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Why Are Secular Skeptic Communities Failing To Address Sexual Crime?

You may assume, due to their lack of church involvement and intense focus on the pursuit of truth, that skeptics wouldn’t silence #MeToo — but they are.

It’s no secret that Christianity has a history of mishandling sexual misconduct allegations. From the Catholic Church’s well-documented pattern of silencing child abuse victims, to evangelicals brushing aside allegations against both Roy Mooreand Donald Trump, there’s a common theme that one should not touch God’s anointed, no matter what they do. One would think secular communities that promote skepticism — a method of determining truth where beliefs are questioned until sufficient evidence is presented — would do a better job of handling sexual misconduct allegations. Yet, a recent BuzzFeed article documenting the many sexual misconduct allegations against famous physicist Lawrence Krauss, taken with the attendant responses from the atheist community, demonstrate how even skeptics have a long way to go.

To be fair, several prominent atheist organizations and activists severed ties with Krauss shortly after the article’s publication. The American Humanist Association released a statement on March 9 saying they would no longer invite him to speak at any upcoming conferences, and they are considering rescinding his 2015 Humanist of the Year Award. The Center for Inquirylikewise announced that they were suspending their association with Krauss “pending further information,” as did evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne after doing his own investigation.

However, author Sam Harris, whose 2004 book The End of Faith first launched the so-called New Atheist movement, voiced his doubts about the accusations against Krauss on his “Waking Up” podcast, saying “there were many things obvious about [the BuzzFeed article] that suggested that we shouldn’t rush to accept all of these allegations,” and that he hoped Krauss “finds some way to redeem himself.”

And Krauss isn’t the only prominent skeptic with allegations against him. News broke last week that David Silverman had been “abruptly fired” from his role as the president of American Atheists due to both financial and sexual misconduct allegations. On top of this, much has been written about the multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against Skeptic Magazine editor-in-chief Michael Shermer and historian Richard Carrier—yet they are still invited to speak at atheist and skeptic conferences.

What is most troubling about the Krauss story is how many in the atheist movement knew about his reputation before the BuzzFeed article came out, including this writer. If secular communities want to provide a better alternative to religious institutions, why didn’t anyone confront Krauss sooner? Why are Shermer and Carrier still given a platform despite having similar accusations to those levied against Krauss?

Perhaps it’s another sign that people in general are inclined to protect their beloved leaders, regardless of religious affiliation. The only difference is that while the church uses God’s grace to cover up sexual misconduct, the atheist movement uses what sociology professor Marcello Truzzi referred to as “pseudoskepticism”: denial instead of doubt, and discrediting instead of investigating.

I recently interviewed Minnesota Atheists associate president Stephanie Zvan for my Bi Any Means podcast, and I asked her if she’d made any similar observations. “I think there’s definitely an element of that,” she said. “I think there are probably a good half-dozen ways that the secular movement goes about justifying disbelieving women.” Zvan calls this use of pseudoskepticism “hyper-skepticism,” where instead of looking at all the evidence and information presented, one nitpicks tiny details that do not fit one’s preconceived ideas.

She used the example of the 2014 BuzzFeed article detailing sexual misconduct allegations against Shermer and how, despite there being “a couple of people contradicting small parts of various things in there because it’s never completely a clear-cut story,” the overwhelming evidence suggests that Shermer, according to Zvan, is a predator. “But what we get instead from skeptics,” she said, “what they’re calling ‘skepticism’ is them trying to pick apart the story of that evening and saying, ‘Well, this little tiny detail doesn’t make sense,’ as in it does make sense in their head—that it’s not the way they think the story should go. And that’s not skepticism.”

‘I think there are probably a good half-dozen ways that the secular movement goes about justifying disbelieving women.’ Click To Tweet

Iranian atheist blogger Kaveh Mousavi recently experienced this hyper-skepticism firsthand. On March 17th, he wrote a blog post,

“Skepticism Means Believing the Victims of Lawrence Krauss,”
echoing Zvan’s criticisms of skeptics “who choose to disbelieve the victims of Lawrence Krauss, or to be silent about it, or to pretend it is a murky and unclear case and act agnostic about it.” The post received a number of negative comments including one that compared multiple independent sources making the same allegation against Krauss to multiple independent sources claiming to see Bigfoot. As Mousavi explained in a follow-up blog post, there’s a big difference between an extraordinary claim (e.g. seeing Jesus, Bigfoot, UFOs, etc.) and ordinary claims (e.g. a man groped a woman). The supernatural claims require extraordinary evidence, while the latter doesn’t.

“These hyper-skeptic dudebros are harmful to human society because they systematically defend sexual assault and fight against the rights of women. They are harmful to atheist movements and causes because they encourage tribalism instead of honest self-criticism and oversight, and harmful to skepticism itself, as they blunt this sharp tool, sacrificing it at the altar of their celebrity hero-idols.”

A common technique used in skepticism is “Occam’s razor,” a “scientific and philosophical rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.” For example, if a man claims to have psychic powers that enable him to talk to the dead, either he can really talk to the dead, or he is just doing mentalist cold-reading magic tricks to convince everyone he’s speaking to the dead. So far the evidence suggests he’s more likely to be doing mentalist cold-reading magic tricks.

When it comes to the allegations against Krauss, either he’s right that a bunch of women are attacking him simply because he’s famous, or he really is a sexual predator. Since studies estimate only 8 of 136 reported rape cases are false (RAINN estimates only 310 out of every thousand rapes are even reported to the police), and given the fact Coyne did his own investigation and found the accusers’ stories do add up, it’s easier to assume Krauss is a predator. So why do many skeptics doubt sexual misconduct allegations?

Even if you reason as precisely as a computer, you’re still subject to ‘garbage in; garbage out.’ Click To Tweet

I asked this to Zvan in a short follow-up interview through email. She told me that there are two factors at work here. First, there’s people’s unwillingness to believe their heroes have done terrible things. The second is, according to Zvan, skeptics confusing critical thinking with expertise. “The people who do the best jobs of fooling themselves on sexual harassment haven’t bothered to study harassment and assault,” she said. “They may have a handful of stats picked up from a YouTube video, but even if they’re accurate, they’re no substitute for a background in the subject. Even if you reason as precisely as a computer, you’re still subject to ‘garbage in; garbage out.’”

So how can skeptics remain skeptical without silencing survivors, or automatically dismissing women’s stories? Zvan said sometimes it’s best to remain silent and listen. “Skepticism requires epistemic humility,” she said. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, either because you don’t have the background or because you don’t have access to enough information to get a clear picture, you don’t have to shout your uninformed opinion to the world. We’re supposed to be working against ignorant pundits, not becoming them.”