August 12, 2013

Is Center for Inquiry in more #sexism hot water?

Center for Inquiry, arguably the nation's leading secular humanist organization, drew the wrath of many feminists earlier this year, especially within the envelope-pushing Atheism Plus movement, when Ron Lindsay, the CEO of CFI, put many of these feminists on edge with his welcoming remarks at the Women in Secularism conference, organized by CFI. Those remarks led to hosts of the podcast Point of Inquiry leaving CFI, among other things.

In turn, discussions about whether there are enough women in atheism (blogged about here) and related issues have now risen to the fore again.

However, CFI may be in worse trouble yet on these issues.

The Women in Secularism conference was organized directly to address the title issue, but also indirectly to address other issues, such as sexual harassment with atheist and secular humanist organizations (and, also, within professional skeptics' groups).

Well, now, allegedly, CFI had sexual harassment going on under its own roof. And, sexual assault, not just harassment.

Leading female skeptic Karen Stollznow now says she was sexually harassed for four years, and that this included assault.

And, while she doesn't name names, P.Z. does: Ben Radford.

And, he also says it was at CFI.

Update: CFI now has a statement up. And, it's a non-admission admission of guilt. Here's part of it:
However, we would like to make it clear that any suggestion that CFI has been less than diligent in addressing harassment complaints is mistaken. During the administration of current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, that is since July 2008, CFI has investigated all complaints that have been made to management, and, where necessary, has taken appropriate corrective action. The extent of the investigation’s nature varies from case-to-case, depending on the allegations that are made. Claims requiring extensive investigation may be handled by an impartial outside law firm and/or consultant. Although use of outside impartial investigators can be very expensive, CFI is committed to carrying out as thorough an investigation as necessary. 
Per a comment by Ophelia Benson in PZ's thread, Radford has been disciplined, but, she calls it a "slap on the wrist." Given that, and the last two lines from this graf of CFI's statement, it's unclear whether it's looking further at the issue or not.

In a blog post of her own, a commenter has CFI's current policy/political statement on the issue

Another commenter there even suggests CFI needs to update a previously released "statement," with updating suggestions underlined:
The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.
The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of a diverse workforce. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent claims of sexual assault and harassment at our office.
CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.
Back to what's at the root of this all.

All of Stollznow's piece is worth a read, but especially the part about CFI's reaction to her claims, especially after Rebecca Watson made her "Elevatorgate" claims of harassment at an atheist/humanist conference.

Read on:
Following “Elevatorgate”, the company introduced a “zero tolerance policy for hostile and harassing conduct”. When I approached them with my accusations they appeared to be compassionate initially. I spent many hours explaining my story over the phone and days submitting evidence. Then they hired an attorney to collect the facts and I had to repeat the process. I provided access to my email account. I also devoted two days to face-to-face discussions about my ordeal. This “fact collector” also collected a lot of hearsay from my harasser, about how I’m a slut and “batshit crazy”. This tactic of the accused is so common it’s known as the “nut and slut” strategy. I soon learned that the attorney was there to protect them, not me.

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.
First, from what I see and have learned of Ron Lindsay online, that last line surprises me not a bit. I'm sure it also doesn't surprise people who, even if they didn't find him 100 percent wet on his Women in Secularism comments, were still concerned to some degree by them. The non-admission "admission" adds to that.

And, given all this, and per Benson's "slap on the hand" (Radford got a one-week suspension while already on vacation), he's now claiming he's innocent. Ben, careful. You're likely to end up the A-Rod of all of this. Were I you, I'd go lie low for a while.

*** Update, Aug. 12: SciAm pulled down the post, as Stollznow has Tweeted. Lindsay requested three changes. One of them says Benson's not telling the truth about the suspension being while Radford was on vacation.

This adds another twist. SciAm has pulled the article, but has yet, it would seem, to put up an edited one, or apologize as Lindsay wants. 

I think Lindsay gets No. 1 wrong. Stollznow didn't claim that CFI started its no-harassment policy after "Elevatorgate," just that it toughened it. And, Point 3? None of us knows how good or how bad the "environment" has been at CFI unless we worked there and were subject to it. ***

Meanwhile, I have heard that Radford and Stollznow reportedly had a consensual sexual relationship. Assuming that's true, and per the person (a woman) who said that on Facebook, that doesn't excuse, lessen or diminish the severity of what Radford seemingly did. (I proportion my severity to the unknown details of what he actually did do.)

Rather, it may underscore that he had problems with jealousy.

That said, I'll say no more here. It's unfair, as Blake Smith has noted at Facebook, because Radford may even be limited in what he can say back.

But, back to Stollznow's piece. Her being harassed by Radford is allegedly not all. After detailing her personal history, Stollznow drops the "past history" hammer, and it doesn't look good at all:
I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.
That said, let's look further at that last line of this pull quote.

Let's not blame all of this on Lindsay.

*** Update, Aug. 12: Richard Carrier says a New York law might constrain what CFI can say, in general, and the law might be kind of a wet dream for evil-minded nonprofits. ***

I have at least one Facebook friend who strongly defends Paul Kurtz, founder of CFI, and arguably a grandfather to much of modern secular humanism.

But, if P.Z. is right about this being at CFI, Stollznow's comment looks like it could (not necessarily "does" but "could") mean this goes back even to Kurtz's time. And, since first posting this, I've heard more stuff, and not all from Gnu Atheists outside the CFI loop grinding axes over it, that indeed Kurtz tolerated a lot of stuff. And, yes, a bit of his toleration could be seen as an older "patriarchy" attitude.

Given that Stollznow mentions "four years" and Lindsay officially ousted Kurtz just three years ago, and she also mentions "previous custom," this doesn't look so good for Kurtz's legacy and upholders of it, either. In fact, it's sad if in this area at least Lindsay and his policies are considered an improvement.

And to think I once wanted, and tried to, work there.

Short and sweet answer to all of this?

CFI needs to can not only Lindsay, but any board members who have significant information about what happened and supported the do-little actions.

It needs to replace Lindsay with someone not a Gnu Atheist, who embodies some of Kurtz's ideas about secular humanism, but who also is a bright-liner on women's issues and has no official past connection of significance to Kurtz.

And, given all of this and more below, while I don't want to destroy CFI, if it's doing to want to be, and continue as, the pre-eminent site of secular humanism and skepticism, it needs a good overhaul.

Meanwhile, on a somewhat related subject, the Block Bot app for Twitter, developed by Gnu Atheist James Billingham, gets a few touts on PZ's page, even though it's a free speech overkill and may itself go against Twitter's TOS, among problems I note here. And a Tumblr site allegedly has already collapsed. Speaking of ...


Et tu, JREF?

Meanwhile, Skepticsville is now slouching further toward Gomorrah, it seems.

D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation has faced allegations of, at least, insensitivity toward women in the past. Now, it's claims of full-on harassment. Carrie Poppy also claimed Randi himself promised to take action and didn't, and that's why she quit.

And, PZ has a sense of humor when it's outwardly directed. He notes today is Randi's 85th birthday and he gets a crappy birthday present.

Correction, PZ. If this is true, Randi bought himself a crappy birthday present months ago.

Again, treat this as "it appears." With Stollznow and Radford, the CFI statement is a non-legal admission of guilt, it would seem. Stay tuned on JREF. That said, it's complicated by the fact that, due to Randi's age, Grothe himself is arguably the head of JREF. Even with no names being named, I don't see him putting out a statement within the next 12-24 hours, given that more "nuancing" time is going to be needed.


And, some history:

Per other stuff I've blogged about before, including Randi's likely knowledge for years about his lover living off a stolen ID  (that would be Carlos aka  Deyvi Pena aka Jose Alvarez) and doing harm to the real person in the process, what I heard earlier about Seckel (and intimated about others), even allowing for defenders of the old guard to cite Plusers and Gnus as grinding axes, there's still some fire behind this smoke, I think.

And, while I don't have the answer to Kurtz and this particular question, Kurtz, like Randi, has apparently made excuses for other "insiders" in the past. Al Seckel, a much bigger fish than Radford, would certainly be included. (Search for about the fifth occurrence of his name.) I don't know if it was the Darwin fish moneys, or what, but playing cover-up for a deliberate academic fraudster, a person who directly undercuts the skeptical integrity, of a skeptical as well as humanistic organzation, is a massive failure.

Now, that said, I do have to caveat that by noting that CFI has a lot of offshoots geographically separate from headquarters. But, nonetheless, if Stollznow's correct, it's hard to believe Kurtz knew nothing of this. Even if he was starting to be pushed out back in 2008, it's still hard to believe.

And, the "halo effect" may go back 20 years or more, who knows? And, with friends who have a connection to the "old guard," kind of like one Facebook friend who considered himself friends with both Radford and Stollznow, I'm about at the point of silence.

Yes, people like Benson will twist all sorts of stuff out of place. On the other hand, Stollznow herself isn't, as far as I know, a Pluser. So, she personally has no ax to grind. So, again, I don't doubt her story. Carrie Poppy, I know the background less well, but, it's possible.

The other bottom line is that I'm fortunately intelligent enough to not have needed the help of either Professional Skepticism or Professional Atheism to maunder through some intellectual rocks in my life.

Well, no, there's a third bottom line. Lindsay is at least honest in saying that he's looking for rich donors. Given that Randi himself is 85 and there's probably a bit of founder's syndrome about him by now, JREF folks have to be having one eyeball, at least, on the financial future. And, is not this part of why both atheists and skeptics have such big conventions, despite most atheists, at least, saying they don't need or even care for community?

Again, and again: Follow the money.

No, that's not the only reason, but it is indeed A reason. Of that, I have no doubt.

And, there's a fourth bottom line. A fair amount of this could have happened, and more. Lawrence Krauss' name's now been dragged in. But, Gnus could still be overblowing it for their own purposes.

And, beyond legitimate concerns, those purposes would be?

"I am Gnu/Plus, hear me roar." Yep, it's all about the attention. Or, especially among the younger Plusers, the narcissism factor.

Oh, and just as my previous post about Gnus evolved into this, this is probably going to lead to a third post. There's still circles to be squared, speaking of the past, on "skeptics" and libertarianism, skeptics and racialism, etc.

That's another thing that gets me when some people hint that CFI or even JREF couldn't be doing this.

Bullshit. When you tolerate libertarianism, even to the point of science denial, when you have known racialists on the masthead of a "skeptical" magazine, etc., anything's possible.


Gnu/Pluser motivation

Do I still trust Gnu Atheists in general, or Atheist Plusers in particular, on these issues?


Example A is the latest from Greta Christina.

It includes allegations that don't name perpetrators, and appear to be vague in general.

It also includes her claims to being a "good skeptic in general." Bullshit.

When you blogged a couple of weeks ago about flirtation leading to harassment, you talked only about male on female unwanted action. You didn't mention female on male, gay, or lesbian flirtation or sexual harassment. And, when I tried to comment about that, by my comment remaining in moderation limbo forever, I figured I was blocked.

So, if CFI needs cleaning up, the likes of you are NOT the people to do it.

Now, for your anonymous accusations ...

PZ throws out what he calls a live hand grenade, an anonymous accusation against Michael Shermer. Not being close to an insider, and never attending any of the conventions, I have not a clue on this one.

And now, Shermer's lawyer's thrown the grenade back. And, PZ's gone scrambling to PopeHat lead blogger Ken White for possible legal protection, even though White agrees with many others and thinks PZ is a fundamentalist atheist moron.

(Update, Aug. 20: Greta Christina gives me another laugh-my-ass off moment, claiming this is NOT an "anonymous complaint," then implies that PZ is Woodward and Bernstein! This ignores that Woodward, at least, eventually became a whore to power and was worried about Mark Felt coming out as Deep Throat in part because of how much potential he had to show how Woodward, or Woodstein, "skated the edge" on truthfulness in details, and occasionally in big picture, at times.)

Given the whole situation, to be honest? I hope PZ's wrong, and Shermer sues his ass off. He's being disingenuous about having "no choice." Maybe we'll get about 10-20 dueling suits and countersuits over these allegations before we're all done.

Unfortunately, Shermer's lawyer, in throwing the grenade back, seems to have kind of neutered it first. The likelihood of an actual suit is slim at this point. Of course, it's arguable Shermer has more to lose by suing than he does by accepting any legalistically narrow apology.

But, there's now a legal fund for Shermer! Set up by an outside party, but Shermer knows and approves.

And, if he follows through with a suit, the fact that PZ did multiple rewrites could blow up in his face, essentially leaving him testifying against himself.

Al Stefanelli reminds us that the potential libel not only applies to the overarching claim, but details of how it allegedly happened. And, he's about right. PZ's about at the level of the National Enquirer, at least the Enquirer of old, which ... got sued multiple times. (And, if he's right about PZ doing this in part for blog hits, Do Not Follow is a simple way to stop that.)

Meanwhile, I'm beginning to think nobody there has a conception of what libel is, in its actual legal sense. I thought Ed Brayton knew better, but he either doesn't, or, as he showed with Block Bot, doesn't care. (But he should; Shermer's lawyer cc-ed him, with the hint that he'd also be a correspondent in any legal action.)

And, for a blog site that was explicitly formed in part for commercial reasons, that's not a good attitude to have.

That said?

Women's first step has to be reporting sexual assaults to the police. If we're going to talk about female empowerment, in the case of sexual assault, society's first step has to be supporting them doing that, not being brave about anonymous allegations being made in public.

And, this is NOT a "blame the woman" issue, namely that one issue involves no women and no straight sexuality. It applies to straight women, gay women, straight men and gay men. (And yes, straight men vis-a-vis gay women can be, if in the minority of the times, harassed, propositioned, and more. Again, it's a minority compared to the other way around, but it happens. Check your own "privilege" in calling "privilege"; your mileage may vary.

Beyond that, there's sociological research that indicates women tend to underestimate the effects booze will have on lowering their sexual impulse control and leading to casual sex.

With that said, just as this post expanded off a previous one, and because my initial contretemps with Stephanie Zvan started over the alcohol-fueled sexual interaction between Julian Assange and two women in Sweden, with that case being closed then re-opened, it's about time to start a new blog post off of this one.

And, as far as getting fucking drunk. That includes not getting drunk on power trips.

Back to the privilege issue. As a newspaper editor, I have reported, off police report and arrest lists, women assaulting men. (I'm now talking non-sexual physical assault.) Yes, it's still a lot less common than men assaulting women, but it does happen. The idea, let alone spoken claim, that women can never do such things is more than "reverse sexism," It's simply sexism, period, and like all sexism, perpetuates stereotypes about both sexes, not just one.

Meanwhile, I've followed up on the current post with a new one, addressing both literal and metaphorical drunkenness in modern "movement" skepticism and atheism.

Update, Oct. 16: At Slate, Emily Yoffe absolutely nails this issue of how young women need to take responsibility and stop getting so drunk in the first place, as part of reducing sexual assault.

And, before Gnus and Atheism Plusers flame me here, on Twitter, or elsewhere, she has all the disclaimers about not blaming the victim, etc.


The Bad Boy Scientist said...

This is just one more thing making me disenchanted with the 'skeptics movement.' It seems that the main purpose of these skeptics groups is selling magazines, books and DVDs about skepticism' - or getting folks to attend thousand-dollar weekends at skeptics' conferences.

They'd better hope their supporters don't get too skeptical or they'll have to find real jobs ;)

OTOH: There are authors who write books and magazines on pop science. There are folks who work at museums, planetariums and aquariums. They are doing a valuable job of boosting science literacy and rationality without the snake oil and cults of personality.

Gadfly said...

You got it right, Bad Boy. Follow the money. Most of those conferences aren't cheap, from what I understand.

And, per my next post on this broader issue, the booze probably isn't, either.

And, on the last point, yep ... Example A would be Tyson. I don't think he goes to a lot of those events, whether of skeptics or of atheists. He just does what he does.