Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

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.


Jack Vance said...

I think it is vital to understand that it is possible to believe the accusations, feel awful that law enforcement was never involved in the matter, and still conclude that PZ was wrong to do what he did. I see too many people unable or unwilling to make this distinction. Like you suggest, what PZ believes is not sufficient when it comes to public accusations of criminal behavior.

My Cats Are My Gods said...

I lost trust in PZ when he allowed his horde to viciously attack me and totally misrepresent me on his blog. It indicates that he is not only okay with defamation, he encourages it.

LadyAtheist said...

I had the same experience, so I lurk occasionally but I don't have a high opinion of PZ or his fans. This situation removed all doubt for me -- it was completely inappropriate and likely illegal. The appropriate response to such a letter is to hit "reply" and tell the person to inform the cops.

Anonymous said...

Any one in the Skeptical Community should know better that to make an accusation that, although it is far more likely (Rapes are actually known to happen), has no more convincing evidence than the resurrection story in the bible.

Although I do not agree with many of the philosophical implications that Shermer draws, and I find the sexism, misogyny, and dismissal of the female perspective on such issues repulsive, we CANNOT let that cause us to throw out the one founding principal of the movement. Just because we may or may not like the person that the charges are leveled at, it does not in any way impact the truth or how we should approach the question.

Remember, the idiots are watching!

No 2 Religion said...

PZ has always been about my way or the highway. While I like his no non-sense attacks on religious hypocrisy I have been much less enthused with his overall bashing of anyone who disagrees with him. This has been particularly true since he and several others on FtB totally screwed up Atheism+ with there one side attacks of those who did not wholly agree.

Unknown said...

PZ was a strong and admirable speaker for science and for keeping religion out of the law and the classroom. I loved the lectures I found on Youtube. But he really has made a joke of himself with this atheism plus group. The two groups do not have the same purpose or focus. Trying to tie them together is asking for trouble.

Anonymous said...

A good thing I see is that unlike PZ most of the skeptic community, including people that don't like PZ and support his not posting this vague stuff, is keeping the name of the woman involved quiet. Everyone knows who she is as she has talked about this for years. She's not perhaps the best person to be bringing these types of accusations, despite Carrie Poppy saying she believes her, but even so, people that PZ considers rape apologists and anti feminists, are respecting her privacy. They could score a lot of points outing her but they don't, because it's the right thing to do. If needed, in a court case against PZ, will he keep his vow of privacy also? PZ has sadly told this women he can't help her or contact her anymore, he used her for what he needed, getting Shermer in trouble, and now she is dumped. Onca again used.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure you grasp how probable it is that the allegations are true. Rape that cannot be proved in court &/or goes unreported is very very common, whereas false rape claims are not. This is backed up by official statistics & studies worldwide by organizations ie the FBI, which you can find pretty easily if you google it, but it's also a matter of basic logic - it is difficult to present evidence of a crime that goes on in private & may not leave any physical evidence of force, victims are often afraid to come forward & may have reservations having been taught that sex is shameful &etc... It is much more likely that the accusations against Shermer are true than they are not. I don't think there is anything morally wrong with Myers or anyone else sharing someone's personal testimony. Sure, it's not backed by adequate evidence to be certain, but we are not talking about locking the man up here - we're talking about warning women to be cautious around him, & warning him to cut it out. & I think that's a good thing. It's very unfortunate if it results in the distrust of an innocent man, but as a society we can't continue to ignore rape victims & allow accused rapists to never be questioned or monitored in any way, so I think to err on the side of probability & caution is preferred.