Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.

On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for. Including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, and work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

dumb-bellLet me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back — time and money that I’d love to spend elsewhere. I have exercise equipment at home: it’s not quite as good as what I get at the gym, but it’s fine, I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep it up for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to be distracted and enticed by a dozen other things — including the sofa. When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there… what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym, I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep working out until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there’s no kittens, no snacks, no Internet, not even any TV except the TVs that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I typically spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational.

So the question is: Do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, as irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted, and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk cost fallacy, but actually use this fallacy to my advantage?

Which is the rational choice?

Another example. There’s a computer app that lets you voluntarily block your own access to the Internet. At the cost of $10, this app will let you pre-set a stretch of time during which you won’t be able to get on the Internet — so you won’t be lured by the essentially infinite distractions the Internet has to offer, and can get some work done. (In a branding effort so ironic it’s almost Orwellian, the app is named “Freedom.”) And if you’re thinking, “But I need access to the Internet to do my work!” — there’s another app, “Anti-Social,” that only blocks access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in case you need the Internet for research and just want to cut off the more temptingly distracting regions of it.

And if Freedom’s creators are to be believed, it has over 400,000 users.

ten_dollar_billTotally irrational. Why pay a company ten bucks for the privilege of not going on the Internet? Why not just, you know, not go on the Internet? But I’m buying the apps right now, even as I write this. Both of them. Because I know myself. I know that I am easily distracted. I know that I can easily spend hours on Facebook and Twitter — and as a writer, I can easily rationalize this time as work. (“I’m not wasting time, I’m doing publicity/ networking/ self-promotion!”) And I know that my willpower is not an infinite resource. I know about decision fatigue. I know that making one decision, once in a day, to not go on the Internet for the next (say) four hours will be a whole lot easier and less fatiguing to my brain than having to make that decision ten times a day, a hundred times a day, every single time I think “Oo, Facebook!” and have to force myself to stay away.

So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?

I think this is a trickier question than at first it seems. On the one hand… obviously, if some mental workaround gets me exercising or working more efficiently, what’s the harm? But I don’t think this way about any and all consciously chosen irrationalities. I didn’t (for instance) keep taking glucosamine for my bad knee once I found out that it definitely didn’t work. A part of me wanted to, even tried to rationalize doing so, on the grounds that it probably didn’t do any harm and pretending I was doing something to heal my knee made me feel all empowered and stuff. But I couldn’t do it and live with myself as a skeptic. And when people say things like, “I know that my belief in God isn’t rational, but it makes me happy, so what’s the harm?”, it drives me up a tree. I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.

So how do we parse that difference? How do we decide when the rational choice is to practice that discipline and make ourselves not act irrationally — and when the rational choice is to acknowledge the reality of our own irrationality, and accept it, and work with it? What standards might we apply to answering that question?

I’m kind of thinking out loud here, and I don’t really have an answer. (If others have ideas about this, I’d love to hear them!) But I can tell you one of the ideas I’m leaning toward:

There’s a difference between irrationality that denies reality, and irrationality that doesn’t.

“I won’t work out at home no matter how good my intentions are,” “I am easily distracted by shiny beads on the Internet” — these are subjective conclusions, conclusions about what is true for me. Ultimately, it boils down to a personal preference: I just like working out at the gym more. This preference may not be rational — okay, it’s definitely not rational — but it’s not a denial of reality. It’s actually a recognition of reality, and an acceptance of it.

God from Monty Python and the Holy GrailOn the other hand, “Glucosamine works” or “Glucosamine doesn’t work,” “God exists” or “God does not exist” — these are not subjective questions. These are assertions about what is and is not true in the non-subjective world, the world that doesn’t disappear when we’re not here to perceive it. To hold on to the idea that glucosamine works or that God exists, simply because you find the idea comforting and would like for it to be true… that is a denial of reality.

And I care about reality. I think we have a moral obligation to care about reality, and to understand it as best we can, and to prioritize it over wishful thinking.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry. These choices might be wrong — if we abandon our partner and our family and run off to become the world’s greatest macaroni artist, that hurts people other than ourselves — but it’s the “hurting other people” part that makes those choices wrong, not the irrationality part. Silly, frivolous, irrational passions can be among the greatest joys in our lives.

But when it comes to questions of external, objective reality, I think we have an obligation to act rationally. I think we can accept our irrationality, use it to our advantage, even embrace it and love it. But I think this acceptance, this embrace, has to be part of our acceptance of reality — not a denial of it.

Karen Stollznow Legal Defense Fund Is In Place

The Karen Stollznow legal defense fund has been started, and is now in place. If you think victims of sexual harassment should be able to speak out without being silenced by lawsuits or fear of lawsuits, please donate — and please spread the word.

My name is Karen Stollznow. I am an author and researcher with a PhD in Linguistics. In recent months, I wrote an article for a Scientific American Mind blog in which I spoke out about sexual harassment I’d endured from a male colleague for several years. I did this to highlight the wide problem of sexual harassment in the workplace for women, including those in scientific and academic fields. Many people who read the article immediately identified my harasser by name, and spoke publicly about my situation on their own blogs and other social media. They knew who my harasser was because he had recently been disciplined by his employer for his behavior.

As a result, my harasser filed a defamation suit against me, trying to bully me into silence. Although he’s spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer to clear his name, he knew that I could not afford the same. In my attempts to settle out of court he has tried to bully me into signing a retraction, which claimed that I had lied about the whole ordeal, including his ongoing harassment of me, and assaults at one of our professional conferences. Although I didn’t sign the retraction, he posted the document on his very public Facebook page and announced victory over me. This also led to false public edits being made to my Wikipedia page.

I never lied about the harassment I endured and I have evidence and witnesses to attest to my experiences. The only crime I have committed is not being rich enough to defend myself. If you believe in justice and in protecting victims who are bullied into silence, please dig deep and help support this legal fund. I must raise $30,000 in the next two weeks in order to find legal counsel to fight these allegations and clear my own name. If my harasser succeeds in bullying me into silence, it will only serve to embolden harassers, and teach victims that they should never speak up, lest it ruin their lives.

Any money raised through this campaign that is not spent on these legal expenses will be donated to Colorado’s Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center.

Thank you for listening to my story, and please give as you can. To contact me about this fundraising campaign, email [email protected]

Thank you.

Again: If you’re troubled by the fact that victims of sexual harassment are staying silent because of lawsuits or fear of lawsuits, please donate. Even small amounts help — they really do add up. And please spread the word: on Facebook, Twitter, other social media, your own blog, and any appropriate places you can think of. Thanks.

EDIT: For those of you who may not be familiar with the details of this situation, here is a timeline.

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

Here’s the conundrum: on the one hand, as rationalists, we’re striving to be rational to the best of our ability. On the other hand, as rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases that are there for good evolutionary reasons but can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases will have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines, but I doubt it. If that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to cope with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate and what we strive for, including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

gym-weightsLet me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me to do would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back—time and money that I’d love to spend in other ways. I have exercise equipment at home; it’s not quite as good as what I use at the gym, but I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep up a routine for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to get distracted and be enticed by a dozen other things—including the sofa.

When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there, what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym. I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep exercising until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there are no kittens to play with, no snacks to eat, no Internet, and not even any TV sets except the ones that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I usually spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational. So do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk-cost fallacy but actually use it to my advantage? Which is the rational choice?

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for Free Inquiry magazine, Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality? To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

A Martyr of Modern Skepticism: The Assassination of Prominent Atheist Narendra Dabholkar

A great skeptical leader has been assassinated.

This didn’t happen in a tyrannical theocracy. This happened in a modern, supposedly secular nation, with no state religion, and with first-class programs of science and medicine. And still, for the crime of criticizing religious beliefs, questioning them, and subjecting them to scientific scrutiny, a great skeptical leader was gunned down on the street in broad daylight.

narendra_dabholkarFor over two decades, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar dedicated his life to overcoming superstition in India. Originally a medical doctor, Dabholkar spent years exposing religious charlatans, quacks, frauds, purveyors of “miracle cures,” and other con artists preying on gullibility, desperation, and trust. An activist against caste discrimination in India, and an advocate for women’s rights and environmentalism, Dr. Dabholkar’s commitment to social justice was expansive and enduring. But it was his work against superstition that earned him his fame.

India is a huge, hugely diverse country, and much of it — particularly the South — is thoroughly modern, urban, and largely secular. But much of the country — particularly the North — is saturated with self-proclaimed sorcerers, faith healers, fortune tellers, psychics, gurus, godmen, and other spiritual profiteers. In parts of the country, people are beaten, mutilated, or murdered for being suspected of witchcraft, and there are even rare cases of human sacrifice — including the sacrifice of children — in rituals meant to appease the gods.

Throughout this country, Dr. Dabholkar traveled to towns and villages, investigating claims of miracles and magic, revealing the physical reality behind the tricks — and organizing travelling troops of activists to do the same. He didn’t try to persuade people out of the very idea of religious belief, but he was an open atheist, proud and unapologetic. He was the Founder of the Committee for Eradication of Superstition in Maharashtra (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti). He fought for years for the passage of a controversial anti-black-magic bill in India.

And it was his work against superstition that almost certainly cost him his life.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, A Martyr of Modern Skepticism: The Assassination of Prominent Atheist Narendra Dabholkar. To find out more about Dr. Dabholkar’s life, work, and murder — and the context it all took place in — read the rest of the piece. And please share it, retweet it, etc. – this story needs to be heard, outside the atheist/skeptical community as well as within it.

My Body is the Knife: Skepticism and the Reality of Medical Uncertainty

This piece was originally published in AlterNet.

The cutting edge of science is hard to accept when your body is the knife.

person asking question“If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.”

Skeptics and atheists say this stuff a lot. It’s all very well and good: I totally agree. But what do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, “What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?”

Here’s what I mean. I’ll start with my own story, and get it out of the way. I recently got a presumptive diagnosis of Lynch Syndrome. This is a genetic syndrome that gives you about an 80% chance of getting colon cancer (a cancer I’ve sort of had — my last two colonoscopies found pre-cancerous adenomas which would have turned to cancer if they hadn’t been removed); a 20% – 60% risk of endometrial cancer (a cancer I definitely had, it’s the cancer I had surgery for last fall); and a somewhat increased chance of some other cancers, including an as-yet-unknown-but-possibly-as-high-as-ten-or-twenty percent chance of stomach cancer.

I say I got a presumptive diagnosis, because they didn’t actually find the genetic markers that normally point to Lynch Syndrome. But this doesn’t mean I don’t have it. According to the genetic counselor, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there are other genetic markers associated with Lynch Syndrome, ones that researchers don’t know about yet. And my family/ personal history of Lynch Syndrome cancers is strongly suggestive of it. It’s pretty much a textbook case of “Lynch Syndrome family history.” So we’re proceeding on the assumption that I have it… even though we don’t know for sure.

So in addition to my now-annual colonoscopies (oh, joy), we had to decide if I should get stomach endoscopies. I have an increased chance of getting stomach cancer… but my genetic counselor said there currently aren’t any agreed-upon medical guidelines on stomach endoscopies for people with Lynch Syndrome, and suggested that I consult with a gastroenterologist. So I talked to a gastroenterologist… who said that there currently aren’t any agreed-upon medical guidelines on stomach endoscopies for people with Lynch Syndrome, and that the two of us would have to make whatever decision seemed right to us, updating it as new information comes in.

You may be noticing a pattern here. Presumptive diagnosis. As yet unknown. No medical guidelines. It’s possible. It’s likely. As new information comes in. Whatever decision seems right. Proceed on the assumption, even though we don’t know for sure.

science journal coverThis is often the reality of science. There are questions that are pretty much settled: questions we hypothetically might re-visit if giant heaps of new contradictory evidence came in, but that have had an overwhelming body of evidence for decades or centuries pointing to one answer. (Questions like, “Does the Earth orbit the Sun?”) There are questions where the general broad strokes are mostly settled, but where we’re still figuring out many of the finer points. (Questions like, “What the heck is happening on the subatomic level?”) And there are questions that we’re very much in the process of answering, questions on which scientific consensus hasn’t been reached, questions for which the data that’s giving us answers is still coming in, questions we’re still making educated guesses about based on limited information, questions for which our “best educated guess” answers are changing on a yearly and even monthly basis. Questions like… oh, say, just for a random example, “How exactly do genetic factors influence people’s likelihood of getting certain kinds of cancers — and what are the best ways to address these factors to improve prevention, early detection, and treatment?”

Those of us who value science understand this. In fact, we more than understand it. We embrace it. We see it not as a weakness, but as a strength. Science isn’t a body of knowledge so much as it is a process, a method of gathering knowledge. And the way that this process self-corrects with new information is one of the main reasons it’s so jaw-droppingly successful. (If you think science isn’t jaw-droppingly successful, think for a moment about the device you’re reading this on.)

But if you’re living your life in the middle of one of those unanswered questions, this uncertainty and shifting ground can be a hard reality to take. The cutting edge of science is hard to accept when your body is the knife.

And I think this is one of the reasons many people are so skeptical of science, so dismissive of it, so ready to say, “Oh, what do those scientists know? They keep changing their minds! Last year they told us not to eat carbs, now they’re telling us carbs are okay! They can’t even make up their own minds — why should we believe anything they say?” On a practical, day-to-day basis, the cutting-edge, not-yet-answered science that most people are intensely engaged with, the one that most people deeply care about, is medicine. And the reality of uncertainty in medicine is often frightening, upsetting, depressing, and even enraging.

The cutting edges of astronomy, of botany, of quantum physics? Most people aren’t even aware of them. Their immediate effects on people’s lives don’t generally start until the science is fairly settled. Even with computer science — another science that affects our lives profoundly on a day-to-day basis — most of us don’t even touch the technology until it’s more or less hammered out.

But medicine is different. With medicine, a significant amount of research is being done on human beings. A case could be made that all medicine is research being done on human beings: medical protocols and best practices are constantly being updated and refined, even in areas that are pretty well understood. And when it comes to terminal illnesses, it would be irresponsible not to pursue uncertain, incompletely understood avenues of treatment that have highly unpredictable outcomes. If the choices are “try something that might or might not work” or “die”… well, most of the time, that’s a no-brainer. (My wife Ingrid got arrested nine times for demanding, among other things, that the FDA grasp this simple principle and shorten the research protocols for experimental AIDS drugs.)

knife-in-handIn the cutting edge of medical science, human lives are the knife.

And that can make people feel very freaking cranky about medical science.

Boy, howdy, do I understand that. I hate this uncertainty about my Lynch Syndrome. I would much rather just have the bloody diagnosis. I would much rather know for sure that I have this syndrome, instead of having to act on the assumption that I have it even when I don’t have a test result confirming it. If for no other reason: The fact that they didn’t find the genetic marker? It means that my family can’t get tested for that marker to see if they have it or not… so they now have to work with this vagueness as well, this not-very useful information that “You may or may not have a 50% chance, or a 25% chance, of having this syndrome, but we have no real way of knowing, so maybe you should be getting more frequent colonoscopies than you normally would. Or something.”

This is frustrating as hell.

But here’s the thing.

Medical science is the reason we even know about Lynch Syndrome. Medical science is the reason I’m getting colonoscopies every year instead of every five years, and am getting my pre-cancerous adenomas scooped out every year before they turn into cancer. Medical science is the reason we know that the tendency to get some cancers is heredity: it’s the reason that, even before my doctors knew anything about Lynch Syndrome specifically, they were looking at my mom’s cancer history, and insisting that I get colonoscopies early. Medical science is the reason millions of people are getting regular colonoscopies and mammograms as a standard part of their medical care, and are getting cancers and pre-cancers detected and treated early. Medical science is the reason colonoscopies and mammograms even exist. If we’d known about Lynch Syndrome forty years ago, my mom could have caught her cancer before it ate her up at age 45. It’s painful to think about that. But I can’t be sorry that the current medical science, imperfect as it is, is keeping me alive.

When I was growing up, people used to talk about finding “a cure for cancer.” As if cancer were one disease, and we were going to find one magic-bullet cure for it. I think some people are disappointed that this magic bullet hasn’t happened: that cancer is turning out to be hundreds of different diseases, and that after all these decades, after millions of dollars and millions of person-hours poured into it, cancer research is still about prevention and early detection and improved treatments and increased lifespans, much more than it is about a “cure.”

But the reality is that cancer is a much more survivable disease than it was when I was growing up. More people with cancer are getting it caught early. More people with cancer are living longer. More people are getting their cancer fully treated, and are living full lifespans and dying of something else. More people with cancer who can’t get it fully treated are living longer, and better, than they would have fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. More people with cancer are getting treatment that isn’t excruciating and doesn’t completely screw up their lives. More people with cancer are getting treatment that’s less excruciating, and is screwing up their lives less completely, than it would have fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. And some people aren’t getting cancer at all… because they’re eating their fiber, because they quit smoking or never started, because they’re getting regular colonoscopies and are getting their pre-cancerous doodads scooped out before they turn cancerous. Oncology is an imperfect, inexact science… but it’s getting better all the time. Prevention and early detection and improved treatments and increased lifespans are not trivial. Millions of people are alive today because of them. I’m one.

And I’m not going to embrace the results of the scientific process that’s keeping me alive — the messy, uncertain, unpredictable, loaded-with-false-starts, “try a hundred things with no idea which one, if any, will pan out” scientific process — and then piss all over it because it isn’t perfect.

LLS-logoGreta Christina is the 2013 Honored Hero of the Foundation Beyond Belief for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk. To participate in the Light the Night Walk, go to the LL&S website. To participate under the Foundation Beyond Belief banner, find out how to join an existing team — or start one of your own.

Angry Atheists and Equality: Greta’s Podcast Interview with “Life, the Universe & Everything Else”

LUEE logoPodcast time! When I was at the SkepTech conference earlier this year, I gave a podcast interview to Gem Newman of the “Life, the Universe & Everything Else” podcast, hosted by Winnipeg Skeptics. That interview is now up — along with the rest of a very interesting show.

In the interview, we discuss angry atheism, the role religious believers can play in fighting the harm done by religion, strategies of arguing religion with believers, the importance of coming out and atheist visibility, internalized atheist stigma, my favorite arguments against religion, challenging entrenched biases within skepticism, hyperskepticism (or what I’m now calling denialism) and treating ordinary claims as extraordinary ones, straw Vulcans and the notion that being unemotional about an issue makes you more rational, tone-trolling about misogyny, coming out bisexual versus coming out atheist, Twitter walls, self-publishing, and more. Enjoy!

Coping with Life Under a Cloud of Medical Uncertainty

question mark sign“If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.”

Skeptics and atheists say this stuff a lot. It’s all very well and good: I totally agree. But what do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, “What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?”

Here’s what I mean.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Coping with Life Under a Cloud of Medical Uncertainty. Go find out more about having a “presumptive” diagnosis of a genetic syndrome that increases your odds of getting cancer; the difficulties of living with medical uncertainty; how this difficulty contributes to people’s frustration with science; and why we should embrace science anyway… read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

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.

A Timeline of the Sexual Harassment Accusations

At the Lousy Canuck blog, Jason Thibeault has put together a timeline of the major events of the sexual harassment accusations in the skeptical and secular communities. This is a living document: he is updating it as new information comes in and as new events unfold.

This is hugely helpful. For people who have been following these stories and want a clear document of everything that’s happened; for people who have been following these stories and want to show other people exactly what’s been happening; for people who haven’t been following these stories because it’s confusing and new things keep coming out every day; for people who are writing or commenting on these stories and want to make sure they’re getting their facts right… this is enormously helpful

Also — when all the reports are put together like this, it’s really, really telling.

If you care about this issue, I urge to to go look at it.

Harassment, Rape, and the Difference Between Skepticism and Denialism – UPDATED

UPDATE: There is now a timeline of the major events in these accusations, and the responses to them, on Jason Thibeault’s Lousy Canuck blog. It includes several additional reports of harassment and sexual assault, and several additional pieces of corroboration of these reports. It is being updated as new information comes in and as new events unfold.

So I got this comment on my blog from Hannah Barnhardt:

I have a question about how to handle allegations of rape and sexual harassment. In the local atheist group that I am only now tenuously connected to (because so many members display open disdain for women and feminists), Karen’s allegations have been discussed only briefly, and with criticism and disbelief. Basically, they’re saying: “Well we ARE skeptics after all, and skeptic means we need PROOF! DUURRRR”

But with something like rape, or the kind of sexual harassment Karen experienced (and I do understand Karen has lots of proof, but I’m talking about a case where perhaps, like many cases, there’s not much proof beyond the victim’s testimony), what is the best way to handle cases where there’s not much physical proof? Because I understand how little rape/harassment is actually prosecuted and how difficult it is to accuse someone, I favor giving the accuser the benefit of the doubt.

I guess I’m asking: what’s the best way to respond to these people, who say that there must be ample physical evidence in order to actually DO something about harassment or rape? In the real world, it would be awesome if every person who experienced this kind of abuse had ample physical evidence, but it just doesn’t happen that way. I don’t for one second believe that that means we shouldn’t believe the victim. What do you think?

A good question, and one that has been much on my mind in the last few days.

Here’s what I think, what I want to say to people who are saying this sort of thing: I think you should be really careful about not letting your skepticism turn into denialism.

Here’s what I think:

1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But claims of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape are not extraordinary. They are depressingly ordinary. So the level of evidence we should need to believe a claim about sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or rape is substantially lower than the level of evidence we should need to believe a claim about, say, Bigfoot.

2: Sexual harassers, abusers, assailants, and rapists are typically very good at covering their tracks. They don’t generally commit their acts in front of witnesses or video cameras, or leave a paper trail. Depending on the kind of harassment or assault we’re talking about, they often don’t even leave physical evidence (and when they do, it often doesn’t get collected, since collecting it typically requires the victim to report the assault almost immediately, and subject themselves to further emotional and physical trauma). And perpetrators often cover their tracks in other ways — such as getting the victim drunk, which our culture regrettably tends to see as evidence of consent.

So the kinds of evidence we’re likely to find supporting an accusation of sexual harassment or assault are not straightforward, obvious physical evidence. The kinds of evidence we are likely to find are:
* Multiple similar claims made against the same person from different people. Especially when these claims show a similar pattern of behavior.
* Other people saying that the victim told them about the harassment/ assault shortly after it happened — with stories that are consistent both with the accusation and with one another.
* Other people corroborating behavior that falls short of harassment/ assault, but is consistent with it. Example: If an accused assailant is accused of getting victims drunk first, and someone says they’ve seen this person deliberately getting people drunk while hitting on them, or have experienced this themselves — that would support the accusation.
* Paper trails, email trails, or other kinds of evidence that either directly support the claim — or that show behavior that, again, falls short of being direct evidence of harassment/ assault, but is consistent with it.

(Note that this doesn’t refer to the types of evidence we’d accept in a court of law. See #4 below. And note that “support” doesn’t mean “absolutely prove.” See… oh, the rest of this entire post.)

To make an analogy that skeptics should understand: Think about how creationists say, “Where’s your evidence for evolution? I’ve never seen life spontaneously generate from a peanut butter jar! I’ve never seen fish evolve into mammals in one generation!” Or think about how global warming denialists say, “Where’s your evidence for global warming? Why isn’t the Antarctic turning into Florida? Why was it so cold in Minnesota last winter?” No, of course not. That’s not the kind of evidence you’d expect to see to support evolution or global warming — because that’s not how evolution and global warming work. The kind of evidence you’d expect to see to support evolution is exactly the kind of evidence we do find: evidence from genetics, geology, anatomy, fossil records, etc., all consistent with one another. The kind of evidence you’d expect to see to support global warming is exactly the kind of evidence we do find: evidence from long-term studies of weather patterns over years, decades, centuries, and millennia.

So be a good skeptic. Think about how sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape usually work. Think about what kind of evidence you’d expect to see for them. And then think about whether that kind of evidence is present in this case.

3: False allegations of sexual harassment and rape are actually very low. The consequences of making allegations of sexual harassment or rape are very high indeed: public shaming, having one’s personal history — especially one’s sexual history — being subjected to extreme public scrutiny and censure, being traumatized by callous law enforcement officials if the crime is reported, harassment, threats, and more. And the consequences are especially high when the person you’re accusing is powerful: if they’re famous, if they’re rich, if they’re influential, if they have political power.

4: In the conversations we’re having about these incidents, 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. We’re talking about what kind of evidence would support staying away from people if we’re at an event with them. Exercising caution if we have to deal with them. Warning other people to exercise caution around them. Not inviting them to speak at conferences. Not attending conferences, or speaking at conferences, where they’re speaking. Not buying their books. Not continuing to cite them as shining examples of skepticism at its best. In the most serious case, we’re talking about what kind of evidence would support firing someone. (And yes, for the record, I would want more evidence to support firing someone than I would to support not inviting them to conferences.)

This is a generally well-understood principle. The severity of the consequences affects how much evidence we need to believe an accusation. If several of my friends tell me, “Hey, your friend is a creep, they kept cornering me at your party,” and one person tells me, “Hey, your friend is a serious creep, they cornered me at your party and groped me”… that’s not going to be enough evidence for me to call the police, but it sure is enough evidence for me to stop inviting that person back to any more parties. Even our legal system has different standards of evidence for different situations: there’s a higher standard of evidence for criminal charges, for instance, than there is for a civil case. And the court of public opinion, and of of personal opinion, have different standards as well. Which they should. The standards shouldn’t be trivial, or non-existent — and for accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape, they should be pretty darned high. But there is a wide, wide world between “These accusations could lead to a conviction in a court of law,” and, “These accusations are entirely without merit.” It is a huge mistake to treat these as the only options.

*****

So. Think about the accusations that are being made. Think about the fact that sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape are, unfortunately, very ordinary. Think about the rarity of false accusations. Think about what kinds of consequences are being considered here. And perhaps most importantly, think about what kind of evidence you’re actually likely to see with sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape… and whether you’re seeing it here.

So.

As of this writing, August 12, 5:21 p.m. Pacific time.

In the Ben Radford situation: There is an email trail. There is independent corroboration from more than one person, who witnessed the behavior or who Stollznow told about it. There is the acknowledgement from CFI, after an investigation from an investigative firm that they hired, that Radford behaved inappropriately at conferences, and harassed Karen Stollznow with unwanted correspondence.

In the Michael Shermer situation: There are multiple reports from different people. There are other people saying that the victim told them about the harassment/ assault shortly after it happened. There are other people corroborating behavior that falls short of harassment/ assault, but is consistent with it (in this case, Shermer getting the person very drunk while flirting with them).

In the Lawrence Krauss situation: I can’t say anything about that right now, because the blog posts reporting on the accusations against him have been taken down, apparently under threat of lawsuits. If you’ve been following the story, you can probably remember what was reported before it was removed, and you can look at these questions — are there multiple claims from different people, are there other people saying that the victim told them about the harassment/ assault shortly after it happened, are there other people corroborating behavior that falls short of harassment/ assault but is consistent with it, is there any sort of paper trail or email trail — and decide how you would answer them.

UPDATE REMINDER: There is now a timeline of the major events in these accusations, and the responses to them, on Jason Thibeault’s Lousy Canuck blog. It includes several additional reports of harassment and sexual assault, and several additional pieces of corroboration of these reports. It is being updated as new information comes in and as new events unfold.

I’m not asking what verdict you’d come to if you were on a jury. I’m not asking what you’d decide to publish if you were the editor of a journal. I’m asking you to pay attention to the difference between skepticism and denialism. And I’m asking you to not be a denialist.

Being a good skeptic doesn’t only mean knowing when to reject claims. It means knowing when to provisionally accept them. It means not demanding more evidence for sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape than you would for Bigfoot. It means not continually moving the goalposts of what kind of evidence you’ll accept to believe these reports. It means not telling victims who don’t name names that their vague accusations can’t be taken seriously… and then telling victims who do name names that they’re just trying to ruin reputations, and shouldn’t make public accusations outside of a courtroom. It means not saying to religious believers, “No, I can’t prove with 100% certainty that there is no god, there’s almost nothing we can prove with 100% certainty — but based on the available evidence, I can conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that there is no god”… and then saying to victims of sexual harassment or rape, “Can you absolutely prove that it happened?”

Skepticism is not denialism. Don’t be a denialist. This shit is too important to be in denial about.