The Amelioration of Uncertainty

What the data doesn’t tell you

Andrew Gelman recently commented on the difficulties of measuring or interpreting just about anything, and gave an example about sexual harassment in the Marine Corps. I wanted to relay a story. There is no general conclusion to be drawn that I can see; it’s merely offered to sheltered academics to show that people are a hell of a lot more interesting than data.

The year was 2004. We (the Marines) had just taken over a quiet area of Iraq from the 82nd Airborne. While not much had happened since the invasion, insurgents were concentrating forces there and this region would become the hottest part of the War on Terror for the next three or four years. Within weeks of our arrival the place exploded resulting in the first Battle of Fallujah. The events described below took place just after the first battle and during the buildup to the second battle.

We were stationed on an old British/Iraqi air base across the Euphrates from Fallujah proper. We were mainly running convoy operations, but had about a dozen collateral duties including everything from intelligence to construction projects. One of those duties was to coordinate the MPs and NCIS agents on law enforcement issues.

Within a short period, three separate females from other units reported being raped. After the third allegation the command feared a rape epidemic and took general action.

All three incidents happened at night in dark areas surrounding the sleeping quarters. The area was dark for a reason. Blackout conditions were observed because the base was being mortared and rocketed daily. After the accusations though, a high level decision was made to put flood lights in those areas.

This was risky. At that time, most people lived in closely packed tents that only had a thigh-high layer of sandbags for protection. Within a year or so sleeping areas had dramatically better protection, but this was still early in the war. In general mortar/rocket attacks were ineffective because the population density of this base was low. However, the area around the sleeping tents was packed with people and if the insurgents knew where to aim they could increase their chances of hitting someone.

Those floodlights made perfect aim points. All the insurgents had to do was point their tubes at the light and adjust the angle until they hit something. They did hit one of the transient’s tents which housed up to 60 people, but was empty at the time. It’s only dumb luck and the insurgent’s extraordinary incompetence that prevented anyone from being killed.

I had doubts about the allegations. All three females were armed with at least a rifle and ka-bar, and possibly had a pistol as well. It was hard to believe three heavily armed Marines had been raped. I never voiced my concern to the NCIS agents doing the investigation, but I did talk privately with one of the senior enlisted MPs. He assured me rape was possible under those circumstances based on his civilian law enforcement experience.

After three months of NCIS investigations, all three females recanted their stories.

The females were having affairs (many of those involved were married) with male Marines and had unprotected sex. Fearing a pregnancy, but not wanting to admit the prohibited acts of adultery or having sex in a combat zone, they claimed rape in order to get “morning after” pills from Navy medical.

The flood lights were removed and all involved were charged and prosecuted.

There was much grousing about the lights, but personally I was grateful the rapes weren’t real. The ladies were lying about love. It had the odd effect of restoring my faith in humanity more than a little.

October 8, 2013
  • October 9, 2013Daniel Lakeland

    Incidentally, I’m glad to see you’re firmly in the camp of data as singular abstract noun ;-)

  • October 9, 2013Joseph

    I’ve heard tell of some godless communists using a different convention, but that’s not how I roll.

    When I lived in the UK everyone said “Maths” instead of math or mathematics. That’s an even bigger sin against the American language.

  • October 10, 2013Corey

    Philistines! The data are clearly against y’all! (Or is it “youse”?)

  • October 10, 2013Joseph

    Every time someone mentions “godless communists” a Canadian responds. It’s like their ears are burning or something.

    My father’s family hails from the mountains in east Tennessee, where my grandfather spoke with an unusual (and pleasant) accent which is supposedly closer to colonial English or the way the English spoke the language before it gained it’s current sound.

    He would have said “you’ins” for “you all”.

  • October 10, 2013Nick Cox

    Good story, but I think you’re shooting at a target that you can’t see and likely doesn’t exist. I don’t work with data on sex and sexuality but every paper I’ve seen on that has a serious discussion of the limitations of the data.

    One problem is the number of sexual partners reported by males and females not tallying, for which the problems include (a) people whose answer is a large integer not knowing what it is, or being determined to lie about it; (b) whether the sample includes prostitutes in the right proportion. (I say “include”; everyone past adolescence can think of others.)

    Even “sheltered academics” do know that people often lie about sex, or that they may have problems telling the truth because they may not know it exactly.

  • October 10, 2013Joseph

    Nick, interesting but recall the words “There is no general conclusion to be drawn that I can see”.

  • October 10, 2013Corey

    Hey, I resent that — I’m no communist!

    I’m a socialist.

  • October 10, 2013Corey


    (Seriously, though, single-payer is awesome, y’all. Try it, you’ll like it! The first hit is free.)

  • October 10, 2013Joseph

    Don’t beat yourself up over it Corey, no one’s perfect.

    Jaynes thought the probability density in QM was really a charge density, Fisher thought smoking didn’t cause cancer, Jeffreys thought the earth’s plates weren’t moving, and big chunks of Newton’s Principia are inspired but wrong. So you’re in good company.

  • October 11, 2013Corey

    Hah! Jaynes was ostensibly a physicist but was mistaken about QM, Fisher was ostensibly a leading statistician but was mistaken about inference from observational studies, Jeffreys was a ostensibly a geophysicist but was mistaken about a major geophysical theory, and Newton was ostensibly a genius of math and physics but, as you as, big chunks of the Principia are wrong. If I blunder in my policy preferences, well, I never claimed to be a political theorist, so why would you compare me to those morons?


  • October 11, 2013Corey

    (Darn it, I forgot the style here does not make links visually obvious. The word “morons” hides a link.)

  • October 11, 2013Daniel Lakeland

    Corey, and Joseph, I think that visual style thing is broken. Perhaps a little tweaking of the wordpress template thingies is in order. Text that is a link should be obviously differently styled so I know to consider clicking, whether it’s color or underline or monospace font or something.

  • October 15, 2013ishi

    I’m not sure how accurate that story is: “the ladies were lying about love”. I bet it was lust.
    One can mention that bakunin wanted a world with ‘no gods or masters’, presumably because ‘god doesn’t play dice’. schrodinger regretted the ‘quantum jumps’.

  • October 28, 2013ezra abrams

    i know it is a foward base in wartime…but you have people facing serious consequences for a little sex
    I mean, wtf ? why should a little sex be of such import ? isn’t that the big story here ? and the grotesque anti female quality: it is the pregnant women who bear ALL the burden

  • October 28, 2013Joseph


    Some points in no particular order:

    -The men were charged with violating orders and committing adultery if they were married. The consequences for the females were likely greater though because they had filed false police reports.

    -Getting pregnant required returning the mother to the US. Not being able to perform the job you were trained and sent there to do is considered a big deal in combat zones.

    -What if one of those women gets pregnant and doesn’t know it? Highly athletic women can easily lose their periods so they may not know it even into the second trimester. Who knows what kind of situation they’ll get into in a combat zone? I knew a female Marine Officer who was unknowingly pregnant while we were training back in the US and who had a miscarriage after falling off a piece of training equipment from a considerable height.

    -Having sex can easily destroy unit cohesion. I’ve seen it destroy entire units. Everything was fine with one Army unit despite all the sex-capades right up until a few months before leaving, at which point the unit imploded. The usual Jealousy and love triangles is all it took.

    -Most of those involved were committing adultery, which greatly increases the chance of problems of all kinds.

    -It was fairly common for married personal who had no kids to deploy at the same time. Often they were stationed on the same FOBs. Technically, the no-sex order applied to them, but I never saw it enforced. These couples were usually older and not the 19-20 year olds described in the post, so they weren’t stupid about things. Applying this policy to such couples struck me as obviously insane and I was glad it was quietly ignored.

    -I’m not quite sure what to think. We also weren’t allowed alcohol except for a few beers on Super Bowl Sunday in later years. Yet many of the European troops in Afghanistan drank quite a bit of alcohol and they seemed to do fine (at least by European standards). Maybe it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.

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