The other problem here is confirmation bias: the tendency to see only what we wanna see.
-Brian Dalton, a.k.a. Mr. Deity, responding to reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape being made against prominent figures in the atheist/ skeptical community.
Brian Dalton isn’t alone. In many discussions about reports of atheist/ skeptical leaders committing seriously unethical behavior, this trope has come up again and again: “You just want to believe these reports! You were already biased against these people, and you’ll believe anything that confirms what you want to believe! You want to believe that Richard Dawkins blackballed Rebecca Watson from speaking at the Reason Rally! You want to believe that Lawrence Krauss has sexually harassed people at conferences! You want to believe that Michael Shermer committed rape! You’re only seeing what you want to see!” I’m using Dalton’s words as an example, since I’m starting to get weary of critiques that don’t point to an example of what’s being criticized (such as Phil Plait’s notorious “Don’t Be a Dick” speech)… but this is far from the only time I’ve seen this idea.
Here’s the problem with it:
I did not want to believe this.
I did not want to believe any of it.
Richard Dawkins is the reason I’m an atheist. Richard Dawkins is the reason I’m an atheist activist. Before I read The God Delusion, I was calling myself an agnostic, and was very occasionally writing about skepticism and religion. After I read The God Delusion, I was calling myself an atheist, and had decided that I needed to start making atheism the center of my writing career. Very few books have changed my life so rapidly, and so dramatically, and so much for the better. For years, Dawkins was my Number One atheist hero. The day I met him in person was one of the proudest days of my life.
Michael Shermer was enormously influential in my development as a skeptic and a non-believer. The way he laid out the case for cognitive biases — and more specifically, the way he laid out the case for cognitive biases leading to religious belief — strongly shaped both the way I thought about religion and atheism, and the way I wrote about it. In my early days as an atheist and skeptical writer, I cited Why People Believe Weird Things, and the ideas I got from it, all the freaking time.
Lawrence Krauss? Lawrence Krauss is freaking well trying to answer the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Lawrence Krauss is the reason that, when religious believers ask me that question as if it were an unanswerable “Gotcha!”, I can answer, “Actually, physicists are working on that very question, and it seems like it might have an answer. Just like every other question in history that at one time was unanswered, and that people once thought was magic, and that turned out to be Not Magic.”
I admired these people. I looked up to them. My life and my work was shaped by them.
Why on Earth would I want to believe the worst about them?
When I started hearing bad things about these people, the last thing I wanted to do was to believe. It’s one thing to hear reports that your heroes are flawed human beings: to hear, for instance, that they cheat on their spouse, or that they’re a demanding diva backstage. We are all flawed, all human: I can deal with that, I don’t expect anything different. But it’s another thing entirely to see one of your heroes say appallingly racist and sexist things, and double down when they get criticized for it, and keep saying them again and again and again… and to then hear reports that they blackballed one of the people who criticized them most publicly. It’s another thing entirely to hear reports that one of your heroes committed sexual harassment. It’s another thing entirely to hear reports that one of your heroes committed rape.
It was extremely painful to hear this stuff. It was upsetting. It sapped a lot of the excitement and energy I had about the atheist and skeptical movements. It made me feel less optimistic about the future of these movements. It was demoralizing. I did not want to believe it.
I did not start thinking badly of these people until I started hearing bad things about them.
If anything, the confirmation bias worked in the other direction. When I started getting involved in atheism and skepticism, I started out thinking that these people were mega-awesome. I started out thinking that they were not only smart and articulate and insightful, but that they were rigorously ethical. I did not start thinking badly of these people until I started hearing bad things about them. Again. And again. And again and again and again, and again, and again. And again.
September 5 is not the first time I heard reports about Richard Dawkins blackballing Rebecca Watson. August 7 is not the first time I heard reports about Lawrence Kraus sexually harassing women at conferences. August 7 is not the first time I heard reports about Michael Shermer sexually harassing and even assaulting women. I have been hearing these reports for a long time. I couldn’t say anything about them at the time — people had told me these things in confidence — but at the time these reports started to become public, I had been hearing them for a while. In some cases I heard them second-hand; in some cases, I heard them from the horse’s mouth. And I heard a lot of them.
Again. And again. And again and again and again, and again, and again. And again.
Is it the case that right now, as of this writing, in September 2013, I’m more inclined to believe these reports than I once was? Sure. But it didn’t start out that way. I didn’t start out thinking badly of these people, and focusing on every possible piece of evidence that would confirm my bad opinion. I started out thinking well of these people. I changed my mind. It was painful; it was upsetting; it was demoralizing. But I let go of my cherished opinions — because I saw a significant and credible body of evidence contradicting those opinions.
Isn’t that what skeptics and atheists are supposed to do?