot of the potential “solutions” to sexual assault end up asking potential victims to submit themselves to a ridiculous series of seemingly arbitrary dress codes, behavioral rules, and institutionalized paranoia. When those provisos fail it is assumed that the victim did not follow them carefully enough.
There are many situations that may lead to a sexual assault. Walking down the wrong street. Wearing something provocative. Getting drunk at a party. Dating a creepy guy.
Yet the same situations could just as easily NOT result in rape. For all our work collecting stats to protect victims, we actually don’t have much information as to why that is or how much this presumed “bad behavior” actually increases your risks. Unlike the lack of data on criminals, this isn’t a deliberate bias. Such data is really hard to collect.
Nevertheless, the consequences of framing the problem of sexual abuse with the odds of becoming a victim are that solutions that perspective provides are not all that effective at minimizing the rate of sexual abuse. After all, if wearing the right things, not hanging out with strange men, not going out alone, prevented abuse Saudi Arabia would have the lowest rate of violence against women in the world (spoiler alert: it doesn’t)
Really all the victim bias does is enforce a state of terror in the perceived potential victims … who in fact might not be the most likely victims in the first place (for example the majority of rape victims in the military in 2012 were men). So it’s not just a state of abject terror, it’s a state of pointless abject terror.
What would happen if instead of having stats like this beaten into our heads at every conceivable opportunity:
– 1 in 5 women will be raped
– 30% of them will be raped by people they know
– Every 2 minutes someone somewhere in America is sexually violated
…we were constantly reminded of stats like these (all made up):
– 1 in 5 men will commit rape
– You are ten times more likely to rape your partner than a stranger
– Every 2 minutes someone in America is sexually violating someone else
Even though the second set may seem unnecessarily antagonistic (almost Minority Report-esque in its assumptions) it has the unique effect of changing the focus of the problem. While there are millions of uncontrollable and unpredictable contributing factors that might lead up to a victim being raped, there’s really only one factor that leads to a person becoming a rapist. Rape is a choice– perhaps not always a MALICIOUS choice (ie – statutory rape), but nevertheless a choice. No one accidentally rapes another person. No one commits a rape because they happen to wear the wrong thing. One could argue the occasional outlier case of rape-by-miscommunication, but one can’t deny that if the focus of the public conversation was “how do we keep people from becoming rapists?” rather than “how do we keep people from getting raped?” would-be “unintentional” rapists would probably take more precautions in ensuring consent is clearly articulated, thereby eliminating these cases.
In other words, reframing the statistics changes how we try to solve the problem to emphasize decisions we actually have control over. As a woman I cannot predict what hemline is long enough to avoid provoking lurking rapists, but the rapists themselves can easily choose not to rape.
It is tempting to assume that because we theoretically welcome free and open discussion, we are able to see all sides to an issue with very little mental exertion. But really we are programmed to see certain sides and rarely if ever look beyond that. Statistics in this sense provides a false sense of security because it is not obvious how they can be framed to completely remove large parts of the situation from consideration.