The web of trust: Why I believe Shermer's accusers

First: yes, the title is plural. I’ll get to that. Trigger warnings for discussion of sexual assault and rape.

I’m fairly certain I have a grasp now on why exactly there’s so much pushback against even the merest inkling that these allegations of serial sexual harassment might be true, most especially with regard to the allegations against Michael Shermer hosted presently at PZ Myers’ blog. It’s complicated, and nuanced, and will take a lot to unpack. Starting, of course, with human beings.

Humans are social animals. Every interaction requiring any level of trust therefore requires a commensurate history of social interactions one can rely upon that this trust will not be broken. Some small interactions like transactions at a marketplace use money as a proxy for that trust — exchanging money for goods and services suggests that you’re a contributing member of society by having obtained that money to begin with. It’s for that reason that so many people get hung up on the idea that if you’re poor, you’re morally failed somehow.

We are also political animals, and each of us wants our personal viewpoints on the world to spread and to fight for our respective causes. Every interaction we participate in is political in some way, even if not explicitly so. You participate in forums that involve topics you care about; you argue for or against viewpoints that are brought up. Even simple actions like buying media can be politically charged — you could buy games from indie developers in defiance of the big-budget ones which are often calculated to pander to the widest audience but that invariably ends up propagating societally-damaging memes, like that women are objects to be rescued and not autonomous entities. You could give money to movies that are otherwise terrible, just because they happen to star an actor you like; you could boycott movies by actors who do demonstrable harm to the world by espousing blinkered and antiscientific claptrap like Tom Cruise or Jenny McCarthy. Or even something as simple and seemingly apolitical as choosing one soft drink over another just because it tastes good, and you would be sad if it disappeared. Someone next to you might convince you to do otherwise, because of that soft drink manufacturer’s stance on gay marriage, for instance; overriding the one political message for another more important one in your mind. The politics of each interaction might be subtle but they’re there, always.

In computers, there’s a concept regarding privacy and encryption that uses a decentralized model for trusting one another’s private/public encryption pairs. Rather than having an authority storing all the keys that pair with a person’s personal encryption codes, each person you communicate with under the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) method shares the keys that that person trusts, and eventually by being trusted by a lot of people, you can be reasonably secure in the knowledge that newcomers into the network will already have trust for your keys. The better connected you are, the more trusted your keys are. However, like in meatspace, that trust could be violated by any one person, and the more trusted that person, the greater the breach of the trust web.

The entire concept of morality is based on trying to improve humanity’s lot without inflicting undue suffering on its members (or any other entity, to a lesser extent). The reason that sexual assault and rape are morally repugnant is that it is an abrogation of a person’s self-direction, and it does violence to another person in exchange for the aggressor’s pleasure. Even if that violence happens in such a way that the person is not physically harmed, it’s still violence — it’s the overriding of one person’s will for another’s pleasure, and it often comes with a gross violation of trust.

Humans place a high priority on preventing breaches of trust in interactions — the script goes, if someone is a known scam artist, we take pains to inform people to watch out for their tricks (and thus the entire skeptic movement was born). If someone is a known thief, we take pains to inform people to stow their valuables in their presence. But for some reason, when we talk about rape and sexual assault, the desire to warn people to be wary around them is superceded by fears that any particular warning might be *wrong*, because then you’re doing damage to a person without good cause. And when that person is popular, there’s a lot of trust, no matter how small the interactions individually are.

Except, that person may have done grievous damage to someone else, abusing that high level of trust. The saying “power corrupts” springs to mind. They may even have violated people’s autonomy, and we put a very high priority on discouraging that sort of action.

Only, somewhere that script got flipped: it’s more grievously harmful to name the person on the off chance that they fall into the ~6% of false rape claims than it is to screw up that person’s chances at harassing or raping even more people. The cries of “innocent until proven guilty”, which are appropriate in a courtroom or when facing jailtime, are brought up — which are never brought up when someone tells you to watch out for that person who picked your pocket. The cries for physical evidence drown out the testimonial and corroborative evidence that are brought forward. The victim-blaming for putting themselves in the position they were in where they got raped flow freely, where in a parallel situation where someone’s car is hotwired nobody blames the person for choosing an inviting colour of car.

It seems there’s a drive to create a false dichotomy where, because of the grievousness of the crime of breach of trust and breach of someone’s autonomy that rape represents, either the person is completely innocent and free of all charges, or is thrown in jail. Most rape and most assault and most harassment — while criminal — never results in true justice where the perpetrators are put behind bars, even if the victims do go to the police and even if there is physical evidence and even if there is a known suspect. Therefore, most rape and assault and harassment is entirely unpunished, and grossly underreported because everyone knows how the system is skewed.

People forget that there are not merely two options here. There’s not just “jailtime” and “completely innocent”. There’s not just “guilty” and “witch-hunts”. Another possibility is for people to be made aware of these creepers and to know that they cannot trust them as much as they might other people — to warn them that the trust placed in them might not be warranted.

Our ability to trust one another is built on a series of interactions with one another. Over time, you build up a reservoir of trust and if you trust someone enough, when they are faced with a claim that they are untrustworthy, it might be hard to swallow. It might cause you to backlash against the accusations. And when others trust a person, it can amplify that trust. If enough people trust a person despite the alleged breach, no consequences might come of a claim about a person — it might be dismissed as “so much locker room banter” or people “regretting their sexual exploits”. Or it could even legitimately have been an attempt to tear down the trust a community has in a person for no other reason than simple spite.

I understand this dynamic well. When I was 16, my first girlfriend accused me of rape in order to preempt any acrimony over her sleeping with someone else, and the only things that saved me — unpopular kid as I was — were the facts that she’d repeatedly and demonstrably lied to a lot of people about a lot of things very often, eroding anyone’s trust in her, and because she happened to tell a lie integral to her accusation that I could disprove.

Her accusation ruined her own reputation amongst her then circle of friends, but she moved on, built new trusts, violated them as well, and generally made a wreck of her life as far as I cared to follow.

I vowed then to be as honest as humanly possible with people, to the point of it becoming a character flaw. I have a reputation for being blunt with people. I can be short with people. I have no patience for people intentionally abusing one another — and I’m not talking about namecalling, I’m talking about advocating for ideas I deem genuinely ruinous for society, like religion, bigotry, or unchecked greed. I walk away from people who are damaging, even at great personal cost.

This has earned me trust and it has cost me trust with a lot of people in a lot of ways.

In that respect, I am a good deal like PZ Myers to a far smaller degree (in that I am less popular, and therefore have less interactions with which to build my web of trust). I have never seen him flinch or skulk away from a fight over what he believes to be right, nor — more especially — over what he believes to be wrong. Even where I disagree with him, he is a man with the courage of his convictions in my experience. He has earned a good deal of my trust in him to deal with certain issues with ferocity and calm rationality in equal measure. And as far as I can see, he is slow to come to trust others, having likely been burned a number of times by a number of people over the years. My own personal web of trust includes him as a result of my own dealings with him over the years, as do many other folks’. He has built up a strong reputation amongst most of us for being unflinching and self-sacrificing when faced with difficult decisions.

Except, some of these convictions come in direct conflict with some other community members’ own convictions. Some of the actions he has taken — disagreeing publicly and loudly with people over seeming trivialities (which are nonetheless important to him, and evidently important to people who agree with him on the matter), or banning people from his blog for harming the (rather free-for-all) discourse he governs there — each earn him enmity, cost him trust for some folks, even where it earns him trust with others.

There are people who are doggedly determined to prove that he is the secular Antichrist for daring to disagree with certain secular Saints, for daring to (extraordinarily infrequently) ban people from his blog. And these people think that those of us who’ve dealt with him and found his dealings to be fair, well, they think he’s hoodwinked us and that we’re hero-worshipping him in the same way that they hero-worshipped some of the people of whom he’s been critical. They think there’s some kind of cult like hivemind groupthink at play, when what they’re really describing is the fact that we trust him to act in accordance with our own personal beliefs. That we trust him to vet and thoroughly corroborate any claims he makes in public, that he would not stake his hard-earned reputation without damn good cause.

So when someone whom PZ trusts, who also trusts PZ to do the right thing, comes forward and tells PZ her story of having been coerced into sex by the big-name and well-trusted Michael Shermer, and he realizes that to do anything at all about it he has to risk taking a hell of a lot of splash damage to his own reputation in bringing it to the world at large. He’s fully aware that even putting it forward to the degree that he has, stripped of any identifying details that might result in retaliatory harassment of the victim by Shermer’s fans, he’s not only risking his reputation but he’s giving ammunition to the people who want his reputation to evaporate entirely, who will not hesitate to use this event to destroy him and everything he stands for.

There’s a lot of people complaining that these anonymous claims are ruining people’s reputations without sufficient cause or evidence. The deck is actually stacked against people ever coming forward with rape claims, though, and lowering the bar too far can make an environment that’s easily gamed by people who like the system the way it is.

Things like the anonymous tumblr “More Will Be Named”, which was deleted and replaced with a parody by someone who snapped up the domain when it became available after the deletion, actually are damaging to the cause of preventing these big names from taking advantage of the trust they themselves have built. These tiny and untrusted-because-anonymous voices coming forward and being given a megaphone to say what they will about big names might serve as innoculation against anyone ever believing the claim against a well-trusted person. The trolls time and again try to make sure that it’s impossible to ever come forward with a rape case by providing the very false rape claims they decry as the reason we can’t trust people to be honest about their rape claims. They fulfill their own prophecies to throw up chaff and keep people from taking rape claims seriously.

But there’s always another option, as I suggested. There’s “trust implicitly”, there’s “distrust”, and there’s “trust but verify”. And in “trust but verify”, you can know to be wary of certain people without necessarily pointing at them in horror and shrieking “rapist” every time they’re nearby; or throwing them in jail on the least unsubstantiated word.

This is all I, or anyone else fighting for victims rights with regard to rape, have ever advocated. The repercussions in this case are not that Michael Shermer will end up in jail — seriously, even if all six victims were to provide ironclad evidence that he did what they said, at this point so distant from the crimes, it’s grossly unlikely he’ll ever face any jailtime for it. All he has to do is throw up doubt that sex with an inebriated-beyond-consent woman is not actually rape, or that they only decided it was rape after they decided he was skeezy after the fact. He’ll get off on the charge of getting off on someone without their permission.

So the best we can hope for as far as repercussions are that because his name is so popular, the accusations against him will give his potential future victims pause against trusting him enough to drink with or spend time alone with him. This might hurt his feelings, but it will not ruin is career or his life.

And the reason I’m willing to trust PZ to have vetted his claims before making the accusation public like he has, is exactly because I know he treats these accusations seriously and trusts the victims but verifies the stories before putting his own sizable bank of trust on the line.

That’s why anonymous trolls’ stories against people, unverified and unvetted and impossible to corroborate, don’t gain as much traction as the big ones like this. The problem is, the same effect happens with regard to any claim that any rape victim might bring forward — there’s massive public pressure against ever coming forward with your own name, because you will face all the consequences of that interaction. People who don’t trust you will be horrified that you’re impugning the motives of the good decent person they trust, and they’ll rake over your life history looking for any shred of misdeed by which to dismiss you and the entire story. So most rape victims never come forward.

When rape victims DO come forward, it’s because they’ve found someone they can trust. And sometimes the person they trust with the story trusts them back, and sometimes they’re willing to fight that fight on their behalf. Remember, this anonymous accuser is only anonymous TO US.

That’s why PZ can’t give more details than he has; and that’s why the people who don’t trust either PZ or the anonymous (TO US) rape victim are fighting back so hard against the very idea that maybe, just maybe, Michael Shermer actually did it.

And as for the strength of the evidence at hand, the fact that PZ received post-hoc corroboration of the events in question, from someone well-placed within the community enough to be trustable themselves and to have been in a position to know the truth of the statement, from someone, I note, who even admits that they don’t much like PZ and the strength of their belief in the events is strong enough to override that distrust, is excellent evidence that the events actually happened. That’s why there’s a plural. It further cements in my mind that I was right to trust PZ, and that I’m right to trust Jane Doe, at the expense of the reputation of yet another so-called pillar of our community.

Sure, it’s not photographic evidence, but you know how well even THAT works amongst those primed to deny any rape allegations ever brought forward.

The web of trust: Why I believe Shermer's accusers

382 thoughts on “The web of trust: Why I believe Shermer's accusers

  1. 352

    It’s a mistake I’ve made myself in the past, hotshoe; and it’s a mistake I’m sure I’ll make again.

    And it’s not because it’s insulting, it’s because of the splash damage, lest someone think I’m going all civility-troll on anyone here.

  2. 353

    This particular bit from evilreligion struck me:

    – Oh one more small minor point, Filner admited his guilt apologised.

    So basically the two cases are completely and utterly different.

    Hilarious! I literally laughed out loud.

    So when a man admits* and apologizes to his accusers – remember, these are the women who did not go to the police, remember, the women who did not provide any physical evidence, who did not testify under oath in a court of law, but merely told their personal stories – when a man does not sue them for slander, does not fight them, does not rally his followers for a campaign of harassment against everyone who believes the women and repeats their stories, then his very apology somehow retroactively justifies the original accusers.

    Didn’t go to the police – fine, we won’t scream about *police*justice*innocent until proven guilty* because he apologized. Didn’t provide any evidence whatsoever for the skeptical public to review – fine, we won’t scream about *needing to vet the evidence* because he apologized. Do we know why he admitted he “intimidated” women and apologized? No, of course we don’t. Maybe he’s not guilty at all, confessing to something he didn’t really do, in hopes of quickly putting the whole mess behind him rather than face drawn-out trials (at his age!) even if he was sure he would eventually prevail. But he apologized and that apology proves that we should believe the women!

    So, when (if) Shermer finally apologizes for being a sleazebag predator, then just like Filner’s case, that will suddenly and retroactively justify the original accusers. Right?

    Bullshit that the cases are completely different. There’s no difference in the behavior of the women making the accusations against either, and no difference in the behavior of the persons who believe the women. The only difference is in the behavior of the person who was accused. One tired old politician decided – for whatever reason – that his best chance of coming out intact was to admit to some bad behavior. One handsome young skeptic leader decided – for whatever reason – that his best chance of coming out ahead was to attack.

    And on the basis of that difference in response from the accused, that’s how the pseudoskeptics decide whether or not to believe the women.

    Skepticism, ur doing it wrong.

    .
    .
    .

    *Note: Filner has not to date** admitted to any of the actual accusations and does specifically deny that he has committed “sexual assault” This is his admission:

    “I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them.”

    ** His resignation letter is supposed to be considered in a city council meeting today, Friday, and it’s possible that it contains a more-specific admission of guilt, but not likely, since Filner needs to continue maintaining his innocence in the face of upcoming civil suits against him.

  3. 354

    Wow, this reminds me of when a creationist writes pages and pages of “I’ll show you why the bible is right about design,” and never ever gets to a point.

    Basically your whole diatribe reduces to : “I really really trust in Myers and believe him to be infallible both in his facts and ethics. And that is enough for me to count as evidence.”

    And in order to escape that statement of faith, or make it less obvious, you try to give your armchair psychologist’s version of society, women, and rape. “Try” being the key word. But your blind faith shows through.

    The rest of us require evidence.

    I guess when you abandoned your old god you just found your new one, P.Z. “Jesus” Myers?

    This whole case has really brought to light that “freethinkers” like you are just refried Christians without the god. The bad thinking is still intact. Bravo.

  4. 355

    Oh dear. Yet another pseudoskeptic who has zero idea what the word “evidence” actually means.

    Go on, Jeffrey Robinson, explain to us what would be “evidence” in this case. Be specific. Be the first of your many many brethren to be specific.
    What would you have to see/hear in order to be convinced to a reasonable probability that the woman (who asked PZ Myers to help her get the word out warning other possible victims) was indeed telling the truth and should be believed? What?

    Be brave! Be a hero! Show us how skepticism should really be done!

  5. 357

    Jeffrey Robinson:

    Wow, this reminds me of when a creationist writes pages and pages of “I’ll show you why the bible is right about design,” and never ever gets to a point.

    Since it’s nothing like a creationist tract, it is indeed surprising it reminds you of one.

    Basically your whole diatribe reduces to : “I really really trust in Myers and believe him to be infallible both in his facts and ethics. And that is enough for me to count as evidence.”

    You’ve just contradicted your own claim that it never ever gets to a point by producing this purported synopsis.

    And in order to escape that statement of faith, or make it less obvious, you try to give your armchair psychologist’s version of society, women, and rape. “Try” being the key word. But your blind faith shows through.

    That you interpret the explication of his reasoning and its basis as an attempt to either escape or to make his thesis less obvious is indicative of motivated reasoning.

    The rest of us require evidence.

    You’d have it if you hadn’t thrown it away as distracting armchair psychology.

    (You find that common in creationist tracts?)

    I guess when you abandoned your old god you just found your new one, P.Z. “Jesus” Myers?

    What a silly attempt at an insult!

    This whole case has really brought to light that “freethinkers” like you are just refried Christians without the god. The bad thinking is still intact. Bravo.

    So quickly you’ve forgotten your immediately preceding claim! 😉

  6. 358

    Jeffrey:
    Try using the definition of freethinker that states “one who uses science, logic, and/or reason to reach an opinion” rather than the one your ilk are fond of “being free to say what you want, wherever you want, to whomever you want, without consideration for others and an expectation that you should not be criticized or censored in any way, and if you are that violates free speech”.
    The former is freethinking. The latter is a real pAYN.

  7. 363

    Riddle me this, Jason — what if the accusations are false? What would it take to convince you? Or are you as dogmatic as the creationists?

    And incidentally, the accusations are false. The deeper you dig yourself in this hole, the more foolish you will feel when that fact becomes established.

  8. 364

    prodegtion: I believe we’ve already covered this a few times, but let’s spell it out. Like with most accusations that make it to court, there are actually three options here: guilty, not guilty, and innocent. Innocent and not guilty are not the same thing. Courts of law require a guilty verdict to sanction a person — e.g. throw them in jail. I don’t know that there is enough evidence here or available to anyone in the blogosphere to suggest that Shermer’s definitely guilty, but I strongly suspect that, with the evidence we DO have (e.g. multiple witnesses for certain events, a well-established and well-known pattern of behaviour, multiple accusers) that the best you could get is “not guilty” especially since courts in North America don’t render “innocent” verdicts.

    Which is what you’re pleading — that the accusations “are false”. So, what do you have to prove that? What counter-evidence do you have? An established alibi? Witnesses whose stories differ from the ones that apparently already testified before a judge, e.g. DJ Grothe? Witnesses whose stories indicate that these assault victims went to the hotel rooms of someone OTHER THAN Shermer? What do you actually have to offer other than your faith that the accusations are false? Please, do enlighten us. Because anything I’ve just said could help convince me that they’re false.

    And to flip the question: what would convince you that they’re TRUE? Or will NOTHING convince you? You’ve been fighting this fight for fucking months and no amount of rational reasoning will bring you around to the thought that there’s even the merest inkling of a possibility that he’s done anything untoward, and that’s why you’re in permanent moderation — because you are evidently as dogmatic as the creationists.

    Please, prove me wrong.

  9. 366

    The thing which angers me (besides Shermer raping women) is that the rape apologists are concerned with Shermer’s reputation but couldn’t care less about potential or real rape victims.

    Why are they rape apologists if they care about Shermer? There is more than a his reputation at stake here. His entire livelihood is at stake.

    The whole point of PZ’s post is not to defame Shermer but to warn women about him. The dudebros scream about lynch mobs and witch hunts and “innocent until proven guilty” but say nothing about his victims other than to doubt their stories (or in one case even their existence). Hyperskepticism is alive and well in the skeptical world.

    I understand, but is this truly the way to go about this? There has to be a better way to offer both sides a fair means of defending themselves. We are forked by two horrible alternatives, either warning the women (which could be extremely serious if he is indeed a rapist) or destroying a man without even giving him an opportunity to defend himself.

    You must not forget that there are two camps, the man and the women. I cannot believe the number of times I got called a rape apologist and a dudebro on here when I said people should have a fair chance to defend themselves, including Shermer. Now, when I brought this up, the constant retort would be “but this isn’t a court”, however, they were more than happy to act on behalf of the court by saying Shermer is definitely a rapist.

    There is seriously a lack of cohesion in those statements. “This is not a court, but he is definitely 100% a rapist” and the man hasn’t even had an opportunity to defend himself. Now, this doesn’t mean I am doubting the claims, it’s just that everyone should be entitled to a fair trial.

    I say all this because I truly know what it’s like to be accused of being a rapist. Just like Jason, I was an extremely isolated individual (although they were due to my own issues than a lack of interest of boys my age). I was extremely socially awkward and rarely spoke to anyone. In my village in India, I was singled out by a girl whom I went to school with. She wanted to extort money from my family by pretending I had raped her. Before long the village had gotten wind of what had happened and it turned into a mob. I was beaten badly and so was my father and they had has pay them or they would go to the police. As she was a daughter of Swami, who is a priest, the police would have definitely had me thrown in jail. This is how Swamis have a monopoly of extortion in India as they possess power in Indian society.

    Anyway, many apologies if my english isn’t perfect. Have a nice day and I look forward to your reply.

  10. 367

    Find me someone who said “definitely” as opposed to, at absolute worst, “probably”, and we can talk, Smaug. Since nobody here has argued that he’s definitely guilty (least of all me), I think you’re well off base with that post.

  11. 368

    I think you’ve misunderstood me, Jason. I didn’t mean to accuse you or any other blogger here of calling Shermer a definite rapist. I was referring to the comments left by people who frequent this site. For example ‘Nerdy Redhead: Dances on trolls’ left numerous comments on Proff. Myers article saying that Shermer was definitely a rapist. You can view her comments yourself. When I suggested that he should be entitled to a fair trial regarding her accusations, she called me a misogynist, rape-apologist, dudebro. I simply do not understand this; to ask for a fair trial is not to dismiss the evidence of the victims. There were a number of other people who eventually joined in on this.

    I also have a few questions regarding alcohol and rape, if you wouldn’t mind helping with those questions.

    kind regards,
    Smaug

  12. 369

    [meta]

    Smaug, you’re clearly stirring the pot, rather than causing desolation.

    (BTW, there is no “she” called ‘Nerdy Redhead: Dances on trolls’, nor is this site Pharyngula — the only two purported claims of fact in your comment are erroneous!)

  13. 370

    @John Morales, sorry again for any confusion. I went to Proff. Myers article and found a comment left to someone by the Redhead.

    Comment 3384 – ‘Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls’

    “[…] More bullshit from an obtuse liar and bullshitter. This isn’t a legal matter. It is warning women about the predatory actions of a KNOWN RAPIST […]”

    If this isn’t saying someone is a definite rapist, I don’t know what is.

  14. 371

    Smaug @356: All those ellipses, and not so much as a link back to the original source. Here’s the link for those interested, complete with actual context.

    I don’t think you know what “saying someone is a definite rapist” is. Nerd, in this case, is contrasting the hyper-legalistic framework that you and others bring up (seemingly only) around the subject of rape accusations, with the framework that the rest of us are working with, namely that we believe the accusations. If you believe Jane Doe’s accusation that Shermer raped her, then it stands that her position is one of knowledge. If other people who believe Jane Doe’s accusations are working from her knowledge that Shermer is, in fact, a rapist, in order to warn others about his history, then they are indeed “warning women about the predatory actions of a known rapist.”

    It’s not saying “I know with absolute certainty that Shermer is a rapist,” it’s “I believe (based on the evidence) the accusations against Shermer.”

    You go on and on about how Shermer “hasn’t even had an opportunity to defend himself.” Really? Has he been locked up? Have his speaking engagements been pulled away from him? Has he lost the ability to write columns for Skeptic and other magazines, or posts for SkepticBlog? Has he been denied legal counsel? Last anyone has heard, Shermer was filing a libel suit against PZ. That is the very definition of “defend[ing] himself” in this context–specifically, in a context where no charges have been or are likely to be filed against him.”

    You worry about the effect this might have on his career. Worry not! Thanks to rape culture, most rapists can go on to have perfectly fruitful lives and careers, since only about 3% of rapists spend a single day in prison, and most are never even reported. Even when there’s tons of documented evidence, we know that towns, authorities, and news media will rally around the rapists to denigrate and dismiss the victim and to cover up the crime. Similarly, Shermer’s proxy defenders have been out in force, smearing the messenger with false allegations, and making fun of the victim, in some of the more high-profile examples.

    You say commenters who believe the allegations against Shermer are “act[ing] on behalf of a court” and that “everyone deserves a fair trial.” Unfortunately, not everyone gets a fair trial, especially women who are coerced into sex by rich men using the most common date rape drug. Moreover, I don’t think you understand what courts actually do. They are not arbiters of truth–if they were, there would be no such thing as “excluded evidence,” and they certainly wouldn’t rest their decisions on the shoulders of twelve laypeople–but arbiters of whether or not the evidence in a case is sufficient enough to warrant punishment under the law through the removal of certain otherwise-inalienable rights, such as liberty and property. The commenters who believe the allegations against Shermer have not imprisoned him, have not removed his ability to vote, have not restricted where he may obtain housing or what jobs he may have. They have not charged him a fine, they have not forced him to do community service, they have not done any of the things which a court is empowered to do as punishment, and indeed, they could not.

    What they have done is said that the evidence for the allegations against Shermer is sufficient enough to meet their personal standards regarding what merits belief. They may take actions based on this belief within their ability to do so, in ways that are quite dissimilar to what courts are able to do (e.g., warning others about his history). Shermer’s defenders possess the same freedom and believe for the same reason–that is, the evidence for the allegations against Shermer are not sufficient enough to overturn their belief that Shermer’s a great dude.

    We do not base our beliefs on court decisions, and in many cases, I imagine most of us believe things even about criminal cases which are at odds with court decisions. I believe OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, despite the court finding him not guilty. I believe George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, despite the court finding him not guilty. I believe George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are guilty of war crimes, despite their not being indicted in any court. I believe Al Capone was guilty of crimes more serious than tax evasion, despite the fact that he was never convicted for any. Courts are not laboratories, judges are not scientists, and legal decisions are not peer-reviewed papers. They do not determine reality; they determine legality. It’s serious folly to conflate the two.

    Speaking of folly and conflation, prodegtion @351:

    What would convince me that they’re true is SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE. In this case, some record of the rape would suffice, like video or probably audio.

    We’ll set aside what shockingly poor “scientific evidence” video or audio recording would often entail, especially in a matter like a rape investigation. We’ll set aside the excuses/flaws that motivated reasoners find when there is audiovisual evidence–see also 9/11 conspiracy theorists & Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists, not to mention Bigfoot & ghost skeptics. I’m curious about one point: is that your standard of evidence for all rapes, or just this one? Either answer marks you as a thoroughly terrible human being, prodegtion, but I’d like to know what kind.

  15. 372

    @ Tom Foss, thank you for that reply, you’ve cleared up a lot for me.

    I didn’t link the comment because I didn’t know how to, which is why I referenced the comment number and the name of the person.

    I agree with most of what you had to say in your second paragraph, except for the last few lines.

    “[…] in order to warn others about his history, then they are indeed “warning women about the predatory actions of a known rapist.”

    It’s not saying “I know with absolute certainty that Shermer is a rapist,” it’s “I believe (based on the evidence) the accusations against Shermer. […]”

    If I could use an example to demonstrate what I am saying. When I read about the murder of Travis Alexander by Jodi Arias, I was personally convinced she murdered him. I would have said “I believe based on the evidence that she did murder him”, but I don’t think I would have said she is a known murderer. Do you get what I mean?

    “You go on and on about how Shermer “hasn’t even had an opportunity to defend himself.” Really? Has he been locked up? Shermer was filing a libel suit against PZ”” – Good point, I didn’t see it like this before. I will concede this point and I honestly didn’t know he filed for a libel suit.

    “They are not arbiters of truth–if they were, there would be no such thing as “excluded evidence,” and they certainly wouldn’t rest their decisions on the shoulders of twelve laypeople–but arbiters of whether or not the evidence in a case is sufficient enough to warrant punishment under the law through the removal of certain otherwise-inalienable rights, such as liberty and property.”

    – I whole heartedly agree with on this point. Courts cannot decide the truth because there are many obstacles in the way, such as fourth amendment. However, what other alternative do we have to the courts? How else are we to decide the truth? Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the court the best means of putting someone on trial? Forgive me for my lack of understanding in this area, but how are we to resolve this problem?

    “We do not base our beliefs on court decisions, and in many cases, I imagine most of us believe things even about criminal cases which are at odds with court decisions.”
    – I am guilty of this as well. And we’ve witnessed numerous times people who are shown to guilty are in fact innocent, and the innocent later shown to be guilty. However, as I’ve asked earlier, is there any possible way this can be improved or give us an alternative to the courts?

    On a side note: I’ve got a few questions about alcohol, consensual sex and rape.

    1) When people say that consent has to be ongoing, does it mean after someone has agreed to sex, during the act of sex people have to give verbal consent every time they engage in a particular activity?

    Let me evoke a scenario. There are two people in a relationship. One goes “let’s have sex” and the other doesn’t give verbal consent but jumps right into it, does it mean he/she was raped?

    2) Second scenario, one partner in a relationship drinks, the other doesn’t. The one who has had a drink suggests to the sober one that they should have sex and he/she goes along with it. Does that mean the sober one has raped the one who has had alcohol? Does it matter how much alcohol has been consumed?

    And again, thank you very much for your detailed response, you’ve explained a lot to me. I would have preferred having things explained to me that being called a rapist, or rape apologist or something nasty of that sort.

    Regards,
    Smaug.

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    Smaug:

    If I could use an example to demonstrate what I am saying. When I read about the murder of Travis Alexander by Jodi Arias, I was personally convinced she murdered him. I would have said “I believe based on the evidence that she did murder him”, but I don’t think I would have said she is a known murderer. Do you get what I mean?

    I don’t think the analogy works, because by definition the victim of a murderer can’t speak out about their experience. There’s a categorical difference between rape victims and murder victims, in that regard. If you believe the account of Jane Doe regarding Shermer, then she likely knows what happened to her and who did it, which would indeed make Shermer a “known rapist.”

    Regardless, as skeptics/atheists we should be aware that “knowledge” does not indicate 100% certainty. I know that the Higgs Boson exists, for instance, because I believe the experts who say it’s been found. If they came out with a report tomorrow that said it turned out to be some other particle that was discovered which doesn’t fit the standard predictions of the Higgs, then my knowledge would have been wrong, and I’d correct it. Too often, people dropping into this conversation slip into that “knowledge means absolute certainty” canard that the religious frequently employ.

    That said, I would tend to hedge my language more than Nerd did…but Nerd was also noticably frustrated having to make the same point that had been hammered multiple times over three thousand comments. It’s no wonder that there might be some linguistic shortcuts–and some shortened tempers–at that point.

    However, what other alternative do we have to the courts? How else are we to decide the truth? Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the court the best means of putting someone on trial? Forgive me for my lack of understanding in this area, but how are we to resolve this problem?

    The courts are the best means of putting someone on trial for the purpose of determining whether or not evidence is sufficient to warrant their punishment under the law. The courts are not the best means for determining the truth of a claim; for that, we employ the basic methods of science, reasoning, and critical thinking. Again, this shows a lack of understanding of what criminal courts are for, which is determining whether or not to punish a person for the commission of a crime.

    No one here is pressing criminal charges against Shermer. He has not been indicted and is unlikely to be. What’s happening is that people are determining whether or not they believe the claim that Shermer raped Jane Doe. We all have different standards for what constitutes sufficient evidence to warrant belief in this claim, with some treating it like an extraordinary claim on the order of the existence of God, and others recognizing the sad truth that rape is ridiculously ordinary. Whichever side you fall on is likely to have some impact on your actions (beliefs generally inform actions); for my part, I don’t buy Shermer’s books anymore (but then, the last one I bought was “How We Believe,” so not much lost there) and won’t see him speak or recommend him to others (again, since I’d never actually seen him speak, he doesn’t exactly lose much there either). His defenders set up and donated to a defense fund for him, and that’s their right, even if there’s no legal threat to defend against. Once again, nothing in this even approaches the kinds of sanctions that a court would hand down.

    However, as I’ve asked earlier, is there any possible way this can be improved or give us an alternative to the courts?

    The courts are intentionally slanted so that the prosecution has the greatest burden of proof, regardless of what the truth actually is (because it’s better to let a guilty person go free than to punish an innocent person for that crime). The culture is slanted so that certain crimes are harder to prosecute than others, and so that certain defendants are more likely to be arrested, tried, found guilty, and given harsh sentences, than others. It is not a perfect system, and given how human brains work, I doubt that there can be a perfect system if people are involved. But aside from cultural changes that are happening and should happen, the court system is set up in a way that would do its job well. The problem is that people confuse the job of courts (determining whether or not the evidence is sufficient to punish a person for a crime) with the job of science (determining whether or not a claim about reality is true). There are times when those dovetail, or when one leads to the other, but they are neither the same task nor the same goal.

    1) When people say that consent has to be ongoing, does it mean after someone has agreed to sex, during the act of sex people have to give verbal consent every time they engage in a particular activity?

    “Verbal consent” is kind of a red herring. The goal is enthusiastic consent, which can be indicated with words (that is, verbally) or with other cues. If someone is taking your hand/mouth/genitals and moving it to a particular area, you don’t necessarily need explicit verbal consent to tell you what they want.

    That said, each party should be looking for signs of consent throughout, especially when things change, asking/saying something if there’s confusion, and aware that consent can be revoked at any time. Seriously, it’s not hard to say “can I?” or “do you mind if I?” in the middle of the act.

    The one who has had a drink suggests to the sober one that they should have sex and he/she goes along with it. Does that mean the sober one has raped the one who has had alcohol?

    For most people, there is a difference between “having a drink” and “being drunk.”

    Does it matter how much alcohol has been consumed?

    Yes. If someone has consumed enough alcohol that they are not capable of giving consent, then they aren’t capable of giving consent. A partner, especially a sober partner, should be aware of this. More importantly, a sober partner should be concerned about this, and should want not to take advantage of a partner who was not in their right mind.

    Here’s a general rule: when in doubt, err on the side of not raping. If you think your partner might be too tipsy to properly consent, say “hey, ask me again in a couple of hours if you still feel up to it” or “maybe we should just cuddle and watch a movie for now” or “let’s try in the morning.” You do not have to take every opportunity for sex that lands in your lap, so to speak.

    I’ve been patient because it allows me to avoid other things I should be doing instead, but I understand why people–especially people who’ve been disingenuously asked these same questions and posed these same hypotheticals–might be short or insulting with you, Smaug. For a lot of people–1 in 6 women, 1 in 33 men–these aren’t hypothetical situations, and these questions about what the exact boundaries are read often like someone trying to learn where a hard, fast line exists that they can walk right up to in their behavior and feel justified. There aren’t many hard, fast lines, and different people have different boundaries. Those are things you should work out before you get into bed (or the backseat, or the bathroom stall, or whatever) with someone. Moreover, these are questions whose answers are not hard to find (The first three links in a Google search for “enthusiastic consent”: 1, 2, 3), and expecting someone else to take the time to answer your questions when you’ve never taken any time to research them, is pretty entitled and often a derailing tactic.

    I appreciate your willingness to learn and change your mind on these issues. I encourage you to read up on the literature about consent, specifically enthusiastic consent, and about the boundaries of rape. The information’s right there at your fingertips.

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    Tom, cheers again for your reply. I do get more or less what you’re telling me, and I’ll certainly do some reading on courts and such as there are still many questions that are unanswered. Is it possible you can give me some sort of medium for me to ask you any questions in the future regarding this issue, without spamming Jason’s comment section up?

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    There’s no need to ask me questions, Smaug. I’m just a guy who’s read a bit about this subject online. You can also be a guy who’s read a bit about this subject online, by reading about this subject online. RAINN.org has good basic statistical info, and there’s the Feminism 101 blog that’ll have info about enthusiastic consent and rape culture. Otherwise, the links I gave, and searching phrases like “rape culture” and “enthusiastic consent” on the Google, will provide you all the info you need.

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    Tom – Alright, but I wasn’t referring to rape culture or consent, I was referring to the issue on courts. Those issues require discussion, such as if we were indeed after the truth, can there be a universal standard for the evidence required. If not, the truth of the claim would be subjective depending on how much evidence it requires to convince someone; just as you pointed out that some treat it like an extraordinary claim such as god, and others to a lesser extent.

    I really genuinely want to get to the bottom of this and so far you’ve been the only willing one. If this is too much of a bother I understand.

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    Fascinating take, Eric. Nobody ever suggested they were trying to take him to court or put him in jail, so the accusations stand as-is. Meanwhile, still no promised defamation lawsuit? That’s equally interesting, in my mind.

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    @Smaug:

    I really genuinely want to get to the bottom of this and so far you’ve been the only willing one. If this is too much of a bother I understand.

    Not a bother, really, just that I’m even more of a layperson when it comes to court matters than I am when it comes to social justice issues. My perspective is that of someone who’s interested in legal issues but trained in scientific ones, and I’m generally convinced that science (broadly defined) is the only reliable method we have for answering questions about reality. But science (and evidence, more broadly) forms only part of a legal case, because there are other concerns involved as well–and because the legal system doesn’t have indefinite amounts of time to conduct investigations and correct erroneous conclusions in the way that science does.

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