The BuzzFeedNews article that appeared yesterday about Lawrence Krauss has brought out into the open things that had been just whispered about over the years. As we have seen with so many cases in these past few weeks, the pattern is distressingly familiar. A star-struck young person (usually but not always a woman) is flattered by the attention paid to them by a celebrity or powerful person (usually but not always a man) who proceeds to try and take sexual advantage of their admiration. The behavior described is at best gross and demeaning to the young person and at worst criminal.
In 1993 Krauss was hired by Case Western Reserve University as chair of the physics department where I worked. We had cordial relations and he was supportive of my work. I left the department to become head of the university’s teaching center in 2000 and he left the university in 2008 to take up a position at Arizona State University. After I left the department, I had heard rumors that concerns had been raised by students about his behavior but nothing definite. I had not been aware, until the Buzzfeed article, that they were so serious that the university administration had essentially forbidden him to come to the campus except with prior permission.
The article’s headline The Unbeliever: He Became A Celebrity For Putting Science Before God. Now Lawrence Krauss Faces Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct highlights Krauss’s atheist activism but the real emphasis in the text of the article is about the power of celebrity. I do not think that atheists have any greater claim to good behavior than non-believers and there may well be no correlation. But the atheist community already has a bad reputation for being an unwelcoming place for women and these revelations are not going to help.
The rise of online movements such as #MeToo has increasingly divided the skeptics into two camps: those who campaign for social justice and those who rail against identity politics. Several women — and men — interviewed by BuzzFeed News said they have stopped attending skeptic events because of this hostility.
“I’ve just become so disappointed and disillusioned with a group of people who I thought at one point were exemplars of clear thinking, of openness to new evidence, and maybe most importantly, being curious,” philosopher Phil Torres told BuzzFeed News. “This movement has tragically failed to live up to its own very high moral and epistemic standards.”
What’s particularly infuriating, said Lydia Allan, the former cohost of the Dogma Debatepodcast, is when male skeptics ask how they could draw more women into their circles. “I don’t know, maybe not put your hands all over us? That might work,” she said sarcastically. “How about you believe us when we tell you that shit happens to us?”
As I said, the behavior described in the article is highly disturbing but by now familiar in its general characteristics. But there was one passage that struck me.
In April 2016, an Origins staffer angrily posted on Facebook about how Krauss “suggested that I should dress up like a hula girl while advertising for an event.” Another employee was so upset by his behavior that she started keeping a written record of offensive incidents.
“Said he understood why people didn’t like to hire women of child bearing age because it isn’t fair to have to pay maternity benefit,” she wrote in one entry. “Said he’s going to buy me birth control so I don’t get pregnant and inconvenience him. Asked if I was planning to get pregnant.”
Leaving aside the sexual behavior, the idea that women getting maternity benefits is unfair is the kind of absurd rhetoric spouted by extreme right-wing men’s rights activists and not something one would expect from someone who proudly claims to be a liberal and supportive of liberal causes. If maternity benefits is not something you believe to be a core principle, then you forfeit any claim to the label of liberal.