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Aug 07 2013

Ben Radford and CFI: A point of contention

Center For Inquiry’s Ben Radford, whom you might remember as the skeptic who took on a four year old over evolutionary reasons little girls might like pink, among numerous other terrible bits of skepticism and anti-science, has been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting Karen Stollznow serially over a period of four years. The story was told anonymously, but a number of independent sources on Twitter and elsewhere blew the whistle and named Radford. PZ received many emails to that effect. And Stollznow has since given her blessing to the people naming him.

An investigation was apparently undertaken by CFI, hiring a third party contractor; the investigators may or may not have found him guilty. That appears to be a point of contention presently in the narrative. From Stollznow’s post:

Five months after I lodged my complaint I received a letter that was riddled with legalese but acknowledged the guilt of this individual. They had found evidence of “inappropriate communications” and “inappropriate” conduct at conferences. However, they greatly reduced the severity of my claims. When I asked for clarification and a copy of the report they treated me like a nuisance. In response to my unanswered phone calls they sent a second letter that refused to allow me to view the report because they couldn’t release it to “the public”. They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone. This confidentiality served me at first; I wanted to retain my dignity and remain professional. Then I realized that they are trying to silence me, and this silence only keeps up appearances for them and protects the harasser.

Emphasis mine.

They had enough evidence that he was serially harassing someone in order to “suspend” him — while he was already on vacation overseas. When it would have no impact on his job, and would serve as nothing but a note in his file.

Someone in the Secular Woman private members group on Facebook, of which there are roughly 300 members, had unfriended Ben Radford on Facebook, but first sent him a message saying so. He replied, and this member pasted his reply in the group. Part of it read:

Much of the public discourse about me is simply false, or at best, factually inaccurate with a smattering of half-truths. Claims were made, and there was a grueling four month-long investigation by an independent fact-finder who found that I did NOT sexually harass anyone.

On Carrie Poppy’s spilling-the-beans post published at Pharyngula, she names DJ Grothe as an enabler and complicit in covering up and minimizing the harassment Stollznow received, and as having personally harassed her (though, not sexually) over a significant length of time as well. She includes private emails between Karen Stollznow and CFI, which include this complaint:

In February of this year I drew D.J.’s attention to a very serious matter. At TAM 2010 I was sexually assaulted and harassed by another speaker by the name of Benjamin Radford. I was also sexually harassed by him at TAM 2012. I had attempted to handle this both privately and professionally so as to not embarass the organizations involved. When Mr. Radford’s behavior continued I was then forced to file a formal complaint with his employer (CFI/CSI) to resolve the issue. An investigation was performed and he has since been found guilty. (I can supply evidence to attest to this decision.) D.J. put me in communication with Eliott Canter who has continued to be my JREF contact for this matter. My complaint is that D.J. is well aware of this situation and its severity, yet he continues to demonstrate public support for Mr. Radford on social media. Furthermore, he proudly and publicly advertised taking Mr. Radford out to the “Magic Castle” last night during his visit to L.A.

My best guess is that the investigator suggested that harassment did in fact take place but there was insufficient evidence to actually prosecute, should Dr. Stollznow choose. CFI assured her that they had reprimanded him, and had apparently handed him a suspension when he wouldn’t have noticed. Radford believes that the fact that there was insufficient evidence for a trial means he was found INNOCENT. There so often is insufficient evidence in cases of sexual harassment — I mean, seriously, how often is there evidence of any single interaction, when one party is specifically trying to keep things on the down-low? Or when the predator is actually hoping to pick his moments when he believes the target to be vulnerable?

But frankly, if there was enough evidence that he merited a suspension, even if that amounted to a slap on the wrist, then there was enough evidence for firing, as far as I’m concerned. There appears to be a significant amount of corroboration that these events took place, and the investigator evidently agreed or there would have been no suspension at all. It might not have been iron-clad enough to take to court, though; and I honestly don’t know enough about the labour boards and labour laws in this country to tell you whether or not they would have been legally justified in shit-canning him before all of this info hit the fan. But they were almost certainly MORALLY justified.

Now, though, I’m betting CFI probably can’t really legally take further action against him unless there’s more evidence of further transgressions. They definitely didn’t take appropriate actions against him at the time, and they tried very hard to split the difference and appease Dr. Stollznow and keep Radford safe simultaneously. By doing so, they’ve minimized what happened, and have enabled further transgressions against people in our community. CFI said they’ve investigated the allegations. And they rightly state that they can’t discuss the ongoing legal matter — because it’s both improper and irresponsible. They’re absolutely right. Name-and-shame as a tactic is not one I always get on board with. In this particular case, I am, though.

It’s all very complicated. And it’s all very weighty. And there’s a lot of personal cost involved, for people like Karen Stollznow and Carrie Poppy, and you, if you decide to come out as having been harassed. I can see why an anonymous Tumblr now exists for the purpose of naming and shaming. It’s just a shame that that particular venue isn’t going to be the most reliable source for naming legit problem folks in our community — it can easily be dismissed as rumours and innuendo, and can easily have chaff thrown in of names that trolls simply don’t like, like those of us who fight on this side of the great rift most often. The troll narrative that people might just be trying to ruin people’s reputations undeservedly might come true, as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, when they try to ruin people’s reputations undeservedly.

That’s not to say the Tumblr shouldn’t exist — but that it’s insufficient. If it serves to help people who truly have been harassed to come forward with their stories, to shine a light on the misdeeds of some people who are put on pedestals by so many in our community and who can apparently do no wrong by virtue of the Halo Effect, then perhaps we as a community can start living up to the standards we set of being a leaderless one, immune to Great Man Syndrome, and of having the courage of our convictions in saying that certain behaviours are antithetical to a harmonious society. And any real progress we make toward equality can be undercut by an asshole with a web proxy and a grudge, lying about incidents and throwing up chaff where people telling the truth about the abuses they encounter already rarely get believed.

This pisses me off to no end, because for the minimal percentage of false claims, there’s orders of magnitude more incidents that go unreported simply because it’s all too easy, the way our society is set up, to do something horrible to someone else and get away completely scot-free. In part because of these false reports throwing up chaff; in large part because we apparently love our leaders and forgive their transgressions more than we care to admit.

Someone privately mused, “who needs soap operas? I have the atheist/skeptic community.” It’s true, but no less true of any other community. We should be BETTER THAN other communities because of our ostensible prioritizing of truth. But I keep being disappointed by our utter inability to police our own.

If there’s going to be any action against Radford now, it’s going to happen because of new information. So, is there anything yet-unheard out there?

And preferably more than mere hearsay or “me too’s” — an actual story by someone willing to stick their necks out would make the difference. Though, while I can assure you that we FtBers would have your back, I recognize exactly what kind of risk it is to suggest someone mistreated you in this community — people are quick to circle wagons around these parts, and there are certain folks who think that our commitment to social justice even amongst our own means we’re simply trying to make shit up to destroy the community. And the trolls who do all the chipping damage all uniformly fight for the other side, so you’d be signing up for a lot of pain regardless.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    SallyStrange

    Radford shouldn’t have a job with CFI on the grounds that he is simply unable to be a skeptic on the subject of women and gender issues, as he has amply demonstrated through his writings which you have linked to above. It’s one thing to have biases and be bad at applying critical thinking to a particular subject. It’s another thing to repeatedly advance opinions that are based on misinformation, lies, and obviously self-serving unevidenced assumptions. Radford has done the latter, repeatedly. CFI knows this and chose to keep him on, and not only that, they apparently knew that his bias against women manifested in far more concrete, damaging ways, and still chose to keep him on. It’s unacceptable. Whether Radford could be fired for harassing people is irrelevant. He should be fired because he can’t do the fucking job.

  2. 2
    A Hermit

    Now be fair to Ben, that girl he took on over the “pink is for girls” stuff was four years old, not three…

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    SallyStrange: a very strong case could be made for dumping Radford on the grounds that he’s a shitty skeptic and a shitty communicator, yes. Yet they kept him all this time. Now that this shit’s come to light, I’d like them to stop circling them wagons.

  4. 4
    screechymonkey

    Jason, hopefully an employment law attorney (which I am not) will come along and provide more detail, but I think you’re misunderstanding some things.

    My best guess is that the investigator suggested that harassment did in fact take place but there was insufficient evidence to actually prosecute, should Dr. Stollznow choose. CFI assured her that they had reprimanded him, and had apparently handed him a suspension when he wouldn’t have noticed. Radford believes that the fact that there was insufficient evidence for a trial means he was found INNOCENT

    These “third party” investigators don’t decide whether a harasser gets “prosecuted” or not. Lawsuits for sexual harassment (which are I assume what you mean by “prosecute”) are brought by the victims, and they don’t need the investigator’s or company’s support or permission to do so.

    If the victim sues the company as well as the individual harasser, then usually the company’s defense is (among other things) “hey, we didn’t know about this, we have a policy against it, and we diligently investigate any claims that are brought to our attention.”

    Those “third party” investigators are there to cover the company’s ass. Which, depending on the company’s attitude and the investigators they hire, may mean that they do an impartial, conscientious job and go where the facts lead them … or it may mean a whitewash, especially if the alleged harasser is a favored employee.

    My guess as to how Radford justifies his statement is that he’s saying he wasn’t found to have “sexually harassed” anyone because the investigator’s report may not have used those words. (Note Stollznow’s reference to legalese about “inappropriate conduct”.)

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    A Hermit: made that change. Thanks!

    Also, I had misread the CFI statement, misunderstood it to mean they were GOING TO investigate, not that they already HAD. I’ve amended the post.

  6. 6
    A Hermit

    made that change. Thanks

    Yeah, ya know what Jason? Somehow It doesn’t make Radford look any better, does it?

    Never mind!

  7. 7
    Gretchen Robinson

    I am just learning about this issue now and would agree that Radford needs to be fired, but I write now on a point about the writing that might seem persnickity. I suggest we may not use the phrase ‘circle the wagons”. That is what the supposedly noble White settlers when the “Injuns” went on the “warpath.”
    It’s racist for starters. And some might assume that Radford is in the circle, and under attack by the bad, troublemaking women shooting arrows at the good guy (Radford) In other words it can work against us.

    Also it’s not fair, generally speaking, to the history and reputation of Native Americans who were far more harmed by Whites than the other way around, to say the least. Maybe you didn’t see this in Cowboy and Indian movies but (I’m showing my age here), it’s a trope that is deep in the American consciousness and needs to be evoked with great care.

  8. 8
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    Radford believes that the fact that there was insufficient evidence for a trial means he was found INNOCENT.

    And this, right here, is why he should have been fired, or at the very least (the very, very least) been disciplined in a much more significant way, including some form of sexual harassment counseling/training. Not only because it would be the right thing to do for those he harassed, not even because it gives him an ability to maintain public plausible deniability, but because it’s quite clear that, in his opinion, he did nothing wrong. He’s clearly a serial offender; what is going to stop him from harassing in the future? Because, obviously, the part of him that lets him know when he’s hurting another person (empathy? conscience?) is broken.

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