Sunday, August 11, 2013

So disappointed

It wasn't so long ago that I was excited about being part of the skeptical movement. After years of wandering and not knowing what to think about how to think, it was refreshing to find a group of people whose basic message was "examine the evidence and think for yourself." No dogma, no holy book, no gods or masters -- just you, the evidence and all the critical thinking skills you bring to the table.

Then came The Amazing Meeting, the massive annual convention in Las Vegas held by the James Randi Educational Foundation. After years of tangentially experiencing the skeptical movement through blogs and podcasts, I had the chance to experience the scene first-hand. Even with the jet lag of flying from Jakarta to Las Vegas (via Incheon), I had a great time as the list of speakers was replete with some of my favorite people in science and skepticism -- Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Richard Wiseman, Bill Nye, the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe crew, and more. For the first time in quite a few years, I felt at home somewhere other than a newsroom. I met some great people, ate surprisingly well and learned the value of like-minded people gathering in meatspace instead of solely on the Internet.

So it comes as a great disappointment -- though certainly not a surprise -- that skeptics are just as capable of being shitbags as more credulous folk. Revelations emerged during the past week that cast some of the most prominent names in the skeptical movement as rather despicable human beings. The trickle began when linguist and author Karen Stollznow spoke out about suffering years of sexual harassment while working at the Center for Inquiry, an organization that supports science and critical thinking but has found itself in hot water recently. When Stollznow took her harassment complaint to her employer, the CFI's response was less than stellar.

Five months after I lodged my complaint I received a letter that was riddled with legalese but acknowledged the guilt of this individual. They had found evidence of “inappropriate communications” and “inappropriate” conduct at conferences. However, they greatly reduced the severity of my claims. When I asked for clarification and a copy of the report they treated me like a nuisance. In response to my unanswered phone calls they sent a second letter that refused to allow me to view the report because they couldn’t release it to “the public”. They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone. This confidentiality served me at first; I wanted to retain my dignity and remain professional. Then I realized that they are trying to silence me, and this silence only keeps up appearances for them and protects the harasser.
The situation has disadvantaged me greatly. I have lost a project I once worked on, I have had to disclose highly personal information to colleagues, and I don’t think that I’ll be offered work anymore from this company. Perhaps that’s for the best considering the way they have treated me. I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.
Stollznow did not name her harasser, but the perpetrator's identity did eventually come out through other sources -- Ben Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and co-host of the popular Monster Talk podcast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Radford appears to have a bit of an Achilles' heel when it comes to women and gender issues.

The assaults described by Stollznow happened at The Amazing Meeting, a fact corroborated by Carrie Poppy, a former JREF employee. Through Myers, Poppy recounted the poisonous atmosphere she dealt with during her six months with the JREF.
I wish I could say that I found Dr. Stollznow’s story shocking or unprecedented, but I cannot. In my time at the JREF, I witnessed continuous unethical behavior, much of which I reported to the Board of Directors. I was assured on more than one occasion by James Randi that D.J. Grothe would be fired (I hear Randi denies this now, though he repeatedly promised it to another staff member as well, and that staff member and I represented the entirety of JREF full-time staff other than D.J. and his husband, Thomas), but after several months of waiting and being asked to wait, it became clear that D.J. was not going to be fired. The list of problems that I sent to the board was so long that my pasting it here would be comical at best, but it is relevant to note that although I didn’t list it, Mr. Grothe’s prejudice toward women was one undeniable factor. My predecessor, Sadie Crabtree, had warned me about D.J.’s misogyny and disrespect for women coworkers (she even advised me not to take the position, due to this issue), but I thought myself strong enough to endure it. I underestimated the degree to which such constant mistreatment can beat a person down. As I mentioned, I only lasted six months.
The final straw, for me, was that Mr. Grothe attempted to remove me as a speaker from the Women in Secularism 2 conference, going above my head (and Melody Hensley’s head) to her male boss, Ron Lindsay, and telling him that it would be bad for the JREF’s image if I attended a “feminist conference.” In defending his actions to me, D.J. told me he didn’t trust me to handle the event, saying I would be asked if he was a sexist (an unanswerable question in his mind, apparently) and that I might break down in tears crying about my own sexual assault, if the issue of rape arose. I was given no credit for the fact that I am a professional spokesperson with almost a decade of experience, that I have a successful skeptical podcast, am a published author, and that my personal assault experience makes my opinions on assault more relevant, not less. To him, I was a hysterical woman, nothing more.
Grothe, if you're wondering, is the president of the JREF and, judging by other reports that have emerged, a thoroughly unlikable individual. Poppy's revelation was eye-opening, not least because it came so soon after the JREF received plaudits for its handling of another sexual assault case at TAM. I was a JREF member and donor when I went to TAM and for a while thereafter, but the more I see behind the curtain at the JREF the less bad I feel for halting my donations during the current cash crunch.

Then there's Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and professor at Arizona State. Krauss has been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior at a CFI event, but posts detailing these allegations have been taken down after Krauss implied that he would take legal action. Apparently the good professor, who has previous in putting his foot in his mouth, is unfamiliar with the Streisand Effect. I'm sure Krauss has good reasons for threatening to sue bloggers and grad students into silence, though.

The latest accusation to arise concerns Michael Shermer, writer and editor of Skeptic magazine. Shermer has previously shown a tendency for sexism and remarkably thin skin when it comes to criticism, but these revelations go far beyond being merely disagreeable. On his blog Pharyngula, Myers says he has received reports of sexual assault from several women, some of whom specifically name Shermer as their attacker. Though the woman who initially contacted Myers asked to remain anonymous, her story has since been corroborated and supported by others. Given the conduit through which these allegations are passing and the credibility Myers has established, it would be unwise to write off these claims as malicious libel or attention-seeking.

This latest round sparked quite a bit of backlash online from people who seem to be more concerned with the potential (if as-yet unnamed) damage to these Prominent Skeptics' careers than what these cases of sexual misconduct did to the lives of the women involved. Jim C. Hines sums up damn near perfectly the no-win situation women find themselves in whether they specify their alleged attacker, keep the details more vague or choose not to come forward at all. You can tell how seriously the authorities take sexual assault -- there are more than 400,000 rape kits sitting untested in this country, some of which have sat idle for decades. If that's not clear enough and you insist on having audio and moving pictures to detail why women choose not to report sexual harassment and/or assault, consider this video by Ashley Paramore and Justin Robert Young.

With all the Deep Rifts emerging in the skeptical movement, it's easy to understand why some people would pine for the good old days when people attended their favorite conference, mingled with like-minded people and didn't worry about trifles such as sexual abuse or diversity. However, what some people may see as the death throes of organized skepticism can just as easily be interpreted as growing pains amid attempts to shed the movement's image as the dominion of old, white men. The fact is, women are no longer willing to be content with having a bit part in the movement. They will no longer accept the status quo of being seen, not heard, and will no longer be cowed by torrents of hate and threats in response to their pointing out the culture of sexism and harassment within skepticism.

Personally, I'm all for this shakeout. Let the leading lights tumble and the foundations crumble if it results in women feeling they can be safe, and be equal partners to men, in skepticism. Preserving institutions at the expense of people's safety and well-being is not the path this movement needs to take if it wants to stay true to its principles; no person or idea is above questioning -- not James Randi, not Penn Jillette, not Richard Dawkins, nobody. Skeptics wouldn't accept this treatment of women from the religious or woo peddlers, so why should we turn a blind eye when people among our own ranks are perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment and abuse? (Incidentally, if you're wondering how the godly are reacting to this series of revelations, here's a sample. Jesus was into schadenfreude, right?)

Needless to say, the JREF and the CFI will not receive one red cent from me until they get their houses in order. There are many other organizations I can support in the meantime (once I have money again, of course). If I have to choose between being a True Skeptic and being an empathetic, supportive human being, I choose the latter every time.

EDIT: To further drive home the point, read this from Greta Christina and this from Dana Hunter. There's also this gem from the comments on Christina's post -- I try to avoid reading below the line when possible, but FreethoughtBlogs is an exception.
Great post! The other thing I think helps get the point across is to use is the comparison between believing somebody was robbed vs believing somebody was raped. We don’t require the victim of car theft to show us video of the car being stolen, then accuse them of handing their keys to a stranger or that they’re obviously committing insurance fraud because the engine was going out. No, we fucking believe them! And we should believe rape victims just the same!

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