July 13, 2010
Sociologist Joel Best once said, “A bad statistic is harder to kill than a vampire.” And no field is more rife with bad statistics than domestic violence.
It would seem that the best time to launch a bad statistic about domestic violence is during massively attended sporting events. A gullible public seems to think that high levels of testosterone on a playing field plus alcohol just naturally translates into an astronomical escalation of male fans beating up on their wives and girlfriends.
In the latest example of myth-making on the connection between sports and domestic violence, England’s Association of Chief Police Officers stated in May that during the World Cup “cases of domestic abuse increase by nearly 30% on England match days.” The figure came from a study sponsored by the British Home Office, so it seemed credible. The shocking figure sparked a big publicity campaign, with a lurid poster featuring a cowering woman covered in bruises and the imprint of a man’s shoe.
But on their weekly show, Law in Action, two BBC legal commentators concluded that the “World Cup Abuse Nightmare” was “a stunt based on misleading figures.” The thirty percent claim came from cherrypicked data and was riddled with flaws, essentially ignoring match days when there was little or no uptick in abuse. An actually trustworthy study done by the London Metropolitan Police Authority contradicted the thirty percent “finding,” but by then the media had a story that was too good to check for veracity.
We’ve been scammed before on this subject. Anyone remember the big 1993 Super Bowl Sunday hoax? The media all jumped on a bad statistic and ran with it then too. It was “reported” that domestic violence increased by 40% during the Super Bowl. Journalists called it the “abuse bowl” and NBC ran a public service announcement telling men to stay calm during the game or they would end up in jail.
In the same year the National Coalition against Domestic Violence circulated a brochure in which they claimed that half of American women would face violence from their mate and that “more than a third are battered repeatedly every year.” This is simply an outrageous lie – fewer than one percent of the female population can be said to be “battered” – but such was the hysteria around the subject of domestic violence at the time, that people were ready to believe all men were basically monsters.
Only one reporter, Ken Ringle of the Washington Post, actually ran down the stat to its source, which was an offhand comment by a feminist activist at a press conference. It was made up out of whole cloth. There was no actual increase of domestic violence during the game. And for the past 17 years since that Super Bowl, no one has found a domestic violence link to it.
According to an article in National Review Online by Christina Hoff Summers, author of Who Stole Feminism? and editor of The Science on Women and Science, a major 2007 study examined 2,387 crisis-call records over a three-year period and interviewed abused women and staff in womens’ shelters. Their conclusion: “The widely held belief that more women seek shelter during ‘drinking holidays’ such as New Year’s and the Super Bowl was unsubstantiated.”
Why do these myths persist? Because they make great copy and because there is something mesmerizing about a statistic that freezes journalistic brains, especially when the statistics bolster common cultural biases or trends. And one especially pejorative but persisting cultural trend is the impunity with which all men can be demonized. The moral of these hoaxes is to view statistics that paint a negative picture of unusually high numbers of men with deep suspicion.