(Today’s title is from the well-known tale of a hysterical Chicken Little, who mistakes a falling acorn for the end of the world.)
In her excellent article in the New York Times: Lies, Damned Lies, and One Very Misleading Statistic, Amanda Taub takes a closer look at a sexual misconduct scandal reported in The Sun, a British tabloid. Their headline shrieked that “a bombshell report” had found “UN aid workers raped 60,000 people in Haiti.”
Taub decided to take a closer look at the sources of these statistics and concluded the 60,000 number was horrifying, attention-grabbing, and completely made-up.
Where did the 60,000 come from?
A 2017 United Nations report said it had recorded 311 victims of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers in Haiti the previous year. Note this was for all types of sexual misconduct, not just rape.
Andrew McLeod, a former UN employee, wrote a two-page memo about that report. He used it to solicit support for a new nonprofit he was founding to work on this issue.
In his report, he assumed there were other groups behaving as badly, and doubled the actual 311 to a rounded 600. This is a guess, not a statistic.
Then he assumed that only 10% of incidents get reported, and so bumped his number to 6,000. This is speculation, not a statistic.
The original number was for one year (2016) and not big enough, so the report writer concluded the ten-year total was 60,000, a far-fetched assumption.
And finally, instead of calling them cases of sexual misconduct, he called them cases of rape.
Guessing, speculating, and assuming are anti-factual, and are far more prevalent than objective science, as we well know.
Big numbers make the point more powerfully than small.
It is in storytellers’ interests to exaggerate, especially when they are seeking financial support. This type of manipulation, distortion, and fabrication is far more common than most think.
As this story was reported and re-reported without question by many channels and outlets, each repetition served to reinforce our assumption that it must be true, because we heard it so often.
The Illusory Truth Effect
The basic psychological concept at work here is called the illusory truth effect. Our very human tendency is to believe information that is repeated. And the more often it is repeated, the more we believe it. Emily Dreyfuss calls the illusory truth effect “a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth.” No one knows this better than marketers and politicians.
Sarah Martin, consultant to the UN on gender-based violence, said this kind of false statistics “discredit the very brave women and children who came forward.”
This irresponsibly sensational series of assumptions turned a 331-person fact into a 60,000-person fiction.