Two weeks ago, BuzzFeed posted an article with allegations of sexual misconduct against Lawrence Krauss.
Due to the sources, the wording and how factually wrong they were when recounting previous episodes within the atheist/skeptic community, I was skeptical about the claims made against Krauss — it was, after all, negligently bad journalism:
[W]e’re supposed to believe these three ‘journalists’ got everything else right? How do we know they did not spin or played with the anonymous alleged victims’ accounts? I’m sorry, I can’t do that — they blew up their credibility. After taking so many jabs at our community with false information, how does their account of what other people said does not amount to hearsay? As a journalist, if I wasn’t able to get the basic facts right, I would certainly not be suited to report accurately about what other people said. But that’s just me, I’m weird like that, asking for evidence and rejecting gossip as sources of news.
I don’t know if Krauss or any other prominent skeptic has gone too far or even crossed the line of what is legal. I do know, though, that these kinds of publications only do a disservice to any real victims there might be: the best way to help the victims is to not instrumentalize their tragedy; and from the looks of it, Aldhous, Ghorayshi, and Hughes did exactly that.
Prominent skeptics have been on the receiving end of a smear campaign for years now; so when you’re writing an article about allegations against anyone who has been in that position, you have to make sure you have an air-tight case. This latter part involves having good sources and making sure you are keeping all your biases in check. That was simply not the case.
Krauss published his response to the allegations, denying it all and giving his account of the events the BuzzFeed article mentioned to indict him; those seem like reasonable explanations.
I was ready to dismiss the case as another episode of the smear campaign against vocal atheists that has been occurring for the past few years, but then Dr. Jerry Coyne posted his independent findings in regards to Krauss:
After that article appeared, I did some digging on my own, and came up with three cases that have convinced me that Krauss engaged in sexual predation of both a physical nature (groping) and of a verbal nature (offensive and harassing comments). The allegations that convinced me are not public, but the accusers are sufficiently credible that I believe their claims to be true. Further, these claims buttress the general allegation of sexual misbehavior made in BuzzFeed. In my view, then, Krauss had a propensity to engage in sexual misconduct. I therefore disassociate myself from the man. He has, of course, denied every allegation in the BuzzFeed article, but the cases that pushed me to write this post aren’t in that piece. But to me these other cases make it likely that at least some of the allegations in BuzzFeed are true.
Going back to the credibility issue (which is paramount when reporting sexual misconduct with anonymous sources/victims): Coyne has got factually right all or almost all the previous attempts to smear vocal atheists; he has adamantly countered the false allegations about sexism in the atheist/skeptic community, and for all I know he has no sympathy for either the likes of serial liars like Rebecca Watson and Melody Hensley or their post-modernist dogma. More to the point, he even had had dinner a few days earlier with Sam Harris, Matt Dillahunty and Krauss himself before their appearance at the Chicago Theater.
That’s why I think is fair to say there was a greater chance for him to be biased towards believing Krauss over the allegations against him. And something that, in my view, makes more credible his post is that the outcome of his own investigation was not tainted by the BuzzFeed article or sources, I mean, there was no fruit of the poisonous tree.
Additionally, Coyne did not use his post to make disparaging comments about the atheist/skeptic community. It was about a predator and his victims —which should be the focus of any article alleging sexual misconduct, in my opinion—.
So I believe Coyne. His respect for the truth and facts (what BuzzFeed ‘journalists’ decry as “rejecting all kinds of faith“), and his ability to keep his own biases in check grant him the credibility anyone would need to make allegations against anyone else regarding sexual misconduct like groping and harassing. (The “offensive comments” bit that Coyne mentions don’t bother me for there is no right to not be offended.)
To recap, then: there are only three credible allegations of sexual misconduct against Lawrence Krauss. This doesn’t mean the BuzzFeed allegations are not true —as this new finding makes them all the more plausible—, they might as well be true… but if they are, the ‘journalists’ in charge screwed up by mixing those truths with lies about the atheist/skeptic community and its recent past. This is what you get when you instrumentalize other people’s tragedy to advance your agenda — you revictimize them, and understate their suffering (not that BuzzFeed vultures care about victims, in the first place).
I stand by my remarks about BuzzFeed‘s crappy journalism, though, particularly in regards to the Krauss affair. One of those ‘journalists’, BuzzFeed‘s very science editor Virginia Hughes, has been actually harassing Matt Dillahunty even after he told her “No comments” in regards to the original piece.
It is not outside the realm of possibility for Lawrence Krauss to have engaged in sexual misconducts; for the BuzzFeed original piece to be somewhere between complete fabrications and an assorted mix of half-truths meshed with half-lies; and for the atheist/skeptic community to be on the receiving end of a smear campaign. These are not mutually exclusive assertions, and might well be true all at the same time.
I contend that the right thing to do —the skeptical thing to do!— is to be skeptical of BuzzFeed‘s claims, and believe Krauss engaged in sexual misconduct once credible evidence was brought about.
In the end, that is what it means to be a skeptic: to believe only to the extent of the quality of the evidence. And when reporting about sexual misconduct with anonymous victims, credibility goes a long way, so people who want to be believed better have a fairly decent respect for facts. That’s the abysmal difference between Jerry Coyne —or those who reported about Harvey Weinstein for that matter— and the BuzzFeed reporters.
** Update March 14, 2018: Sam Harris has weighed in, and makes points similar to mine; adding also the need to identify the degrees of sexual misconduct in a continuum, and for the punishment to fit the crime (i.e. if being inept at flirting or socially awkward can be interpreted as creepy but it definitely is not the same as rape or sexual assault).