My post a few days ago regarding physicist and sexual predator Lawrence Krauss, unsurprisingly, inspired a horde of faux-skeptic men to rush to his defense, and attempts to redefine skepticism, or to somehow muddy the waters regarding the acceptable criteria for “evidence”.
Most of these reactions were simply trolls, but some were more respectable and concerned my definition of skepticism or evidence, assuming that those arguments were made in good faith. Some people have a pretty far-fetched definition of skepticism which reminds one more of positivism or Greek sophist thinking than the skepticism that people like Carl Sagan have argued for, and some have said that evidence should leave no room for doubt, etc. I have already addressed most of those arguments in the original article, so I see no point in addressing them again.
There’s one kind of argument which I did not address though, and that claims that we cannot use eyewitness testimony as evidence. This is, of course, blatantly ridiculous, and would put a definite end to both history and sociology as academic disciplines, but let’s take a look at the reasoning of these people to see why we are forbidden to do so.
To summarize their claim, basically because some eyewitness testimony is unreliable, therefore all eyewitness testimony is unreliable.
Invertedbuddha commented on the previous post:
Courts still use eyewitness testimony but it’s a horrible form of evidence. There are many studies showing that people make things up unconsciously all the time and there’s evidence that the more you recall a memory the more likely the memory of that event changes.
This user is right that some eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and many human rights advocates have encouraged less reliance on them in courts. However, in Krauss’s case, there are multiple accounts, witnessed by multiple people, many of whom are completely unrelated and uncoordinated, with many people attesting to this without being victimized themselves.
I assure you that if you can provide a large number of independent eyewitnesses, the courts will never stop using them, nor should they.
Inadvertedbuddha offers another explanation:
So all the women recalling that guy 12 years ago that accidentally bumped into them now claim they got assaulted and can #metoo everyone and believe it’s true.
Let us put aside the moral failure of this comment which reduces groping and sexual assault into “accidental bumping” aside for a second and think about it: one scenario is that a large number of people from various events from different periods of time have all misremembered something, or that something is simply true.
Which one is the more likely and rational scenario? Occam’s razor dictates that you accept which version? Are you really a good skeptic if you reject one for another?
Let’s imagine a rather less controversial statement. Let’s imagine that we say, for example, that Abraham Lincoln loved carrots. If we find this bit of info only in one source, who knew Lincoln, we couldn’t really decide if he did love carrots or not. Maybe that witness is misremembering or even misheard Lincoln’s statement. But what if we see, say, eight people who knew Lincoln is person and noted his insatiable love of carrots in their letters and diaries, would it still make sense to doubt this assertion?
The skeptical methodology pretty much leads us to conclude that Lincoln did love carrots. Now just swap Lincoln loving carrots with Krauss assaulting women.
But if we move from this general contempt for evidence to some specific examples.
On my previous post, for example, the user Matt writes:
That’s gold, so if there were multiple accounts of the life and teaching of a first century rabbi from purported eyewitness, and these were incorporated in a biography several decades latter. You would believe it and it would count as evidence.
Other people have used the “Bible” defense too. Problem with that is, there are no actual eyewitness accounts regarding the life of Jesus. As this Christian college says:
Although some scholars disagree, the vast majority of researchers believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70. This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s.
So, that’s pretty much makes it an absurd argument to link Krauss’s witnesses to Jesus’s “witnesses”?
But let’s move to some more sensible comparisons. For example, someone called Aaron Young commented on my blog’s FB page:
multiple [sic] people that don’t know eachother [sic] saw bigfoot [sic]. By your logic, that necessarily proves that bigfoot exists.
Aaron is right! Why do we believe the eyewitness accounts of Krauss’s victims, but not those of Bigfoot hunters, alien enthusiasts, and Elvis spotters?
This argument has already been adequately answered by Thomas Smith of Serious Inquiries Only, better than I could, and he says a very interesting thing that I really loved: “Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence”. And that is the very crux of the matter.
Something like Bigfoot, ghosts, aliens, or Elvis being alive, changes something fundamental about how we perceive reality. They are extraordinary claims, and require extraordinary evidence. It’s as if we were suddenly faced with the claim that Lincoln loved Coca Cola. Suddenly, this claim completely contradicts everything we know and believe about history. Five witness accounts of Lincoln contemporaries saying he loved Coca Cola is very suspect and we must research to see if they are not forgery because there is much more evidence that Coca Cola was invented much later.
Even then, even in those cases, we don’t dismiss these eyewitness accounts out of hand. If you read Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, for example, which I think is the best guidebook to skeptical thinking, which teaches skeptical methodology by using alien conspiracy theories as example, you will see that he stresses again and again that we must investigate these eyewitness accounts of alien spotting and explain them away — because they are evidence in their own right. The only difference is that our skeptical threshold is higher for these kind of claims.
Now, I think this is the crux of difference between people like me and my detractors in this issue. Our real disagreement is not really about the nature of skepticism or evidence, but about whether Krauss abusing women is an ordinary or extraordinary claim. I believe that the claim that a powerful famous man gropes people is quite an ordinary claim, the same way that I think it’d be ordinary for directors, producers, priests, or presidents, it’s ordinary for famous scientists and atheist celebrities too.
I think my detractors are being quite disingenuous in pretending that the methodology of my skepticism is in question. But I believe it’s easier to dismiss my arguments by making up definitions for skepticism rather than engage in arguing why we should treat these women’s claims as extraordinary ones. Is it because sexual assault is rare? Is it because women are prone to lying? Is it because, as some more honest people have commented, women are oversensitive harpies who scream rape when someone bumps into them? Of course, all these arguments would reveal the inherent misogyny and sexism in these “skeptical” inquiries.
These hyperskeptic dudebros are harmful to human society because they systemically 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 these sharp tool, sacrificing it at the altar of their celebrity hero-idols.
Let me part with a quote from Carl Sagan:
Science is […] a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.
Shall we not apply the same methods to ourselves?
Image credit: Doug Kerr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic, via Flickr