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PZ Myers’ Grenade, and Anonymous Accusations vs. Unnamed Sources: The “Deep Throat” Analogy

When we’re considering accusations of seriously bad, possibly criminal behavior, should we take anonymous accusations seriously?

What about unnamed sources?

Much has been said about PZ Myers’s post on Pharyngula, What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?, in which he re-posted an email from a woman he knows — but whose name he did not disclose — saying that Michael Shermer coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her.

Much of what has been said about this is along the lines of, “We can’t trust anonymous accusations! Anyone could accuse anyone of anything anonymously! Anonymous accusations are just gossip! McCarthyism! Witch-hunting! Moral panic!”

So I want to clear something up:

This is not an anonymous accusation.

It is an accusation from an unnamed source.

There’s an analogy I’ve been making to some friends who I’ve been discussing this with. The analogy is with Watergate, and reporter Bob Woodward, and his confidential source popularly known as “Deep Throat.”

all-the-presidents-menThink back, for a moment, to Watergate. Think back to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And think about “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s high-level secret informant, from whom Woodward got much of the information about the numerous, highly illegal activities going on in the Nixon White House, and the high level at which these activities were going on.

These weren’t anonymous allegations. They were allegations from an unnamed source.* Woodward didn’t disclose who they came from — but he knew who made them.

And Bob Woodward — along with his colleague, Carl Bernstein — had a reputation for rigorously caring about the truth. The reporters paid attention to the reliability of their sources. They got as much corroborating documentation for their stories as they could. On the few occasions when they got information wrong, they said so publicly.

Woodstein trusted their sources… and people trusted Woodstein.

Do you think people should have dismissed Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting about Watergate, simply because it came from unnamed sources?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

PZ’s re-posting of an email from a woman he knows… this is not an anonymous accusation. It an accusation from an unnamed source. PZ knows who it is. And PZ has a reputation for rigorously caring about the truth. He has a reputation for paying attention to the reliability of his sources. He has a reputation for getting corroborating documentation when he can. On the occasions when he gets stuff wrong, he says so publicly.

But even if you don’t trust PZ, and don’t agree that he’s trustworthy and reliable? It still makes no sense to reflexively dismiss the entire notion of trusting unnamed sources for a story. Argue, if you like, that PZ isn’t reliable. Make that case if you like. (Many people certainly made that case against Woodward and Bernstein: many people said they were commie pinko liberal agitators, hell-bent on tearing down the Nixon presidency, and that their reports weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.) But unless you’re willing to wholly reject the very idea of reporting based on unnamed sources, you can’t just say, “These stories are anonymous — and therefore, we can and should ignore them, and can and should revile the people who take them seriously.”

Now, it’s true that in the Watergate reporting, one of the things that made Woodward and Bernstein trustworthy and reliable was that they didn’t rely on just one source. A single unnamed source could, in fact, all too easily be someone with an axe to grind just trying to stir shit up. So they wouldn’t publish a story based on unnamed sources unless they had at least two of them saying the same thing. More than two, in the case of highly explosive stories.

So in this situation? As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. (CLARIFICATION: The report from Naomi Baker is not of an incident that happened to her: it is a first-hand report of harassment told to her by the victim.) We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

Do you think this would be good enough for Woodward and Bernstein?

Not for them to report, “Michael Shermer committed sexual assault”… but for them to report, “Serious, credible accusations are being made that Michael Shermer committed sexual assault — accusations that are corroborated by multiple sources”?

Washington Post Front Page Nixon Denies Role In CoverUpThe analogy isn’t perfect, of course. No analogy is: if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be an analogy, it would be the exact same thing. For one thing, it wasn’t just Woodward and Bernstein that people trusted, and were being asked to trust. It was the entire institution of the Washington Post. People trusted that the editors of the Washington Post wouldn’t have hired Woodward and Bernstein if they hadn’t thought them to be reliable. They trusted the Washington Post’s track record of hiring reliable reporters. They were relying on the reputation and track record of the Washington Post, as much as the reputation of Woodward and Bernstein. Probably even more.

But it’s also the case that the Washington Post had to place an immense amount of trust in Woodward and Bernstein. Woodstein didn’t disclose their sources to their editors, any more than they disclosed them to the general public. Ultimately, their editors had to trust Woodstein. Ultimately, the web of trust was centered in Woodstein, and in their ability to decide that their unnamed sources could be trusted.

I’m not saying that these accusations are definitely true. And I’m definitely not saying that these reports would be enough evidence to convict someone in a court of law. Like I said the other day, in my piece Harassment, Rape, and the Difference Between Skepticism and Denialism: We’re not talking about what kind of evidence would support publication in a peer-reviewed journal, or a judgment in a court of law. We’re talking about what kind of evidence would support judgment in the court of public opinion. The legal standard of evidence isn’t the issue here.

I’m saying this: This idea that we should completely ignore these accusations — and deride the people who are taking them seriously — simply and entirely because they come from unnamed sources? It’s ridiculous. We don’t apply that standard to any other reporting, on any other topic.

There are reasons that unnamed sources stay unnamed. Especially when they’re making accusations against powerful people. So think, once again, about Deep Throat. Unless you’re willing to automatically discount Deep Throat, and the dozens — probably hundreds — of other unnamed sources in the Watergate reporting, and the thousands upon thousands of other unnamed sources on other stories who told reporters and bloggers things they couldn’t tell anyone else about… then don’t discount this. Believe it; don’t believe it; be on the fence about it for now; decide for yourself whether the reporters are credible and the sources are credible and whether there are enough of them. But don’t reflexively reject these stories, simply because they’re “anonymous.” They’re not.

I strongly suggest that you look at this excellent piece by Jason Thibeault, The web of trust: Why I believe Shermer’s accusers, which gets into similar concepts more thoroughly.

*Yes, I know that Deep Throat was technically not an unnamed source. He was on deep background (hence the nickname): not letting himself be cited as a direct source of information, but instead corroborating or disconfirming information from other unnamed sources, pointing Woodward in fruitful directions, and giving background and big-picture information to put the information Woodward already had in a comprehensible context. Both Woodward and Bernstein did have plenty of unnamed sources, however, who they did cite more directly in their reporting. As has pretty much every other investigative journalist in the known universe. I’m using Deep Throat as my analogy because he’s so widely known, and his story is so recognizable.

Comments

  1. believerskeptic says

    This is an excellent point, PZ, and a very important distinction. You keep on keepin’ on, sockin’ it to the bad guy.

  2. believerskeptic says

    Oops— I thought PZ wrote this, defending himself. It’s still an excellent point, Ms. Christina.

  3. says

    (Many people certainly made that case against Woodward and Bernstein: many people said they were commie pinko liberal agitators, hell-bent on tearing down the Nixon presidency, and that their reports weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.

    But that is, apart from people screaming “no evidence*” and “anonymous source not trustworthy because anonymous”, what it often comes down to: PZ is an evil liberal-authoritarian-misandrist-feminazi with an agenda and therefore every word he writes can be dismissed.
    *Because a woman’s testimony creates such a lack of evidence it needs 4 men to fill that hole

  4. Jacob Schmidt says

    It’s amusing to me to watch detractors argue simultaneously that “anonymous” is a perfectly fine descriptor because it means the exact same thing as “confidential” or “unnamed” (which is literaly true) in the midst of people arguing that “confidential” or “unnamed” is the wrong term to use and the better one would “anonymous.” I saw quite a bit of it in the comments for Ian Murphy’s interview. Despite these two contradictory positions, they never bothered to address the each other.

  5. llewelly says

    I love what you have written, about the pseudo skepticism, and the rape culture denialism, that has been driving so much of the skeptical community to fall for and rationalize the same fallacies they seek to criticize, perhaps because they seek justify all the time and energy they have sunk into the old boys club way of doing things. It’s been, a nightmare to watch, one similar to others I have seen, and yet, I have not had any writing spoons available, and have not known what to do.

    And I think this is on the whole an excellent analogy. But even knowing that pseudonym applied to FBI officer Mark Felt was suggested and accepted simply because it was humorous reference to a move popular at the time, I am, (as I said elsewhere) irradiated with irony at seeing the name “Deep Throat” used, as the heroine later said she was threatened with violence, and even with a gun during the making of the film. And there were plenty of other examples of troubling behavior from the makers of the film.

    I know, it isn’t relevant to the topic of your post, and I don’t want to derail the thread into a long irrelevant argument, but, to me, the film’s iconic status is iconic of the prevalence of rape culture; it is a film which ought to be despised as a shameful horror in the history of porn, but instead it’s casually referenced all kinds of contexts.

    And so I can’t help but think about it, and see it as an example of how rape culture affects us all, even when we strive to unwarp our judgement, and to avoid using or implying its favored tropes, even unintentionally.

    It’s so important not to go into defensive denial when we make mistakes, because, we all make mistakes.

  6. says

    Thank you, Greta.

    It continues to be tiring and frustrating to see people defending accused men as if they are in a court of law. As a victim of sexual assault, I never reported what happened because I knew I’d never be believed. I was plied with enough alcohol, without being aware of it, to end up blacked out and subsequently raped.

    That anyone would call the accusers liars, out for attention or anything else, don’t understand what it’s like to be a victim of such a thing. I, like those other women, would want others to know what happened so they could protect themselves from a predator that was obviously happy to continue preying while their victims were being silenced.

  7. says

    Thank you for this excellent analysis of the situation and the summary of the evidence collected so far! The case against Shermer is certainly starting to look strong, at the very least strong enough to take the accusations seriously while maybe not strong enough to prove anything conclusively yet. I also read that post by Jason Thibeault earlier today and liked it very much (there’s some really intelligent commentary in the thread there too, as well as, unfortunately, the usual trolls and idiots). It’s very nice to see such coherent and rational defenses of PZ on this issue, keep it up!

  8. says

    It continues to be tiring and frustrating to see people defending accused men as if they are in a court of law.

    That could be because some of them really have been there. I’m beginning to get the feeling there’s even more layers of sleaze beneath the ones we’ve been exposing so far. And the ‘pitters know it.

  9. imnotandrei says

    Thank you — I used this very same analogy arguing elsewhere and you…well, you’re smart, and imaginative, so I won’t say “You can’t imagine the screeching!”, but it was reasonably impressive — and yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head; “anonymous” is not the same as “unknown to you”.

    (For example, in that same thread I had two people, who didn’t know who I was, claim that I had engaged in inappropriate sexual activity. Needless to say, their behind-a-pseudonym claims lacked a certain authority. ;))

    And Gillel, you’re right as well — I have yet to see someone go “I trust PZ Myers, but I don’t believe this…” I’ve seen “PZ Myers is a liar, and here he is lying again!” and that’s about it.

  10. says

    If we’re dealing with anonymous sources and accusations, we may apply a substantial discount to their value. Even with that discount applied, I now wouldn’t let Shermer within 3 feet of my daughter.*

    I recall the watergate days – and “deep throat” was similarly discounted. But in the end, it was Nixon’s own actions that sunk his presidency (Shermer, take note) more than anything else. Now, decades later, we know that Felt was an FBI executive, who was basically performing an inter-agency hit on a president that was felt t be getting too close to the CIA instead of the FBI. But that doesn’t change the interpretation we put on Nixon’s own actions. I’m inclined to discount Felt more severely, but ultimately it was the pattern of lies that began the affair, compounded by the lies that ended it. I don’t think Shermer’s actions since PZ’s posting have helped him in the slightest and (at a minimum!) hurt him mildly.

    (*hypothetical daughter does not exist)

  11. brive1987 says

    —–> Contrary view ahead <—–

    This is a bit of a strawman. You really think this is about deriding the women? really?

    No ones attacking, dismissing or deriding her. There are questions of course from the wider public given the paucity of specific information, but her allegations should be appropriately addressed, only the lunatic fringe would disagree.

    The honest debate centres on whether a reasonable person would/should undertake additional steps before engaging in a (self defined) tossing of a public grenade.

    This debate is muddied by strong context: PZ unquestionably has an existing agenda against big tent skepticism and a personal world view many find .. not entirely dispassionate.

    PZ publicly posted a specific allegation of serious criminal offence against a named individual who denies the action. This public claim was not supported by equally unequivocal evidence. In fact it was originally presented by PZ to us as an anonymous anecdote with strong disclaimer. Since then additional anecdotes, mostly anonymous and not directly related, have emerged.

    As a general principle, many would reach for the word "libellous" from their shelf of adjectives.

    Legally the action maybe prima faci defamation. It will quite likely be tested in court.

    What you haven't addressed is that PZ knew full well his commentators would take "accused" to "committed". You may trust PZ – but the lasting narrative has now been set in the 4100 comments. It doesn't help your argument that PZ is dispassionate when he then hoovers up posts that simply question him rather than promote some form of MRA bile. He owns and has defined that thread.

    Overall it would be naive to claim the reporting incident should not engender ethical debate. And of course anyone who claims there are simple and clear ethical answers in life is dreaming.

    So none of this really relates to the women and her experience, such as we currently understand them. It goes against PZ, his values and the fact to many people he "ain't" no Bernstein.

    Re the rape – personally I don't know enough to form a strong opinion but I am concerned at what has come out so far. I do think PZ's approach to this serious allegation is wrong – per my values and worldview. Naturally you have a different opinion. And from reasonable discussion we may all get something positive from this mess.

  12. Greta Christina says

    You really think this is about deriding the women? really?

    No ones attacking, dismissing or deriding her.

    brive1987 @ #15: Given the type of reception that rape accusations routinely get, I highly doubt this. She is absolutely being dismissed, and it would surprise me hugely to find that she had not been attacked or derided.

    But I didn’t say that PZ’s source had been derided. I said that the people who are taking her claims seriously are being derided. Please re-read. Thank you.

  13. davehooke says

    It doesn’t help your argument that PZ is dispassionate when he then hoovers up posts that simply question him

    I was following that thread. I saw a few idiots and their sockpuppets get banned. I saw posts with detailed accounts of fictional rapes that were made invisible unless highlighted.

    Who “simply questioned him” and got their post deleted? What did they say?

  14. CaitieCat says

    Also, “anonymous” does not mean the same thing as “unnamed”. “Anonymous” means “having no name”, as opposed to “unnamed”, where there is, in fact, a name, it’s just not known – as far as I’m aware – to anyone besides PZ and the unnamed source herself (and the various corroborators). Anonymous would mean no one knew who the person was, which is clearly not the case. And the difference between “unnamed to you Hordelings, but I know who she is” and “this is just a random accusation someone dropped in my mailbox” is a considerably bigger one than the slymey types want to admit, so they come with false accusations and bad-faith arguments that they know full well are bad-faith; they just want to muddy the issue as much as possible, thinking that they have a legal standard to meet – which they don’t.

    And speaking only for myself, y’know, there are PLENTY of atheist speakers in the world who don’t get followed around by whispers of their unsafeness, of their possible predation. Why would I bother spending more attention on the ones who are followed by such? For me as a survivor, I don’t need to know the details; I don’t think my life will be diminished because I don’t want to read the work of or listen to the speeches of someone who even might have a difficulty grasping consent. There are lots and lots of other atheists to listen to and read who don’t have that difficulty. I choose to direct my support and attention to them – such as, among others, Greta and PZ and Stephanie and Jen and Miri and a bunch of others.

  15. tonyinbatavia says

    brive1987 @15, I think something positive is already in motion, something that fits very well with my values and worldview: fewer woman in the future will likely be sexually assaulted. That is a “lasting narrative.”

  16. eigenperson says

    PZ unquestionably has an existing agenda against big tent skepticism and a personal world view many find .. not entirely dispassionate.

    It doesn’t really matter whether PZ is dispassionate or not. Woodstein weren’t dispassionate. Glenn Greenwald is not dispassionate. The important thing is that they’re honest.

    PZ publicly posted a specific allegation of serious criminal offence against a named individual who denies the action. This public claim was not supported by equally unequivocal evidence. In fact it was originally presented by PZ to us as an anonymous anecdote with strong disclaimer. Since then additional anecdotes, mostly anonymous and not directly related, have emerged.

    As a general principle, many would reach for the word “libellous” from their shelf of adjectives.

    Legally the action maybe prima faci defamation. It will quite likely be tested in court.

    Fortunately, at least since NYT v. Sullivan, the standard has not been “You must have unequivocal evidence before you print anything.” If it were, then one could not have investigative journalism in the US.

    PZ had good evidence — not unequivocal, but good — of what he was printing. And I think that ought to be enough for everyone. If it isn’t enough for you, I question your commitment to the truth. It’s important for people to be able to say things, including highly controversial things, without being absolutely certain they are correct, because that’s how we find out the truth.

    And, for what it’s worth, I doubt the case will ever go to trial.

  17. says

    Greta:
    Thank you for this post.
    It really shows how wrongheaded many commenters are when they complain about “anonymous” claims.
    ****

    brive1987:
    I was there in the grenade thread. 4112 comments over 4 days. None of the dissenters ever listened to what we were saying. None of them understood that Jane Doe should be believed. Every one of the dissenters perpetuated Rape Culture myths.

    The “questioning of PZ” was, in many cases, predicated upon disbelieving Jane Doe’s claim. In other cases, the questioning stemmed from an irrational dislike of PZ, rather than a fair look at his track record (which Greta talks about in her post).

    What happened in the grenade thread was a majority of commenters unequivocally supporting Jane Doe and PZ while a minority of commenters did their best to discredit Jane Doe and/or PZ.

    I find your attempts to paint things otherwise to be distasteful.

  18. huntstoddard says

    The analogy between Woodstein and Myerstein is pretty good, though I’m still not entirely clear on whether Shermer will be considered a public figure; certainly he’s not a public figure like Nixon was a public figure. Woodstein took a risk, and so is Myers. I happen to think Myers is basing his actions on less evidence than Woodstein did, but then the stakes are far smaller, even though a man’s career hangs in the balance. I think in both circumstances, the M.O. is to reveal allegations, based on fact, anonymous witness, or whatever, the goal being to spur a kind of avalanche of revelations that are irrefutable. I think Woodstein accomplished this. It remains to be seen whether Myers will. I think this is what he hopes will happen. So far it doesn’t seem to be, but it’s possible much is happening behind the scene. What I don’t find at all acceptable is to simply leave things in an ambiguous state, smearing a man without the promise of enough information for us (the general public) to make an informed decision. If you want to try a person in the court of public opinion, you are obliged to provide us with enough information to do so. This is where I think Woodstein and Myerstein diverge. Myers seems to think it’s acceptable to smear Shermer, justified as a public service, to warn women away from him, without assurance that this will ever be entirely resolved or proven definitively. I would consider that a dangerous precedent. That’s not the kind of thing any of us should allow to stand in liberal democracy. I doubt Woodstein ever thought their actions would result in such an uncertain state.

  19. Grace Scroat says

    The better US President to compare to is not Nixon but Clinton. And it all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is !

  20. Eric says

    RE: Evidence and the court of opinion. Wow. Court of opinion. OK.

    Greta, this is where I must strongly disagree. Has Mr. Shermer been given a chance for rebuttal? Has anyone contacted the DA in their relevant district? Has anyone ever pressed charges against Mr. Shermer? Does he have a criminal record and/or a past history we can review?

    Don’t you find it odd that not at least one person came forward to the relevant authorities when the alleged attacks took place?

    I vociferously support women’s rights and I know all too well the experiences of being a child of an abused parent. I do not doubt the claims of the accuser.

    That said: though we are not in a court of law, the court of public opinion is a poor substitute. Watergate is a vastly complex situation involving multiple people & multiple co-conspirators which affected an entire nation and is not a good example. A few women making claims, albeit with excellent circumstantial evidence, against one inconsequential person is not the same thing.

  21. witlesschum says

    Don’t you find it odd that not at least one person came forward to the relevant authorities when the alleged attacks took place?

    Not Greta, or even a patch on her, but I don’t find it very odd, given the specific context and what we know about the frequency of people saying they’ve been raped versus actually reporting it to the authorities. Add the fact that the alleged rapist is relatively high-status compared to the victim, the likely circumstances (not a stranger leaping out of the bushes) and the victim’s presumed knowledge that she’d be stepping into an ideological war in the skeptical community and be the target of death threats, at the very least, if she called the cops.

    That said: though we are not in a court of law, the court of public opinion is a poor substitute. Watergate is a vastly complex situation involving multiple people & multiple co-conspirators which affected an entire nation and is not a good example. A few women making claims, albeit with excellent circumstantial evidence, against one inconsequential person is not the same thing.

    Look at it this way. Let’s say you’re P.Z. and you believe the woman’s story is true and you think you’ve got good reasons for that. You know you can’t know with 100 percent certainty, but you think you know as well as you can know. Sitting on it and keeping it out of that court of public opinion might well allow Shermer to pull the same thing again. If it’s not true and you’re wrong to have posted it, Shermer’s reputation gets slandered unfairly. If it is true and you didn’t post it, what were the consequences of not spreading it as far and wide as possible?

  22. Rieux says

    Eric @25:

    Has Mr. Shermer been given a chance for rebuttal?

    Of course he has. He runs a freaking magazine. Even if he didn’t, he has an extremely prominent public platform. He’s been free to say absolutely anything he would like to say throughout this entire process. (His lawyer, for very good reasons, doesn’t want him to say anything, but as an attorney myself I assure you that we don’t have the power to sew our clients’ lips shut, or paralyze their keyboarding fingers.) Any “rebuttal” Shermer has failed to provide is a matter of his choice alone.

    Has anyone contacted the DA in their relevant district?

    We have no idea. Possibly not. So what? Sexual assaults that are not reported to law enforcement are nonetheless sexual assaults, and law enforcement is not the only entity capable of concluding that such assaults have taken place.

    As anyone with basic literacy in such issues is aware, a huge proportion of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement. Ergo how is your question the slightest bit relevant?

    Has anyone ever pressed charges against Mr. Shermer?

    Same responses. We have no idea. Possibly not. So what? Sexual assaults for which charges are never pressed are nonetheless sexual assaults.

    Does he have a criminal record and/or a past history we can review?

    Criminal record? I presume not. Past history? Read the blasted original post. Greta addresses that at some length.

    Don’t you find it odd that not at least one person came forward to the relevant authorities when the alleged attacks took place?

    No, of course not. It would require significant ignorance of basic facts about sex crimes and the criminal justice system to be surprised that numerous perpetrators exist for whom “not at least one person [has] c[o]me forward to the relevant authorities when the alleged attacks took place.” There is nothing the slightest bit odd about that.

    I vociferously support women’s rights….

    That assertion is not entirely easy to square with your previous statements in this comment.

    That said: though we are not in a court of law, the court of public opinion is a poor substitute.

    And Poughkeepsie is a poor substitute for Maui. Once again, so what? Upwards of 30,000 people live in the former anyway.

    Which is to say, in light of the realities of the criminal justice system, ones that you do not evince any particular familiarity with (or interest in or concern about), “the court of public opinion” is all too often the only recourse realistically available to victims of sexual assault. This has been made extraordinarily clear on numerous occasions throughout the current public conversation. Victims of sex crimes certainly do not need arrogant lectures on “poor substitutes” from you.

    Watergate is a vastly complex situation involving multiple people & multiple co-conspirators which affected an entire nation and is not a good example. A few women making claims, albeit with excellent circumstantial evidence, against one inconsequential person is not the same thing.

    Then name a relevant distinction that calls into question the argument Greta is making. The complexity of Watergate and the number of people it involved and affected do not qualify; they have nothing to do with whether reporters conveying accounts from unnamed sources is a legitimate basis for members of the public to form provisional conclusions about the accused. (Nor does Shermer’s “inconsequential”ness, which, in the context of the reasons Jane Doe that came forward with her account, is a laughable notion.)

    Courts of law, because they involve the state threatening to use its coercive power to impose criminal punishment on the accused, employ narrow standards of proof as a matter of moral necessity. The court of public opinion, which is capable of dishing out only vastly lesser punishments, has accordingly lesser standards of proof.

    In light of the facts that (1) false accusations of rape and other sex crimes are exceedingly rare and (2) I trust PZ Myers to have addressed the accusation he received responsibly, I believe Michael Shermer very likely did what he has been accused of. If I were a juror, and Shermer a defendant, in a criminal trial, I would demand stronger evidence before voting to convict him (and then imprison him for a very long time); I would consider him very much innocent until proven guilty for the purposes of that trial. But because the context we currently find ourselves in is not a criminal trial, and I have no power (nor do I want it) to visit harsh criminal punishment on Shermer, I have no problem drawing conclusions on lesser, though still quite sufficient, evidence.

    Complain all you’d like about the “poor substitute” nature of the court of public opinion; no matter how much scorn you drip on it, it is nonetheless entirely real and indeed unavoidable. I practice in front of courts of law all the time, and I’m quite sure that I don’t need one of them to tell me what I think Michael Shermer has done,

    (The same, for that matter, goes for Richard Nixon—who by the way was never either charged with or convicted of any crime whatsoever.)

  23. Rieux says

    huntstoddard @23:

    I’m still not entirely clear on whether Shermer will be considered a public figure….

    I’d like to see a cogent legal argument that Shermer, magazine publisher, prominent speaker, and sometime TV personality is not a public figure for defamation purposes. As I’ve said elsewhere, that idea isn’t the most-stupid “get PZ” legal theory I’ve seen bandied around, but this attorney thinks it’s an enormously long-odds proposition.

    certainly he’s not a public figure like Nixon was a public figure.

    Yeah, uh… let’s just say that the legal definition of “public figure,” for the purposes of defamation law, is slightly broader than “President of the United States.” (Sheesh.)

    Woodstein took a risk, and so is Myers.

    I guess. It seems to me at least somewhat weird to construe Woodstein’s “risk” as a threat of defamation lawsuits. Do you really think that’s how the Nixon Administration rolled?

    I happen to think Myers is basing his actions on less evidence than Woodstein did, but then the stakes are far smaller, even though a man’s career hangs in the balance.

    It does? How’s that?

    Barring a future flood of additional accusations, how exactly does the “grenade” post lead to Shermer losing his career?

    I think in both circumstances, the M.O. is to reveal allegations, based on fact, anonymous witness, or whatever, the goal being to spur a kind of avalanche of revelations that are irrefutable.

    “You think” that? Why? Where has PZ (or his source) ever stated that their “goal” was anything of the kind? (For that matter, where did Woodstein ever do so?)

    In point of fact, both PZ and his source have asserted entirely different motivations than the one you describe. Why do you discount (or why have you ignored) those?

    I think this is what [Myers] hopes will happen.

    Again, what possible basis do you have for “think”ing that? Why shouldn’t we conclude that your entire account is nothing more than a straw-PZ?

    What I don’t find at all acceptable is to simply leave things in an ambiguous state, smearing a man without the promise of enough information for us (the general public) to make an informed decision.

    Oh, the horror—ambiguity is so painful. PZ reported what he knew (other than one prominent fact that he was not free to disclose). Your discomfort with being unable to make what you consider to be an “informed decision” was very obviously not something he worried about—nor is there any indication that he should have.

    If you want to try a person in the court of public opinion, you are obliged to provide us with enough information to do so.

    Wow. Guess I must have missed that rule in Public Opinion Court Procedure class back in 2L year. Thankfully, it wasn’t on the exam.

    Again, PZ produced the information he had. Your discomfort with the “ambiguous” position that supposedly places you in is your problem, not his.

    This is where I think Woodstein and Myerstein diverge. Myers seems to think it’s acceptable to smear Shermer, justified as a public service, to warn women away from him, without assurance that this will ever be entirely resolved or proven definitively.

    What nonsense. First, PZ did not “smear Shermer”; he merely reported what he believed to be a credible account. That’s not a “smear” unless you presuppose (very much contrary to the consistent tendency of rape accusations) that the account is false.

    And second, the notion that reporters on the political-scandal beat have some kind of “assurance that” the accusations they cover will “be entirely resolved or proven definitively” is flatly ridiculous. Woodward and Bernstein reported what they did because their reporting uncovered a consistent, plausible, and credible account. No one had any reason to believe that the accusations involved in that account would ever “be entirely resolved or proven definitively.” As with any scandal story, it was entirely possible that the matter could forevermore have remained a unresolvable he-said/he-said mystery.

    No one reporting any explosive allegation can ever be sure that it will someday (much less soon) be “proven definitively.” That’s just nonsense, and it has no connection to the actual All the President’s Men saga at all. As a result, your attempt to use that to smack PZ around fails.

    That’s not the kind of thing any of us should allow to stand in liberal democracy.

    Spare us. It happens all the damn time, not least because the powerful are all too frequently capable of preventing conclusive proof of their misdeeds. How can you seriously assert otherwise?

    I doubt Woodstein ever thought their actions would result in such an uncertain state.

    That’s just laughable. Your epistemic angst is not a reporter’s concern.

  24. J. J. Ramsey says

    There’s something that you wrote here that’s unintentionally misleading:

    Now, it’s true that in the Watergate reporting, one of the things that made Woodward and Bernstein trustworthy and reliable was that they didn’t rely on just one source. A single unnamed source could, in fact, all too easily be someone with an axe to grind just trying to stir shit up. So they wouldn’t publish a story based on unnamed sources unless they had at least two of them saying the same thing. More than two, in the case of highly explosive stories.

    So in this situation? As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

    The impression that you give is that Myers did what Woodward and Bernstein did and only published after he had gotten confirmation from at least two sources. That’s not what happened, though. When Myers first published, he had only mentioned the one source. Myers’ post was then edited twice after the fact.

    From what I can tell, Woodward and Bernstein built up a case from the testimony of multiple sources and also from information that they had gathered themselves. They did not take this testimony on trust, but rather did some fact-checking and looked to see if different (and hopefully independent) sources pointed to the same thing. Myers, on the other hand, appears to have heavily relied on one source for the actual accusation of rape, and he has admitted to having “no personal, direct evidence that the event occurred as described.” To be fair, after the fact, the accusation appears to have been consistent with previous stories of Shermer being a womanizer, of making unwanted passes, etc. However, Myers still proceeded far more recklessly than Woodward and Bernstein.

  25. Greta Christina says

    The impression that you give is that Myers did what Woodward and Bernstein did and only published after he had gotten confirmation from at least two sources. That’s not what happened, though. When Myers first published, he had only mentioned the one source. Myers’ post was then edited twice after the fact.

    J. J. Ramsey @ #29: The publicly available Internet timeline only reveals people who spoke to PZ (or others) who were willing to be cited as unnamed sources (along with those who were willing to be cited as named sources). What it doesn’t show is the number of people who spoke to PZ, Jen, or others, but were not willing to be quoted publicly, even as unnamed sources.

  26. J. J. Ramsey says

    The publicly available Internet timeline … doesn’t show [] the number of people who spoke to PZ, Jen, or others, but were not willing to be quoted publicly, even as unnamed sources.

    The problem with this defense is that PZ doesn’t even mention consulting such unquoted unnamed sources before publishing the initial accusation. All he said regarding contacting others for verification is that the unnamed source has been “vouched for by one other person I [Myers] trust[s].” It’s one thing to not quote other unnamed sources; it’s a whole other thing to not even hint that they exist.

  27. Mark R says

    I don’t know if this has been brought up yet, but this part of your post seems to be a misstatement:

    “We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual.”

    Can you cite that for me, because all I can find is a reference in the JREF forums where she says she had email contact with Shermer’s wife and was told he had many affairs. She reports no contact with Shermer either directly or indirectly.

    I”m sure this was a mistake, but I thought I’d bring it to your attention to see if you’d like to clarify.

  28. Greta Christina says

    Mark R @ #34: You’re right — that was unclear. The report from Naomi Baker is not of an incident that happened to her it is a first-hand report of harassment told to her by the victim. Quote from her comment: “I also know one woman who was harrassed by Shermer – first person, not my neighbor’s brother’s wife. But she is afraid.” I’ve updated the post, with a clarification.

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  1. […] named and unnamed sources, known and considered credible by PZ Myers, have confirmed the incident and have described what may be other similar incidents: …he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a […]

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