Answering the Terrible Defenses of Krauss

Answering the Terrible Defenses of Krauss February 26, 2018

Since the story broke late last week in Buzzfeed about the numerous allegations of sexual harassment and creepy behavior by Lawrence Krauss, we’ve been treated to a litany of bad arguments in his defense, many by his wife, who used a secondary Twitter account to engage people on the issue. The arguments are almost uniformly illogical and disingenuous.

krauss
via Jvangiel. CC BY-SA 3.0.

What she mostly does is attack the credibility of the accusers and the outlet that tell their story. She calls Buzzfeed an “online gossip rag.” But since 2011, when Ben Smith was hired as editor-in-chief, they’ve built a serious news site that has broken many important stories. They have an investigative reporting team led by Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs, who came over from ProPublica. And the science editor, Virginia Hughes, was one of the reporters on the Krauss story. Full disclosure: I worked with Virginia at Science Blogs. She is a reporter with enormous integrity who follows the facts very closely. So to try to dismiss the story as coming from an “online gossip rag” is a dishonest attempt to divert attention from the actual allegations in the article.

She and many others also attack Rebecca Watson and Jen McCreight, neither of whom are among the accusers, they’ve only commented on it. And they’ve focused a lot of hatred on Melody Hensley, as though she were the only accuser. But that isn’t remotely true. By my count, in this article alone, these are the accusers:

Melody Hensley
“A” (who wishes to remain anonymous, though I’m almost positive I know who it is)
Nora (a student at Case Western)
Melanie Thomson (who witnessed him grab another woman’s breast at a skeptic’s conference in Australia, along with Michael Marshall and Jo Alabaster.
Four former employees of Arizona State’s Origins Project (anonymously). They include a 19 year old undergrad with two witnesses confirming her story of his creepy behavior.

That’s 13 separate people who either were the victims or the witnesses of their victimization. They come from multiple universities, three different countries, at a variety of events over a long period of time. As a result of some of those investigations, two institutions — Case Western Reserve University and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics — banned him from their campuses. And both Arizona State University and Australian National University said on the record that he lied about what their investigation of those complaints concluded.

This is not a he said/she said. It’s a he said/13 other people said and three major educational institutions said. And those aren’t the only ones. I know of several other people with similar stories who are afraid to talk about them in public for fear of being attacked just like the accusers are now being attacked.

This is how tribalism and hero worship operates. It’s why men in power can get away with this kind of thing for so long with impunity, because there is a natural tendency not to believe anyone who accuses those we view as members of our tribe of any wrongdoing, and it’s much stronger when that person is considered a leader or a celebrity. It allows this kind of predatory, creepy behavior to go on until a tipping point is reached. We may now be a that point, which means the attacks are only going to get worse.

Ironically, Krauss himself demonstrated this with his astonishing defense of Jeffrey Epstein after he pleaded guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution. He originally faced 40 charges, but somehow got a deal to plead guilty to just one and spent only 13 months in prison (the benefits of wealth in our corrupt criminal justice system). Krauss refused to believe he was guilty even after he pleaded guilty. His argument was astonishingly irrational:

“As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.”…

“I remain skeptical, and I support a man whose character I believe I know,” Krauss responded in the post’s comments. “If you want to condemn me for that, so be it.”

He never actually saw Epstein with an underage girl (did he check their IDs?) so he doesn’t believe he was guilty of the crime he pleaded guilty of. You know, just like everyone who knew Jeffrey Dahmer and weren’t eaten by him have no reason to believe that he was a cannibal. This is like someone telling you there’s a bomb in your house, so you look in the refrigerator, don’t see it, and the only rational response is to believe there’s no bomb in the house. This kind of irrationality, of course, is presented as the highest form of rationality, which makes it all the more bizarre.

The good news, though, is that several science organizations have announced that they will no longer have Krauss as a speaker. As a board member of CFI Michigan, I strongly hope that CFI does this as well, He is now an honorary board member of the group, a designation that should be removed immediately and he should never again be involved with the organization for any reason, on any level, or at any event.

But all of this raises one important question, which I’ve asked of several people who have come to Krauss’ defense and not gotten an answer to: How many women have to make a similar allegation before we believe it over the denials of a single man? There have been many societies through history that did not accept testimony from a woman at all, did not consider them credible even to speak of their own experiences in accusing a man of wrongdoing. We are not one of them, at least hypothetically. But in practice, particularly when it comes to a man of prominence in some way, we seem to automatically discount allegations against them.

Do false accusations occur? Of course they do. The percentage appears to be pretty low, however, and there is a far bigger problem with incidents of sexual harassment going unreported because of precisely the kinds of personal attacks, lawsuit threats and intimidation that we are seeing play out before our eyes here. I’m not saying that we should consider every single accusation to be incontrovertibly true on their face, particularly in a court of law.

But in the court of public opinion, when we are making a reasonable evaluation of which side is likely to be true, the fact that we have more than a dozen people in entirely different circumstances who say they were either the victims of or witnesses to similar behavior, in three separate countries, most of whom do not know each other, makes for a very compelling case. Especially when the only argument offered in defense is “well of course we know those bitches be lying about famous men.” The weight of the evidence here is pretty squarely on one side of the scales.

And isn’t it fascinating that the same arguments are being made to defend Krauss that were made to defend Roy Moore. You have allegations that are similar in all the relevant ways, and testimony that is similar (multiple accounts from women who don’t know each other, institutions banning them as a result of such behavior, etc), and defenses that are similar (it’s just a he said/she said, there’s no physical evidence, it was a long time ago and they should have come forward then, it’s all politically motivated to take down a famous man, etc).

And yet I’d venture to guess that virtually no one who accepts those arguments as a legitimate defense of Krauss accepted them as a legitimate defense of Moore. Intellectual consistency requires that if you accept one, you must accept the other. If you don’t, you’re not behaving in a rational manner, you’re behaving in a tribal manner.

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