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Jewish World Review Dec. 27, 2000 / 2 Teves, 5761

Ian Murray

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Consumer Reports

The 'domestic violence' spook -- DOMESTIC VIOLENCE is a serious subject. The President recently underlined this in a radio address when he said, "In America today, domestic violence is the number one health risk for women between the ages of 15 and 44 ... Every twelve seconds, another woman is beaten. That's nearly 900,000 victims a year."

A dreadful position --- were it true.

The trouble is that all three of these statements are untrue. Furthermore, most of them were untrue when the President first made them in 1995. In fact, the White House went so far as to retract the original statement. But now the dust has settled, these fraudulent figures have resurfaced again, despite the fact that a moment's thought will show how foolish they are.

Let's start with the "every twelve seconds figure." Most obviously, this figure doesn't even square with the "900,000 a year" figure. If 5 women are beaten a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the sum would be over two and a half million, not "nearly 900,000." There's fuzzy math for you. But even without this arithmetical incompetence, the figure still doesn't add up. The total number of violent incidents recorded by the FBI in 1999 was 1,430,693. That's about 1 every 22 seconds. Domestic violence is under-reported to the authorities, certainly. But can it really be so under-reported as to make it more common than the total number of all violent crimes?

In fact, there is a government survey, the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS), that seeks to measure under-reporting. It estimates that there were about 670,000 violent crimes against women by their intimates in 1999. That's one every 47 seconds. But the figure also includes 450,000 cases of simple assault, which can be as minor as a push, shove or grab (which many studies have found to form the majority of incidents of domestic abuse). The remainder (which includes robbery) of 220,000 seriously violent incidents implies a rate of 1 every 2 minutes 20 seconds - less than one-tenth the President's figure.

That figure has a murky history. It seems to derive from misreadings of studies with generous definitions (some including "stomping off" and other non-violent forms of "abuse"). It certainly cannot be substantiated properly. Which is why, after an outcry from the Statistical Assessment Service, the White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry acknowledged its inadequacy the first time the President used it in March 1995. "We want to take back that statistic," he said. Evidently so that they could use it again five years later.

The 900,000 figure is also five years old. It is actually the NCVS figure for violence against women by intimates from 1995. In itself, that figure had shown a substantial decline from the figure of over a million that had been posted in 1993. But as anyone who has studied crime statistics, which one would hope includes the President, would know, violent crime has declined dramatically since the heights of the early Nineties. In fact, according to those NCVS figures, violent crime against women by intimates has declined almost 30 percent since 1995. One would have thought that this could be regarded as an achievement to be proud of. Perhaps it will be tomorrow.

The third figure in this unholy trinity is the claim that domestic violence is "the number one health risk" for young women. The official backing for this figure derives from a statement by a badly-briefed Surgeon General Antonia Novello. How was this research conducted? Actually, the primary source was an extremely small study of one emergency room which simply suggested that domestic violence may be a more common reason for visiting the ER than car accidents, rapes and muggings combined. Tellingly, The Centers for Disease Control, often cited as the source of this factoid, have disowned it, implying that it is neither theirs nor reputable.

Which all put together makes it rather stunning that the White House should fall into the same trap twice in so short a time. One would not dare to suggest that someone merely pulled a five-year old briefing document out of a dusty file and recycled it without bothering to check any of the figures. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to be badly briefed once may be regarded as a misfortune; to do it twice looks like carelessness. The last word on the seriousness of this matter should, however, be left to The New Republic, commenting on the first incident: "The statistics are bad enough as they are. Why inflate them, unless you don't think [the actual number of cases] warrant a response?"

Iain Murray is Senior Research Analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) in Washington DC. STATS is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to helping improve public understanding of scientific and quantitative information. You may comment by clicking here.

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