Lawrence Krauss: Dissecting the Buzzfeed Article on Sexual Misconduct

First off, do you know who Lawrence Krauss is? I’ve seen many comments with folks commenting that they’ve never even heard of him. His professional biography, published on Arizona State University’s website, may be found here:

Secondly, on February 22, 2018, Buzzfeed published an article by By Peter Aldhous (BuzzFeed News Reporter) Azeen Ghorayshi (BuzzFeed News Reporter) Virginia Hughes (BuzzFeed News Science Editor). The article is titled, “The Unbeliever” and subheaded with the following:

“He Became A Celebrity For Putting Science Before God. Now Lawrence Krauss Faces Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct.

Lawrence Krauss is a famous atheist and liberal crusader — and, in certain whisper networks, a well-known problem. With women coming forward alleging sexual harassment, will his “skeptic” fanbase believe the evidence?”

Here is a link to the full article:

Third, is Buzzfeed a reliable source? I like to use Media Bias Fact Check when I look at a publication. The website says Buzzfeed is classified as having a left-center bias with a Mixed rating on factual reporting but is “generally trustworthy.”

From the Media Bias website:

These media sources have a slight to moderate liberal bias.  They often publish factual information that utilizes loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes) to favor liberal causes.  These sources are generally trustworthy for information, but may require further investigation.

Factual Reporting: MIXED

Notes: Buzzfeed is an internet media company that focuses on entertainment, but does have content for breaking news and politics. Buzzfeed occasionally uses loaded words with a left bias in headlines/articles and has failed a fact check. Buzzfeed has also been known to rush stories that are not verified and then have to retract them. For the most part, Buzzfeed is factual and very well sourced. If not for a few minor blemishes Buzzfeed would be listed as High for factual reporting. Overall, Buzzfeed is a left leaning source that is almost always accurate in reporting, however our criteria dictates that a source that fails a fact check must be rated factually mixed. Buzzfeed is generally trustworthy, but it is recommended to check other sources to verify their stories. (6/30/2016) Updated (12/22/17)

Fourth, I found it odd that Buzzfeed put “skeptic” in quotation marks.

Let’s clarify the terms skeptic and skepticism:

Merriam Webster:

Definition of skeptic

1 : an adherent or advocate of skepticism

2 : a person disposed to skepticism especially regarding religion or religious principles

Definition of skepticism

1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object

2 a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain

b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics

3 : doubt concerning basic religious principles (such as immortality, providence, and revelation)

Skepticism also has more than one branch.

Examples of major types:

Philosophical Skepticism—final truths are unknowable. I include Moral Skepticism under this heading, although others might view it as a separate area of study.

Religious Skepticism—questioning faith-based claims. A religious skeptic is not always an atheist. The two terms are commonly misused as interchangeable.

Scientific Skepticism-applying scientific inquiry and scientific method to prove knowledge. This would include debunkers such as Martin Gardner, the Amazing Randi, Penn & Gillette or the popular “Mythbusters.” It also questions pseudoscience claims such as homeopathy.

So… that said, it appears that Buzzfeed uses the terms skeptic and atheist as the same thing, and that is simply incorrect.

So, back to dissecting the article:

Skeptics want evidence. Skeptics ask, “Is it true?”

Buzzfeed’s subhead quotes “whisper networks”:  “Lawrence Krauss is a famous atheist and liberal crusader — and, in certain whisper networks, a well-known problem.”

Are “whisper networks” reliable evidence? Nope.

The next line in the subhead reads, “With women coming forward alleging sexual harassment, will his ‘skeptic’  fanbase believe the evidence?”

Huh? Why wouldn’t skeptics believe reliable evidence, whether part of Krauss’s fanbase or not? But it’s got to be more than the whisper network. There is no secret oath among skeptics to deny truth or cover it up if someone is accused of sexual misconduct.

Fortunately, the Buzzfeed authors go on to present the evidence beyond just whispers and innuendo.

First up is the account of Melody Hensley. The details are in the full story so I won’t rehash them here.

Hensley: “’It was definitely predatory,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want that to happen. It wasn’t consensual.’”

Krauss: “Krauss told BuzzFeed News that what happened with Hensley in the hotel room was consensual. In that room, ‘we mutually decided, in a polite discussion in fact, that taking it any further would not be appropriate,’ he told BuzzFeed News by email.”

Now what? In the classic sense of a “he said/she said” situation, the skeptic is going to look at this situation and say truth is unknowable. Dig deeper, please. (Hence, some skeptics, male and female, have been criticized for not fully embracing the #MeToo movement that asserts we must believe everyone, regardless of the evidence. The victim is always correct and truthful. No need to look under the hood.)

Ok, so that being said, things look a little more convincing when Buzzfeed claims the following: “In response to complaints, two institutions — Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario — have quietly restricted him from their campuses. Our reporting is based on official university documents, emails, and interviews with more than 50 people.”

That sounds like pretty damning evidence. The only documentation lacking would be independent verification by these institutions, which may happen, or a look at these documents and emails. But, clearly, this is moving in the direction of reliable evidence, which is all the skeptic wants to see. Buzzfeed fairly notes, “In lengthy emails to BuzzFeed News, Krauss denied all of the accusations against him, calling them ‘false and misleading defamatory allegations.’”

But then the article seems to take a weird turn, and it feels like an attack on the skeptic community in general:

First, it defines skeptics as rejecting all forms of faith:

“Although not a household name, Lawrence Krauss is a big shot among skeptics, a community that rejects all forms of faith — from religion and the supernatural, to unproven alternative medicines, to testimonials based on memory and anecdote — in favor of hard evidence, reason, and science.”

As illustrated above, this is not true. Case in point: Martin Gardner, considered by many to be the founder of the modern scientific skeptic movement, was a believer who wrote the essay, “Why I Am Not An Atheist.” Similarly, Carl Sagan disavowed atheism.

Next, Buzzfeed claims: “The skeptics draw heavily from traditionally male groups: scientists, philosophers, and libertarians, as well as geeky subcultures like gamers and sci-fi enthusiasts.” Traditionally male groups? Skepticism, questioning, inquiry, doubt—these are not the domains of males only. The suggestion that women can’t think critically with the best of them is insulting. Gamers and sci-fi enthusiasts? I don’t even know where that idea comes from. Skepticism has nothing to do with hobbies.

Then the article proceeds to pronounce the skeptic movement to be fracturing:

“But today the movement is fracturing, with some of its most prominent members now attacking identity politics and ‘social justice warriors’ in the name of free speech.”

Doesn’t fracturing mean falling apart? As a good skeptic, I return to Merriam-Webster:

Definition of fracture

1 : the result of fracturing : break

2 a : the act or process of breaking or the state of being broken; especially : the breaking of hard tissue (such as bone)

b : the rupture (as by tearing) of soft tissue kidney fracture

3 : the general appearance of a freshly broken surface of a mineral

Huh? So the skeptic movement is being broken apart by valuing and protecting free speech? The skeptic movement is broken for believing in discourse, debate and open-mindedness?

I’ll just leave you with this 20 minute talk on the value of free speech and free exchange of ideas by Christopher Hitchens. If you have time, it is wonderful.

Next, Buzzfeed goes with the anti-Muslim allegations so often leveled against religious skeptics. Oh brother. How many times does it have to be said. I’ll just quote Richard Dawkins here: “I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?”

Next, we get to a paragraph that levels so many accusations, I don’t know if I can handle them all in one sitting:

“Famous freethinkers have been criticized for anti-Muslim sentiment (addressed that with Dawkins), for cheering the alt-right media personality Milo Yiannopoulos (Milo does not identify as alt-right and yeah, free speech), and for lampooning feminism and gender theory (that’s the area of the evolutionary biologists and not all skeptics speak on this topic. It is extremely complex and academic in nature).”

Next: “Several women, after sharing personal accounts of misogyny and harassment by men in the skeptic community, have been subjected to Gamergate-style online attacks, including rape and death threats.” If that is true, it is not coming from decent human beings. Prominent faces in the skeptic community, male and female, black, brown and white, do not participate in name calling and certainly don’t threaten rape or death. Ridiculous. Look at Jordan Peterson’s Twitter. A British journalist recently claimed she was harassed after interviewing Peterson, and he absolutely denounced it.

And for the kicker: “As a result, some commentators have accused parts of the movement of sliding into the alt-right.” Bleh. This was recently addressed by Sam Harris, when folks who openly identified as alt-right co-opted Steven Pinker by clipping out some YouTube comment and making it seem like he was a Nazi or some other nonsense. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece called “Social Media is Making Us Dumber” about this silliness.

Clearly, sexual misconduct is everywhere, and coming from many sides. Smearing an entire community, though, is just plain—what’s the scientific word—goofy.


UPDATE: ASU has received no complaints from ASU students, faculty or staff related to Lawrence Krauss. The university has initiated a review in an attempt to discern the facts. We encourage anyone who has concerns about faculty, staff or students to report those concerns.

11:18 AM – 23 Feb 2018

Logical-LA to be held February 9-11, 2018: Scientific Skepticism Celebrated

In support of the scientific skeptic movement, LogiCal-LA creates a place for critical thinkers to meet face-to-face and to experience presentations from nationally recognized speakers who will share their knowledge and insights.

LogiCal-LA 2018 presents internationally known theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Lawrence M. Krauss as keynote speaker.

What is scientific skepticism?

Scientific skeptics believe that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose. They attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence.  Scientific skeptics often focus their criticism on claims they consider to be implausible, dubious or clearly contradictory to generally accepted science.

Scientific skeptics do not assert that unusual claims should be automatically rejected out of hand on a priori grounds—rather they argue that claims of paranormal or anomalous phenomena should be critically examined and that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence before they can be accepted. From a scientific point of view, theories are judged on many criteria, such as falsifiability, Occam’s Razor, and explanatory power, as well as the degree to which their predictions match experimental results. Skepticism is part of the scientific method; for instance, an experimental result is not regarded as established until it can be shown to be repeatable independently.

For further information, see this article about scientific skepticism.

For the full schedule: