Withdrawing My Endorsement of Sunday Assembly Los Angeles

When I was invited to be the main speaker for the first-ever Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, I felt very optimistic. The people with whom I worked were so incredibly helpful, I got to cover an awesome topic that gave me an excuse to further educate myself, and the event went swimmingly. The press coverage wasn’t bad, either. I later spoke at the first Sunday Assembly Orange County as well.

As rarely happens, I had hope about something. But, as always happens when I do have them, those hopes were dashed. I have recently found out that this April, Sunday Assembly Los Angeles is hosting Michael Shermer. His talk is promoting the latest of his many books.

The topic? Morality. Yes, really.

Based on all that is at hand, as well as a promise I have made before, I have no choice but to not only decline the offer they have given me to emcee a future event but also to withdraw, with regret and apology, any form of support or endorsement I have ever given to SA-LA.

Contact information for SA-LA can be found here. I especially encourage you to reach out and share your concerns if you are local to Southern California.

I reached out to them already. Details of that below the jump.

When I brought up my concerns with one of the SA-LA organizers, I was told that the content is vetted rather than the speakers and that there is no “publicly available falsifiable evidence” against Shermer.

There are easily-accessible, multiple accusations against Shermer, some of them by women who are known, named entities and very much a part of the movement (or were at the time). Many of the other allegations were made by women who didn’t want to be named but who were vetted by known, named entities who are part of the movement. Women have been warning each other against being alone and/or drinking around Shermer for years in the Southern California skeptic scene. Apparently, it’s more likely that all these people are lying through their teeth and making it all up than that a powerful man is doing what more than one powerful man has done with said power.

So yes, I have a content-based objection. It’s to someone like Shermer doing a talk on morality. Morality, of all fucking things. Talk about a slap to the faces of every possible person who has been harassed or assaulted.

Remind me to never hope again. And also that I’m not completely out of touch with reality to think that the moral writings and talks of one such as Shermer ought not to be promoted by any group that wants to claim that it cares about inclusivity and allegedly wants to make the world a better place.

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Withdrawing My Endorsement of Sunday Assembly Los Angeles
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26 thoughts on “Withdrawing My Endorsement of Sunday Assembly Los Angeles

  1. 2

    “Non-falsifiable”?! Not only is the context bizarre, but that isn’t even true.

    Something non-falsifiable – is something where you literally COULD NOT provide any evidence that something was not true. That would be true if someone made a claim that was SO vague, that it was impossible to place the claim under any scrutiny. Instead, we have accounts that are specific enough that aspects of them could be verified or *falsified* by other people present before and after the alleged assault. Thus far, every aspect of the claims against him are consistent with the accounts and memories of other people, as well as a well-known pattern of behavior.

    On the other hand – the “satirical” rape claims that are occasionally thrown around as some sort of repugnant object lesson have been dismissed, not just because the intent of the “claims” were obvious, but due to evidence such as, I don’t know, the supposed rapist wasn’t in the same country at the time of the alleged assault.

  2. 4

    Is there really any falsifiable evidence against the existence of a god? Both thiest and rape apologists work hard to make claims unfalsifiable. But that doesn’t mean we should believe them any more than you should believe my unfalsifiable, invisible dragon in my garage.

  3. 6

    When I brought up my concerns with one of the SA-LA organizers, I was told that the content is vetted rather than the speakers and that there is no “publicly available falsifiable evidence” against Shermer.

    Shit. Fuck the LA Sunday Assembly then – I was hoping they were just somehow ignorant, but it looks like they know and decided to have him there anyways (presumably because Shermer still has fans who will show up and give them more attendees).

      1. Between the coddling of Shermer and what’s going on with Wikipedia (and other poop as well), it seems like nobody who’s in charge of anything has any scruples/ethics when it comes to something that will help their bottom line. It’s really demoralizing.

  4. 7

    This is similar to what’s going on in the progressive Emergent Christian scene. One of the big names has been accused by his first wife of being abusive to her, and that many of the other Emergent Big Shots are trying to cover it up.

    Abuse – Not just for conservative Christians, folks!

  5. 8

    M. A Melby @2:

    “Non-falsifiable”?! Not only is the context bizarre, but that isn’t even true.

    They’re probably going for the “it hasn’t been to court, therefore it doesn’t meet my burden of proof!” line. The idea being that “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is the gold standard of proofs.

    It ain’t, not by a long shot. To quote some dude named “J H Hornbeck:”

    7.16 However, many jurors said that they, and the jury as a whole, were uncertain what “beyond reasonable doubt” meant. They generally thought in terms of percentages, and debated and disagreed with each other about the percentage certainty required for “beyond reasonable doubt”, variously interpreting it as 100 per cent, 95 per cent, 75 per cent, and even 50 per cent. Occasionally this produced profound misunderstandings about the standard of proof. […]

    This is common in the English-speaking world; in the United States, for instance, there is no standard description for what “reasonable doubt” means (…), and in Britain a judge was admonished by another because they merely mentioned the term to the jury (the judgement itself stating a question on certainty levels ”is one that most judges dread.”). Canada’s courts seem the best here, defining it as being “much closer to absolute certainty than to proof on a balance of probabilities”, but at the same time saying it’s nothing like a jurist’s conventional day-to-day judgements. So how does a jurist know what “much closer” means, if they have no frame of reference? Answering this is critical, as confusion over “reasonable doubt” can (and has) led to mistrial.

    We want numbers here, not vague statements like “much closer.” One study split 172 university students into two groups; one that was simply told to render a guilty verdict if they were confident beyond a reasonable doubt, the other was told that plus they were reassured that absolute certainty wasn’t necessary. Half of the first group pronounced a guilty verdict at 77% certainty, or less; half of the second, at 63% certainty or less. […]

    But a 92-98% false report rate [for rape] implies that, absent any further evidence, we can be 92-98% confident that a claim is genuine. So if we’re willing to temporarily strip someone of a few of their rights for roughly that level of certainty, shouldn’t we be willing to merely believe someone who claims to have been assaulted?

    I bet the guy regrets burying that nugget in the back of a statistical analysis of the claims made against Sher-, I mean nesting sites. Should’a used an editor, buddy.

  6. 14

    I’m curious what the organizers’ position is on all those reports of Catholic priests molesting young boys. Do they steadfastly defend the priests against those accusations as well, on the same grounds that there’s “no falsifiable evidence”?

  7. 15

    Obviously, an absolutist “believe all claims” standard is ridiculous – and is a straw version of what reasonable people think. The really low false claim rate is usually found by comparing police reports with those that are shown to be false. It’s a crime to file a false report. However – it is still low. (I’m sure you have a stat on that HJ.) There is usually a huge personal price for coming forward with a claim – especially against someone who is well-liked. Only in situations where someone is motivated to lie or are confused do they tend to say false things.

    There are positions between *believe all* and *assume they are lying* – and we can make decisions based on how certain we are of the claims. I read some of the conversation that James (oolon) linked. It seems like a certain portion of these “great thinkers” are still stuck in a black-and-white world full of false dichotomies.

    To the credit of most of them, when other people finally came out of the wood work to corroborate her claims, and it was shown that Shermer’s story changed and was inconsistent with other reports – they *finally* decided that Shermer is very very likely a rapist and that organizations should (at minimum) stop inviting him to events. A couple were even apologetic about how they acted before that information became available.

    Others still kept treating claims of rape like claims of seeing Bigfoot – as an extraordinary claim. One even began making up elaborate stories that fit the evidence, as if this painfully typical scenario of someone being raped was nearly impossible and any other explanation, however much it was pulled out of their ass, was more likely.

    And even those that finally admitted that Shermer is very likely a rapist, refused to put any focus on HIM as being a complete POS, and blamed everyone at the time for not taking the situation as seriously as they should have.

    Well yeah – in a perfect world – Shermer would not have gotten away with this. However, if they want to know why she kept keeping up appearances and why everyone who knew seems to have just pretended it didn’t happen? – Well, they can look at their own behavior over the last several months to figure that one out.

    For a while, I could at least understand why someone might not want to act on the claim because of lack of certainty – especially if they had some sort of relationship with Shermer and trusted him. But, at this point, the excuses have all but dried up. If this Sunday Assembly decides that a popular rapist who can sell tickets and merch is more important than the health and well-being of the women he targets – well – fuck them seriously. If they hold out for 100% certainty – they are giving a free pass to all rapists not stupid enough to upload evidence of their crime to YouTube.

    1. 15.1

      “Default to provisionally believing all accusations” doesn’t seem too bad, though I guess it’s different enough from “believe all claims” that the latter can fairly be called a straw version of the former.

      If someone made a non-falsifiable rape accusation — one so vague it’s impossible to place under scrutiny — I think I actually wouldn’t believe it. I’m not even sure I’d use the term “accusation.” Truth doesn’t need the shield of non-falsifiability

  8. 16

    PS: Needless to say……A LOT of these people didn’t *just* decide they were unconvinced or assume she was lying. They openly mocked and attacked her. There is no excuse for that. That’s on them.

  9. 17

    @M.A. Melby

    If they hold out for 100% certainty – they are giving a free pass to all rapists not stupid enough to upload evidence of their crime to YouTube.

    Not even then. Unable to consent due to intoxication and unable to resist due to fear or shock can appear on a video to be a lot like consent to someone looking for a reason to give a rapist cover.

  10. 21

    M.A. Melby @11:

    The really low false claim rate is usually found by comparing police reports with those that are shown to be false. It’s a crime to file a false report. However – it is still low. (I’m sure you have a stat on that HJ.)

    At least three, actually, which formed the basis for a few minutes of lecturing:

    Rumney, P. (2006) False allegations of rape. The Cambridge Law Journal, 65 (1). 125 -158. ISSN 1469-2139
    Lisak, David, et al. False allegations of sexual assualt[sic]: an analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women 16.12 (2010): 1318-1334.
    Levitt, A. Charging “Perverting the Course of Justice” and Wasting Police Time in Cases Involving Allegedly False Rape and Domestic Violence Allegations. Crown Prosecution Service Equality and Diversity Unit, March 2013.

    Lisak’s oft-quoted 2-8% figure is conservative, as the largest studies skew to the low side of that range. Even that is misleading, though, as most people tend to think all false reports are the same; in reality, they’re extremely heterogeneous. Yes, some women (the vast majority of false reports are filed by women) do use them for revenge against men, but you also find situations like this:

    The suspect was a girl of 14 who had been in a relationship with a young man aged 17. Her father became aware of the relationship and made it clear that, given the age difference, he did not want it to continue. However, the girl continued with the relationship without her father’s knowledge and had sex with her boyfriend. When her father found out and confronted her she said that she had not wanted to have sex. Her father contacted the police and the girl gave an account to officers in which she said that she was not a willing participant in the sexual activity that had taken place.

    This is probably the most common false report out there, yet it’s completely unlike any of the allegations made against Shermer. Consequently, the certainty of falsehood is probably lower than 2%. At the same time, the allegations conform well to the general outline of a serial rapist: about three-quarters of cases involve alcohol, for instance, and some will deliberately use alcohol to make their victims complaint. The motivation is usually the thrill of dominance over someone lower on the social totem pole, such as a fan or newcomer to the skeptic movement. Check the lecture for more, I spend a fair bit of time sketching the demographics of rapists.

    Smith’s allegations alone should be convincing, and we have a lot more than Smith’s allegations.

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