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Women's Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science 

Schapiro Group data wasn't questioned by mainstream media.

Wednesday, Mar 23 2011
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"This is a logical fallacy," says Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University, who reviewed the study at our request. "Consider this analogy: Imagine that 100 people were shown pictures of various automobiles and asked to identify the make, and that 38 percent of the time people misidentified Fords as Chevrolets. Using the Schapiro logic, this would mean that 38 percent of Fords on the street actually are Chevys."

But the Georgia sponsors were happy with the results — after all, the scary-sounding study agreed with what they were saying all along. So the Women's Funding Network paid Schapiro to expand the study to Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. (Georgia's Kayrita Anderson sits on the board of the Women's Funding Network.) The WFN says it would like to run the study in all 50 states.

The count of online classifieds featuring "young women" is repeated every three months to track how the numbers change over time. That's the source of Richardson's claim of a 64 percent increase in child prostitution in Minnesota in a matter of months.

Finkelhor says that's not how a scientific study is supposed to work. "They don't tell you what the confidence intervals are, so these changes could just be noise," he says. "When the Minnesota count goes from 102 to 112, that's probably just random fluctuations." There's a more fundamental issue, of course: "The trend analysis is simply a function of the number of images on these site. ... It's not necessarily an indication that there's an increase in the number of juveniles involved."

Despite these flaws, the Women's Funding Network, which has held rallies across the nation, has been flogging the results relentlessly through national press releases and local member organizations. In press releases, the group goes so far as to compare its conjured-up data to actual hard numbers for other social ills.

"Monthly domestic sex trafficking in Minnesota is more pervasive than the state's annually reported incidents of teen girls who died by suicide, homicide, and car accidents (29 instances combined); infants who died from SIDS (6 instances); or women of all ages murdered in one year (37 instances)," the study reads. Of course, those other figures are rigorously compiled medical and law enforcement records of documented incidents, so it's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

The police who tally many of those actual statistics — as well as records of face-to-face encounters with juvenile prostitutes — don't seem to be very impressed by the statistics put forward by the Women's Funding Network. "The methodology that they used doesn't really show the numbers that back it up," says Sgt. John Bandemer, who heads the Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul, Minn. "We take it with a grain of salt."


The experts we consulted all agreed the Schapiro Group's published methodology raises more questions than it answers. So we went to the Schapiro Group to ask those questions.

Beth Schapiro founded the Schapiro Group in 1984, starting out mostly with political consulting. The bulk of her group's work, she says, consists of public opinion research. In 2007, the group installed its own phone-banking center. The group's website advertises services including customer satisfaction surveys and "voter persuasion calls."

Counting hard-to-find exploitation victims wasn't exactly in the company's repertoire when it was asked by A Future Not a Past to devise a study on juvenile prostitution in 2007, but Schapiro jumped at the opportunity.

The Georgia studies included efforts to count juvenile prostitutes on the street, at hotels, and in escort services, but they also marked the debut of the problematic online classifieds study that would later be reproduced in other states.

In a phone call this month, Schapiro insisted that her study was the first effort to scientifically determine the number of juvenile prostitutes — a claim that would likely surprise the authors of dozens of previous studies, several of which are footnoted in her report.

When we asked Schapiro and Rusty Parker, the leader of the classifieds study, to fill in some of the missing pieces in their methodology, they had a hard time coming up with straight answers. In fact, Parker couldn't remember key information about how he constructed the study. When asked where he got the sample pictures used to calibrate the all-important 38 percent error rate, he wasn't sure. "It was a while back," he says. "I forget exactly where we got them from."

Parker was equally fuzzy on how the researchers knew the ages of the people pictured in the control group. "Um ... I'm afraid I do not remember," he says.

You might say that this is important information. The Schapiro Group has been telling the world that it cracked the alchemical code that transforms dumb guesses into hard statistics, and that the magic number is .38. But the leader of the study can't remember the procedure he followed to get that number.

Neither Schapiro nor Parker had any answers when asked whether there was any empirical reason to believe their two critical assumptions: that online photos always represent what the prostitutes actually look like, and that the six handpicked observers conducting the state studies have exactly the same error rate as the initial test batch of 100 random citizens.

Instead, Schapiro beat a hasty retreat, saying the study results shouldn't be read as actual incidents of prostitution. "We're the first to tell you, this is not a precise count of the number of girls being prostituted," she says. "We make no bones about that."

Of course, a precise count of the number of girls being prostituted is exactly what the statistics are being presented as in the media, in press releases, and in Schapiro's own study. When this is pointed out, she reverses herself: "Well, yes, these are specific numbers. ... And yes, they are hard numbers, and they are numbers that we stand completely behind."

This is the kind of cognitive whiplash you have to endure if you try to follow Schapiro's reasoning. She insists that the numbers have the weight of fact, and can properly be cited as actual incidents of juvenile prostitution. But when pressed to justify her study's broad and unsupported assumptions, she says it is a work in progress and the numbers are only approximations.

About The Author

Nick Pinto

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