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Why RADAR Finds McDowell's Research and Kanin's Research Credible

It is a common rhetorical technique to use language that tells the reader whom to believe without actually presenting any evidence. A writer might, for example, refer to "reliable statistics" without offering the reader any proof that the cited statistics are in fact reliable. The question of how common false accusations of rape are is a highly charged topic. So, rather than simply assert that the research conducted by Dr. Charles P. McDowell and the independent research conducted by Dr. Eugene Kanin is credible, we'd like to help you understand what leads us to consider their research credible.

We at RADAR are very aware of the difference between objective investigation, where the researchers approach their topic with open minds, and advocacy "research" where the investigation is rigged to produce predetermined results.

Dr. Charles P. McDowell of the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations led a team that investigated 556 rape allegations. The initial research categorized 220 of those allegations as true, 80 as false, and 256 as inconclusive. When they announced their initial results, they'd categorized 46% of their data as inconclusive. This strongly suggests that their approach was cautious and objective. Advocacy researchers know the answer they want before they even start. It's unheard of for advocacy researchers to announce that the largest portion of their data was inconclusive.

The McDowell team then did a followup analysis. They recruited three independent reviewers to evaluate the inconclusive cases based on a list of criteria that were common among the women who had acknowledged they lied. (See below for an example of the sort of criteria that were used.) In order for any of the inconclusive cases to be recategorized as false, all three independent reviewers had to agree that it was false. The end result: 60% of the 556 rape allegations were determined to be false.

Even so, McDowell worried that his findings might not be representative outside a military context. So he then analyzed the police records of a major midwestern city and a city in the southwest. The results in those cities were consistent with the results of the Air Force analysis. But the cities feared political repercussions if it were publicly announced that 60% of reported rape allegations were false, so they requested anonymity.

Dr. Eugene Kanin was a Sociology Professor at Purdue University. He studied the police records of a small midwestern city as well as the police records of two large universities. What suggests to RADAR that Kanin's research is credible? Consider Kanin's own description of his methodology (from the article "False rape allegations," Archives of Sexual Behavior, Feb 1994 v23 n1 p81(12)):

This investigation is essentially a case study of one police agency in a small metropolitan area (population = 70,000) in the Midwestern United States. This city was targeted for study because it offered an almost model laboratory for studying false rape allegations. First, its police agency is not inundated with serious felony cases and, therefore, has the freedom and the motivation to record and thoroughly pursue all rape complaints. In fact, agency policy forbids police officers to use their discretion in deciding whether to officially acknowledge a rape complaint, regardless how suspect that complaint may be. Second, the declaration of a false allegation follows a highly institutionalized procedure. The investigation of all rape complaints always involves a serious offer to polygraph the complainants and the suspects. Additionally, for a declaration of false charge to be made, the complainant must admit that no rape had occurred. She is the sole agent who can say that the rape charge is false. The police department will not declare a rape charge as false when the complainant, for whatever reason, fails to pursue the charge or cooperate on the case, regardless how much doubt the police may have regarding the validity of the charge. In short, these cases are declared false only because the complainant admitted they are false. Furthermore, only one person is then empowered to enter into the records a formal declaration that the charge is false, the officer in charge of records. Last, it should be noted that this department does not confuse reported rape attempts with completed rapes. Thus, the rape complainants referred to in this paper are for completed forcible rapes only. The foregoing leaves us with a certain confidence that cases declared false by this police agency are indeed a reasonable -- if not a minimal -- reflection of false rape allegations made to this agency, especially when one considers that a finding of false allegation is totally dependent upon the recantation of the rape charge. We followed and investigated all false rape allegations from 1978 to 1987. A ranking police official notified us whenever a rape charge was declared false and provided us with the records of the case. In addition, the investigating officers provided any requested supplementary information so that we could be confident of the validity of the false rape allegation declarations.

An advocacy researcher would use a fuzzy definition of "false allegation" in order to include all allegations that couldn't be proved true and thus inflate the number of allegations categorized as "false". By contrast, McDowell and Kanin each adopted a conservative approach that would be more likely to yield an undercount of false allegations rather than an overcount. Such caution is a hallmark of objective research. That's the sort of thing RADAR looks for before deciding that a source seems credible.


Interview with McDowell giving examples of the sort of criteria he used to distinguish between true and false rape allegations

The following is from Cathleen Crowell Webb's book "Forgive Me", in which she recounts how she came to falsely accuse Gary Dotson of rape, and how when she decided to speak up and try to set things right, the court and the prosecutor's office blocked her every attempt to do so. Appendix B reprints a portion of an interview with Dr. Charles McDowell originally published in the June 1985 edition of Chicago Lawyer:

Interviewer: Do you believe the account of the rape that Cathleen Crowell Webb gave under oath at Gary Dotson's trial in 1979?

McDowell: No, I don't believe it. ...

Interviewer: Weren't all the cases of this type you studied reported to authorities?

McDowell: Yes, but not initially. One of the features that we found to be common in false allegations is that they are rarely made initially to authorities. What usually happens is that a "victim" tells a relative or friend that she's been raped, and this third party will notify the authorities.

Interviewer: Cathleen Webb claims that she didn't plan to tell the police she had been raped, but that police just stumbled onto her accidentally. Is that a factor in why you don't believe her 1979 testimony?

McDowell: It's a factor, but it's not very significant by itself. No one feature by itself is diagnostic. The significance is where these things co-occur. Any one feature in our model may be found in actual rapes: ...

Interviewer: What are the common features that you've seen in false accusations?

McDowell: There are a dozen in all, but I think two are the most important. First, the false accusation is always instrumental. It solves a problem from the "victim's" perspective. It may explain a pregnancy or venereal disease or otherwise conceal evidence of promiscuity. It may assuage guilt or enable the false accuser to avoid responsIbility for her acts. It may exact revenge. The point is that the false accusation invariably serves some purpose. A genuine rape usually does not. On the contrary, it often creates a serious problem for the victim.

Second, and I think this is the most important area, the physical injuries of false victims are usually superficial minor cuts, scratches, or abrasions. Although they may appear to be extensive, they don't amount to much. The cuts and scratches virtually never cross the eyes, the lips, the nipples, or the vagina proper. You typically see a peculiar hatching or cross-hatching effect in the scratches. What happens here is that the false victim scratches herself but does not immediately see a welt. She thinks she must not have done it hard enough, so she does it again. She applies another scratch coming from a slightly different direction. By the time the welts began to appear, you get this hatching. You do not see that in legitimate rape cases. ...