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Feb 26 2014

As soon as we take sides

Carol Tavris takes a look at the Dylan Farrow-Woody Allen matter at Michael Shermer’s Skeptic.

The first part is good. I agree with all of it; it’s why I was careful not to say I “believed” Dylan Farrow or that I thought all claims of rape or sexual assault should be believed, just like that no matter what. It’s why I pointed out that DF’s memory could be wrong, without any intention or malice.

I was also dismayed to read claims by many of Dylan Farrow’s supporters that have long been scientifically disproved:

  • Children never lie about sexual abuse.
  • If a memory is vivid, detailed, and emotionally laden, that is evidence that it is accurate.
  • In the case of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, one must be “lying.” As Aaron Bady posted in The New Inquiry, “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt. And Woody Allen cannot be presumed to be innocent of molesting a child unless she is presumed to be lying to us.”

Same here. But then, toward the end, things go slightly wrong.

The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

That is the reason for the vehemence with which many of Farrow’s supporters are shouting down the opposition. (The title of a research paper captured this phenomenon perfectly: “When in Doubt, Shout.”) Given a choice of whom to believe, they say, we must always side with the accuser in a rape or molestation case; otherwise we are supporting the patriarchal “rape culture.” As Bady writes, “if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.” Anyone who asks skeptical questions of Dylan Farrow’s story is a pedophile or a sexist who is abetting the abuse of children and women. That kind of self-righteous certainty shuts down thoughtful inquiry. It does not help the cause of feminism or justice.

How, then, should we think about Dylan Farrow’s allegations? It’s relevant that they occurred during a bitter custody dispute, when Mia Farrow’s understandable rage at Allen over his affair with Soon Yi was going at full blast. We might ask why Dylan is making her story public now. We might wonder whether she has been influenced by recovered-memory therapists or, as her brother Moses writes, by an angry and vengeful mother. We would want to take into account that this family remains bitterly divided. Most of all, we have to accept the most difficult lesson of critical thinking: tolerating uncertainty.

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.

Notice anything? She forgot to follow her own instructions. That’s odd, isn’t it, since she had just given them. In one paragraph she said “as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong,” and in the next three paragraphs she discusses only Dylan Farrow’s allegations and not Woody Allen’s claims. It’s relevant that he’d been seeing a therapist because of his obsessive possessive relationship with Dylan; we might wonder whether he had some strange views about adoption and siblings and suitable sex partners; we would want to take into account that he never did see anything wrong with secretly fucking his long-term partner’s daughter.

So, yeah. Tavris is right that we don’t know, and that excess certainty is just that. But she’s quite wrong that that applies only to what Dylan Farrow has said.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    Shatterface

    “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt. And Woody Allen cannot be presumed to be innocent of molesting a child unless she is presumed to be lying to us.”

    Except they’re not really the only two options.

    Woody Allen might have done something short of molestation but which was inappropriate, or had unsavoury desires that were not actually acted upon but which Dylan recognised at the time, or only later, as inappropriate, and time/therapy/lawyers have polarised both parties and convinced them that their memories are more accurate and certain than they actually are; Dylan’s memories could be entirely confabulated; Allen might have convinced himself molestation was something less sinister, etc.

    But yes, Tavris is applying the unreliability of uncorroborated testimony entirely one-sidedly.

  2. 2
    stever

    Not every false statement is a lie. There are several cases, the most important of which is: A statement made in the belief that it is true cannot be a lie.

  3. 3
    Bruce

    Why do I get the feeling that the part where Tavris takes sides, is the part where she decided to write for Michael Shermer? She’s also straw-manning Dylan supporters as an undifferentiated group. Out-group homogeneity bias, much?

    Disappointing.

  4. 4
    quixote

    Yeah, sure, if you’re sitting on a jury, you presume innocence until proven otherwise. That’s not where we’re sitting. People are just trying to decide who’s on the moral high ground. The best any outsider can do is guess based on available evidence.

    1) There are an order or two of magnitude more lying pedophiles than lying victims. 2) Allen as much as said, in TV interviews fergawdsake, that he was sexually attracted to underage girls. 3) “He never did see anything wrong with secretly fucking his long-term partner’s daughter.” Indeed. 4) Dylan Farrow does not, as far as I’ve heard, which isn’t very far, show other evidence of pathological lying.

    If this was anybody but an admired white dude whom lots of people would like to go on liking, would there be anywhere near this level of cautious restraint about jumping to conclusions?

    I don’t mean this blog, which is big on logic and restraint generally. But that’s not usually true of the interwebz and media. Reserving judgment just isn’t how they normally roll.

    (A bit off-topic, but a very insightful article is Woody Allen Is Not a Monster. He Is a Person. Like My Father. The author makes the point that assuming monstrosity actually makes it harder to recognize the problem in our midst and perpetuates it.)

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    Somewhere several years ago I read of neurological experiments indicating that the mental process of dismissing a claim with which one disagrees not only occurs very quickly and subconsciously, but that doing so triggers a pleasure center in the brain.

    A couple of nights ago, I wanted to cite this, but couldn’t find the right report. Does anybody here have a clue I could borrow?

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    I’m surprised Shermer chose to remind the skeptical community about rape allegations.

  7. 7
    Silentbob

    @ 4 quixote

    There are an order or two of magnitude more lying pedophiles than lying victims. [... ] Dylan Farrow does not, as far as I’ve heard, which isn’t very far, show other evidence of pathological lying.

    So the bit about “he’s lying or she’s lying” being a false dichotomy sailed completely over your head?

  8. 8
    Silentbob

    … I mean, FFS, even Woody says he doesn’t think Dylan is lying.

  9. 9
    Stacy

    Mistakes were made, by Tavris–she claims the allegations “occurred during a bitter custody dispute.” Nope. The custody battle was initiated by him, after the allegations.

  10. 10
    Stacy

    And while I’m cool with pointing out the problems with memory, excessive certainty, and etc., I wish that wouldn’t translate so often into “skeptics must always side with the accused, because, 30 years ago, Satanic Panic.”

  11. 11
    chrislawson

    What a disgraceful piece. First of all, it is NOT TRUE that “studies of cognitive dissonance show…as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.” This is a grotesque over-simplification of cognitive dissonance studies.

    Secondly, the statement ““if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured’” is absolutely true. Let’s say this sentence again. If you presume Allen’s innocence by presuming Dylan’s mendacity then you are, indeed, rape-cultured.

    Thirdly, Dylan Farrow made it clear why she was bringing this up now: it was because of the success and Oscar nominations for Blue Jasmine. The critical fawning over Allen’s movie made her angry given her perceptions of Allen as a man who abused her sexually and got away with it. And really, why not bring it up now? When would be a good time to bring this up to Tavris’s satisfaction? Would Tuesday lunchtime suit her better? All I can see here is Tavris wildly trying to imply a secret agenda to Dylan Farrow’s accusations for no other purpose than to cast aspersions on her motives. Some fucking skeptic.

  12. 12
    Forbidden Snowflake

    Beside agreeing with chrislawson (especially regarding the timing of DF’s article), I would like to point out that while it’s possible to debate whether DF is telling the truth, lying or mistaken, the possibility of Woody Allen being completely truthful about the affair is squarely and irreversibly off the table.

  13. 13
    Amy Clare

    Also, Woody Allen is an old man. Memory gets more faulty as people get older – plus you are more likely to forget things that did happen than remember things that didn’t. Which makes it even more strange that the doubts about memory are just being applied to Dylan.

    Chrislawson is right too – the author has got cognitive dissonance wrong. Selective remembering and bias in processing information does exist but cognitive dissonance is something else.

  14. 14
    scenario

    I agree with Shatterface @ 1 that the truth of the situation is unlikely to be 100 percent on one side or the other. In my opinion, the truth is more likely to be closer to Dylan’s version. That doesn’t mean that everything Woody said is a 100 percent lie. Memories are not entirely reliable and it is easy to misremember things if you really believe they are true.

    I do think that most blog owners are more nuanced than Michael Shermer gives them credit for. Some of the posters to sites are very biased toward one side or the other but that is to be expected.

    One argument I don’t like is that since Woody Allen admitted many times he is attracted to teenage girls it means he must be attracted to 7 year old girls. A high school girl is a very different person than a preschool or grammar school girl. Both are inappropriate as sexual partners for 50 year olds but they are not the same as each other. To me it sounds to me like the very bad argument that gay people must be molesters i.e. if a guy is attracted to men he must be attracted to young boys.

  15. 15
    karmacat

    In the end, it doesn’t matter what we think about Woody Allen or Dylan Farrow because we are not involved in their lives. what is important, is that it can encourage discussions about how to support victims without making judgments of either side. One of the best kind of support is just listening. You can say to someone, “tell me more about your thoughts and feelings.”
    The other value to this discussion is thinking about children’s boundaries, what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. In terms of being with Soon-Yi, Allen violated a lot of boundaries that affected her and her family. You don’t have to judge a person’s whole character by pointing out problematic behavior. \
    (This has taken me a long time to write, because I am trying to be careful about wording. So, I am not sure how clear I am)

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Pierce @ 5 – I’m pretty sure Chris Mooney has discussed that research, so it might help to add him to Google terms when you look for it. Or you could just ask him.

  17. 17
    MEFoley

    Here’s an interesting take from Victoria Coren on the issue, unfortunately couched in terms of looking-for-a-rationale-so-we-can-be-comfortable, but then again, perhaps what we, or some of us, are doing; in any case, it’s a different view of some much-rehashed facts and opinions: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/09/woody-allen-dylan-farrow-alleged-sexual-abuse

  18. 18
    ChasCPeterson

    Psychology textbooks of the future will be using this mess as a case study of the ubiquity of confirmation bias. As Feynman sez, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Anybody who can’t or won’t admit that they are the same as everyone else in this sense is not worth paying attention to.

  19. 19
    johnthedrunkard

    chrislawson
    “And really, why not bring it up now? When would be a good time to bring this up to Tavris’s satisfaction? ”

    How about when Allen and Soon Yi were adopting children?

    These threads are a better demonstration of Tavris’ point than any satirist could dream of.

  20. 20
    Juliana Ewing

    Tavris totally misunderstands why people are saying “believe victims.” It’s not a mindless decision whatsoever. CONTEXT MATTERS. We live in a society where victims are disbelieved and blamed every day, in a way that DOES NOT HAPPEN with other kinds of crime.

  21. 21
    tigtog

    johnthedrunkard

    chrislawson
    “And really, why not bring it up now? When would be a good time to bring this up to Tavris’s satisfaction? ”

    How about when Allen and Soon Yi were adopting children?

    Back when Dylan was still a teenager (the girls adopted by Allen and Previn were born in 1999 and 2000 respectively), you wonder why she didn’t bring up her personal history of sexual molestation in the national press?

    I see nothing surprising in any teen *not* writing an open letter to the press ever about anything, let alone about such a devastating testimony guaranteed to reopen a scandal. Of course we (and you) have no idea whether DF or her mother or any other member of their family had any private communications with the NY authorities about Allen’s fitness as an adoptive parent at the time.

  22. 22
    Pierce R. Butler

    Ophelia Benson @ # 16 – Thanks!

    I found Mooney’s The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science and his Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives – but not yet the particular item I had in mind.

    From my experience so far, I can propose the hypothesis that failing to find the information that confirms one’s thoughts does not perceptibly stimulate the pleasure centers.

  23. 23
    chrislawson

    So, johnthedrunkard, how’s the weather down there in Steubenville?

  24. 24
    Hershele Ostropoler

    Silentbob @ 8:

    I mean, FFS, even Woody says he doesn’t think Dylan is lying.

    Not that the disingenuous “well, that’s how she remembered it” is a huge improvement. I suspect he’s doing a Hugoey “I told my therapist, we worked out why it happened, why is everyone still making a big deal out of it?”

    Scenario @ 14:

    One argument I don’t like is that since Woody Allen admitted many times he is attracted to teenage girls it means he must be attracted to 7 year old girls. A high school girl is a very different person than a preschool or grammar school girl.

    That bothered me too. I don’t think Dylan is lying but Allen’s attraction to teenage girls isn’t something I would treat as evidence she’s telling the truth.

  25. 25
    theoreticalgrrrl

    He admitted that it would be possible you could be found in a “love nest” with a bunch of 12-year-old girls and no one would be surprised.
    TWELVE is fucking young. That’s not an attraction to “almost legal” teenage girls. Most kids aged 12 are just finishing grammar school. Or is an attraction to middle schoolers not pedophilia?
    Jerry Sanduski’s victims were age 8-17. But they were boys.

    Also his movies:
    Child Molestation References in Woody Allen Movies – Esquire Magazine
    “Re-Watching Woody Allen -
    The newly-chilling themes that you can see throughout his movies”
    http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/dylan-farrow-woody-allen-movies

    “And what are we to make of the scene in Love and Death (1975), in which the wise Father Andre tells the Allen character, ‘I have lived many years and, after many trials and tribulations, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is…blond twelve-year-old girls. Two of them, whenever possible’?”
    dylan-farrow-woody-allen-movies

    My nephew is 12, if I heard someone I knew admitting no one would be surprised if he were found in a love nest with a bunch of twelve-year-old boys I would be concerned as hell, for any children I knew. I would consider them a pedophile, i.e. someone who is attracted to children, whether or not they’ve acted on it.
    Jesus.

  26. 26
    Hershele Ostropoler

    Puberty is a not-meaningless line. That doesn’t mean post-puberty is fair game, it doesn’t mean ages of consent are oppression, but it does mean, I think, that you can’t necessarily generalize across that line.

    I should point out that “attracted to teenagers who have gone through puberty” isn’t evidence against “attracted to kids,” especially if “attracted” is an imprecise term for what’s going on here.

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