Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rape, Injustice "Facts," and a Call to Better Scholarship

Those of you who regularly pay attention to me on Twitter know that I go a little crazy over items presented as "facts" that are either not referenced or not verifiable. I've seen way too many examples of blatant misinformation spread as well as generally smart people who become misinformed vectors spreading about even more misinformation.

Take for example the Twitter entity known as InjusticeFacts. They describe themselves as "an open, circulating database of facts that deal with the injustices which plague our world." In general, I think the idea is great. There are copious amounts of horrible injustices that happen in the world. Many of us have no idea that they are occurring. Consciousness raising is an important tool of social change, and I'm glad Injustice Facts is doing some of that work.

My complaint is that Injustice Facts offers up sloppy scholarship. People can provide them "facts" through their website. The organizers of the website then disseminate those facts. Are the facts vetted? Are there references that are made available so we know that the fact is true? 

No. At lest Injustice Facts does not explicitly say they do fact checking. The organization also doesn't not respond to Tweets asking if they fact check.

Arguably, good scholarship involves checking out the veracity of information. Not everyone does that. I think an organization or person who presents things as facts has some responsibility to actually verify whether facts are facts -- or if they are propaganda. We've become too trusting, and have rapidly lost our ability to critically think about the world around us.

Yesterday, someone who  I follow on Twitter re-tweeted this:

 Injustice Facts 

29 women out of every 100,000 are raped in the U.S. each year, 1.6 women out of every 100,000 are raped in Canada each year.

My (somewhat snarky) response :

 Jason Mihalko 

.  I usually like my facts with a side of references.

My twitter follower's response, which has since been deleted by the follower, was "Questioning rape facts. Classy." I of course wasn't questioning rape. Violence is a despicable thing, and a good deal of my work as a psychologist is with women and men who have endured sexual violence. My complaint was about a disembodied fact--without reference, context, or verification--being represented as truth.

The snark probably obscured my message a bit.

I continued (I edited a few auto correct errors from my original tweets):

 Jason Mihalko 

I question our collective lack of critical thinking about information that is presented without reference  

 Jason Mihalko 

Why should I believe stats that aren't verified? That is not questioning rape. Its demanding good scholarship 

My twitter follower elected to unfollow me and ignore my responses. A shame, really, as she and I probably agree more than we disagree. I also think, by the way, that it's important to regularly be exposed to people who think differently than me. It makes my world bigger, richer and more diverse.

I've taken it upon myself to do a little fact checking. The UN's statistics for forcible rape in the United States for 2009 was 28.6 per 100,000 people. The count for Canada? 1.5 per 100,000 people. Ms. Magazine has put together a helpful table to demonstrate how difficult it is to get accurate statistics on rape. Scary, sad, and heartbreaking reading.

In this case Injustice Facts were accurate facts (there was a little rounding that happened). To be a more worthwhile source of information, and a trustworthy source of information, a simple addition of a reference would change everything.

It really isn't good enough to say something is true "because I said so." It's poor scholarship, breeds misinformation, and has the potential for great harm.

We need to be critical thinkers. We need to question what we read. We need to search out references to know that the facts we see are accurate and not propaganda. We need to be better scholars.

That is my point. I'm sad my Twitter follower didn't stick around long enough to hear me out.

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