Author’s Note: I make no claims that these opinions are particularly well-informed as I am a) a privileged, heterosexual, white male and b) do not attend the skeptical events/meetings referred to below, but was asked to write them down anyway. CAVEAT EMPTOR.
Prominent Skeptic Lawrence Krauss’s tone deaf defense of Jeffrey Epstein’s exploitation of underage prostitutes served to unleash the bottled frustration within the Skeptical Movement regarding attitudes toward women within the community. Among the topics of discussion were concerns over individuals exploiting fame/importance/power in approaching the opposite sex, whether undesired/undesirable attention is a deterrent to participation, and how much about these experiences should be made public.
I have no interest in defining appropriate behavior; nor do I have any interest in speculating on the authenticity of the multitude of skeptical horror stories that I have heard. As I am not, however, immersed in the “Skeptical culture” this discussion gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal about how the Skeptical Movement shares (or does not share) information. The preferred method appears to involve shared rumors within the group (group gossip) and tacit agreement not to “air the dirty laundry” to outsiders (public silence). Unfortunately, this group gossip/public silence strategy undermines the very goals professed by the community .
The group gossip/public silence strategy creates several problems that reduce trust within the community and make it unwelcoming to outsiders. The way we share information affects the way we interpret risk. In the case of inappropriate behavior of a male toward a female, the “risk” is the chance of experiencing such behavior. As these experiences are personal interactions, the risk necessarily emanates from specific individuals – individuals with identifying features, like names. Let’s say that Woman 1 has a negative experience with Man A. Woman 1 shares the story of this experience without identifying Man A. In the absence of identifying information, those hearing the story will spread the risk represented in it among all members of the community with the identifying characteristics provided in the story, in this case, masculinity alone (in the case of vague police reports, being black).
For a single experience/story, the risk to be diffused will not be that substantial; but, as the stories increase in number and intensity, the risk to be diffused multiplies until every male in the community may represent a threat. The group gossip/public silence strategy can contribute to an increase in the perceived amount of risk in the community. As stories propagate via hearsay, rumor, and gossip, they evolve. On one hand, a single story passed through different chains of gossip may become multiple stories that have changed enough to appear completely independent, increasing the perceived number of “risky” events. On the other hand, the details of stories may change to enhance the drama of the narrative (perhaps to reflect the emotional experience of the original victim rather than the facts), increasing the perceived risk associated with individual events. Overall, these effects would steadily increase the amount of risk to be diffused throughout the community.
To see these principles in action, one need only think of the Catholic Church’s handling of its child sex abuse scandal. Not every Catholic priest is a child molester. It is not even clear that the frequency of child molesters amongst the Catholic clergy is higher than that in the lay population. Yet, Catholic priests are now treated with diminished trust and as a “risky” population. In the absence of information, due to the Catholic Church’s efforts at covering up the reprehensible behavior of individuals, the outside world has spread the risk to all individuals that shared the only known identifier: ordination.
The Catholic Church prioritized the protection of the institution over its members, and wound up protecting neither.
I have laid out some reasons why the group gossip/public silence strategy is a bad strategy. There are some arguments against adopting a radically different strategy. Predictably, I do not find this arguments persuasive. Below is a thoroughly straw-manned and incomplete set of the arguments to which I have been exposed.
- Focusing on inappropriate behavior unfairly implicates the majority of good guys.
As explicated above, it is silence that causes the well-behaved to be treated unfairly.
- Inappropriate behavior is common to all groups.
Absolutely, but what of it? First, when did logical fallacies become acceptable arguments in the Skeptical Movement. Second, there is no practical point to a movement that lacks the wherewithal to challenge social norms, like sleazy male behavior. Not a “we are going to change the world attitude” there, folks. Third, when a key element of your group identity is working toward a more rational and ethical world, you need to do better than “everyone else”. Failing to live up to strongly stated group ideals is the basis of the desire to mock the fundamentalist ministers who are caught in motel rooms snorting coke with teenage, male hookers.
- Inappropriate behavior is not that common/important.
Define x, for:
f > x,
where f is the frequency of inappropriate behavior and x is the threshold value at which action/discussion of that behavior becomes necessary. Please show work for all values of x statistically greater than 0.
Rumors abound of invited female speakers being unsure about attending Skeptical meetings because they are concerned about spending the entire conference fending off unwelcome advances. There are general suggestions that such behavior is a partial driver of the sex gap in the Skeptical Movement. Based on the movement’s goals, that would seem to meet an “importance” threshold. Of course, actual frequencies or factors affecting attendee comfort all reside in the realm of vague anecdote due to a lack of data or formalized and empowering complaint mechanisms.
- It’s not THAT important.
This is a variant of the previous argument. In this case, the argument is that the cost of non-silence to the community is greater than the cost of silence. This is the “airing our dirty laundry will hurt the community by making prominent spokespeople and fundraisers look bad” argument. Or, put less charitably, inappropriate behavior by an important person is less inappropriate than the same behavior by an unimportant person. As a society, we tacitly say this a lot and it was hinted at in Krauss’s defense of Epstein. That does not make it right. Feel free to put the short term survival of your group ahead of individual dignity and personal responsibility; but don’t expect the rest of us to be inspired.
Public silence about uncomfortable issues may seem like a way to protect the community. In the long run, however, silence compromises the community’s goals and the dignity of the individuals that make it up. Not only does silence create the theoretical problems discussed above, but it also isolates the victims and ostracizes those with the courage to break the silence. Going forward, the discussion should focus on how to enable conversations, not whether we should be having them.
- Or the same sex. Or any combination you can come up with. Being inclusive really mucks with the pacing. The majority of the discussion centered around males approaching females. Therefore, I’m going to focus exclusively on that dynamic.
- If you would like to hear my views on this issue, you may buy me a pint at my local.
- In the absence of total information control (i.e., in the presence of reality), “public silence” is almost always paired with gossip within groups.
- I say “professed” because the contradiction is in the claimed goals. It is not clear that this behavior would be contrary to the actual goals being pursued, which may not have ever been articulated.
- But not beards. Apparently the term “beard” is synonymous with “male skeptic”.
- And I am now very grumpy that I actually spent time worrying about which variables to use to identify the women and the men in this exercise. Exceedingly grumpy.
- I am assuming that the majority of non-neutral changes to stories enhance the drama due to the nature of human story telling. In should be noted that anything other than a balance between “enhancement” and “reduction” of drama would have a directional effect on perception.
- Which is different from actively endorsing the group gossip/public silence strategy.
- Bonus points if you can name the fallacy and/or provide the correct date.