By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
"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.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this newspaper, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs, and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, Women's Funding Network and their allies have often called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.
Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as the WFN held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.
But then we looked at the "science" and the media's willingness to regurgitate, without question, these incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.
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 if 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," Schapiro said. "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, Schapiro reverses herself.
"Well, yes, these are specific numbers," Schapiro backpedals. "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 down the rabbit hole. The numbers have the weight of fact and can properly be cited as actual incidents of juvenile prostitution, she insists. But when pressed to justify the broad and unsupported assumptions of her study, she says the study is just a work in progress and the numbers are only approximations.
Schapiro's grasp on empirical rigor is such that when asked point-blank to choose between her two contradictory interpretations—estimates or facts—she opts for "all of the above."
"I would square the circle by saying that you can look at them both ways," she says.
Any reporter who had read the methodology of the Schapiro report would have been left with doubts, and any reporter who followed up would probably have been treated to the same baffling circuit of non-answers. The fact that the study's findings continue to be rebroadcast in news outlets across the country suggests that not one reporter has bothered to read the study about which they are writing.
"You see this kind of thing a lot, unfortunately," says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute who writes frequently about statistics. "The kind of skepticism that reporters apply to a statement by a politician just doesn't get applied to studies."
David Finkelhor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center says he understands the pressure on reporters to cite figures when they're writing about juvenile prostitution, but it's something they need to resist, because despite what groups like the Women's Funding Network would have you believe, there simply are no good statistics.
"You have to say, 'We don't know. Estimates have been made, but none of them have a real scientific basis to them,'" Finkelhor says. "All you can say is, 'This is the number the police know about, and we think there are more than that, but we don't know how many more.'"
IN HER OWN online photos, the woman who commissioned the Schapiro Group study looks to be in her 50s, with blue eyes, graying hair, and a taste for dangly earrings.
Kaffie McCullough first approached the Schapiro Group about conducting a study of juvenile prostitution in Georgia in 2007 when, as director of A Future Not a Past, she realized that having scientific-sounding numbers makes all the difference in the world.
In early 2007, McCullough approached the Georgia Legislature to ask for money for a regional assessment center to track juvenile prostitution.
"We had no research, no nothing. The legislators didn't even know about it," she recalls. "We got a little bit. We got about 20 percent of what we asked for."
Later that year, the first Schapiro Group counts were made, and when McCullough returned to the Legislature the following session, she had the study's statistics in hand.
"When we went to the Legislature with those counts, it gave us traction—night and day," she says. "That year, we got all the rest of that money, plus we got a study commission."
McCullough touts the fundraising benefits of the study whenever she can. Since the Schapiro study was picked up for replication nationwide by the Women's Funding Network, McCullough has acted as a sort of technical consultant for state groups as they debate whether to invest money in the project. Whenever she's asked, McCullough tells the local groups that the money they spend will come back to them with hefty dividends.
"I would say, 'The research costs money, but we've been able to broker—I don't know what it is now, I think it's over $1.3, $1.6 million in funding that we never would have gotten,'" McCullough says.