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Journal of No. 118

August 14th, 2013

Spectral evidence & the skepto-atheist community explodes (again) over sex @ 04:34 pm

This post has been a long time coming. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it's particularly good, informative, or insightful.

jimhines' cartoon has been flying around recently:

While this was about science fiction cons, it applies perfectly well to atheist/skeptic/secular cons. That community has had some recent high-profile incidents, and some longer simmering arguments. I've been mostly watching from the sidelines; not because I don't care, but because I haven't been directly involved. I haven't been to any of these conventions. I don't really know the people involved, and certainly have no knowledge of the actual incidents. So I didn't think I had much to add other than a huge chance of foot-in-mouth disease.

I'd say the issue first reached prominence a couple years ago with Elevatorgate. At an atheist conference, Skepchick Rebecca Watson chatted with people way into the wee hours. When she finally left to go to her room, a gent entered the elevator with her and (during the trip up) invited her to his room "for coffee" (IIRC). She said no, they went their separate ways.

Later she blogged about the incident, naming no names, and suggested "Guys, don't do that."

All the forgoing happened while Dr. Pookie and I were in Peru.

On my return, all hell had broken loose across the blogosphere (some summaries here). Threads thousands of posts long were all over the place. Richard Dawkins definitely made his own foot-in-mouth insertion by essentially implying that because FGM and the burka is worse than being propositioned(?) in an elevator, the Skepchick had nothing to complain about.

Thousands of different lines in the sand were drawn, and various factions stopped speaking to each other, blogs switched networks, disinvitations to conferences, etc.. At the extreme end, lots of name-calling and threats. Some of the yuckiest people of this sort -- weird libertardian men's rights types -- formed the Slymepit, ironically(?) adopting a taunt of their detractors (who accused them of flinging slime through all the intertubes).

The next skirmish (as I saw it) centered on the presence or absence of a harassment policy at conventions. Since I don't go to these things, it wasn't of intense interest to me. But I have to say, in my recollection, some of the policies promoted by the anti-harassment crowd sounded like those absurd rules that some colleges instituted where you need an explicit, mutual, verbal agreement to hold hands.
Now I know these things probably need to be written so that they penetrate the skulls of the bad people, but you still have to live with the results.

By no means am I saying there shouldn't be anti-harassment policies. But I think it's not that hard to come up with a reasonable one. Jumping back to science fiction, John Scalzi talked not so long ago about the issue and pointed to the policy of LoneStarCon 3/Worldcon, which seems non-nonsense without being absurd.

Anyway, this flap was greeted with more "I'll go to this con, but not that one." kind of stuff.

OK, finally, the more recent stuff.

Skeptic and podcaster Karen Stollznow blogged about her experience with sexual harassment. She named no names or organizations, but that cat quickly escaped that bag. And the bag, I mean organization, complained about inaccuracies (and probably also threatened legal action). And thus the post has been taken down by SciAm (which is why I linked to a cache above).

Now this is, to me, a credible claim. Although she didn't name names, she put her own name on the accusation. And at least one coworker I've seen backs up her version of at least the harassment. (Again, there's too much electronic ink flying around to keep track of it all. I can't find that post now).

And most recently, PZ Myers published an anonymous accusation by someone claiming that she had been raped by Michael Shermer. Shermer's legal team responds predictably.

And here's where my foot inches near my mouth. If true, this is horrible, and Mike Shermer is a bad man. But how much credence can I and should I give an anonymous accusation in pharyngula's post (since edited to add a few more anonymous comments). I don't like rape. I don't want to believe the story. But I don't want to ignore an accusation like the metaphorical ostriches in the cartoon. I want to encourage women to talk about harassment and rape. But I don't want to encourage anonymous accusations. It is too much like spectral evidence. How do you defend yourself against an accusation that you appeared in someone's dream and tormented them? How do you defend yourself against an anonymous accusation of rape? [Not that you would have to in a court of law, but right now we're looking at the court of public opinion.]

If we stipulate that the story is true, that's of course a terrible thing, but based on what I've seen -- an anonymous claim -- I'm afraid I can't place much weight on it. This is not the same as believing that it is a hoax. I just can't credit this claim. And it seems to me that PZ Myers is incredibly irresponsible for broadcasting it. Now he knows the identity of the source, so he may have good reasons to trust that person, but that sort of trust is not transitive.

The story is developing, and now that legal papers are flying, more information may ultimately come out that will persuade me to reevaluate how much credit to put in the accusation.

But in the meantime, of course, more sides are being chosen, and lines in the sand being drawn. And thousands of ignorant comments all over the interwebs. This one was mine.
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Date:August 15th, 2013 01:59 pm (UTC)

Further info

Lousy Canuck has a detailed timeline of accusations & corroborations. Among them is the support of Karen from a coworker I lost track of. And a lot of smoke (not all of it anonymous) about Shermer. And a few things about Lawrence Krauss & other notables.

Edited at 2013-08-15 02:02 pm (UTC)
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Date:August 20th, 2013 05:58 pm (UTC)
What Shermer did, I don't know. But I think that broadcasting anonymous allegations of a serious crime is contemptible, because there's no way for Shermer to speak in his own defense. He can't claim he wasn't at that conference, or that he has witnesses who can vouch for his behavior on that occasion, or anything else, because the accusation is anonymous. There's a reason our legal system doesn't admit anonymous testimony.

Also, there's this: "I reached out to one organization that was involved in the event at which I was raped, and they refused to take my concerns seriously."

I interpret this to indicate that she did not contact law enforcement. If the accuser won't call the cops, what action should the organization hosting the conference take?

I sympathize with anyone who's been sexually assaulted. But I don't think we can junk the normal standards by which we judge guilt and innocence for one particular type of accusation.
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Date:August 22nd, 2013 03:37 pm (UTC)
The latest wrinkle on the story I've seen is that because Shermer does not know who the accuser is, he must have raped many women.

Journal of No. 118