An Elegy to the Weirdest Dude in American Politics

Earlier this month, Lyndon LaRouche died.

You’ve probably never heard of him. But you should have. He was the best presidential candidate in American history. Or rather, he was the best at being a presidential candidate in American history. He ran for the office eight times, a national record. In every election from 1976 to 2004, he was a candidate. His base was small in numbers but big in enthusiasm, and their support kept him relevant despite never winning a race for any public office.

Remember those posters of Obama with a Hitler Mustache that went viral during the Obamacare debates in 2009? That was him. But don’t confuse him with right-wing lunatics like  Steve Bannon or Steve King. Lyndon LaRouche defied any attempt to fit him into a political box.

His platform changed significantly over the course of his 50-year career in the spotlight, but generally speaking, he and his devoted followers supported investment into nuclear power, a return to a commodity-based monetary system (think the gold standard) and fixed interest rates, defending our way of life against an international conspiracy of the global Aristotelian elite that is led by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to control the world through a combination of terrorism and the drug trade, and changing the pitch we use to tune our instruments to be slightly lower.

It is easy to read that and dismiss him as “what you get when you give a scientologist two pot gummies and lock them in a room with a flat-earther”, or “the most batshit insane conspiracy theorist I have ever seen” or “That Guy”. But it would be an injustice to lump him in with the likes of L. Ron Hubbard and Alex Jones. They don’t hold a candle to him.

Today, I will tell you the tale of Lyndon LaRouche. We will explore his life, his finest achievements and his greatest defeats. We will examine his worldview, and where his bizarre ideas and priorities came from. We will uncover the secrets of his enduring appeal. And we will examine the times where he actually got it right.

Which is more often than you might think.

1. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending”

Early Life

Lyndon LaRouche was born in Rochester, New Hampshire, in the year 1922. His parents were Quakers, who forbade him from fighting other children, even in self defense. This consigned him to a neverending torment of bullying throughout his early years. He took to wandering alone through the woods, and threw himself into the comforting grip of books, particularly philosophy. From his 1979 autobiography: “I survived socially by making chiefly Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant my principal peers, looking at myself, my thoughts, my commitments to practice in terms of a kind of collectivity of them constructed in my own mind.”

He was, in short, a geek.

After high school, he attended Northeastern University in Boston, but was “disgusted with the methodological incompetence of most of [his] courses”. He left in 1942.

From there, he wandered through the maze of far-left groups that existed among students at the time. He joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1949, but dismissed them as merely “a custodial staff keeping premises warmed and aired out for the arrival of actual revolutionary leaders”. His contemporaries described him as having an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and “a marvelous ability to place any world happening in a larger context, which seemed to give the event additional meaning”. But the same accounts said his analysis was only skin-deep. His ideas were often contradictory and lacking in detail.

He was also a clear egotist. While a Marxist and Trotskyist by name, LaRouche fixated on their discussion of the elite intellectuals who would join the working class’s revolution. He thought they were talking about him. He believed that he was that philosopher-king who could lead the masses to victory in the US as Lenin had in Russia.

These impulses magnified through the 1960s and early 70s. He took to savagely critiquing his fellow leftists for their past disagreements with him, asserting that history consistently proved him right (note: Lyn Marcus was his pen name at the time). He predicted economic depressions and imminent fascist overthrow and communist revolution. This made him a polarizing figure on the left, with a few ever-more-devoted adherents being counterbalanced by total abandonment from the rest of his audience.

The 1970s: a Leader Emerges

In 1973, he formed the first of his many organizations: the National Caucus of Labor Committees. It’s worth reading over its founding principles for yourself, but I’ve picked out the most important:

12. “Therefore, the political existence of the working class depends upon the intervention of an “outside agency,” whose function it is to bring the political (working) class for itself into being. This “outside agency” can only be a social formation which has already attained an advanced approximation of the working-class consciousness which the working class itself lacks. Only a handful of the capitalist intelligentsia is capable of fulfilling this decisive role, by combining an anti-capitalist political and social orientation with the mastery of history, sociology and economics from the standpoint of the dialectical method.”

17. “While the cadre organization must submit to the class interests of the potential political (working) class for itself, that means and demands insulating the vanguard organization from corrupting intrusions of reactionary (bourgeois) ideology dominant among working people generally, oppressed minorities, and radical students, etc., in a capitalist society. Realization of socialist conceptions means that alien political ideas have ipso facto no voting rights over the formulation of policy within the vanguard organization. It means that the less-developed consciousness of socialist principles must be subordinated to the most-advanced consciousness within the organization.”

In other words: LaRouche and his followers didn’t think an organic labor revolution was in the cards. They believed that the workers of the world needed to be united by an outside force of intellectuals. Only a few special minds would be up to the task. In practice, that meant Lyndon LaRouche and those who agreed with everything Lyndon LaRouche thought.

What’s more, the closing-off of dissenting voices was a foundational idea in the LaRouche movement. For the revolution to succeed, it had to be protected, even from the people it was ostensibly for.

The NCLC quickly took on the trappings of a cult. In 1974, the New York Times wrote of its practices:

“Total commitment is required for members. Jobs and families are expected to be secondary to party work; almost all members who are married also have spouses in the movement.”

It also describes a darker side. The early NCLC was obsessed with brainwashing, and LaRouche himself participated in a “deprogramming” incident with a member named Christopher White. He taped the entire affair, and in it one can hear sounds of weeping, vomiting, pleas for mercy, and LaRouche’s voice saying “raise the voltage”.

He probably selected White because he was British. Britain was a boogeyman to LaRouche, and remained so until his death. He believed that Imperial Britain never truly died, and that it continued to secretly fight to sustain capitalism. He believed that it and its allies controlled vast swathes of the world including the US intelligence agencies. And since he believed that he was the only one who could lead the revolution, they obviously were preoccupied with assassinating him.

Note: interestingly, the FBI really WAS monitoring LaRouche, and some agents even proposed taking steps to help the US Communist party eliminate him. The Bureau has long abused its authority to harass and disrupt both violent and non-violent leftist groups, and attacking LaRouche would not be out of character. I am, however, somewhat more skeptical that their tactics included mind-control.

By the mid-70s, LaRouche had abandoned any pretense of alliance with other leftist groups. Shortly after its formation, the NCLC would begin “Operation Mop-Up”: packs of LaRouchies would roam the streets of New York, beating to a pulp any members of rival leftist groups they found. One harrowing account was printed in the Village Voice.

He also began to reach out to a different kind of extremist groups: far-right fascists. He abandoned Marx (note: if you value your non-aching head, do not try to read that), became a vicious anti-environmentalist, and made overtures to groups like the KKK. This led many outside the movement to say he became a far-right fascist, though he continued to find allies at the fringes of both the left and right for the rest of his career.

Before we leave this era, I should mention that it saw his first Presidential campaign, in 1976. His platform predicted the apocalypse in less than 2 decades if he did not win. It also featured a paid half-hour address on prime-time T.V., which would become a mainstay of his candidacies.

He received just over 40,000 votes nationwide.

The 1980s: Pride and a Fall

LaRouche reached the height of his power in the Reagan administration. His organization moved from New York to a mansion in the sleepy town of Leesburg, Virginia. They turned it into a fortified compound, guarded by camouflaged devotees armed with guns. They harassed the locals, accusing the local garden club of being a Russian PsyOp and forcing one lawyer to abandon the town.

In his greatest electoral achievement at the state and federal level, LaRouche-affiliated candidates managed to win the democratic primaries for both Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State in Illinois. The candidate for Governor declined to run alongside the LaRouchies and switched to a third-party bid. The republican ultimately won the race.

At the same time, he began to spread the most pernicious lie of his career: that AIDS wasn’t sexually transmitted, but could be caught from just a cough or a touch, and that victims should be quarantined for the good of the public. He put a proposition on the ballot in California to ban AIDS patients from holding jobs and their children from attending schools. While it was defeated, it got over a million votes. It seemed only a matter of time before his movement would win one of these races.

This success would not last. The International Plot had finally found his weakness: the money.

Throughout the 1980s, the FBI had quietly been investigating LaRouche and his organization for a host of alleged financial crimes, including widespread credit-card fraud. As the decade wore on, the list of active investigators expanded to include both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission.

In 1986, the FBI raided LaRouche’s offices in both Virginia and Massachusetts. They found extensive evidence of a host of financial crimes, enough for a Boston grand jury to indict LaRouche and the leadership of his movement. That jury, led by a young US Attorney named Robert Mueller, alleged that LaRouche’s organization had committed over 2,000 cases of credit card fraud, and made extensive efforts to obstruct the investigation and destroy evidence. The defense lawyers described (accurately) an extensive campaign of harassment against the organization by the FBI. The trial began in early 1987, and dragged on well into 1988. In the end, the government was forced to declare a mistrial: the case had gone for so long, and enough jurors had been excused for having to return to work, that they could no longer maintain a jury.

The case then moved to Virginia, where it progressed more quickly. It also took on more charges: for some reason, the government felt it was strange that a man who lived in a fortified mansion hadn’t filed a tax return in a decade.

LaRouche was ultimately convicted on fourteen different counts of varying forms of conspiracy and fraud, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Long Goodbye

Incarceration did not stop Lyndon LaRouche. He received daily intelligence reports from his organization while in prison, and even ran for president from a jail cell in 1992. He also shared a cell with the infamous televangelist Jim Bakker, who later remarked that “to say LaRouche was a little paranoid would be like saying that the Titanic had a little leak.”

LaRouche was released early in 1994. But it was never quite the same. His organization had been hollowed out by the investigation, and what was left had atrophied without his peculiar charisma.

At first, he threw his resources behind a campaign to exonerate him, but it sadly failed. With that failure, he turned towards 9/11 conspiracy theories and other, almost run-of-the-mill fringe beliefs like global warming denial.

He also began to suffer a clear mental decline. His writings had never been the clearest, but they grew more and more bizarre, almost nonsensical. They lurched uneasily from discourse on sense-perception to asides on Truman’s presidency, with little rhyme or reason.

There are three remaining events of import in his story.

The first was his accurate prediction of the 2008 financial crash. It’s a real achievement on his part, albeit watered down by the fact that he had been predicting the crash was imminent for several decades. Better late than never.

Second, he was a pioneer of the most pernicious smears of the Obamacare debates. I mentioned the Hitler-mustache posters earlier, but he was also an early adopter of the death-panels myth, referring to the healthcare bill as “genocide” months before the republicans caught on. It would later become Politifact’s “Lie of the Year”.

Finally, his last political act was to throw his support behind Donald Trump’s campaign. Because of course he did.

LaRouche died on February 12 this year. He was 96. He leaves behind a tight-knit group of several thousand devotees, many of whom have stuck with him since he first founded the NCLC.

For his entire career, LaRouche was an enigma to those of us on the outside. His bizarre mix of issues and theories seemed to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. But there was a method to the madness, and a reason why so many people stayed so loyal to him for so long.

2. “The Good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality”

In order to grok Lyndon LaRouche, you first have to grok his worldview. And for that, we have to go back all the way to ancient Greece, and the discourse of Plato and Aristotle. I am not going to explain every aspect of the two philosopher’s beliefs, but the most pertinent debate covered the obscure and minor subject known as “the nature of reality”.

Plato believed in an idea of the “forms”: roughly, reality, ugly, imperfect, and chaotic, was a reflection of a set of greater Ideas. The chair I’m sitting in is just an imperfect realization of the Idea of “chair”. He described our struggle to understand and contemplate those forms in the famous “Allegory of the Cave” that you probably read in high school.

Aristotle took a more naturalistic approach. He did not believe that there was some perfect representation of “chair” out there for us to understand. He saw these as unproductive thought experiments. He preferred to ground himself in observations of the natural world around him.

Lyndon LaRouche has turned that dispute into the driving force of all of human history since. To him, every intellectual in every discipline has, without realizing it, been a follower of Plato or Aristotle. The pursuers of the Ideal, and the Church of Sense Perception. Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Kepler are Platonists. Kant, Locke, and Hobbes are Aristotelians.

He also takes a side. The Platonists are right. The Aristotelian tradition of pure naturalism has led us astray. He blames the failed leadership of the Aristotelians (which are usually oligarchs) for most, if not all, of the world’s ills. To him, the intellectual descendants of this Greek philosopher powerful and power-hungry, and we must stop them at any cost.

And Lyndon LaRouche is the only man who can do it.

Many have tried to label LaRouche as either a “Marxist” or a “Fascist”. But they never fully fit. He is at times one, and then the other. His political ideology does not match any other movement in our history, because philosophically, he acts on a different axis. They, like the poor souls in Plato’s cave, see only the shadows his worldview casts on the wall. The light flickers, and the shadow changes from left to right and back again, but the object stays the same.

Likewise, the many accusations of anti-semitism, racism, and homophobia fail to land. While he may have been all three, and he certainly used racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic language and pursued hateful policies against each, such concerns were tangential to him. It’s the reason why he managed to lead a movement with so many jews it alienated the KKK while authoring pieces titled “My View on the Jewish Question”. He didn’t use pseudo-philosophical conspiracy theories as coded language for antisemitic beliefs. He used antisemitic rhetoric as coded language for his pseudo-philosophical conspiracy theories.

Once you accept the core premise of Plato vs. Aristotle, you begin a descent down a truly bottomless rabbit-hole of paranoia and pseudo-history, pseudo-philosophy, pseudoscience, really all the pseudo’s you can muster. Kepler’s theories of planetary orbits become a real-life manifestation of the platonic forms. They, in turn, are a metaphor for the discrete stages of human progress (an idea originally taken from Marx). The deeper you go, the more his bizarre panoply of policies make sense. Take his opposition to environmental regulation and support of nuclear power. If you see the purpose of humanity as unlocking these higher spheres of progress, like expanding out through Kepler orbits, then anything that obstructs our progress is an evil thing. We can’t afford to waste time caring about our impact on the world around us if it would arrest our forward motion intellectually. And we’ll need a lot of energy to fuel our philosophical explorations as more people devote their time to the arts…

If it doesn’t make perfect sense to you, don’t worry. I’d be concerned if it did.


3. “All Men by Nature Desire to Know”

It is easy for those of us on the outside to dismiss LaRouche’s ideas as the worst sort of crypto-fascist nonsense and his followers as misguided morons. We all want to think that there is no way we’d ever fall for such blatant malarkey. But the science of cults tells us that belief is as much a fantasy as anything that came out of Lyndon LaRouche’s mouth. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you check out this Ted Talk from a former member of a different cult on how they lured her in, though I should warn you, it has some awfully disturbing imagery.

At its core, the movement’s appeal comes from our own search for meaning. It begins by targeting people who are already struggling with that question: the young and idealistic, the lonely and isolated, and the grieving. Essentially, people who feel in some way unmoored in our large and uncertain world.

LaRouche and his followers take these vulnerable people and give them an anchor. Where the rest of us offer chaos and confusion, LaRouche offers clarity and confidence. He tells you that the world isn’t all that complicated after all. He tells you that the truth is out there, and he can help you find it. Most importantly, he tells you that you are special. That you have a purpose. You were meant to fight in this titanic struggle between good and evil. Only you can learn how the world really works. And your job is to help spread that knowledge to others. All you have to do is listen to the man on the brochures.

The group’s pitch is both personal and interpersonal. Movements like LaRouche’s offer a strong sense of social comradeship. The other members are your tribe now, and they look out for their own. New recruits are encouraged to abandon their old ties to friends and family, replacing them with bonds to fellow LaRouchies. When they do so, they provide the same social validation to the next wave of recruits.

Then there is the initiation process. The other members purge your mind of its preconceptions that might interfere with the movement’s goals, in order to ensure your loyalty. Often, this gets physical (“Raise the voltage”), but it is certainly not always. It can be as tame as attending a rally under the right conditions. Outsiders call this process “brainwashing” and “programming”. Larouche described it as bringing out the recognition that “one’s self as presented to the world is not ‘the real me,’ not the ‘soul.'” I use a different term: hazing. We try to exoticize the process by calling it “brainwashing” to convince us that we wouldn’t fall for it, but the truth is that it is not so different from your average fraternity initiation or elaborate team-building exercise. The operate on the same basic principle: validating your sense of belonging to the group through shared suffering or sacrifice.

Whatever our individual differences, all humans are united by a few fundamental desires. We all want to feel like we belong, like we have some identity to be proud of. We all want a sense of purpose and fulfillment in our daily lives. We all want to feel right, like we are a good person, and like we know what to do next. Ideologies like LaRouche’s are a one-stop shop for all of these basic needs. They give you that identity. They give you that purpose. They give you the certainty that you are right, because LaRouche is right, and you’re with him.

Usually, when non-members talk to true believers, we fixate on the contradictory evidence the true believers rationalize away or ignore. We look on in disbelief as they dismiss overwhelming scientific consensus, the apocalyptic predictions that didn’t happen, even proven criminal activity as “fake news” and “propaganda”. But that behavior is only an exaggerated version of impulses we all share. When we are presented with information that contradicts our worldview or identity, we find a way to disregard it. LaRouche and his adherents are just more audacious in their confirmation bias than we are.

This appeal can work on anyone. Intelligence and education are no shield: the first members of LaRouche’s movement were Columbia students. Rich and poor, black and white, men and women, we all share the same cognitive biases and we all are vulnerable to the undeniable pull of a movement that has all the answers.


4. “I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses”

A funny thing happened while I was researching this post: frequently, far more frequently than I ever expected, I found myself agreeing with Lyndon LaRouche.

Sure, he said some crazy stuff. I have barely scraped the surface of the lunacy he espoused over the course of his career. You could fill a book with all the bizarre, absurd, and incomprehensible theories the man has come up with. Many people have, including LaRouche himself.

But the great tragedy of Lyndon LaRouche, what sets him apart from Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan and the other also-rans of our political fringe, is just how often he actually got it right.

Take a line like this: “automation not only wipes out jobs, it wipes out the need for old-style, repetitive factory labor. In place of production workers, we will need an equal or greater number of engineers and scientists. Our whole educational system will be hopelessly outdated by these changes in the means of production. Educational changes must be made so that we may have the skills we need.”

Today, that sounds like an almost trite observation of our post-industrial economy. Automation and the collapse of manufacturing jobs across this country helped elect Donald Trump. It is a fundamental force shaping our entire culture. And education and re-education are contributing factors: we have far too many unemployed steel-workers, far too few software engineers, and no good way to convert one into the other. Right now, that passage is uncontroversial.

Lyndon LaRouche wrote that in 1954.

Even his core delusion, the Aristotelian conspiracy, is rooted in a real philosophical dispute. Aristotle and Plato really did disagree. And while I’m unconvinced that their dispute is the driving force of history, when LaRouche starts talking about objectivity and its limitations, he makes an uncomfortable amount of sense:

“In reality, what we call “modern science” is a highly subjective business. People who run around talking about “objective science” really show that they don’t know much about the history of science.”

That statement is true. History has shown us that, while the scientific method may be immune to bias, its practitioners are not. If science and its practitioners really were objective, it wouldn’t advance one funeral at a time.

Note: in the section after that quote, he says a cabal of gay British Aristotelians are concealing the evidence that cold fusion is real and also that rock music is a Satanic plot. I didn’t say the man was perfect.

Every account by outsiders who knew LaRouche describes astonishment at the breadth of his intelligence. He was well-read, sharp-witted, and at times downright insightful. I don’t know whether his paranoia was built into his genes or if some therapy and the right environment of fellow thinkers might have tamed his worst impulses. But I do know that buried within the lunatic was a true visionary.

5. “There is a strange charm in the thoughts of a good legacy”

History will not be kind to Lyndon LaRouche. His lies have done too much damage for him to be more than a figure of scorn, if he is remembered at all. His legacy will be the violence of his followers, his misinformation campaigns about AIDS and Obamacare, and his climate change denialism. That is a good thing. The pain they have caused has already outlived him, and will continue to haunt us for decades to come.

And yet, it feels wrong to celebrate his departure, to reduce him to his greatest crimes. He was more than just another cultist or con-artist hovering at the fringes of our politics. He was a living contradiction, a proof that our understanding of our own culture isn’t as concrete as we’d like to believe. He made allies of black nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan. He was completely insane, but his brainwashed followers are probably better-versed in the classics than you are. He was a politician, a philosopher, a cult leader, a communist, a fascist, a felon, even (horrifyingly) a poet. He was, by a significant margin, the weirdest person in American politics.

Lyndon LaRouche died at the age of 96. For the first time in a century, we are living in a world without him. It’s a different world from where we lived before. It may be better off for his absence. It probably is. But whatever else, it is certainly less interesting.

Conservapedia, or What Might Have Been

As you’re reading this, chances are you have consumed some content from Wikipedia today. It powers the search results for Alexa and Siri. It has articles on everything from Snooker to the Vice President on the tv show “The West Wing”. It is the 5th most popular website in the world, and the only one run by a nonprofit. It is the largest encyclopedia in human history, one of the largest repositories of knowledge ever compiled, freely available, studiously accurate, and fueled by anonymous online commenters. It’s a modern miracle.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have flaws. Speaking as a longtime editor, it has plenty. And there are a lot of active debates about editorial decisions within it. But through a lot of hard work, we have mostly rendered those shortcomings irrelevant today. When you read a Wikipedia article, you are probably getting unbiased, factual information that would pass the sniff test of an expert in the field.

None of that was guaranteed from the outset. In fact, in 2004 or 2005 the reliability we now consider the base standard would be almost unimaginable. Like the primordial Earth, we went through a turbulent period of chaos and flame in our first years. From those vicious forum battles emerged consensus policies on the conduct of our editors and what could go into our articles. Those policies, and our devotion to upholding them, has protected us from the worst impulses of online discussion and made Wikipedia what it was today.

I wasn’t active in the community at the time: I was in the fourth grade. But the debates are still available, if you know where to look. And I can see the impact these policies have had, not only on the stellar quality of Wikipedia today, but through a case study in its opposition. Conservapedia.

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Conservapedia. Since it was created over a decade ago, it has gotten over 700 million views, slightly more than Wikipedia gets per day. But it is still our Doppelgänger, a reminder of what we could have been.

First, some history. Conservapedia was created in 2006 by a man named Andrew Schlafly. He was the child of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist best known for helping sink the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. His educational pedigree is impressive, going from Princeton to Harvard Law before becoming a conservative activist. He started editing Wikipedia in 2005, primarily focusing on his mother’s article and topics related to the pseudoscientific theory of intelligent design.

Note: a good metric for how contentious a Wikipedia article has been within the editor pool is the length of its talk page. Our article on Intelligent Design has the longest talk page on the whole goddamn site.

These edits had a clear point of view. Andrew Schlafly felt Wikipedia was being unfair to the Intelligent Design movement. As a result, he found very little traction, and in 2006, he split off and founded Conservapedia.

I will be generous to its content and say that it is at times not fully accurate. But it serves as an excellent case study, because it fundamentally diverges from Wikipedia in its interpretations of our three core content policies: No Original Research, Verifiability, and Neutral Point of View.

Before I begin, I want to make two notes. First, wiki articles are prone to change, so linking to them to prove a point is risky business. To avoid that, when I cite a Wikipedia or Conservapedia article, I will be linking to the version that was current as I was writing. That way, there’s no updating the articles after-the-fact.

Second, Conservapedia has a far smaller editor base than we do: as I write this, there are about 150 regular editors on the site. With fewer eyes, it’s harder to maintain the same kind of stylistic professionalism Wikipedia upholds. Out of respect to those editors, who are doing their job within the confines of Conservapedia’s mission, I’m not going to be discussing any spelling, grammar, or formatting errors. This site is meant to be a serious alternative to Wikipedia for people who feel we have failed to properly adhere to the facts. We’re going to treat them seriously.


Original Research

One of the problems Wikipedia faced early on is that our random anonymous editors may not be remotely qualified to talk about the topic they’re discussing. For instance, while I’m a pretty smart guy, I have only a limited education in political science. But I’ve added content to over a hundred articles in the topic. You don’t know who I am. You don’t know what my credentials are. Why should you trust what I write?

For that reason, we ban original research. Let’s say you’re a mathematician, and you discover a proof of some unsolved problem. You can’t then put that proof on the Wikipedia article for that problem, even though it is entirely mathematically correct. It’s original research: stuff you put together and found out yourself.

That changes once it gets published in a journal. We are scrupulous about our sourcing, and want every statement to be cited to an expert on the subject. Unlike most other outfits, we don’t prioritize primary sources. While they’re allowed, relying on them means we’re relying on our editors to interpret them, and find the most pertinent accounts from their own expertise. We prefer to outsource that and rely on secondary sources, analysis of those accounts by experts. That way, you don’t have to trust us.

Conservapedia explicitly does not share this policy. Scan through their list of how their policies differ from ours, and you will find this:

“We allow original, properly labeled works, while Wikipedia does not. This promotes a more intellectual atmosphere on Conservapedia. On Wikipedia, observations based on personal experience and interviews have been dismissed as “original research.” Here, we do not restrict research for articles in that manner.”

It is an understandable decision on their part. If you feel the reliable sources we use (mostly journalists) carry an unrecognized political bias that leads them to not be factual, you might want to do your own interviews. See also, “We do not allow opinions of journalists to be repeated here as though they are facts. Instead, we require authoritative support.”

The result of that decision, however, is that you give the opinions of your editors an undue level of weight. Scroll through their citations, and you start to find blogs, even on their most popular articles. To be fair, these aren’t just personal blogs from the writers. Mostly. Even with that caveat, however, none of these would qualify as reliable sources on Wikipedia. They might be accurate. They might be groundbreaking and innovative arguments that will be uncontroversial in a few short years. But we won’t cite them.

They also are fans of linking directly to YouTube videos. On Wikipedia, we prefer not to simply throw clips at people. Especially when they can be quite long and not searchable, we prefer to provide context. More notably, however, it would be original research. We allow the use of primary sources to cover only the most uncontroversial factual claims. For instance, you could use quotes from a novel to summarize the plot. Any interpretation of those sources, however, must itself be cited to another secondary source. We also do not allow what we call synthesis: basically, if I find an article that says Mike Pence was photographed buying a strap-on at his local sex shop, and an article saying men buy strap ons so their female partners can peg them, I still can’t use those to say Mike Pence secretly loves being pegged, and not just because no one wants to think about that. You can’t connect multiple reliable sources together to say something none of them individually said.

Conservapedia does this constantly, in a series of articles that have no counterpart on Wikipedia. I call them the “arguments” articles, and they are generally a list of points for, or refutations of points against, some topic in science or politics. The worst offender is probably that on Obama’s Religion, but you can also see it in Counterexamples to an Old Earth. I’ve linked you to a particularly clear example. Here, they cite a piece on declining SAT scores and a number of pieces of historical discourse to demonstrate that our intelligence has been going down over the last few centuries. None of their sources individually discuss this. That is the analysis of whoever wrote that bit of the article. Schlafly himself, in this case.

Now, there are drawbacks to Wikipedia’s approach. Our dedication to the secondary sources means that if they get it wrong, we get it wrong. Or, in the words of one of my favorite essays on Wikipedia policy, “If Wikipedia had been available around the sixth century BC, it would have reported the view that the Earth is flat as a fact without qualification. It would have also reported the views of Eratosthenes (who correctly determined the Earth’s circumference in 240 BC) either as controversial or a fringe view.

But that doesn’t make Conservapedia’s approach the right one. In this case, it’s led them wrong. While IQs have been decreasing recently in Europe and the US, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. And if they had consulted a few more experts before citing the civil-war letters and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, they might have learned that the 19th century was just as full of inane babble as today. After a hundred years, the babble gets forgotten, and the gems get preserved. The supposed greater intelligence of the past is an optical illusion. However commendable their interest in independently researching their subject matter, it’s caused them to factually report claims that are fundamentally wrong.


The second core content policy is pretty self-explanatory. As a rule, you should be able to independently verify any statement you read on wikipedia, solely by following our footnotes. We do not half-ass this: as I write this, the article on Donald Trump has 808 inline citations. While most articles aren’t that excessive, even fairly obscure articles like that of the Jurassic fish Leedsichthys will have a citation every hundred words.

We invest a significant amount of effort into making sure those references stay valid. When the url we’re citing ascends to the great firewall in the sky, we use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to resurrect it. We’ve even created bots that automate the process, and when they see sources that are still alive but don’t have an archive backup, they’ll make one. Just in case.

We also do not, under any circumstances, allow circular citations: Wikipedia articles that cite other Wikipedia articles. Our articles are always subject to change as we learn more, so a citation claiming that we said something has no guarantee to still be a true citation in the future. That seems simple, but remember, there are a lot of outlets in the world that will just copy/paste content from our articles and report them as fact, and a lot of forks of our content to provide more reliability to other people.

XKCD fans will be familiar with the concept of citogenesis. That comic explains it better than I could, so just check it out. This is something we worry about a lot, and it’s happened several times already. Other editors’ experiences may vary, but far more of my time is spent verifying sources or looking for new ones than actually writing copy for any of our articles.

To be clear, we aren’t perfect: particularly in obscure entries that are only rarely read, things can slip through the cracks. And because we’re so beholden to the reliable sources we can find, our content gets biased towards subjects where information is available online. But that doesn’t change our general dedication to the principle, and efforts to apply it as best we can.

Conservapedia agrees with this idea in principle. In fact, verifiability is their first commandment. However, it adds a caveat through its fourteenth difference between it and Wikipedia.

“We do not require contributing editors to have to explain themselves constantly and justify every single edit to prove that it conforms to an exacting set of rules which are designed to suppress original thought, new ideas and penetrating insights.”

I sympathize with this sentiment: the many rules and guidelines for Wikipedia’s content make for good articles but a high barrier for entry, and it’s too easy to bully new editors with a combination of aggressive policy-citing and faux-legalese. But in practice, their solution makes for some pretty sparse references sections. As I write this, their article on the benefits of Capitalism has ZERO citations or footnotes, and has never had one for the entirety of its almost nine-year existence. This article is currently the second entry on their main page’s “popular articles” list.

It is far from the only example. There are a host of stubs, mostly denigrating liberals, which have no sources at all. It’s not just Liberal hyperbole, there’s Liberal dislikesGodless liberal, and Liberal hedonism, which apparently consists of Harlem Shakes and Miley Cyrus.

To be fair, these appear to be more like dictionary definitions, which don’t usually cite sources. But there is also an abundance of articles with nowhere near the amount of sourcing I would expect on Wikipedia. Their article on Theodicy, an important branch of religious studies, has only 2 citations. The Wikipedia equivalent has 110. Granted, our article is a lot longer and more in-depth (Conservapedia explicitly emphasizes brevity over thoroughness), but it’s still 6 times more citations per word. Their article on God has only 4 citations, equal to the number of citations in the first paragraph on Wikipedia.

They also don’t share our concern with circular citations. In their article on liberals, the reference that liberals support “Hatred” links to another Conservapedia article.

This is not just comparing bibliography sizes here. When you leave the references this sparse and discourage double-checking of uncited additions, things slip through the cracks. Take the Benefits of capitalism article again. That last point, the 10th, is complete balderdash. There are countless examples throughout history of Capitalist nations imposing Tariffs, restricting trade with rivals, and more. Free trade is a common aspect of Capitalist nations today, but as their own article on Donald Trump’s economic policy will tell you, they aren’t necessarily the same.

Circular citations, unsupported statements of fact, articles completely lacking in references, these are the side-effects of this relaxation of Verifiability standards. Their decision to allow these gaps may have made their site more welcoming to new editors, but it has resulted in considerably less reliable and consistent articles.

Neutral Point of View

Before we start shamelessly mocking Conservapedia’s political bias, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what a Neutral Point of View means in an encyclopedia. After all, if one person says pi equals 3 and another says it’s an irrational number roughly equal to 3.14, does a neutral point of view mean not saying one of those is right and the other is wrong?

Instinctively, you want to say that neutrality doesn’t apply there because the value of pi is a fact and not subject for debate (note: even that is way more complicated than you’d expect) . It’s an appealing argument. But there are a lot of reasons it doesn’t work in practice. Countless issues today, from Global Warming to the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, stray into questions of what is factual and what is only “likely” or even “speculated”. There may be far stronger cases for one side than the other, and there may even be a consensus, but often there are detractors who historically have been right on occasion. How do you weigh those competing points of view?

We use the Principle of Due Weight. Essentially, we look at what the reliable sources say, in general, on the topic, and allocate space in the article to all the views they take, proportional to how widespread that view is. About 97% of Scientists agree that Global Warming is a real and human-caused phenomenon, so about 97% of the article on Global Warming is dedicated to that view. Well, sort of. It’s more complicated in practice but that’s our rule of thumb.

Again, we are not perfect in this regard. Wikipedia’s content still subtly reflects the perspectives of those who edit it, though usually more so in what we decide is notable enough to get an article, not the content of the article itself. We also are yoked to the consensus of reliable sources. Remember the flat-earth quote I had above. When the fringe views are actually right, we can’t reflect that.

Conservapedia sees those drawbacks as unacceptable failings. In their own words:  “We do not attempt to be neutral to all points of view. We are neutral to the facts. If a group is a terrorist group, then we use the label “terrorist” but Wikipedia will use the “neutral” term “militant”.

Already, I see real issues with their stance. The line between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” is famously murky, and there is ample debate even within American political discourse about which groups count and which don’t. There is a reason Wikipedia goes with “militant” and then enumerates exactly which organizations label which militants as terrorist groups. Take the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. As I write this, Conservapedia includes it (along with both the Ku Klux Klan and John Brown’s Anti-Klan Committee) as an example of a radical leftist terrorist group. That contradicts the US Government’s position on the group under the Trump, Obama, and Bush Administrations. While Russia and several Arab states classify it as such, most of the Western World views it as a legitimate political party, one which elected the president of Egypt for multiple years. It’s an Islamist group, and I disagree with its positions on most issues, but it’s hardly a terrorist organization.

Conservapedia doesn’t just think other ways, it says so as a matter of fact. The Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. Ipso facto.

A list of all the articles in which Conservapedia abandons a neutral point of view to push a conservative agenda would be a list of all articles on Conservapedia. They keep a running list of everything horrible liberals apparently believe in, and feature it so prominently it’s above the table of contentsTheir article on Fake News explicitly defines it as a liberal-only phenomenon in the first sentenceFDR and the New Deal apparently prolonged the Great Depression, referring to a consensus of historians without citing one. They make no attempt to hide a clear political bias anywhere in their articles.

And to be clear, that’s not inherently wrong. If Wikipedia were to suddenly start erasing articles on the atrocities of Stalinism, I would want a more conservative alternative I could ride my flying pig to when I needed information.

It becomes wrong when that strong editorial position spreads ahistorical bullshit all over the site. Their article on William Shakespeare describes him as “anti-feminist”, as evidenced by the content of “The Taming of the Shrew”. This is an impressive trick on Shakespeare’s part, since feminism wouldn’t exist for another 2 centuries after he died. Alexander Hamilton is also a conservative now, which is at least slightly more defensible than Shakespeare. It is still, however, nonsense. He was a federalist with nationalist tendencies, and does not fit neatly onto the left-right political spectrum of 21st century America. Just like every other great thinker who was born, lived, and died hundreds of years before any of us were born.

Nor are they limited to revisionism of the distant past. They describe George Soros, a Hungarian Jew who barely survived Nazi Occupation, as an anti-semite who worked for the Nazis. This particular conspiracy theory is an Alex Jones special which has been boosted by everyone from Glenn Beck to authoritarian president Viktor Orbán of Hungary. It is virulently antisemitic itself, and is part of far-right efforts to blame The Holocaust on Jewish collaborators.

It is discussed without context in the introduction to his article.

Still more harmful is their firm advocacy of conversion therapy. They describe it as an effective and charitable course to correct a mental illness, citing a 2007 study with crippling methodological flaws over the overwhelming consensus of the community of psychologists to claim that it is something other than a hateful and traumatizing form of pseudoscience.

And then there is Global Warming. It is by far the most important issue facing us today. The future of the human race rests on what we do about it in the next 20 years. Yet Conservapedia would have you believe that the science is inconclusive at best and against it at worst. I won’t pretend that this exercise in Young-Earth-Creationist navel-gazing is the source of the right’s climate change denialism. Yet it is still a small contributing factor to the most damaging aspect of the right’s platform today.

The danger of giving full room to fringe theories because the consensus might be wrong is that you are now subject to your most conspiratorial writers. However much I might sympathize with their desire for a Wikipedia that would recognize Galileo in his own time, it has caused their content to reflect the worst of the far-right’s paranoia and hatred.

Conclusion: Why Any of This Matters

It may seem like nothing is at stake here. After all, Conservapedia is extremely fringe even among the Christian right. Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer may believe some hateful shit but even they don’t think the Earth is 6000 years old. It has barely a hundred regular editors, and shows clear signs of minimal activity over the last several years. Remember that Liberal Hedonism article, that talked about Miley Cyrus twerking and the Harlem Shake? There’s a reason it uses examples from mid-2013: It hasn’t been touched by a human being in the last five years.

It’s not completely irrelevant today. It got roughly 50 million more views in the last year, over 100,000 per day. It’s an endless fount of material for people like me to mock, and I’ve barely scratched the surface there. But I see something deeper in this tragedy of an encyclopedia.

Wikipedia’s content and community have survived the worst ravages of the internet, everything from Russian attacks to Gamergate, because our community of editors remains dedicated to a shared set of basic principles. We can disagree on content, style, weight, and more, but we are still working for the same goal. We are not a forum. We are not a newspaper. We do not have an editorial section. We are an encyclopedia. And every participant is onboard with that shared vision.

Conservapedia is a case study in how that vision dies. It began when one editor abandoned the site to create a parallel version that would not contradict what he knew to be right, even when the reliable sources said he was wrong. I know what he felt when he did it. I feel the same way when the decisions those policies make go against my morals. But I didn’t make Shankipedia, nor did any of the countless other editors who have disagreed with on-Wiki consensus, because we remained committed towards the first principles of the site.

However virtuous his motivations may have been, the result is an abomination. What was meant to be an alternative to Wikipedia has collapsed under the weight of its own bias. It is unreliable and inaccurate. It promotes hateful conspiracy theories without qualification. What little is left of its community is toxic and dictatorial towards anyone who disagrees with even minor aspects of their ideology. They are, in short, exactly what you’d expect if you trusted the writing of an encyclopedia to an online forum.

None of that was unpredictable. It is simply what happens when the mods prioritize their personal agenda over what is best for the community.

The story of Conservapedia is a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that platitudes like “Neutral Point of View” can carry a lot of weight when we all believe in them. It is proof that these core principles can work miracles, even on the most fraught and contentious topics. And it is a live demonstration of what happens when we abandon those core principles as soon as they prove inconvenient to us.

1 in 5: a VERY deep dive into campus sexual assault statistics

1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted at some point during their time in college. It’s a shocking number, one that’s led to a lot of agonizing and discourse across the political spectrum and a variety of reforms put in place on campus. As it should. There is no society in which a statistic like that should be acceptable.

It’s also led to a lot of scrutiny from people who do not want to believe that sexual assault is such a problem in our universities. These people, mostly conservatives, point to a wide variety of perceived flaws in the original study to discredit its findings. They point to other studies with different methodologies that contradict the number. They accuse the authors of fudging the data to promote a political agenda. Debunking this study is a minor pasttime in the right-wing media bubble, like shuffleboard or badminton. But do their critiques hold water? What’s the truth buried in the data?

Before we begin, two warnings: I’m not going to be double-checking their regression analyses here, but there’s no way to talk about this without covering at least a little math. So if you’re one of these people who can’t handle numbers, now would be a good time to leave. More importantly though, I’m gonna be touching on some heavy shit here. There won’t be any graphic descriptions or stories. This is all numbers. But if that isn’t your thing, don’t feel bad noping out of this one.

1. The Survey

Generally speaking, when people cite “1 in 5”, they’re referring to this study by the department of justice. There are a lot of others that reach basically the same results, but all the ones I’ve seen use essentially the same methodology and weighting, and find similar results so I’m gonna focus on it.

Basically, they took two unnamed large Universities, one in the south and one in the midwest, and emailed every student there the same survey asking about their history with sexual assault. They broke it down between forced (i.e. violent) and incapacitated (i.e. drunk) sexual assault, while excluding suspected but not confirmed accounts in the latter category. So already, there’s one way the numbers could be HIGHER than currently reported: not every victim is gonna be sure about what happened. They also looked at trends in attempted vs. completed, and a number of other things.

After some weighting, they found that 19% of women reported experiencing an attempted or completed sexual assault during their time in college: 12.8% for attempted, 13.7% for completed. If you read YouTube comments (and you shouldn’t), you’ll see people use those numbers to argue that the study is somehow fraudulent: 12.8+13.7=26.5, not 19.0. Because apparently you can’t experience both. This is another way that it understates the total rate of sexual assault at universities, though it wouldn’t change the top line number: they only ask if someone has experienced these things, not how often. This is common across most of these surveys.

There are other interesting findings in the data, some more surprising than others. It’s not uniformly distributed through time: there’s a distinct “rape season”, roughly corresponding with fall semester. It peaks in September-October. More than half of all sexual assaults are committed on Friday or Saturday, which makes sense since the most common location for it is at a party. All of those are more pronounced for incapacitated sexual assault than forced, by the way.

The highest reported percentage is among seniors. There’s a credible argument that you should only be looking at them, because counting freshman in prevalence rates across the entirety of the college experience seems dumb, but there’s a real risk of people forgetting about incidents earlier in their studies, or becoming less willing to count it as the victimization fades. Freshman and sophomores are the most likely to be experience this, so it’s important to include them. And before you say “who the fuck forgets being raped”, only a QUARTER of incapacitated sexual assault victims classified their experience as such in the survey.

That’s roughly what it covers. I’m going to move on to the flaws and tradeoffs in the study in a moment, but first I want to point out something that really bothers me. You might heard some variation of “1 in 5 women and 1 in 27 men” in one of these articles or consent workshops. That’s not what the study finds. They found that 6.1% or roughly 1 in 16 men had been a victim of sexual assault. I’m not sure where the 1 in 27 number comes from, but it’s exactly what would happen if you used this study as a source, then only counted completed sexual assaults for men and both attempted and completed assaults for women. If anybody knows better, please send me sources because I want to still have faith in humanity.

2. Shortcomings in the Dataset

While this study is good, it’s not perfect. There are several real issues with how it handles the numbers, and where it draws them from, that should be concerning to anyone relying on them. That’s not to say it’s bullshit: these flaws are natural byproducts of good-intentioned decisions on the part of its authors. If they had done things differently, they would have just had other problems.

There is no way to get a perfect survey on a subject like sexual assault. Anyone who claims they have one isn’t arguing in good faith.

First off, let’s talk about the dataset. I’ve already snuck in one issue with it: the choice of universities. The authors only looked at two institutions in the country, and while they were geographically distinct, they were demographically similar. They were both large, with 30,000 and 35,000 students each. The results may therefore not be representative of the experience of significantly smaller universities. While there are counterparts which HAVE looked at these colleges and found similar numbers, with a smaller college comes a smaller sample to draw on, resulting in noisier data. You can mitigate this somewhat by including even more universities, but because of the significant overhead involved, most papers either use a smaller sample or make do with a lower response rate. More on that later.

The other issue is that they excluded all students under the age of 18. They kinda had to: otherwise they’d need to get parental consent for those people to respond. I’ve heard credible arguments that this exclusion could bias the results towards overestimating AND underestimating the prevalence. It’s hard to say. Either way, their absence is significant: between them and other groups excluded from the study, only half the enrolled in either university were ever gonna be included in the data. With no information on the other 50% at all, it’s hard to say what effect, if any, this might have.

3. Shortcomings in the Procedure

The authors of this study didn’t fly out to these colleges and personally interview over 6,000 students. They sent each participant a survey via email and had them fill it out online. Data collection of that form tends to get a low response rate. After all, how likely are you to respond to a random email asking you to fill out a questionnaire? And indeed, that’s what we see: response rates of about 40% at both universities, higher for women and lower for men.

That would be fine, if who responds to a survey and who doesn’t were random. But we know that isn’t true. Racial and ethnic minorities consistently under-respond to polls of all forms, and online polls in particular tend to include more people for whom the subject matter is relevant. That factor can lead to significant and at times catastrophic overestimates of relatively rare phenomena.

Put another way: if you have been sexually assaulted, you are more likely to be interested in a survey about sexual assault than if you have not been. You’re more likely to read the email, and you’re more likely to fill it out.

There are a lot of conflicting factors here. Victims of sexual assault may be less willing to answer, out of fear that they might be shamed or to avoid having to answer uncomfortable questions. There are any number of ways for the topic to be important to you without being an actual victim. You might know a friend, for instance, or simply be engaged with the topic.

But there are some aspects of the study that suggest there was an effect here. The response rates for men and women were markedly different: 42% for women, and only 33% for men. We also know that men are less likely to be victims of sexual assault. In fact, this is a consistent pattern across the board for studies that found a result somewhere in the 1-in-5 range. They’re mostly online surveys sent to students, and they almost always have a higher response rate among women than men.

Here’s where it gets complicated. There are ways to account for non-response bias, at least partially. The scientists who put this study together used three of those ways.

First, they compared the demographic information in their survey respondents to that of all people who did not respond, and to that of the university as a whole. Wherever there was a demographic discrepancy, they gave more weight in the results to people underrepresented in the survey. For instance, nonwhite students were less likely to respond, so they counted the answers from nonwhite students who DID respond more.

They weighted by four factors: which university they were in, their gender, their year of study, and their race/ethnicity. That list is pretty sparse. Most surveys would get a lot more demographic info on each person, and then figure out what to weight from there. The problem is that it’s hard to balance that extra information with guarantees of anonymity. Especially with a topic as fraught as sexual assault, it’s crucially important that participants don’t feel their answers might get connected back to them. Even without the ethical concerns, it can lead to lower response rates among people who HAVE been assaulted. Surveys without the same dedication to anonymity report significantly lower numbers, sometimes below 1%. So this is kind of a damned-if-you-do situation.

Second, they used something called the “continuum of resistance” model. Basically, it says that whether or not someone is willing to answer a survey isn’t a binary thing: the less likely you are to respond to it, the more likely you are to put off doing it. In other words, the demographics of the people who took the longest to fill out the survey probably match those of the people who didn’t fill it out at all, and their responses are probably similar.

This effect doesn’t always show up, but it looks like it did here. Nonwhite students were more likely to not answer the questions, and also (somewhat) more likely to be a late responder. They found no significant difference in answers between late and early responders, which suggests that whatever nonresponse bias existed was fairly small.

The third method they used is less reliable. Essentially, they did a follow-up survey of all people who didn’t respond to the first one (note: they still knew who did and didn’t respond because respondents got a small cash award and they could see who collected it, though not which responses corresponded to which person), and asked them why they didn’t respond. Most nonrespondents said they’d either never received the emails or weren’t sure if they had, and only a very small number said they didn’t respond because they hadn’t experienced sexual assault.

Personally, I wouldn’t have even included this section in the study. The response rate for this follow-up was abysmal: barely 10%, compared to nearly 40 for the top level. It also will exhibit the same kinds of biases the first one did. For instance, people who would be interested in the first study but just didn’t see it in their inbox will be more likely to respond to the second one than people who weren’t interested at all. I mean, do you want to fill out a questionnaire about why you don’t want to answer another questionnaire?

All in all, the authors of this study were meticulous and honest with their findings. They crafted their study to prioritize the privacy and comfort of their respondents, they were forthcoming about potential sources of error, and they made good-faith efforts to adjust for those sources wherever they could. I’ve read crappy studies, and I’ve read fraudulent studies. This one looks nothing like those.

However, there is only so much the authors can do to adjust for these factors. Their selection of methodology inherently comes with certain errors that are nearly impossible to correct. And while there is an argument that sexual assault victims would also be less likely to respond due to discomfort, the fact that there are many more nonvictims than victims means that even if that were true, the numbers would still probably be an overestimate. While the findings here are valuable, they are not gospel, and it’s likely they are inadvertently highballing it.

3. The Other Options Suck Too Though

Online surveys of university students are not the only way to answer this question. Conservatives often cite two other studies, both done by the government. The first is the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which isn’t a survey at all. It’s a thorough accounting of every crime reported to the police in a given year. They generally find somewhere around 100,000 reported rapes to have occurred each year, total, implying an almost minuscule percentage on campuses.

If you’ve made it this far into the post, you’ve probably already seen the problem with that sentence. The reporting rate for rape is really, really low. Only about a third of rape victims inform the police. And it gets worse. Until 2013, the UCR used the word “forced” in their definition of rape. If it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t counted. That would exclude many cases of coerced sex and even some cases of violent, forced sex (for instance, the people reporting it to the FBI won’t necessarily count marital rape, because people are awful).

One of my first jobs ever was data prep for the sexual assault division of my local District Attorney’s office. Even within the prosecutorial community, the FBI numbers are seen as comically low. We didn’t use them.

Instead, we relied on the National Crime Victimization Survey, the other source conservatives like to draw on. It accounts for the low reporting rate because it’s an actual survey of a randomized sample. It’s done through in-person or phone interviews, both of which significantly reduce the interest-bias you find in their online counterparts (you’re more likely to answer the questions when there’s a person on the other end). And it finds that roughly half a million rapes occur each year. More than the UCR, but it would still be less than 1% for women on campus.

It has its own problems, though. The NCVS generally just asks “have you been raped?” or some variant, which we know from countless other studies doesn’t cover all or even most sexual assault victims. It’s likely that the NCVS is significantly lowballing the numbers as a result. They’ve tried to adjust for that in recent years, but most researchers outside the Bureau of Justice Statistics don’t think they’ve done enough, and I’m inclined to agree. Additionally, because the NCVS is explicitly done by a government agency, survivors will be less likely to respond to them for the same reasons they don’t report their assaults to the police. Think of it as the other side of the 1-in-5 studies. They are equally methodical, but where one errs on the side of overestimating when there’s a tradeoff they have to make, the other errs on the side of underestimating.

There are other studies, using some combination of in-person and phone interviews, online results, and other metrics, and different ways of determining whether or not a subject has been assaulted. Their results are all over the map, but tend to fall somewhere in between the NCVS and the 1-in-5 study. They also tend to fall on the high end of that range, so the real number is probably closer to 1-in-5 than to the <1% the NCVS reports. It could be 10. It could be 15. We can’t be sure.

4. Why We Don’t Have a Perfect Study

By now, you might be thinking “okay, so why don’t we pull together some academics, do in-person interviews at a few dozen representative universities, and get some unimpeachable numbers?” After all, it’s not like any of the issues of these studies are inherent. There’s no law that says only the government can use direct sampling or you have to do everything online if you’re talking to college students.

The real obstacle here is money. Online surveys are prevalent because online surveys are cheap. Email is free, so the main expenses are a few grad students to crunch the numbers, the salary of whoever makes sure the study is ethical, and whatever incentive you give people for participating. That 1-in-5 study probably cost about $75,000.

For in-person or phone interviews, you have to pay people to ask the questions. The more folks in your sample, the more people you have to pay for longer. Then you have to vet those people to make sure they know what they’re doing and won’t influence people’s responses. And you have to pay for travel times to make sure those people get to the various campuses. And you have to figure out how to turn their responses into data for the computer which means either expensive Scantron machines or paying more people for data entry and then there’s the privacy concerns, because HTTPS doesn’t exist in the outside world, so somebody has to oversee the data entry….

You get the idea. All told, a study like that one could easily set you back $15 million. That’s more than the total budget your average Sociology department gets in a year.

There are also ethical concerns. Direct interviews may have a higher response rate, but they can also take an emotional toll on sexual assault victims who will have to discuss their trauma with a complete stranger. Science is not done in a vacuum (except for Astronomy), and you have to be careful not to hurt the very people you are studying in the process of learning from them. Additionally, $15 million is not a small amount of money to throw at a problem. It’s hard to justify spending that much on a fact-finding mission instead of, for instance, paying for every untested rape kit in the state of California. There are better ways to allocate our resources here.

5. Why Is This What You’re Fixated On

These numbers get complicated, but at this point it’s fairly clear that the 1-in-5 statistic is not as reliable as we assume it is. It’s probably too high (note: while it’s less likely, it could also be too low), and when accounting for systemic errors it’s probably somewhere in the 1-in-10 to 1-in-6 range. Where you think it lands depends a lot on what specific choices your preferred researchers made when handling the technical details of their study. Even the 1-in-5 authors believe in a much more nuanced take on the data.

That’s a good thing. Your average discourse in the media and in our political forums will always be more simplistic than the careful quantitative analyses of peer-reviewed journals. Scientists and scientific studies will disagree with each other based on their particular decisions over their particular methodologies. And while we don’t know for sure what the percentage is, we’ve narrowed it down quite a bit.

Specifically, we’ve narrowed it down to “too damn high”. 1 in 5 is too damn high. 1 in 10 is too damn high. 1 in 20 is too damn high. Even the more conservative studies outside the NCVS give staggeringly high totals of sexual assaults in our universities. We may not know exactly, quantifiably how bad the problem is, but we know that it’s bad, and warrants immediate action.

But the critics of this study seem to think otherwise. They seem to think that if there are flaws in this paper, then there’s no problem at all. They believe that because the studies we cite can’t guarantee us total certainty, there is no value in what they say. It is the worst sort of scientific illiteracy. Even if you allow for significant errors, and if anything I’ve been too harsh on the original paper here, the numbers would STILL be staggeringly high. You could assume that there was not a single sexual assault victim in either of the two universities who didn’t fill out that survey, and you’d STILL find that about 3% of women were assaulted during their time there.

The science of accounting for sexual assault on campus is tricky and imprecise. There is a lot of room for careful critique of the numbers we have, and many questions for which we don’t yet have answers. But don’t let those uncertainties become a smokescreen for what we do know.