Quantifying Rape: The Case of the Missing Data

Like every other sensitive social issue, the topic of rape tends to create two sides in an argument: one side heavily vested in anecdotes and the other side heavily vested in repeatedly dismissing the topic in a request for data from the other side. One side argues emotionally, while the other side dismisses callously. The points against arguing without data are well established –the risk of being wrong, the tendency toward dismissing facts that don’t agree with one’s sentiments and the lack of direction without data.

However, we rarely focus on the other extreme – the side that dismisses an argument due to lack of data. This attitude can be quite attenuating for two reasons: it fails to look into why the data is absent and it tends to hinder the discourse. Once we obstinately focus on the data we wish to see, we fail to realise the significance of what we cannot see.

The data that lies unseen tells as much of a tale as the data that lies visible. One of the stories from the ‘Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle demonstrates the significance of absent data. Here is an exchange between the famous Sherlock Holmes and a Scotland Yard detective during a theft investigation:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The fact that the dog did not bark while a theft took place led Holmes to conclude that the thief was not a stranger, but someone the dog recognised. The dog not barking seemed like a non-issue or in this context, an absence of data, yet its significance was critical to solving the case. Like the Scotland Yard detective, we skip over the significance of the absence of data because we’re hell-bent on seeing what is present.

The book ‘You are Not So Smart’ also captures what happens when we focus on data that exists and overlook the significance of absent data. The book describes how the military would look at their bomber planes that came back from enemy territory and record where those planes had taken the most damage. They noticed there were certain areas where the planes seemed to take the most damage as they had numerous bullet holes and naturally, they wanted to put thicker armour in these bullet-ridden regions. Luckily for them, a mathematician named Abraham Wald caught the error of such conventional thinking: putting the armour there wouldn’t improve their chances at all.

In reality, the holes showed where the planes were strongest… and these were obviously the areas that didn’t need extra protection. After all, the planes were hit in these areas and still managed to return home. It was the planes that never returned, because they were hit in other areas, that needed extra protection. Therefore, the unblemished parts of the bomber planes that made it back were precisely the parts that needed extra protection.

So the commanders were focused on what they could see – the obvious bullet holes that showed where these planes were being shot, but they failed to see that the data they couldn’t find i.e. the planes shot down, was an important indicator of what they had to do to protect their planes. Like this army, it can be quite easy for us all to not only overlook data that is absent, but overlook the significance of the absence.

For some things, data will be difficult to find. That difficulty and lack of data is in itself an important piece of information. If data on a social issue such as rape can exist in Nigeria, then why doesn’t it exist? Perhaps the answer to that question reveals the depravity of a society that tacitly pressures rape victims into silence. In a society where victim-blaming seems to be the norm, data on rape will be underestimated and worse, inaccurate, because those raped predictably feel reluctant to report such incidents. The same applies to other socially-hazy data like abortion and drug use.

So perhaps rather than nonchalantly ask ‘Where is the data?’, we should be asking ‘What does the lack of data tell us?’ and better yet ‘How can we obtain this data?’. These questions do not dismiss points raised in the absence of data, rather they present a more circumspect and productive point of view, as they are far less controversial than emotion-fuelled, but baseless statistics heavily reliant on anecdotes.

More importantly, these questions are forward-looking as they not only offer solutions to unearthing more accurate data, they also tackle the cause of the symptom. For instance, a solution proffered by Akin Oyebode, was to establish a national registry of sexual offenders. This would name and shame offenders, drastically reduce repeat offences, and still provide a credible data source. We could also do more to sensitise Nigerians on the topic of rape and the hindering-effect of victim blaming. Or better yet in the short-term, we could all just donate to keep the only Rape Crisis Centre (Mirabel Centre) in Lagos running. I’d wager no one needs to request for data to appreciate the merit in donating to such a place.