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Feb 28 2014

Disclose at the outset

More on Orac’s post. (Oh here’s an undeclared thing – not a COI, but still a something – a preference, a habit, a way of doing things. I like the way blogging allows you to treat a subject in pieces if you want to. I do want to.)

He talks about false accusations, and the fact that they’re bad, and Ben Radford’s post on the subject.

The further I read, the more disturbed I became. For one thing, until near the end the article was relentlessly one-sided, its purpose clearly being to give the impression that false accusations of sexual assault are common. Oh, sure, towards the end Radford quotes Alan Dershowitz to concede that “most people who are accused of a crime are in fact guilty.” However, the overall message I got from his blog post was that false accusations of rape and sexual misconduct are common, making his concession that most people don’t lie about such things seem half-hearted, particularly in the context of the lack of high quality evidence to support his view in his post. Again, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” and Radford, disappointingly, went for anecdotes instead of data.

You know who else does that? Fiction writers. There are a lot of stories about false accusations of sexual harassment or rape, such a lot that it seems (to me, but then I have that COI…) disproportionate and thus misleading. Just off the top of my head there’s David Mamet’s Oleanna and J M Coetzee’s Disgrace and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. I haven’t seen any studies of this so I don’t know if the numbers really are disproportionate, but it seems to be a surprisingly (to me, see above) popular trope.

Now, here’s where I reveal that I know something that many of you don’t know (although, I daresay, many of you do). What those of you who aren’t into the skeptical movement probably don’t know is that last summer, the author of this piece, Ben Radford, was publicly accused of sexual harassment by Karen Stollznow. Now, let me make one thing very clear. I make no judgment as to whether Radford is actually guilty of sexual harassment. I don’t know. I don’t have enough information to know, because all I know is what Stollznow wrote about it (an article that was later removed) and some of what flew back and forth on atheist blogs for a few weeks. For purposes of this discussion of COIs, it really doesn’t matter. For purposes of my discussion of disclosing COIs, it’s utterly irrelevant to me whether Radford is guilty or not.

Now, how does Radford’s post read? Different, doesn’t it? Knowing this about him, I find it hard to view his post as anything more than an attempt at self-justification and a means of casting doubt on his accuser—even if such was not his intent. How would I have reacted to his post if he had disclosed his COI up front? I don’t know for sure. Probably not as badly as I did with his not having disclosed it. No, definitely not as badly as I did. However, what irritates me is what people who don’t know the back story will see. They will tend to assume that Radford is reasonably disinterested, trying to apply skepticism and critical thinking to the issue of false accusations. He is, after all, a prominent skeptic, writing on his employer’s blog, and his employer is CFI, which is dedicated to promoting skepticism and critical thinking. What Radford denied such readers is a piece of evidence necessary to help them evaluate his arguments, namely the bias of the writer.

Quite. That’s a thought that struck a lot of people yesterday. Many of them were angry with CFI for hosting Radford’s post. I kept thinking, when I saw the anger, that it wasn’t a matter of CFI as such approving and publishing Radford’s post, as if it had been an article in Skeptical Inquirer or Free Inquiry. CFI bloggers post what they want to post, and there is a disclaimer on the blog saying the opinions are those of the individual blogger, not CFI. Ron mentioned that in his post yesterday. I kept thinking that, but I didn’t type it because…what…because I’m not sure that policy is a good idea, for the reasons that this controversy reveals. The disclaimer is there but it doesn’t really do the job. At one point yesterday I was going to compare the situation to FTB, where we are all completely independent, but then I remembered that a blog network is one thing and a big organization like CFI is quite another. I’m not sure a CFI blog really can post independently of the organization in a meaningful sense, especially not on a subject that gets people hot under the collar because of their Interests and Conflicts of same.

At any rate, as Orac says, it certainly doesn’t help that Radford didn’t disclose his Interest.

Unfortunately, Radford’s post is also badly reasoned and lacking in evidence. I was going to provide some examples and pick it apart a bit in my own inimitable way, other than pointing out its near-total reliance on anecdotes as I’ve already done, but it turns out that I don’t have to. Here’s what I mean. When I first saw Radford’s post and decided to write about it, I was also annoyed at CFI. Why, I thought, did CFI allow Radford to use its blog as a platform to grind his his own personal axes? Believe it or not, given how happy and pleased I was that my very first major article had just seen print in CFI’s flagship publication, Skeptical Inquirer (it’s a primer on Stanislaw Burzynski coupled with an article about how skeptics have become active again opposing him), I even felt a little trepidation as I wrote this. I wondered whether I would ever be invited to give a talk at a national CSI conference again, the way I was in 2012, or whether I’d ever see any of my articles in print again in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer. It was almost enough to make me stay my typing hands and look to another topic I had had in mind for today before I became aware of Radford’s post. Radford is, after all, very influential in CFI. If I were to piss him off, it wouldn’t result in a profane rant directed at me at TAM this year in which a certain large magician took umbrage about something I wrote about him, but it could have negative effects on my aspirations to be more influential. I don’t know if those fears are unreasonable, but I’m less worried now that I’ve seen another post on a CFI blog.

That’s an impressive example of following his own advice, and declaring a hidden COI. It’s also a different Orac from the one who picked a big fight with me in the summer of 2012 in the acrimonious run-up to that year’s TAM. I thought he very much had a COI then, and was being an asshole about it. That was that year, the year before Penn Jillette picked a big fight with him. Things change.

It turns out that Ron Lindsay, president of CFI, has actually written a response in which he noticed the same sorts of problems that I did. His post is reasoned and balanced, and he basically eviscerates Radford’s arguments right from the very title of his post, Evidence-Based Reasoning: Comments on a Blog Post.

Paths intersect.

Think of it this way. No one disputes that in scientific and medical research it’s important to disclose one’s financial COIs. If discussed the way I discussed above, few would argue that it’s not also important to disclose COIs that might imply a strong ideological COI, such as antivaccinationists who publish review articles and research purporting to find a link between vaccines and autism who don’t mention that, oh, by the way, they are on the board of directors of an antivaccine group, although such COIs tend to be treated much less seriously than financial COIs. Fewer people would insist that disclosing COIs like those of Ben Radford, life events that have the potential to massively impact one’s objectivity, is critical, but I would. If you want to claim to be a skeptic and to persuade an audience of skeptics, you need to be completely open about such a potent personal COI. More importantly, if you want to be honest with yourself, it’s even more imperative to do so. The same is true of science. Ruthless self-examination and openness about sources of our potential biases can only help us develop as skeptics. We all have biases, and we all have potential COIs. Acknowledging them and being honest about them, are the first step in overcoming them, because you can’t overcome them if you fail to admit that they exist.

Agreed.

 

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    It’s also a different Orac from the one who picked a big fight with me in the summer of 2012 in the acrimonious run-up to that year’s TAM. I thought he very much had a COI then, and was being an asshole about it. That was that year, the year before Penn Jillette picked a big fight with him. Things change.

    That part of the text makes it sound like you think Orac’s willingness to criticize CFI and a big name skeptic is mostly due to Jillette’s behavior to him, and not so much to strong principles. Was that intentional?

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    No, that’s not what I meant. I meant that part to apply strictly to his dealings with me.

    To spell it out more, I think he was blind to the wagon-circling and loyalty-enforcing that fans of TAM and of DJ Grothe were doing – blind to the outright bullying by some of them. I think Jillette’s bullying of him and DJ’s indifference to it probably made him a good deal less blind to that.

  3. 3
    screechymonkey

    CFI bloggers post what they want to post, and there is a disclaimer on the blog saying the opinions are those of the individual blogger, not CFI. Ron mentioned that in his post yesterday. I kept thinking that, but I didn’t type it because…what…because I’m not sure that policy is a good idea, for the reasons that this controversy reveals. The disclaimer is there but it doesn’t really do the job. At one point yesterday I was going to compare the situation to FTB, where we are all completely independent, but then I remembered that a blog network is one thing and a big organization like CFI is quite another. I’m not sure a CFI blog really can post independently of the organization in a meaningful sense, especially not on a subject that gets people hot under the collar because of their Interests and Conflicts of same.

    I remember having this argument with Melody a few years back when some other CFI blogger (De Dora? Might even have been Lindsay himself) was being criticized.

    I think the “not an official position” disclaimer only gets you so far. The people an organization hires to speak and write and think and analyze on its behalf reflect on the organization.

    Publishing something on a CFI blog is a middle point along that spectrum from “Official Organization Policy” to “Completely Independent Activity.” And even the latter end of the spectrum doesn’t exempt the organization from criticism — I trust that CFI would not find it acceptable for a CFI contributor to be selling homeopathic medicine, even if it was on his “free time” and with no mention of CFI.

    I think that’s a problem that all organizations have to face, but it’s perhaps harder for skeptical organizations. When your official raison d’etre is (supposedly) not adhering to any particular position on any particular issue but rather “applying critical thinking and following the evidence,” then that means that a pretty broad range of opinions and behavior are going to reflect on a person’s qualifications to carry out that mission and therefore on the organization’s judgment in retaining such a person.

    As to blog networks like FtB: I think the same principles apply, to a slightly different degree. I seem to recall that initially PZ and Ed said there were no provisions for booting somebody out of the network, and that was clearly a mistake. There’s clearly some point at which a blogger could become so contrary to the network’s principles that they reflect poorly on it.

  4. 4
    Juliana Ewing

    There are a lot of stories about false accusations of sexual harassment or rape

    Yup. To Kill a Mockingbird, for one.

  5. 5
    Charles Sullivan

    About the trope of false accusations of sexual harassment and rape in fiction.

    There exists the broader trope or plot device of a character being falsely accused of some wrongdoing. This can make for engaging drama as we see the falsely accused person suffer from the accusation, while hoping that some way will be found by the end of the book (or film) that reveals the characters innocence.

    I don’t know whether false accusations of sexual harassment and rape in fiction are another version of this plot device. And I can’t say just how popular the trope is, or how dangerous it is to use in fiction.

  6. 6
    kellym

    Holy crap! I hadn’t read about Penn’s harassment of Dr. Gorski at TAM 2013* before. The TAM party crowd *cheered* when Dr. Gorski was forced out. What petty, vicious behavior. Why would anyone pay so much money to hang out with skeptics?

    *DJ Grothe might argue that it wasn’t an *official* JREF TAM event, but it was exclusively a JREF fundraiser with all TAM attendees invited (except Dr. Gorski, who was kicked out by Penn from the stage).

  7. 7
    Silentbob

    @ 5 Charles Sullivan

    True. They made a whole TV series out of that one.

  8. 8
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    @ Juliana Ewing: Except that To kill a mockingbird explores the racist trope of blaming the rape of a White woman on a Black man, right?

  9. 9
    Juliana Ewing

    @Irène: yes. But it’s in a book that is mainly about white people, and that one is encouraged to swallow whole as an inspiring tale. It’s assigned in many middle and high schools and is probably a lot of kids’ first literary exposure to the concept of rape. (Certainly the old-fashioned legal definition of rape that Atticus quotes — “carnal knowledge of a woman by force and without her consent” — shaped my understanding of rape for years.) I don’t say there’s so much wrong with the book itself (though I wish the black characters in it weren’t so upstaged by the white ones) — it’s the outsized role it has in US culture that I have some misgivings about. It isn’t suited to be the only book of its kind in the curriculum, is what the question boils down to.

    I do think the attitude that women lie about rape all the time is to some slight extent an inevitable heritage of the framing of black men for rape in our past (though far more often, as in TKAM, it was the white woman’s male relatives who lied), but misogyny is a much bigger part.

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