Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence – Except in Rape Claims?

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In a previous video, I talk about the science of false rape allegations. One point I made was that the vast minority of rape allegations – at most 8% but probably more likely close to 2% – are false allegations. This is one piece of evidence that you should use when trying to determine if a rape allegation is false.

This fact caused a lot of otherwise sensible people to lose their minds. I found it very interesting, because these tended to be skeptics who accept this exact same idea without question if you don’t mention the topic of rape. For instance, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a phrase that skeptics love to throw around. What this means is that if something has a very small likelihood of happening, you need a proportionally large amount of evidence to convince you that it may be so. The odds that John Edward is actually talking to the dead are incredibly low, so in order to believe it we ask that he provide a proportionally impressive demonstration to convince us.

But because we’re talking about rape and not psychics, suddenly many skeptics abandon their belief that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and instead demand that no claims be considered extraordinary based upon their odds of happening.

Another common skeptical phrase is “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” This comes from Dr. Theodore Woodward, a professor at the Unversity of Maryland School of Medicine. He was conveying to his interns that they should bias their thinking toward what is most likely to be so – not all medical conditions are equally likely to occur, so a doctor should be biased toward a common condition while keeping the more rare conditions in mind.

Skeptics use the “zebra” metaphor quite often when discussing topics like ghosts. Is it more likely that the knocking you hear at night is a ghost, or an old furnace? A sensible person will start from the assumption that it’s an old furnace, and go from there.

But again, when you use the topic of rape, many otherwise skeptical people will argue that you should remain perfectly unbiased as to whether those hoofbeats are horses or zebras, or whether that illness is a cold or lupus.

Obviously there’s a reason why this is so: if you are raised in a society that believes that ghosts are just as likely as old furnaces, then you will balk at the idea that you should be forced to provide overwhelming evidence that the knocking is your dead Grandfather.

And if you are raised in a society that believes that false rape allegations are just as likely as true rape allegations, then you will balk at the idea that you should be forced to provide overwhelming evidence that an alleged rape victim is lying.

Now to be clear for the pedants, I don’t think that false rape allegations are as likely as your dead Grandfather knocking on your walls, and so I don’t think that a person should need to provide enough evidence to overturn the laws of physics in order to prove a false rape allegation. I simply think you need to look for enough evidence to overcome the 98-to-2 odds, just as you would want to see those stripes before determining if that really is a zebra or not.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Pretty good video. I suppose someday I’ll have to break down and try to figure out Patreon.

    The prior probabilities thing does seem to get all screwed up on the rape topic. Partly I think it’s MRA types pressing the idea that false rape accusations are >50%. Which seems to stem not just from rank misogyny, but also from definitions of rape. As in, I think they don’t consider many kinds of rape to actually be rape, and thus are a false accusation.

    But when it comes to the hyper skeptics, I’ve also seen the argument that a rape accusation is itself an ‘extra-ordinary’ claim. As in, if there’s around 100,000 rapes a year per FBI statistics, compared to the millions of people/millions of interactions that aren’t rape, that this made rape a rare event and thus an extraordinary claim. (Supposedly also most other crimes.)

    1. They really aren’t thinking it through though if they say the accusation is an extraordinary claim based solely on those numbers. Each person doesn’t have just one interaction, but tens of thousands throughout the year.

      For analogy, it’s the difference between “I dealt myself a hand of cards and got four-of-a-kind” (Odds of ~4,000 to 1) and “I dealt myself a thousand hands of cards and one of them was a four-of-a-kind” (Odds of ~3 to 1). Since the importance of that particular hand is noted after it happened (much as most interactions with people are forgettable but a rape is quite notable), the fact that it happened once in many trials isn’t very extraordinary at all.

      Then there’s the problem with not applying prior probability. The statistics show that once we have the prior that “X says they were raped by Y”, there’s a roughly 92-98% probability that X is telling the truth. Of course there are millions of interactions that weren’t rape, but you don’t get claims of rape except in a tiny sliver of those.

      In short: We have people using statistics poorly to get the results they want to get or are convinced they should get, not people honestly using statistics to try to get to the truth.

  2. Sure, sure, but you’re forgetting that this is an issue that deals with feminism, and feminism is irrational. Because it is. Because it is, because it is, because it is. Therefore, everything that relates to feminism is also irrational. It is therefore irrational to believe that the probability of false accusations is below 10%, therefore it is irrational to expect reasonable evidence that it’s a false claim. QED!

    For any MRAs who want to counter this comment… I wouldn’t bother, it’s not meant as a serious point – I’m just mocking you.

  3. The only qualm I have with this is the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” Yes, the vast majority of rape accusations are honest and accurate. But for that 1 guy in 50, you are saying he has to prove his innocence (and with “extraordinary evidence”), which is not how things are supposed to work.

    I agree with the video, though. The women being raped are obviously the demographic more in danger than the occasional dude who gets screwed over. And our system being somewhat broken, I don’t know how to address this.

    I’m currently having a utilitarian argument in my head about whether I’d rather see 49 rapists get caught and send one guy to jail, or have nobody go to jail. It makes me a little sick, but I think I’d send that guy up the river in a heartbeat.

    1. Let’s not blur together the scenarios of judging innocence or guilt in a court of law, judging it in the court of public opinion, and judging it in our own minds. The consequences are vastly different in each of these cases, and so we can be justified in using different standards of evidence in each case.

      In a court of law in the US, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt” (at least in principle), since the consequences of a guilty verdict are quite extreme. This means that, even with the prior that most accusations are true, there’s still the remaining 2-8% of false allegations to present a reasonable doubt, and so more evidence is needed one way or the other. (And unfortunately, the juries in the US are much more easily convinced against rape claims using irrelevant details than they are toward rape claims. But that’s another subject.)

      In the court of public opinion, the consequences are significantly less dire. At worst, someone could lose their job and current career (which will usually happen anyway in the case of imprisonment, but this time at least they won’t be in prison). So, it’s reasonable that the standard could be lower here. We can even use a different standard for different aspects of life – The standard to fire someone could be quite high, but the standard to exclude them from a designated “safe space” could be as low as having a single accusation against them.

      And for judging them in our own minds, the consequences are nearly non-existent, particularly when it comes to non-public figures judging public figures. Sure, Michael Shermer might be hurt if he were to find out that I believe his accuser, but he’s unlikely to do that unless he reads this comment. And even then, all he gets is some hurt feelings for a moment or two.

      TL;DR: Different standards for different arenas. No one’s arguing we should send people to jail based on an accusation alone, but it’s more reasonable to be guarded around them based on an accusation alone.

  4. But for that 1 guy in 50, you are saying he has to prove his innocence (and with “extraordinary evidence”), which is not how things are supposed to work.

    So… I haven’t watched the video yet, only read the post, but, really? You think Watson’s advocating a reversal of the way that courts work when the crime in question is rape? I doubt that’s what’s being suggested here.
    I’d suggest that the idea is for skeptics to be consistent, rather than for people accused of rape to get instant jail sentences unless they can prove themselves innocent. For one thing, even when the accusation is honest and true, it’s possible to be mistaken about the identity of the criminal.

    1. The post is the transcript of the video. So, all you’re missing are the tone and bits like that.

      And no, I’m pretty certain Rebecca is not advocating that courts of law change the standard of evidence for criminal prosecutions. This is regarding how people, especially skeptics, react to such an accusation. Basically, expecting rape accusations to be treated as other criminal accusations.

    2. No, I don’t think that at all. I knew as I was posting that what I was saying was going to come across wrong, and I apologize for that.

      Like I said, I agree with her. And you, for that matter. Consistency in our skepticism is important. And I have too much faith (haha, funny choice of words) in the decency of people to doubt a claim of rape just because some MRA says it happened to him.

  5. I would add that I don’t think we should put rape in the category of ‘extraordinary claims’. It’s so common that I believe we should automatically assume the allegation is true.

    For Ryan76, the rates are more like out of 100 rapes, three rapists *might go to jail and maybe 2/100 were false. The odds the one of the false allegations results in jail time are therefore extremely low.

    1. I do not know the statistics behind this well enough to try and do math here, but that’s not the point. The accusation of rape is enough to destroy a person’s life (I’m talking about the 1 in 50…for the other 49, good, destroy their lives). He doesn’t have to go to jail. And while the court of public opinion is not held to the same standard as a real court, I would disagree that we should ever presume guilt just because someone made an accusation of something.

      1. You know what can also destroy people’s lives? Being raped.

        No one’s arguing (here at least) that we should immediately jump to ruin the life of someone who’s been accused of rape. All Rebecca’s post argued was that we shouldn’t treat this claim as extraordinary. And in this context you seem to have jumped to the position of immediately sympathized with then 1 in 50 men* here who were falsely accused rather than the 49 in 50 women* here who were raped. That’s a lot more lives ruined through being raped than through being falsely accused.

        So sure, we should try not to ruin lives over false allegations, but right now we have a much bigger problem with people being raped. In this case, there’s direct tension between focusing on the two problems, and you seem to be trying to get us to focus on the much-less-common problem here rather than the more common one. (Some might call this derailing.)

        *Apologies for the cisnormativity here, and the assumption that all the rapists were men and all the accusers were women. I’m doing this only because I suspect that ryan76 is himself a man (based on the user name), and thus this leads to the natural human tendency to sympathize more naturally with those one identifies with.

      2. You presume that the woman is falsely accusing someone of rape without evidence, don’t you?

        And whose lives are being destroyed? Unless issues of race come into play it’s something that goes away pretty quickly. Even non-false accusations don’t seem to affect the careers of people in the public sphere. It’s not like it’s going to prevent you from making a Disney movie.

        I’m even part of the problem. I got raped by a really sweet guy. Fun at parties, great sense of humor so I should know better but I don’t. I once worked with a guy that was convicted of a sex crime. He told me it was one of those Romeo and Juliet situations and I didn’t question it. Why? He seemed nice! We give people the benefit of the doubt until we can’t anymore.

        I’ve had people warn me about a woman that accused a guy of rape. I’ve been warned about guys that have been accused by multiple women of some euphemism for rape. They never use the R-word.

        But I have never once been warned about a guy that was accused by only one woman. Not ever.

      3. But the rape claim is very strong evidence, on the order of 95% probability, which means that out of 20 accusations of rape, 19 are true. Thus, when we weigh an accusation, we should be assuming truth from the start. Once we have the accusation, our prior probability that it is true is now 95%. To get us back to thinking that it didn’t happen, we need strong evidence to get us back down to under 50%.
        So as long as the rate of false accusations is very low, for ANY crime, we SHOULD presume guilt based on an accusation. Bayes’ Law!

  6. First question I would have is what “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” has to do with rape claims (or any criminal claims for that matter). Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence. Simple claims require simple evidence.

    Second question would be why the burden of proof wouldn’t be on the one making the claim?

    Rebecca says “if you are raised in a society that believes that false rape allegations are just as likely as true rape allegations, then you will balk at the idea that you should be forced to provide overwhelming evidence that an alleged rape victim is lying.”

    I think in the case of Rape allegations, because they are not extraordinary, and so often true, the burden of proof should not be extraordinary, but instead quite mundane. However, the burden of proof still remains on the one making the claim.

    The one accused has the requirement of questioning the validity of the evidence required.

    1. Here’s an ordinary claim: There is a car in my garage.
      What level of evidence do you require of me, sevlevboss, before you’ll take my claim at face value? Sure, one would expect the expectation of proof to go up as consequences go up; I’m sure you’d want a little more than that statement before paying me a few thousand dollars to purchase it, for instance. But do you really expect me to lay out evidence before you’ll accept that I might have a car in my garage?

      1. If you told me that you had a car in your garage, I would suspect the claim were true. However, nobody goes to jail for you having a car in your garage, nor would I expect you to erase all reasonable doubt before I accept your claim.

        Suspecting a claim is true is not enough when someone is accused of a crime. Reasonable doubt must be erased before a determination of guilt.

        Just because claims of criminal activity are almost always true, it doesn’t change that we must determine that the the one accused of the crime is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. This is true of all crimes (especially serious crimes), not just rape.

        1. And being raped can be life-ruining, and it happens far far far far far more often than does someone going to jail because they were falsely accused of rape.

          AND, this isn’t the court of law. We do not have to rely on the court of law to hold our own opinions or discussions.

          And, finally, if you think that the court of law even holds true to that “rule”, let alone public opinion, hahahaha, you’d be completely naive or willfully ignorant.

  7. Rebecca, I’ve tried to make this point before, but probably failed to nail it properly – if there is more than one truly independent accusation then the odds of the claims being false drop to below one part in a thousand. This follows directly from the maths.

    Concentrating on serial offenders could offer a way to increase the rate of conviction. A corollary seems to follow -am I wrong to say that most rapes are committed by serial offenders or am I off track here?

    1. Concentrating on serial offenders could offer a way to increase the rate of conviction. A corollary seems to follow -am I wrong to say that most rapes are committed by serial offenders or am I off track here?

      Nope, you’re not. Lisak and Miller found that of a sample size of 1,882 college men, 120 had attempted or committed rape. Of those 120, 76 (63%) were repeat offenders, and compared to the 44 single offenders they had collectively committed 439 rapes or attempted rapes (for a mean of 5.8 and median of 3). Not a single person had spent a day in jail over it.

      Catching these people would be very difficult. According to Lisak/Miller a mere 18% of all rapists/attempted rapists used force, with the preferred method instead being incapacitation via alcohol or drugs (81%). Merely finding these offenders would require radically changing our attitude towards alcohol and consent.

      Lisak, David, and Paul M. Miller. “Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists.” Violence and victims 17.1 (2002): 73-84.

      1. It’s not a matter of force vs incapacitation! Rapists typically need neither. Non-verbal threats are effective and leave the victim with a narrative that people will immediately want to characterize as a misunderstanding.

        Some rapists do use alcohol and drugs to incapacitate but the real reason that number is so high is because alcohol and drugs destroy the victim’s credibility and make it difficult for them to find sympathy from family and friends. Rapists often choose victims that are drinking for exactly that reason.

        1. It’s not a matter of force vs incapacitation! Rapists typically need neither. Non-verbal threats are effective and leave the victim with a narrative that people will immediately want to characterize as a misunderstanding.

          Sorry if it seemed otherwise, but I fully agree there. One thing few people realize (lookin’ at you, Tavris) is that these statistics usually exclude ambiguous consent. From Lisak/Millar [2002], with emphasis added by me:

          For a participant to be classified among the group of rapists and attempted rapists in this study, he would have to have responded “yes”
          to one of the following questions (underlined portions of the questions are
          underlined in the questionnaire):

          1. Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
          2. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or
          drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?
          3. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
          4. Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their
          arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?

          These are not misunderstandings; the people in this study could tell whether or not consent was given, determined it had not been given, and proceeded anyway.

          Some rapists do use alcohol and drugs to incapacitate but the real reason that number is so high is because alcohol and drugs destroy the victim’s credibility and make it difficult for them to find sympathy from family and friends. Rapists often choose victims that are drinking for exactly that reason.

          I remember reading one paper that casually mentioned that many date rapists used alcohol in a deliberate attempt to incapacitate. I haven’t tracked down the research yet, sadly, but it was apparently featured in Chapter 7 of “Sex, Power, Conflict : Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives.”. There’s a considerable amount of evidence to show alcohol increases compliance to sexual assault[1], though there’s some question as to what extent this is a placebo effect. At any rate, the “real reason” is probably a combination of factors, which include the myths around consent that you mention.

          [1] As one example, see Davis, Kelly Cue, William H. George, and Jeanette Norris. “Women’s responses to unwanted sexual advances: The role of alcohol and inhibition conflict.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 28.4 (2004): 333-343.

          1. Dang, I forgot quotes would be bolded. The parts I was calling out above were the parts that read “when they didn’t want to.” That language has been a part of the Sexual Experiences Survey since it was developed in 1982, and a large chunk of sexual assault research uses that survey as a basis.

            Koss, Mary P., and Cheryl J. Oros. “Sexual Experiences Survey: a research instrument investigating sexual aggression and victimization.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 50.3 (1982): 455.

      2. @HJ Hornbeck – thanks for that link, I had forgotten the source but have read it before. ~90% of rapes committed by ~10% of rapists. Strong correlation with violence and child abuse also. Horrifying.

        If we consider those thousands of unexamined rape kits lying around all over the US, and enter the name of each accused into a national database, then if there is a hit showing a previous accusation, the case should be followed up vigorously because there is statistical 1000 to 1 certainty of guilt.

        I don’t know that catching them would be all that difficult as they seem willing to dob themselves in, with the right questioning, for a $3-$4 payment!

  8. “I was raped” is not an extraordinary claim. “I was raped by aliens from Jupiter” is an extraordinary claim.

    When someone tells me she has been raped, I am not a skeptic, I am a friend. I accept her and her story at face value.

    If I were a detective whose job it was to investigate, then I would be a skeptic.

  9. Of course, since rape is so grossly under-reported, it is the FALSE claims that are extraordinary.

    Presumption of innocence has to do with prosecution. Here again, the issue is the reluctance of legal authorities to buckle down and do the hard work needed to establish cases. Since most rapists are repeat offenders with multiple criminal MOs, rape kits and victim testimony (which are so often slighted or ignored) are just the beginning of what needs to be done. Past behavior, prior victims, history of violence and misogyny, juvenile offences…

    If my house has been burgled, my junkie neighbor may be presumed innocent, even if I saw him carry off my stereo. But there is NO reason to ‘presume’ no burglary has happened, just because he hasn’t been convicted.

  10. A comment and a question.

    The comment: one reason for the “presumed innocent” rule for criminal cases that no one mentions: it’s because in criminal cases, the balance of power is so uneven. If the State comes after you, they have enormous resources to find (or create evidence) to convict you, far more than any but the weathiest can hope to match. Plus, most citizens, at least the kind that are likely to end up on a jury, assume that if you’re arrested, it’s because you’re guilty. The “beyond reasonable doubt” and “presumed innocent” rules are an attempt to compensate for that. (Of course, if you’re too poor to hire your own lawyer, you’ll get railroaded anyway.)

    The question: what is the criterion for deciding that a rape claim is a “false claim”? Is it that the police can’t substantiate it? Or that the victim recanted? (Note that there are lots of reasons why a victim might falsely recant.) If the victim misidentifies (or is believed to have misidentified) the perp, does that count as a “false claim”?

    1. To answer the question, the number 2-8% number comes from the following meta study:
      Originally linked to here:

      From the ndaa article:
      “They then proceeded to evaluate each case using the official criteria for establishing a false allegation, which was that there must be either “a clear and credible admission by the complainant” or “strong evidential ground””

      Studies which did not use the above criteria for determining a report to be false were dropped from the meta analysis.

  11. The 2-8% statistic is extremely misleading. The meta study which that number comes from makes very clear that it is the number of false accusations that are proven false, not the number of false accusations in total. Using the two interchangeably is the equivalent of using the number of convictions determine the number of ‘true’ rape accusations and is likely to be just as wildly off.

  12. The problem police and prosecutors face is that there is rarely evidence beyond one person’s word against another. Rape is pretty much unique in that the crime is defined by the lack of consent.

    Violent rape is a small proportion of rapes. And there the problem becomes one of identifying the perpetrator. Evidence that someone was raped does not necessarily implicate a particular person. Identity parades turn out to be lousy mechanisms for identifying a perpetrator with false positives and false negatives.

    Fraud is also a crime but prosecuting complex frauds is very hard. Police prefer to avoid recording violent crimes that they have little chance of getting a conviction for, it messes up their clear-up rate and maybe costs the Chief their job.

    The UK is just going through a series of scandals with prosecutions of well known B and C list celebrities for sexual harassment and rape going back 20+ years. Having failed to act on persistent allegations against Jimmy Saville, a man with a sordid reputation while he was alive we now face a series of new complaints, some going back decades.

    One of the aspects of the investigation that keeps coming up is that people made complaints to the police that were ignored at the time. But this isn’t something that is being reported in the press accounts. And it makes a big difference because in the current environment someone deciding to ‘take out’ some celebrity with a false rape claim from two decades ago is really not an extraordinary hypothesis. But a rape claim that was reported but not investigated is a lot more credible.

    What the establishment is still trying to cover up is the fact that many of them were looking the other way rather than investigate a celebrity and risk a scandal. Which is of course the same dynamic we saw in the Catholic church covering up its massive institutional pedophilia.

    It is also worth considering that the Catholic church scandal emerged in Ireland in the 1980s-90s and was largely ignored in the US until it was forced into the open. I don’t think that the UK establishment is much different to the US and I would be rather surprised if celebrities get any less favorable treatment or police forces are any less concerned to cover up crimes that might marr their clear up rate. I would not be at all surprised if a similar scandal emerges in the US.

  13. I’m kind of in two minds here. Frankly if I’m on a jury, 5% chance of innocence is enough to acquit for car theft but for rape, sorry you are going down if it’s your word against hers. For child rape a 90% chance of guilt is more than enough for me.
    But I have some qualms about the talk about non violent rape and non verbal threats. Sure if you drop a rohypnol in a drink or have sex with a paralytic woman thats rape plain and simple. But according to the California law (which is gender neutral) I have been raped every time I have had sex, as I never initiate and give passive consent. (perhaps I’m misreading the notion of affirmative consent?) So we need to use common sense here.
    Also I can’t help noticing my fellow Brit doesn’t mention an even larger and ongoing scandal than the historic cases against celebrities. Some tens of thousands of girls gang raped and forced into prostitution, often raped by hundreds of men, from 11 or younger while the authorities coveted it up. Official stat, at least one girl gang raped every minute. It doesn’t mean the victim total goes up by at least 1,440 as most girls gang raped today were gang raped yesterday and will be gang raped tomorrow. But its still rising fast. I’m starting an organisation to bring private prosecutions (anyone interested to help can contact me on [email protected]) as police are still dragging their feet. Last year by the police’s own admission they didn’t even bother recording a quarter of sex crimes.
    But some feminists I find are not at all keen on helping as the stats show most gang rapists are ethnic minority/immigrant and most victims white and British. One asked me if I was equally concerned by Jimmy Savile, the obvious implication being I care more about rape when it’s minorities doing it! I said I’m not as concerned by Savile as he is dead and no girl is being raped by him today. But in the time it took you to cast your slur another girl was gang raped.
    So I have become a little sceptical whether feminists, with honourable exceptions, really do care about rape if it’s not a straight white male doing it. Please, if the cap doesn’t fit, don’t wear it. I’m not trying to bash all feminists by any means. Just food for thought.
    I’ll leave you with another official stat, revealed under the freedom of information act. 1 in 8 men, over the age of 21, convicted of raping girls of 12 and under are given non custodial sentences! Best wishes to all who truly care about the victim. And again I’m not implying that excludes anyone on this site!

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