What happened when new research undercut the prevailing justification for the public panic about serial rapists on college campuses? Psychologists deeply invested in their discredited theory launched a crusade of retaliation against the people who proved them wrong.
“There’s been a scientific misconduct case filed against us,” Mary Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona and a critic of the serial predator assumption, told Reason. “It’s frustrating.”
Last year, a team of social scientists including Koss, Georgia State University’s Kevin Swartout, and four other researchers made a startling discovery about the assumption that most campus rapists are serial perpetrators. The ubiquitous theory—constantly cited by activists, policymakers, and even the Obama White House—was false. New data just didn’t support it.
Their findings were in line with the conclusions of Reason’s recent investigation into psychologist David Lisak—author of the canonical 2002 study on serial predators—who routinely exaggerated his findings. For years, Lisak was recognized as the nation’s leading expert on campus sexual violence, consulting with college administrators, lawmakers, and activists about the best strategies for identifying and stopping student rapists—most of whom are repeat offenders who plan their attacks, according to Lisak.
But Lisak’s theory is at odds with more recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Swartout and Koss’s team. Their paper, “Trajectory Analysis of the Campus Serial Rapist Assumption,” disputes Lisak’s main finding. Most men who committed rape while in college could not properly be classified as serial offenders, according to their paper.
“If colleges and policymakers continue to focus on a serial rapist conceptualization, they are going to miss more than three-quarters of the rapes that happen on campus,” Koss told Reason.
It’s easy to understand why Swartout, Koss, et al’s paper reached a starkly different conclusion: Their research was much more comprehensive. They used data sets from two different time periods at a large, representative southeastern university. Lisak’s data, on the other hand, came from surveys of people at a commuter college, the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The subjects of Lisak’s study did not live on campus and were older than traditional college students—in fact, they weren’t even all students. Nor were they specifically asked about violent acts they had committed on campus, or against other students.
Koss told Reason that she expected Lisak and his cohorts to accept the new research and adjust accordingly. After all, that’s how scientific progress works. Old assumptions are constantly tested against new data, and abandoned when they prove faulty.
But it’s not what happened.
James Hopper, a psychologist and associate of Lisak who helped produce the data in the 2002 study, accused the Koss and Swartout study of committing numerous technical and analytic mistakes.
According to Koss, Hopper identified some minor errors in coding within the data, which the paper’s authors were able to correct before the article was published by JAMA.
“The effect [of the corrections] on the results was it made it stronger in opposition to the serial rape hypothesis,” says Koss.
But Hopper and Lisak insisted the paper’s conclusion was wrong, and wrote a letter to JAMA not simply accusing Swartout, Koss, and their co-authors of being wrong but of “systematically suppressing the number of serial offenders.”
Swartout and Koss’s team re-ran their statistical models. JAMA was ultimately satisfied that the paper was sound and its conclusions logical. The organization declined to publish Hopper and Lisak’s concerns.
“We thought that was going to be the end of it,” says Koss.
She was wrong. In early January, her team learned that Hopper had filed a research misconduct claim against Swartout, the lead author on the new study.
"I am hoping that Georgia State University will conduct a complete investigation with appropriate review of the materials I have provided them, on PubPeer, and directly, and all other necessary information from all other appropriate sources,” Hopper told Reason in a statement.
Swartout declined to comment on the matter.