3 Reasons The Lawrence Krauss Controversy Matters

3 Reasons The Lawrence Krauss Controversy Matters March 15, 2018

We need to treat the sexual misconduct accusations against Lawrence Krauss as a serious matter, and here’s why.

       1. Because we have to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard than the religious.

When Roy Moore was running for a U.S. Senate seat last year in Alabama amid accusations of statutory rape and various abuses of power, a great many evangelicals continued to support him. The redneck siege mentality placed politics above ethics, and demonstrated once again that abuse of women wasn’t a deal-breaker for the Religious Right.

We need to be better than that.

If victimizing women becomes accepted in the atheist, skeptic, or freethinker community, we can no longer make claims to be interested in women’s empowerment. It becomes obvious that subjects like abortion and the burqa are simply issues we debate in order to score anti-religion points, not because we’re dedicated to a full acknowledgment of the bodily autonomy and moral agency of women.

We have to make a choice. Denouncing Krauss is dedicating ourselves to a moral standard and expecting our spokespeople to uphold it. Supporting him is admitting that we’re just as opportunistic and cynical as the religious conservatives who supported Roy Moore.

       2. Because scientific thinking doesn’t eliminate bias and misogyny.

Among the disturbing things that the Buzzfeed article reported regarding Krauss’s behavior toward women, his quote from a Q&A session during his 2016 book tour is particularly revealing: “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias,” Krauss said. “It’s built in.”

We’re used to assuming that science is objective and unbiased, and it’s open to debate whether we’re simply attributing traits to the scientific method that we wish we possessed. Krauss is an eminent physicist whose research appears above reproach as far as scientific objectivity goes. But it appears that this critical attitude didn’t carry over into his dealings with women.

If we truly consider it a virtue to be objective and unsparing in self-criticism, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re turning a blind eye to the misogyny in movement atheism. If we consider ourselves rational and open to correction, excusing the behavior of Krauss is a sign of hypocrisy.

Maybe we need to abandon the idea that our interest in science frees us from all bias. The late Stephanie Savage, of the Miracle Girl blog here at Patheos, said in one of my discussions here, “Too many “skeptics” have their own impenetrable blinders, convinced that, as self-identified critical thinkers, they don’t have to examine their own biases.” That’s a demand upon us, to live up to our commitment to critical thinking. Krauss made a career out of criticizing what religious people believed, but evidently never turned his critical eye on his own behavior.

       3. Because we shouldn’t dismiss the testimony of women as irrelevant.

Most importantly, we need to recognize what constitutes evidence in matters involving abuse of women. It’s all too common for Krauss’s defenders in the com-boxes of the atheist blogosphere to claim that “there’s no evidence” supporting the accusations of wrongdoing. As a recent post on Roll to Disbelieve described, this is emblematic of the advantage that abusers have in the skeptic community. The testimony of women is considered negligible, mere hearsay to be ignored until hard evidence presents itself.

As I always say, evidence is just whatever validates what I already believe.

Science bros can pretend that their refusal to take seriously the accusations against Krauss is based on skepticism and parsimony rather than misogyny. However, the truth is that mutually-corroborating testimony does in fact constitute evidence of a pattern of behavior. An isolated accusation should invite skepticism. But the notion that over a dozen accusations, eyewitness accounts and instances of institutional censure can be dismissed, each and every one, as exaggeration, misinterpretation, or malicious intent borders on denial.

Men need to take a hard look at how the power dynamics of the atheist community work. It seems like we’re not used to confronting these kinds of imbalances, and we’re completely unequipped to approach them in a way that’s informed and empathetic. If Lawrence Krauss is treated with kid gloves for his behavior, while Rebecca Watson is reviled and subjected to rape and death threats for hers, then we have a serious privilege problem. And it won’t go away unless we start listening to what women say about these matters without getting defensive.

It remains to be seen what the ultimate fallout of the Krauss controversy will be. I hope it will make for a more realistic and inclusive freethought community, one that’s more aware of its responsibilities.

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  • Raging Bee

    “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias,” Krauss said. “It’s built in.”

    Um…science (and rational inquiry in general) is an indispensable tool that can be used to overcome such irrational prejudices, and it has been very effectively used to that end already. But like all other tools, it has to be picked up and pointed in the right direction, otherwise it doesn’t do squat.

  • The point is that just using science-words doesn’t make someone immune to prejudice or bias. There are lots of methodological and dialogic processes involved in how science abstracts an “objective” picture from a lot of observations. Krauss is trying to make it sound like people conducting science don’t have to worry about misogyny or bias, when it’s pretty obvious that’s not true.

  • Darathu Chatbook

    Are you drunk ? ”Because we shouldn’t dismiss the testimony of women as irrelevant.” who does this, projection much? How many careers have been destroyed by the mere words of women in the past year, before a trial even happened women who call men rapists or sex offenders actually get believed instantly and those men get their lives ruined, who’s not believing women ? If anything we’re giving their testimony much more validity than it deserves , when talking about celebrities its easy to frame someone today, just pay some women to say he raped them, that’s it. That’s why we in the modern world have the presumption of innocence until proven guilty , except that doesn’t matter anymore, not for men anyway.

  • If anything we’re giving their testimony much more validity than it deserves

    Hoo boy.

  • Annerdr

    Bill Cosby testified that he bought drugs to use on women so that he could have sex with him, and yet he wasn’t convicted. If we wait until conviction, women remain prey.

    When there is a reasonable amount of evidence of wrongdoing, when several women have told a similar story, we can stop further wrongdoing even without a conviction. We may differ on “reasonable amount of evidence of wrongdoing.” How many women telling similar stories would you consider to be reasonable?

  • tophilacticus

    The purported “objective” stance has been increasingly disturbing to me, along with the coupled belief that this is a given when used by normative groups (in this case men). Though I encounter this in a breadth of topics today, especially in racism and the larger Me Too movement, this seems especially hypocritical when the leading voices of atheism and secular humanism (e.g. Dawkins and Randy) defend/dismiss/enable/gaslight others from a self-proclaimed God-like position of objectivity around the misogynistic behavior of Shermer and what was ‘rumored’ for a while now Krauss. These are supposedly the leaders of critical thought, but self awareness seems lacking.

    This issue is not known to be new within science. I have been revisiting books I read in high school that really propelled my interest in becoming a paleontologist, specifically Stephen Jay Gould. I was not expecting to find much relevant to social issues today. In Mismeasure of Man, apart from devoting a chapter to debunking The Bell Curve in the revised and expanded edition, Gould spent time dissecting “objectivity.” The full passage, at bottom, is well worth the read, but in essence, objectivity meant as impartiality is impossible. If one claims themselves absent of preference, then they are not thinking critically. A more useful definition of objectivity in science is to treating data fairly, that is to be aware and mindful of one’s own (and society’s) desires and biases, to scrutinize those, and counteract them as best as possible. I see myself preferring this form of objectivity as a goal of scientists and in science.

    A Gould-like voice is missing today, where a high profile scientist with such awareness about the profession has the courage to speak out against illusions of science being put forth by others in the field (or I could simply not be seeing it). To further this, it is incumbent on scientists to speak out, especially in a time of little public trust, as science has the opportunity to be of benefit. However, the most visible voices today seem to prefer to twitter wars and well-publicized debates with athletes, musicians, and the religious on issues of science. This feeds the “put-down” culture of today that emphasizes personality over authenticity. It also does nothing to persuade anyone or lessen the popularity of pseudoscience.

    Anyway, here is the quote:

    Scholars are often wary of citing such commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice-cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences – and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.

    Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence – so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. (Phony psychics like Uri Geller have had particular success in bamboozling scientists with ordinary stage magic, because only scientists are arrogant enough to think that they always observe with rigorous and objective scrutiny, and therefore could never be so fooled – while ordinary mortals know perfectly well that good performers can always find a way to trick people.) The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded. (We deny our preferences all the time in acknowledging nature’s factuality. I really do hate the fact of personal death, but will not base my biological views on such distaste. Less facetiously, I really do prefer the kinder Lamarckian mode of evolution to what Darwin called the miserable, low, bungling, and inefficient ways of his own natural selection – but nature doesn’t give a damn about my preferences, and works in Darwin’s mode, and I therefore chose to devote my professional life to this study.)

  • Jim

    I’m still waiting to hear what he has done wrong. Ignoring the silly “he didn’t approve of maternity leave” and any other minor falsehoods, let’s accept all the major claims as factual and see what a monster he is: He asked a student who was interviewing him if she cared to continue over lunch… at lunch time… after she had asked him to meet for coffee on a previous occasion… which is not abnormal for Krauss to do; after some consensual sexual activity, that activity ended without incident, but apparently he was “creepy”, so, yea, “terrible!”; grazed the side of a womans breast during a selfie? IMO, that’s the worst of it and that woman should have immediately told him not to do that so he could apologize (if it was accidental), or be chastised if it was not.

    Yea, certainly sounds like awful stuff really worth ending his career over.

  • tophilacticus

    Usually science becomes this “indispensable tool” when belief, within or outside science, is met with a consilience of data and observation to “overcome irrational prejudices.” This could be viewed as good and/or bad or neither. What do you mean by effective?

    I ask as this can be a very slow process when a system of beliefs is held in people across disciplines. This has protected against scientific theories being seasonal fads perhaps, but it does take much to change. This is why plate tectonics took half a century, or probably centuries, to catch on. This is also why racism took so long to acknowledge and counter within science, while scientific racism was known and challenged eloquently by Frederick Douglass over 150 years ago. Unlike accepting plate tectonics, countering racism still has a ways, likely generations, to go.

  • Like I said in the OP, we men don’t seem to think about the ramifications of these kinds of behavior, because we’re not used to having to deal with objectification all the time. Women who come into professional contact with Krauss during conventions or in interview situations shouldn’t have to be put in a situation where they have to deal with improper advances, let alone being groped and fondled.

    Let’s take responsibility for this instead of expecting women to have the maturity and restraint that we seem to lack.

  • Jim

    I understand that women, many of them, live feeling like at best objects of mens affections and at worst, chattel. I appreciate that men have and do get away with everything from passive sexism to outright rape (a la Brock Turner). And I am fully aware of incidents like Harvey Weinstein, where power was a direct tool to take advantage of women for decades.

    However, this is not that and Krauss’ worst crime appears to have been that he brushed off a women who wanted to come to his hotel room so she started saying he “touched her leg” and let everyone conflate it with going Cosby on her. This is going to end his professional career all because he closed the door behind him one time with a female in his office and once asked a student if it was hard being the sole female in her class… this is insanity. He insulted or offended two women who then spent years telling everyone who would listen to “stay away from Krauss”, till everyone had heard the rumor that he was “creepy” for unspecified reasons. Now, everyone and their cousin feels like they can corroborate this myth of the creepy Krauss because someone personally warned them about him.

    There’s #metoo, then there is this. We can’t crucify every male who is accused of nothing more that possible sexism, maybe, on the cross next to Cosby and Spacey.

  • I can’t help but notice that you’re really blasé about Krauss’s behavior. I don’t think it’s indisputable at all that “Buzzfeed lied,” and I certainly dispute your characterization of the allegations against Krauss as nothing more than the spite of spurned women.

    No one’s accusing Krauss of rape, and that seems to be a problem for his science-bro fans; they argue that there needs to be real evidence, even though sexual misconduct and improper behavior don’t leave forensic traces like rape or murder. The accusations themselves demonstrate a pattern of behavior, and Krauss’s fatuous denials go a long way toward validating what people have been saying about his low opinion of women.

  • I’ve always really liked Gould, and it’s no secret that I think the quality of science writing has declined since his heyday. He was indeed a public intellectual, and was conversant about art, philosophy, politics, and popular culture as well as science. He also wasn’t afraid, as you mentioned, to publicize his professional rivalries with other scientists, which is something that today’s one-dimensional polemicists would never do. There’s a siege mentality in science writing now, and it’s obligatory to inveigh against the science-deniers and fundies. But you can’t criticize other scientists, because science is the Candle In the Dark, not a complex community of researchers with a wide range of opinions or anything.

  • tophilacticus

    I am a little late to the party. I missed that post and your thoughts on his writing. I will take a look. Thanks.

  • Joe Josephs

    Science is made up of scientists. And it has been predominantly been run by men for hundreds of years now. There are even very important contributions from women scientists over the last century that STILL go largely unnoticed.

    Couple this with the fact that men are men wherever they go, and you know that misogyny and sexual harassment will follow.

    Also interesting that nobody is talking about the fact that Lawrence was married when some of these incidents allegedly happened.

  • Joe Josephs

    You’re conveniently leaving out the allegations of the most egregious conduct, aren’t you?

    Like molesting women under the table. And the newest one, grabbing the hem of a woman’s skirt and rubbing her thigh while doing it.

  • Joe Josephs

    I’m sorry, but where was “winking at a woman” even an allegation?

    If you’re going to talk about Krauss, why not discuss the ACTUAL allegations against him?

  • Joe Josephs

    He’s blase because men have been getting away with this forever. It’s been accepted (or at least tolerated) behavior until just recently. It’s going to take decades (and consequences) for men to stop dragging their knuckles over this type of thing.

  • davidt

    ” 2. Because scientific thinking doesn’t eliminate bias and misogyny”

    Because this exists is proof neither the belief in god.Nor the non belief in god nor agnosticism is relevant to reality at all. This we vs them is clueless arguing with clueless. Hey just like church. Go figure.

  • Most men aren’t afraid of being next.

  • colnago80

    Krauss, like Geoff Marcy before him, has gotten caught up in a changing environment. It should be pointed out that Richard Feynman’s conduct in this regard was much worse the either of them, by his own admission, especially while he was at Cornell. IMHO, the change is all too the good and should have taken place long ago. Hopefully, other prominent scholars will look at what happened to Krauss and Marcy and clean up their act before it’s too late.

  • It’s ironic that Sam Harris hemmed and hawed about a lack of “estrogen vibe” in atheism when asked why there aren’t more women in movement atheism. It turns out it’s attitudes like his, and those of the people who continue to claim that “there’s no evidence” of Krauss’s misconduct, that make women feel unwelcome and disrespected in organized atheism.

  • Jeff Hinkle

    I don’t think there will ever be very many female atheists, because atheism is largely a privilege (one which I’m glad to have!). There are far fewer black, latino, or middle eastern atheists for the same reasons. Those who are not a dominant group (specifically dominant AND affluent) need supernatural comforts far more, and are also less likely to be educated in European-based science, philosophy, and the certain somewhat detached secular worldview that comes with that. And mostly caucasian males are the intellectual elite, and affluent Jews as well. So women as well, except an elite (not in a bad way) minority, will mostly remain spiritualist/religious. I mean, except for macho right wing churches, the majority, often by far, of members in mainline religions are women.