The Lawrence Krauss affair


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.

Comments

  1. deepak shetty says

    If maternity benefits is not something you believe to be a core principle, then you forfeit any claim to the label of liberal.

    I wonder how the people with such views think how they got into this world, and what they would have wished for , for their mothers.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    I do not think that atheists have any greater claim to good behavior than non-believers and there may well be no correlation.

    I don’t see any reason why atheist should be expected to behave better, statistically. But one distinction is that no one entrusts their children to atheists just because they are atheists.

    … and not something one would expect from someone who proudly claims to be a liberal and supportive of liberal causes.

    Has Krauss ever claimed to be liberal?

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    I read the BuzzFeed article, and Krauss is claimed to be liberal.

    He is politically liberal, decrying sexism, racism, and “the fear of people who are different,” and is a vocal critic of Donald Trump.

  4. drken says

    @ Reginald #3. Sam Harris says the same thing. Of course, he also believes that we need to search all Muslims at the airport because they haven’t spoken out enough against terrorism and are therefore suspect. So, I try not to rely on self-reporting about those sorts of things.

  5. file thirteen says

    If maternity benefits is not something you believe to be a core principle, then you forfeit any claim to the label of liberal.

    I wish I could agree with you but it’s too close to the no true scotsman fallacy. He’s in the liberal spectrum all right, just somewhere between misguided and total fuckwit. Better to educate/remind everyone on how maternity rights should be a cornerstone of gender equality.

  6. fentex says

    Mano: If maternity benefits is not something you believe to be a core principle, then you forfeit any claim to the label of liberal.

    Does he, claim the label of liberal? Because your point fails if he doesn’t.

    The U.S corruption of the words Conservative and Liberal is extremely annoying. They are not classes but properties of people – a person may be conservative (resisting change) or liberal (supporting individual liberties), to re-frame the words as proxies for Republican and Democrat – or as you seem to do synonyms for people who disagree or agree with specific policies having nothing to do with being conservative or liberal is extremely annoying to people from nations and cultures where English is not abused so.

    Clearly there are people who don’t think being Atheist or Humanist requires being Liberal (as you used it, because they don’t believe those things require behaving well towards women which you assert being Liberal does).

    Frankly it seems like a folly of religion to be upset that they don’t honour and practice the tenets of the label all the faithful must express.

    I think one should keep their eye on the ball – berate him for his abuses as they are specifically detailed and recounted, give no ground to those who would obfuscate the point by burying it in larger arguments of identity and definitions too broad to concentrate on the point.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    fentex @ # 6 – beware, our esteemed host has gone so far as to use “contact” as a verb!

    Meanwhile, arm prepare yourself for a visit from the Comma Police.

  8. says

    Reginald Selkirk @ #2″

    I don’t see any reason why atheist should be expected to behave better, statistically. But one distinction is that no one entrusts their children to atheists just because they are atheists.

    That is actually our fault. Remember the whole “Good Without God” thing? A cornerstone of the whole “Rise of Atheism” thing that started in 2006 was that we could be moral without God. That we didn’t need to believe in God to be good people. And then some of us would take it further by saying that in fact we are more moral than believers because we didn’t need some invisible sky judge to keep us moral… we did it simply because it was the right thing to do.

    So we are the ones who built up expectations that we could be as good as believers, if not better… as moral as believers, if not more moral. You’re right that, statistically, there shouldn’t be, and really isn’t, any correlation. But we’re the ones who advertised that there is a correlation in the first place. So we’re the ones who created that expectation.

    (Note: by “we” I mean atheists, and I mean atheists in general… I know you can find plenty of individual atheists who did not participate in this and in fact railed against it from the start. But those atheists were not the one in the popular conscience. And I also include myself in that “we” because I participated in it myself when I first lost my faith back in 2006/2007. And I apologize for that.)

    fentex @ #6:

    Does he, claim the label of liberal? Because your point fails if he doesn’t.

    Krauss does indeed. Read the article… (in fact, Reginald quotes it in comment #3)

    The U.S corruption of the words Conservative and Liberal is extremely annoying. They are not classes but properties of people – a person may be conservative (resisting change) or liberal (supporting individual liberties), to re-frame the words as proxies for Republican and Democrat – or as you seem to do synonyms for people who disagree or agree with specific policies having nothing to do with being conservative or liberal is extremely annoying to people from nations and cultures where English is not abused so.

    I actually agree with you here. The whole idea of “left” and “right” in the US is completely broken because of how far right our political spectrum is. In terms of our politicians, there really aren’t any “left” politicians in power here in the US, at least in the federal government. The closest we get are the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and even they would be considered “moderate” on a normal political spectrum. Now, I do think one of the US’s Socialist parties has representatives in a couple states, as well as the Green party (though I consider them a complete joke), but that’s about it. Overall, we’re a very right-wing country.

    However

    You have to realize that, in a US context, “conservative” is used for “right” and “liberal” is used for “left”. It’s not accurate, but that’s the level of political discourse we have here. It’s extremely black and white with no consideration for nuance.

    As such, things like equality between genders, races, and sexualities are indeed considered “liberal” here, as the over-use of “SJW” as a “slur” (I don’t think it is, personally… I always take it a compliment) comes from the “conservative” side of our politicals to bash the “liberal” side of our politics with will contest.

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