“Not knowing” and failure to prevent harassment (A brief statement about Lawrence Krauss)

March 27, 2018

Update/Note — I should have made it clearer in the text below that Sam Harris took a principled stand, in real time, rejecting Lawrence Krauss’s denials and making it clear that an appropriate apology from Krauss is necessary. I linked to Harris’s statement and wrongly assumed that readers would not only know its contents, but include them as context for this blogpost. Thus, what was intended to be a few minor disagreements and points for discussion looked like a very deliberate and unfair attack on Harris. I should have clearly stated Sam’s position, and my general agreement with- and appreciation of it.

Shortly before the recent exposure of Lawrence Krauss’s apparently habitual sexual harassment behavior, I referred to him on this blog for the first time. Had I not mentioned him, I wouldn’t have written anything about this issue, but I have decided to put a few things on the record.

The video posted below is from Cristina Rad, who is fairly well known in the skeptic network. She describes a simple incident in which Krauss groped her. She says it “wasn’t a big deal” and it didn’t leave her scarred; but it ruined her image of Krauss, who she had been pleased to meet.

The only reason, as Rad notes, that she made this video about an incident that occurred in 2011 is because she was so pissed off with Krauss’s denials. She shouldn’t have had to risk exposing herself to the hordes of sexually incontinent males in the atheist network.

It is obvious to me that someone who one time behaves as Krauss did has already behaved like this before. Krauss seems to think his fame entitles him to just grab women. Women have been warning each other about him for years, but mysteriously, none of his male colleagues knew anything at all about it. That can only be down to willful blindness or odd chimp-like tolerance of a separate set of morals for supposed alpha males. Whatever the reason, it should be seen as a general failure.

I only know of Krauss via his books and You Tube, but I already had suspicions about him. He was on the record for an extremely stupid statement in 2011 about his friend, the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. I had also heard him (on You Tube) repeatedly talking about Richard Feynman’s promiscuity, in a way that I found obsessive, objectifying of women, and just weird.

So why did I refer to him? Because I hadn’t heard anything more about off-putting behavior from him since 2011. It’s not a big deal, but wish I had have trusted my intuitive judgment and not associated my blog with him.

But seeing as I did, and as I also sometimes refer to others who have made public statements about this, I will take a moment to put a few things on the record.

Sam Harris, who I also refer to here fairly regularly, knows Krauss and put out a statement on You Tube.

He says he has done many events with Krauss and “never seen him misbehave”. Okay, but even I knew of accusations against him — and that was back in 2011. Sam Harris must have known of these too, and if so, must have wrongly dismissed them, as I also did. I can’t see any way around that. He should have said something to explain why he dismissed such information and concerns.

[Update 28.3.2018: Commenter E-R S has argued below that it is entirely plausible that Harris really had never heard of the accusations against Krauss — “I personally had absolutely no idea that people had said this about him, ever, and I’ve spent many years running one of the biggest online skeptical pages…”  The link in the previous paragraph goes to Sam Harris’s complete statement. I only refer to parts I want to discuss. I should have already noted that Harris convinced Krauss not to appear with him on stage the night the accusations broke; that Harris effectively disassociated himself from Krauss’s “blanket denials”; and that he has encouraged Krauss to apologize.]

Harris has a talent for noting how bad ideas can lead to bad behavior. Here is Krauss’s idea of evidence for why Epstein shouldn’t have been convicted of pedophilia. Why didn’t Harris see this as a red flag? Krauss:

As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.

(Gulp. I confess I’d read that warning about him on the Skepchick blog in 2011 and must have blotted out the details from memory. Ouch. Ouch. Mea culpa. Holy heck.)

Then Harris casts doubt on the allegations, and says we shouldn’t “rush to accept all of them”. This is remarkably stupid from Harris. Who has been “rushing”? This was in plain sight in 2011. By the time Buzzfeed put out their article, it became immediately clear that Krauss is a habitual, serial harasser, who needs to apologize and stop. But instead, Harris focuses on the article. Yes, it was poorly written, but the issue is that your friend gropes women and you didn’t know enough to stop him!

Then Harris says that he is “not in a position to judge the truth of such allegations”, but says he has since sought and accepted some private confirmation that Krauss does indeed act like that. Again, that’s a bit late.

Then he starts going on about the importance of recognizing “gradations of sexual misbehavior”. Here he is complaining about excesses he perceives in the #MeToo movement. But is this really the time for that? Anyway, he could have saved his breath. The quickest way to stop this spinning out of control would be for Krauss to admit what he’s done, show that he understands why it is wrong, and apologize sincerely and unreservedly. Which didn’t happen.

Even better of course, would have been for other prominent male atheists in 2011 to quietly tell Krauss in private to get a freaking clue. Which also didn’t happen.

Is there a good reason why only women knew about Krauss since at least 2011, and his male peers only found out about it in 2018 after Buzzfeed alerted them?

Jerry Coyne, who I also sometimes refer to here, (and whose work I admire very much) has taken a stand on this. He put out a statement that was, I thought, much better than Sam Harris’s. Coyne was less equivocating, and did at least find time to generally condemn sexual harassment — something which neither Harris nor Krauss bothered to do. But I did find Coyne’s tone somewhat reluctant and perhaps petulant. I’m sure, however, that Krauss would have read it, and it must have stung (and rightly so).

I don’t know how much Jerry Coyne has to do with Krauss, but I must also wonder why he didn’t know anything about it until Buzzfeed told him. And, as with Harris, some private inquiries cleared the matter up very swiftly. That could have happened in 2011 too, couldn’t it? (It certainly should have been enough for me, and I failed to take it seriously, or wrongly assumed he’d improved.)

So, why did all the other prominent male atheists fail to stop Krauss?

Richard Dawkins, who I also refer to here sometimes, has said nothing at all. Not good.

I will continue to refer to him here, but let me put it on the record concerning an earlier matter: his pathetic and disgraceful behavior towards Rebecca Watson makes me feel a sting of embarrassment each time I refer to him. If his writing wasn’t so extraordinarily good, I’d use someone else.

All I can say to anyone who wants to complain about how Krauss has been treated: grow a pair. Krauss’s male colleagues failed to protect women from him, and him from himself. They let him carry on like this in public until so many women were pissed off with him that the lid blew off. Now the story has been picked up by people trying to hurt the atheist movement. It’s too late for whining about that now. It’s their own (our own) stupid fault.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. Extremely disappointed by your run-down of what Sam said. You’ve picked out bits and paraphrased in what looks to me like a pretty wilfully misrepresentative way in order for it to fit your over all message. **I urge your readers to go and actually listen** to what he said! For instance he points out that this is the testimony of “many women”, more than once, and that this makes the allegations very hard to dismiss – and that as such it would be hard to be on stage with him “accepting his blanket denials” and then moving on to scientific debate. The context is important here!! The reason Sam is making this statement is to explain to his listeners the decision not to have him at the event he was scheduled to be at as a guest. This is 24 hours after the allegations have surfaced, on Buzzfeed, amongst many signs of bad faith suggesting that genuine grievances had been cut with agenda-based ingredients.

    Some utterances that wouldn’t have fitted so well in your piece:

    – “The fact that there is this much chatter about how he has behaved is certainly a cause for concern”
    – “And I have since heard from people who don’t want to be associated with this article who have assured me that these sorts of allegations are true”
    – “I can offer no defence of Lawrence here”
    – “I’m certainly biased towards believing ALL WOMEN who say that a guy was creepy. That IS my bias. So I have to correct for that bias in ways so as to give that person the presumption of innocence until more facts are in, which in some cases is only decent” (I’d say that this one, where the only “facts” so far are those documented in an article that also states that Sam Harris is a racist, which is…unbelievably ridiculous, is a pretty good example of such a case)
    – “I can only hope that [Lawrence] makes some appropriate and honest mea culpa. I don’t know what form that should take, but saying that it’s all lies is almost certainly not going to work for him, because it’s almost certainly not true.”

    And I just completely disagree with you that this “isn’t the time” to talk about proportionality. Of course it is. The moment when somebody is being hoisted up for public roasting because of gropes and come-ons and inappropriate behaviour, but those sins are being talked about **in the same breath as actual rape cases**, is PRECISELY when we need to talk about it!!

    Finally, it seems you’ve used italics and bold for that word “must” in your claim about Sam Harris’ prior knowledge of Lawrence’s behaviour, to distract from the fact that the word is wholly unjustified, and yet the next section of your logic derives from it. You have no evidence that he is lying when he says these allegations have come as a complete surprise. Sam Harris is a busy person and it seems very plausible to me that he hasn’t seen the YT videos you refer to.

    ..I personally had absolutely no idea that people had said this about him, ever, and I’ve spent many years running one of the biggest online skeptical pages, and being very much engaged with just the kinds of online material that you have been engaged in. So, again, it doesn’t seem implausible to me. The internet is a big place…

    I’ve always admired your writings on topics that matter, so as I say, this has beeen a real disappointment to me.

  2. […] Shortly before the recent exposure of Lawrence Krauss’s apparently habitual sexual harassment behavior, I referred to him on this blog for the first time. Had I not mentioned him, I wouldn’t have written anything about this issue, but I have decided to put a few things on the record. https://spiritualityisnoexcuse.wordpress.com/ […]

  3. Thanks for commenting and including the quotes from Sam Harris.

    I’m genuinely surprised that you hadn’t heard of the accusations against Krauss, so that does make it more plausible that Sam Harris may have literally heard nothing about it either. I am far enough out of the loop of the atheist network that I assume whatever I know must be common knowledge.

    I’ve added an update in the body of the post linking to your comment on that point. I also indicated the link to Harris’s complete statement and acknowledged that I should have stated that he convinced Krauss not to appear on stage that night, and that he has encouraged him to apologize.

    It because of brevity that I didn’t indicate the context of Sam Harris’s statement, or Sam’s actions relating to Krauss, or his broader position. This was an oversight on my part, and I hope the update goes some way to correcting it.

    I also wasn’t trying to accuse Harris (implicitly or explicitly) of lying; rather I had assumed — perhaps wrongly — that he must have dismissed the accusations for the same reasons as I did after many years.

    Above all, I wanted to highlight the problem of how to deal with this problem, and I was trying to take some of the unnecessary heat out of it. Personally I think a clear condemnation of groping, and a clear apology for it would cut short anyone trying to associate it with rape.

    Otherwise I am in favor of discussing any excesses of the #MeToo movement as a topic in itself. But raising it immediately in relation to Krauss adds an issue that doesn’t belong there, and runs the risk of appearing like a deflection. I still think Sam was wrong to raise it. Maybe the tone in the post is too harsh towards Sam Harris, given the context.

    I have no problem with raising issues of excesses in the #MeToo movement independent of Krauss. It seems to me that specific cases like Krauss spin out of control ultimately because of denials rather than because of people going overboard with accusations.

    Overall, I was hoping to use Krauss as a way to deal with the bigger issue of when and how men should confront another man about his behavior. There have been several extremely divisive episodes about this within the atheist network, and I was trying to understand why they go under the radar for long, when should men confront someone about his behavior, and how should that be done.

  4. “So, why did all the other prominent male atheists fail to stop Krauss? … Richard Dawkins, who I also refer to here sometimes, has said nothing at all. Not good.”

    I don’t see it as a requirement for certain people, “prominent male atheists” to make public statements about misconduct allegations. I mean, if a colleague or friend of the accused can help change a bad situation, they ought to try, but privately is probably best, with care and love, since public shaming often just entrenches people in denial and anger. Jumping into the fray on such matters is potentially harmful however its done, but might save a lot of harm too.

    Maybe Dawkins doesn’t know enough about the situation to feel it’s wise to comment. Maybe he doesn’t feel any particular obligation to. Why should he? There seems to be too much of a tribe mentality here – like all atheists are particularly responsible for other atheists’ behaviour (and men for men’s).

    What we think about whether there’s a god doesn’t automatically put us in a “network”. There’s no atheist community that has to protect its good name by excommunicating retrobates. If atheist-haters say “there you go, atheists have no morals”, they’ll not need much of a nudge to remember how well the religious score on that. But we all need to get away from this them-and-us nonsense.

  5. Thanks for your comment, John. I’ve decided to write a follow up, where i will add some of the context which probably should have been included in this post. I left a lot of blanks, I now realize. I hope that will go some way to addressing the issues you raise.

  6. In answer to @Lettersquash —

    I decided not to write an extra post about this, but instead added another short note to the top of this one.

    Several of the points you raise I fully agree with and probably should have dealt with explicitly in the post. But first, regarding Dawkins — I don’t think everyone who ever appeared with or worked with Krauss needs to say something about the matter, but Dawkins has appeared with him frequently, and is on record as saying he thinks women should not be complaining about harassment. Given that I have often referred to him here and written a lengthy defense of him as well a few years ago, but never mentioned this point of disagreement with him before, I decided to take this opportunity to mention it. I should probably have at least mentioned that as context in the post.

    Regarding the idea of an “atheist community”, I agree with what you say here. (Again I didn’t go into any of this in the post because I was trying to be brief. Maybe another mistake.)

    It was Krauss himself who used the term “skeptical community” and presented himself, by implication, as a prominent atheist in that “community”. He portrayed the accusations as an attempt (by Buzzfeed) to bring to the entire “atheist community” into disrepute by attacking a prominent person in it.

    I didn’t want to go into Krauss’s statement, but implied my disagreement with it by using the term “atheist network”. A “community” is something more cohesive and diverse than that. A network is far more superficial and will disintegrate far more quickly when challenged, especially if its members are under the impression that their superficial similarities make them a unified community. (They erupt over the tiniest distinctions and demand the kind of purity tests that it probably looked like I have been subjecting Harris and Dawkins to here. And maybe of course there’s a genuine whiff of that to in the above post, despite my trying to avoid it.)

    Above all in the post, I was trying to consider how could this behavior by Krauss have been detected earlier by those who could have tried to prevent it — which I think given Krauss’s psychology, would have needed to be another “prominent” person, rather than someone he clearly perceived as of lower status. I was trying to use this incident as a way to raise that question more generally for the future.

  7. Hi Yakaru – good job adding some context. Brevity is such a nuisance sometimes.

    I was too brief, too. I should have said that I was answering your call for opinions on when and how people should speak out about abuse or potentially abusive behaviour…rather than intending to dispute any points you made. I can’t speak about the Krauss thing, because I still haven’t looked into it. I may never do so. Nor what Sam Harris has said about it.

    Brevity is particularly dangerous on this kind of subject, because it’s so complicated, people are so unbelievably ready to pigeonhole anyone who says anything, and the war between feminists and the “male rights movement” seems set to out-rancour that between religion and atheism.

    Richard Dawkins’ communication in which he sarcastically criticised Rebecca Watson’s complaint about being asked by a man in an elevator at 4 am. if she’d like to get a coffee does seem one of his crasser moments, but behind that may have been a genuine concern about the more extreme end of the feminist agenda. And it seems unlikely that he just saw her video and wrote a scathing email, so perhaps there was some history to this we don’t know about. I gather he was on the same panel.

    Is this the incident you’re referring to when you say: “Dawkins […] is on record as saying he thinks women should not be complaining about harassment”? If it is, it’s very misleading. I’m fairly sure he’s not actually said, “women should not be complaining about harassment”, so to say he’s on record saying that is false. His point was that the incident was not harassment, and it’s a sentiment widely shared, whether it’s right or wrong. Heck, is that another can of worms I just opened?

  8. Yes — I was referring to Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” thing, effectively a satirized message from Rebecca Watson to female Muslims who have suffered genital mutilation —

    “Dear Muslima,
    Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and… yawn… don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so… And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”

    Had he said “I was drunk and angry and didn’t realize that if this standard were applied equally it would invalidate all other complaints about anything, which is exactly the same trick that Christians pull to get special status for poor crucified Jesus”, I would have forgiven it.

    He also at a later conference refused to appear on a panel if Watson was also given a place on it, so the organizers dropped Watson.

    I think this is a generational blindspot on his part, rather than arising from a personal defect (aka the men’s rights movement).

    It’s also possible that i will look back in a few years at my attitudes now and be surprised that I didn’t take the radical feminist movement seriously because of some latent not-taking-seriously of women.

    I wanted the blogpost to come across as an invitation to discussion, and took up a position was is a bit clearer than I actually feel. Krauss could have fixed the bulk of this stuff just by apologizing properly, so it shouldn’t degenerate into the kind of divisive thing that it seems to in some departments. (Or as divisive as I seemed to some as being because of failing to provide the extra info about Sam Harris.)

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