The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Fallibility of Prominent Skeptics: The Lawrence Krauss Fiasco

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 10, 2011

Every now and then there is a controversy which rips through the skeptical community, because – whether we like to admit it or not – skeptics are humans, too.  As such, we are subject to the same limitations & failings as are all people, and this latest frackus has certainly put that on display.

Apparently, prominent skeptic and defender of science Prof. Lawrence Krauss – a man whom I have admired for many years – has, how shall I put this, rather stupidly inserted not only his foot but the majority of his leg pretty firmly into his mouth.  He did this by coming out and at least giving the impression that he is publicly defending a known & convicted pedophile – oooh, ick.

I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time writing on this topic, and I’m certainly not going to get into the whole issue of underage sex, prostitution, pedophilia, and that related morass.  I choose to leave it to the reader to check out the Skepchick link on the matter (as well as the rather colorful comment section in which Krauss defends his remarks and others respond) and come to their own conclusions.  Suffice it to say, I think Krauss is on the losing side on this one, and rightly so.

What I’d like to speak to is something more general and, in my opinion, far more important that what I’ll call the Lawrence Krauss Fiasco has illustrated: even prominent skeptics & scientists are capable of making horrendously stupid mistakes, especially where emotions (such as one’s allegiance to a close friend) are involved.  In this, they are every bit as human as you and me.

I like the way in which the question was put on this post to the JREF Forum:

One reason I find this so disturbing is because it seems so obvious to the rest of us that Krauss is relying on nothing more than gut feelings right now, yet he’s 100% sure that this is enough to support his personal opinion. In other words, a well-known and well-respected skeptic is acting like a complete woomeister, it’s been pointed out to him repeatedly, yet he’s refusing to acknowledge it. Does this mean that any one of us could be subject to the same embarrassing lapse in judgement?

My response… in a word: yes.

We are all subject to cognitive dissonance, in one form or another.  I’m sure we can all relate to experiences in our lives where, upon looking back on them, our cognitive dissonance and lack of skepticism & critical thinking was obvious.  Thankfully, though, I’m guessing that most of us don’t take it to the extreme or do so as publicly as Prof. Krauss has done in this case.

This is why having a community of critical & skeptical thinkers is so important – it gives us the capability to hold each other to a higher standard.  By doing so we root out loose, sloppy, and – sometimes – downright repulsive argumentation & reasoning.  By not putting all of our intellectual eggs in one basket and engaging in demagoguery via some kind of twisted hero worship, we as a community can sit back & objectively examine the reasoning & opinions of our leaders.  And, as in the Lawrence Krauss Fiasco, we have seen that it can be a very useful method of calling out even our most prominent skeptics when they are dead, flat wrong.

And, for the record, the day the skeptical community ceases to engage in this necessary & vital form of self-reflection & criticism, then that’s the day I call it quits.  But that day isn’t anywhere close, from what I can see :)

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10 Responses to “The Fallibility of Prominent Skeptics: The Lawrence Krauss Fiasco”

  1. kitz said

    Bravo! The importance of community! We all need “family” and people that like us that are willing to call us out when we are wrong. People we trust enough to listen to.

  2. DataJack said

    Totally agree. We can all fall for these forms of sloppy thinking (especially when based on emotions). And it is great if our community at large consequently points it out to us (hopefully gently).

    However, it is then incumbent upon us to recognize that we have erred, and to take steps to change our position. This is something that Dr. Krauss has yet to do. And THAT is the real problem here – not the slip-up, but the refusal to see it as such after repeated admonishments.

  3. Matt said

    I definitely agree with you that prominent skeptics, like all of us, aren’t perfect. I blogged about it myself a couple of years ago, back when I had time to blog. It probably would have been better for Krauss to just keep his mouth shut about the whole thing.

    I also agree that skepticism has the potential for being the basis of a community that doesn’t fall prey to demagoguery and hero worship. Frankly, though, I don’t see that that potential has been realized. Rebecca’s Skepchick post looks to me more like demagoguery than skepticism. She used sensational, hyperbolic language, and the evidence she provided consisted of links to one-sided, tabloid-style reporting. In the ensuing comments, I see knee-jerk conclusion-jumping, loose, sloppy, and even downright repulsive argumentation and reasoning. The couple of people who tried to point out that the situation may not have been as black and white as Rebecca was making out were attacked, as the righteously indignant readied the tar and feathers for Krauss.

    To be fair, I did run across this blog post, where I did see some skepticism expressed about the claims being made… so perhaps the Skepchick site isn’t representative of the community as a whole. But generally, as skepticism has grown into a “movement” over the last few years, I haven’t seen this community really holding to that higher standard you mention. (Which is why I couldn’t really laugh at Jack of Kent’s April Fool’s blog post.)

    I may be wrong, of course. In fact, I’d be happy to be wrong about it. But based on the evidence I’ve seen, it looks like we still have a long way to go.

    • Sorry, Matt, but I have to part company with you (at least for a bit).

      After at least ten hours now, spent following links posted by Rebecca on Skepchick, and then digging into everything else I could find, (including the fairly damning letter from then FL Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta – appointed United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida by President George W. Bush) – Jeffrey Epstein* seems to my (admittedly inexpert) eye quite the character. Not the quirky old guy next door you’d want to leave your pre-teen or teenage daughter alone with for long, though. Apparently he also seemed like this to States Attorney Acosta, who had to stand fast against the fury of an amazing s*storm during the prolonged years Jeff’s prosecution. And also to the judge who sentenced Acosta (following a high-pressure plea bargain) to jail.

      So, Epstein, patron of the sciences, was tarred and feathered. (Well actually, not. He was sentenced to 18 months breaking rocks on the chain gang. Ooops, no. Sorry. He served 18 months in a minimum security facility, where he had a pass to spend 16 hours/day out of jail to take care of business. Whatever that was. So he had to sleep away from home for a year and a half, basically. I’m sure the girls he had been “hanging out with” would appreciate that).

      Then, Dr Krauss (According to Wikipedia: Lawrence Maxwell Krauss (born May 27, 1954) is an American Theoretical Physicist who is Professor of Physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at the Arizona State University. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Physics of Star Trek and the physics book “Atom”. He also supports a science of morality…) steps up to the plate… And what was our paragon of morality and logic thinking? Not much apparently. Somebody said his friend was BAD, and he reacted, like any 7-year-old on a playground would: Nu-unh! he’s MY FRIEND, said Dr Krauss, without any further to do.

      Which pretty much makes the point elucidated quite well (and much more succinctly) above: We are all subject to our emotions, our “affect”. That’s what makes us human (just ask Spock). However, when we aspire to lofty intellectual plateaus we sort of owe it to ourselves to attempt to adopt a new set of policies, protocols and procedures – and we hope that when we begin to slip from the lofty pedestal to which we’ve aspired, we count on our colleagues to point out the slippage, and remind us of our commitment to them (the aforementioned policies, protocols and procedures) – and (dare I say it?) pray that we can hear the words they are saying amidst the bluster of the winds of our own egos.

      Of course, being human, we will sometimes fail in this, as has Dr. Krauss, who blindly asserts his friend’s basic good-guy-ness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is possible – perhaps even likely – that his friend is such a high-roller that no consequences will ever befall him or Dr. Krauss in any meaningful way. This will not surprise me. Lesser people have gotten away with more. However, this does not obviate the requirement for the rest of us to speak up, to call the question, to blather on about the warts on the emperor’s bare ass.

      (Jeffrey E. Epstein serves as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Financial Trust Company. Mr. Epstein started his career at Bear Stearns with an educational background in physics. He has been a Trustee of Institute Of International Education Inc. since October 2001.

      He serves as a Director of Financial Trust Company. Previously, Mr. Epstein was a Member of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations as well as the New York Academy of Science. (from http://www.jeffreyepsteinscience.com/about-jeffrey-epstein/)

  4. Kitz Is Kitty Mervine said

    I’ve deleted this comment as spam.

    Barbara ‘Kitty’ Mervine has been posting on a number of blogs under the name of Kitz such as SheThought and recently posted on the Women in Secularism CFI website with comment #47. I suggest the Skepchicks have a talk to her about her erratic behavior and what that is doing for skepticism. It is not helpful to insult them.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Mmm’kay… just how this is relevant to the topic of my blog post is a mystery to me.

    • Matt said

      Sorry for the further comment on this irrelevant comment, but I have it on good authority that “Kitz is Kitty Mervine” is incorrect in that assertion. Kitz is not Kitty.

  5. J said

    I am disappointed at the community of skeptics for the crucifixion of Krauss over this situation. He did not condone Epstein’s actions or even say that he is innocent. What I see him doing is standing by someone he calls a friend.

    Skepticism is a great force in rationalizing the world, but I think the waters of human relationships are much murkier and should not be treated with such steadfast dichotomy.

  6. william lawson said

    ”I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time on t his subject” But I just want to smear Krauss publicly with innuendo and rumour and whatever I can get away with short of actionable slander.
    You know, people like you make me want to puke.

  7. Terry Chambers said

    The politicising of science by people like Hitler, Stalin, Lysenko, Skinner, and Lawrence Krauss is an abomination. However, recent rational comments on the anthropic principle by Leonard Susskind seem to indicate a spark of change.

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