Thursday, August 15, 2013
A reluctant, sad judgment on PZ Myers
As many people who may read this no doubt already know, there has lately been a raging controversy within the organized skeptical/atheist/secular humanist community -- whatever you want to call it -- about rampant sexism among leadership and misbehavior by loutish male conference-goers. I subscribe to Free Inquiry, the publication of the Center for Inquiry which is among the accused institutions. I have long followed the Pharyngula blog of PZ Myers, who has championed the aggrieved women in this brouhaha.
That's as close as I get to the movement -- I'm a practitioner of rationalism and an avowed atheist, but I'm not an activist. So I don't have any firsthand knowledge about this. I must say however, that the torrents of crude, sexist and misogynist comments that appear on blog posts about this issue seem to powerfully vindicate the complainants.
Now, however, PZ has, in my view, screwed up. Rather than link to his original post, which may or may not stay up much longer anyway, I'll send you to this post by Jack Vance which summarizes the story and links out to further news and discussion. Briefly, PZ says he received communication from a woman who wishes to remain anonymous claiming that celebrity skeptic Michael Shermer got her drunk and raped her at a conference. He reprinted some of her allegations along with her assertion that she knows other women who have had similar experiences.
The Pharyngula commenters overwhelming back Myers -- there really isn't much of a discussion going on over there. Shermer, not surprisingly, has had his lawyer write a sternly worded letter demanding the post be taken down and seeming to imply further legal action. PZ Myers has largely kept silent on the matter since his original post, other than some cryptic remarks. Not that anybody is likely to care, but here's my take on this matter.
First of all, PZ already doesn't much like Shermer, who has has made some unseemly remarks of his own about the "feminism in skepticism" cause. I haven't thought all that much of Shermer as a skeptic since he started making claims to the effect that science proves the ideology of economic libertarianism to be correct. But not liking somebody is an excellent reason not to make yourself the instrument of questionable vengeance. So when in doubt, that should give you a presumption.
In this particular case, I don't think there's much doubt. The problem is that the accuser is anonymous, and refuses to specify even the time or place. The remaining accusations are pure hearsay, coming from the same anonymous accuser. Therefore, it is impossible for Shermer to defend himself. Anybody, anywhere, anytime, could completely fabricate such an accusation and post it on the Internet. While I trust PZ Myers and he says he trusts the accuser, that's obviously not good enough, because you might not happen to agree. PZ should not have done it.