Evidence-Based Reasoning: Comments on a Blog Post

February 27, 2014

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Evidence-Based Reasoning. This is a phrase you hear skeptics use a lot. We at CFI use it. We firmly believe in the importance of evidence-based reasoning and critical thinking. This is one reason I’m disappointed in Ben Radford’s recent post. Ben has done some good work for this organization over the years, but I’m afraid this latest post may have been written in some haste.

First, before going any further, I hope readers of our blog are aware of what we state in the About section of our blog, namely that viewpoints expressed on the Free Thinking blog represent the viewpoints of the individual blogger and not CFI. Ben Radford has offered his opinion; that opinion is not CFI’s position.

Now to Ben’s post. If you’ve read his post, you will know that he deals with false accusations of sexual assault, focusing on one case from Iowa in particular. Two observations by Ben in his post especially concern me. In the first paragraph, Ben notes, in referencing the Iowa case, that “The relative obscurity of this case suggests its prevalence.” No, it doesn’t. Obscurity does not imply prevalence. This is fallacious reasoning. Right now, someone in obscure, rural Latvia could be falsely accusing someone else of being a philosopher. The obscurity of this event does not imply that false attributions of philosophizing are prevalent.

More significantly, Ben asserts this: “the false report of a sexual assault is often used as a cover-story for consenting (but illicit) sexual activity.” The key word here is “often.” How often exactly? Ben doesn’t say. There is no cite to any report or article with supporting statistics. Yet as this is a critical claim, one would think a cite to supporting evidence is very much needed.

That false reports happen is not disputed. Nor does anyone dispute that for the individual falsely accused, it’s a very unfortunate, sometimes tragic, situation. But is this a widespread problem? That’s the key question. One might think so from the attention Ben has given to it and his use of the adverb “often,” but, actually, the evidence seems to indicate it is not a widespread problem. For example, a British study last year indicated that there were 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape during a 17-month period while there were 5,681 prosecutions for rape in the same period of time. The suggestion that false accusations of rape are commonplace does not appear to be supported by the evidence. Moreover, this suggestion can be very harmful if it persuades people that reports of rape should be treated with special suspicion.

Here’s the bottom line. All accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly. There is no a priori justification for treating the accuser with suspicion instead of compassion. The determination of whether a sexual assault actually occurred should be based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation of that case, not on generalizations about the behavior of people derived from other, distinct cases — however prominent or obscure.