If You Promote a Story That Turns Out to Be False, Don’t You Have an Obligation to Correct It?

In August 2013, almost two years ago, I wrote about a discouraging story in which skeptic Karen Stollznow wrote about years of harassment by a colleague, later alleged to be CFI’s Benjamin Radford. Seven months later, in March 2014, I wrote an update when I heard that Radford was threatening to sue for libel and Stollznow was seeking help to put together a legal defense fund.

That was the last I heard about this… until Wednesday of last week, when I got an e-mail from a friend alerting me to a post on Hemant Mehta’s site which not only reported a new development in the story, but accused me and several other bloggers of intentionally ignoring it!

What we now have is a document purporting to be a joint statement signed by both Radford and Stollznow. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to address the accusation that’s been made against me.

Hemant’s post seemed inexplicably hostile, strongly implying that I was “pretend[ing] like [the statement] doesn’t exist” and that it was “irresponsible” of me not to write about it. It’s hard to miss the tone of accusation in passages like this:

And yet every single one of the bloggers I linked to above has been silent about this matter. Unless I missed it, they haven’t posted the joint statement. They haven’t updated old posts with a mention of it. They haven’t offered their opinion on it one way or the other. As far as they’re concerned, Radford is still a bad guy even though the statement explicitly says he didn’t do what he was accused of doing.

They owe him an apology.

After all this aggressive, accusatory rhetoric, Hemant walked it back a bit near the end (“Maybe they’re just completely unaware of the statement”). But since he considered that possibility, I fail to see why he couldn’t have contacted me first to check if that was in fact the case. A simple “Did you know about this? Are you planning to write about it?” would have sufficed, and would certainly have been less effort than it took him to write that post. I’m not hard to get in touch with, but he didn’t even make the attempt. (Greta Christina, Stephanie Zvan and Rebecca Watson also report that Hemant didn’t contact them in advance. Notably, he did contact Karen Stollznow, but mysteriously, she neither confirmed nor denied making the statement.)

Just to be clear, I’m not particularly close to any of the people involved in this story. I follow Karen Stollznow on Twitter, but she’s said nothing about it in recent months. I don’t know why Hemant would think I had some inside channel of information, or that I would immediately have found out about any new development, and I especially don’t know why he would choose to ascribe any of this to malice. When I saw his post on Wednesday, I wrote to him to explain this and to ask for an addendum clarifying the point. He refused to add one, to which I can only say… well, you can see the title of this post for yourself.

As far as the document itself, it presents itself as a joint statement by Radford and Stollznow, explaining that they had a relationship which ended in acrimony, that there were “misunderstandings”, but that “it would be wrong for anyone to believe” that he harassed her. This strangely oblique wording was undoubtedly the result of some negotiated compromise. (This from Dubito Ergo Sum is a good summary of what the document does and doesn’t say.)

The legal system is, at best, an imperfect tool for finding truth. When Stollznow asked for help for her legal fund, the secular community came through magnificently, but even the large sum she raised was only enough to begin putting together a defense. Prolonged court cases can easily run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if the two sides have unequal resources, one person can wear the other down through the sheer expense and exhaustion of protracted litigation. I don’t have any inside information, but I’d bet something like this is what happened (in fact, I predicted as much). This is especially true since, as Stollznow has said on social media, she was in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy. That’s an extremely stressful situation where any person would be tempted just to sign a piece of paper and make the case go away so as to have one less thing to worry about.

I have no regrets about reporting the initial allegations; I believed and still do believe that they’re newsworthy. The secular community has historically been dismissive and hostile toward victims of harassment, and if we’re going to fix this, we need to do a better job of listening and taking people seriously when they speak out about it. For the same reason, I neither regret nor apologize for having donated to Stollznow’s defense fund.

I don’t put much stock in a statement signed under duress, as this one clearly was. Independent of the outcome of this case, we have more than enough evidence to conclude that Radford is an untrustworthy sleazeball. Among other things, he previously posted a document which purported to be a recantation by Stollznow, but which she hadn’t signed or agreed to (see March 22, 2014 entry on this post). He also posted a private photo of the two of them that was seemingly taken against her will (“Update 7”). Even before this harassment case, he wrote a long essay arguing that women often lie about rape, using the real name and photo of one victim. Last but not least, there’s his resort to the legal system as a bludgeon, something more typical of thin-skinned and belligerent pseudoscientists than of skeptics. Even without considering the truth or falsity of the harassment allegations, I believe his own public behavior offers more than sufficient grounds for everyone to make up their minds about what sort of person he is. And I don’t think it speaks well of any skeptics who reacted to Stollznow’s initial claims with knee-jerk disbelief, but now want everyone to treat this new statement as gospel truth.

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