Science & Technology

Are Domestic Violence Statistics Bogus?

A dominant voice in victim-advocacy and research on domestic violence stands accused of flatly fabricating data.


Jacquelyn C. Campbell, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, is accused of fabricating "key statements [about domestic violence] and then representing the statements as findings of a government survey." On January 14, the victim-advocacy organization Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) filed a formal complaint with the Office of Research Integrity of the Department of Health and Human Services. SAVE wants the unit to "investigate these allegations of research misconduct by Dr. Campbell and colleagues, and take appropriate corrective action." (As of January 31, the complaint has been rejected and the rejection is being appealed.)

Specific Accusations

In two highly respected journals, Campbell and various colleagues claimed that "the leading cause of death in the United States among African American women aged 15 to 45 years" was homicide. In the American Journal of Public Health Vol. 93, No. 7, 2003, page 1089, the deaths were described as "femicide, the homicide of women." In the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Journal 2003, page 18, the deaths were ascribed to "intimate partner violence" or domestic violence homicide.

Attorney General Eric Holder repeated the domestic violence version of the statistic in a 2009 speech; he stated, "Disturbingly, intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 15 to 45." The statistic was posted in at least two places at the Department of Justice (DOJ) website. The conservative feminist Christina Hoff Sommers took exception. In USA Today (Feb. 4, 2011), she wrote, "That's a horrifying statistic, and it would be a shocking reflection of the black family, and American society generally, if it were true. But it isn't true."

Over two years later, the Washington Post fact checker, Glenn Kessler investigated Holder's statement and published his results. Kessler wrote that CDC "data show that, for the year 2008 (the year before Holder's speeches), cancer, heart disease, unintentional injury and HIV/AIDS all topped homicide. Then if you break out intimate-partner homicide, that ends up being seventh or eighth on the list (depending on whether you also include all homicides.)" As a basis of comparison, in 2008, cancer killed 1,871 black females; heart disease, 1,629; all homicides, 326.

Kessler next ran a forensic investigation of the claim. "As best we [Washington Post] and the Justice Department can determine," he stated, "this all started with a 1998 study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), titled "Violence Against Intimates," that examined the data concerning crimes committed by current and former spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends." But that study did not find domestic-violence homicide to be the leading cause of death in black women aged 15 to 45 years. Indeed, the study even reported a marked decline in such homicides. "From 1976 to 1996, the number of murders of black spouses, ex-spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends decreased from 14 per 100,000 black age 20-44 to just under 4 per 100,000." Meanwhile, the general murder rate declined only an average of six percent a year.

Where did Holder get such a dramatically inaccurate statistic? Kessler fast forwarded to the 2003 studies in which Campbell was the principal researcher. The American Journal of Public Health study was published earliest, and it referred to "femicide" as the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 15 to 45. The later NIJ study stated "intimate partner violence" was "the leading cause of death." The 1998 BJS study was cited as a source in both cases but, as Kessler commented, "these facts cannot be found in the original BJS report."

Campbell did not respond to his request for clarification.

Since 2003, the inexplicable and unexplained statistic has assumed a life of its own. The University of Minnesota's Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American community Community reiterates it the claim on its website, citing the NIJ study as its source. Other journals, newspapers, and at least one book also use the statistic. According to Google, the American Journal of Public Health study has been referenced online 567 times as of January 13.

Kessler's Washington Post article was published on December 18, 2013. He noted that DOJ officials had assured him "that in coming days they planned to append a note to the Web pages in question making clear that the claim is not valid." The outrageous inaccuracy remains in the text of material on DOJ site, as it has for over four years. On January 17, changes were made, however. The following statement appears at the bottom of the page:

"These remarks, as originally delivered in 2009, cited a statistic naming intimate partner homicide as the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 15 to 45. This statistic was drawn from a range of reputable sources, including a 2003 study by the National Institute of Justice. However, recent figures indicate other causes of death—including cancer and heart disease—outrank intimate partner homicide for this age group."

This "clarification" vindicates the statistic as being from reliable sources and implies that it was once correct.

Killing a False 'Fact' Can Be Almost Impossible

Mark Perry is not surprised at the DOJ's failure to make a genuine correction. Perry is an economics professor at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The Washington Post fact checking occurred only because Perry pursued that avenue as a last resort. In an AEI article (Dec. 5, 2013), Perry stated that the false data was "being extensively quoted by universities, journalists, in books and YouTube videos, and by the American Bar Association." Perry called the DOJ failure especially disturbing in light of Obama's 2009 declaration, "Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over… To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy."

Christina Hoff Sommers is also unsurprised. For years, Sommers has been battling bad data produced by politically correct feminism. She is perhaps best known for constantly correcting statistics which exclude men and boys or inaccurately represent them.

Sommers broke onto the scene in with 1995 with Who Stole  Feminism? and then in 2000 with The War Against Boys: ?How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, a book that meticulously debunked statistics and studies while expressing compassion for males who were ignored as victims and then revictimized by shoddy or dishonest research. Her USA Today article challenging Holder's statement proceeded in the same manner. Sommers commented:

Misinformation leads to misdirected policies that fail to target the true causes of violence. Worse, those who promulgate false statistics about domestic violence, however well-meaning, promote prejudice. Why do that? Anti-male misandry, like anti-female misogyny, is unjust and dangerous. Recall what happened at Duke University a few years ago when many seemingly fair-minded students and faculty stood by and said nothing while three innocent young men on the Duke Lacrosse team were subjected to the horrors of a modern-day witch hunt.

The call for the DOJ to genuinely correct its website comes not merely from a respect for the truth, but from a sense of fairness toward males and other victims of violence whom Sommers proclaimed "are best served by the truth."

As Sommers notes, PC feminism approaches males as perpetrators and women as their victims. The data frowns on this interpretation. The CDC's 2010 Summary Report of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported the rates at which men and women had been victims of physical violence during the preceding year. The rate of male victimization was 6.5 percent; the rate of female victimization was 6.3 percent.

Martin S. Fiebert of the Department of Psychology at California State University (Long Beach) has analyzed hundreds of studies. In a report on his website he states, "This bibliography examines 286 scholarly investigations: 221 empirical studies and 65 reviews and/or analyses, which demonstrate that women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners. The aggregate sample size in the reviewed studies exceeds 371,600." And, yet, the studies overseen by Campbell, including her Danger Assessment form, continue the assumption that perpetrators are men and victims are women.

Are Campbell's Statistics Intentionally False?

Research misconduct includes the fabrication or falsification of research or in the reporting of research results. The SAVE complaint alleges that Campbell and her colleagues "made up key statements, presented them as the results of a prior Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, and then reported them in two journal articles. In the American Journal of Public Health report, the fabricated claim appears in the first sentence of the article and sets the tone for the remainder of the discussion."

Intentional falsification is a key aspect of research misconduct. But outright fabrication can be difficult to prove because it requires a judgment about the researcher's inner motives. In the presence of Campbell's silence, such a judgment must be based on the preponderance of evidence. The evidence includes: the lack of correction to debunked statistics; the absence of supporting data in the BJS report she cited; and, Kessler's observation that "[l]ogically, Holder's statement does not make much sense." Kessler continued, "Intimate-partner homicide is the leading cause of death? At the very least, intimate-partner homicide is a subset of all homicides, so one can easily see that a broader category of murder would be even higher. And, then, what about diseases?"

The foregoing might suggest intentional fabrication, but other explanations, such as ideological blindness, are always a possibility. While debunking the infamous World Cup myth—namely, that the UK World Cup (as well as the American Super Bowl) created a spike in domestic violence each year—Sommers noted an interesting response. The BBC had checked the proffered data and concluded that the World Cup claim was "a stunt based on cherry-picked figures." When journalists confronted a woman who spread the myth, she replied, "If it has saved lives, then it is worth it." The ideologically driven are notoriously willing to disregard truth in the name of a "noble" goal…or whatever they define as one.

Another reason that academics have falsified data is to gain more grants and academic respectability or power.

Whether intentionality can be proven in regard to the black "femicide" claim may be irrelevant in the end. SAVE clearly wants to shine a bright light on bad data upon which government policies and programs are based. The complaint and the appeal could accomplish this in and of itself. The respect for truth in domestic violence research will depend on the same factor that allowed falsehood to flourish: the media. Will the truth have the same media appeal as sensationalized falsehoods? Will cancer as a leading cause of death be reported with the same breathlessness as domestic-violence homicide? It remains to be seen. Perhaps the media can be shamed into valuing the truth.