Sexual harassment at Skeptics events

A statement from Australian Skeptics Inc:

In February 2018, BuzzFeed published an article titled “The Unbeliever … Now Lawrence Krauss faces allegations of sexual misconduct” in which it detailed numerous accusations of sexual misbehaviour by Lawrence Krauss. The article caused huge upheaval in the worldwide atheist and skeptic communities, as Krauss has long been a leading public face for those communities and has spoken at many of their events around the globe.

One of the incidents mentioned in the article occurred during the Australian Skeptics National Convention, held in Melbourne in November 2016.
Following the publication, many organisations published statements regarding Prof Krauss and more broadly regarding the expected behaviour at their events.

Australian Skeptics Inc made the following statement:

“Recent coverage in mainstream and social media of claims of sexual harassment at Skeptical events has highlighted a serious consideration for Skeptical groups around Australia and the world.
“In this country, most Skeptics groups have formulated codes of conduct, primarily for events such as convention and social meetings.
“With regard to the current highly-publicised claims re Prof Lawrence Krauss, Australian Skeptics Inc (ASI) notes that during the 2016 Australian Skeptics National convention, a female attendee informally told several other attendees that she was the subject of unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. She was encouraged to report this to the organisers and lodge a formal complaint, but chose not to take it further in any way. Out of respect for her wishes, no further action was taken.
“ASI and the various skeptical groups around Australia take the issue of harassment (sexual or otherwise) very seriously. We have behaviour policies in place and robust processes that ensure that any complaint is dealt with immediately and appropriately. We also do not invite speakers whose behaviour we suspect could cause attendees or other speakers to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or threatened.
“In that context, and based on what we know, ASI will not be inviting Prof Krauss to any events in the foreseeable future.”

The response to this statement has been largely positive. However, we received several letters and messages accusing us of treating Prof Krauss unfairly. Their arguments generally revolved around there having been no offer of rebuttal to Prof Krauss, that there was no recourse to legal or court proceedings, and that our action was based on hearsay and made without due process.

These messages also often referred to past “mass hysterias” and trial-by-media.

We strongly believe such claims are wrong.

Our position is that people deserve to be protected against harassment of any kind, at all times. It is a fact that women, within the skeptical community and outside it, bear the brunt of unwanted sexual attention, harassment and violence. Especially as a community that has long had too few women, we wish to be welcoming to everyone, and to women in particular. We support those who complain of such behaviours and will do what’s necessary to ensure they – and everyone else – feels safe and comfortable at our events. This includes not inviting anyone, in any capacity, who we suspect may cause others to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe.

That is part of our official code of conduct, as it is with many (if not all) other skeptics groups.
We do not need to wait for the courts to make decisions in order to take such action, though of course legal determinations of guilt or innocence may play a part in such decisions.

Regarding the specific incident mentioned in our statement: it was witnessed by a number of people, who substantiated what the claimant said. That she did not want the matter taken further meant that no action was taken at the time, despite there being no doubt that the incident had occurred as described. The specific incident would have remained publicly unreported had it not been for the BuzzFeed investigation, but it would not have gone un-noted, and we would make the same decisions regardless of any media attention.

Whether at a private function or a public event, when an individual acts in an aggressive, unwarranted, unwanted, or inappropriate manner, then it is within our rights to ask them to leave and/or to refuse to have them back.

Eran Segev
President
Australian Skeptics Inc

5 thoughts on “Sexual harassment at Skeptics events”

  1. Well written, Eran. I totally support your position here. Australian Skeptics is not a court or a government, and is completely entitled to act on their judgement in the best interests of members and attendees at their events, based on what is known to them.

  2. MMMM
    Our system – whether Courts, Government, institutions, and even individuals – should subscribe to some basic tenets. These include
    1. Presumption of innocence;
    2.Natural justice, which the includes
    (i) right to be informed of the charges
    (ii) right to be be heard in response
    before any decision, especially an advserse one, is made.
    May seem tiresome and the outcome assured.
    All the more reason to embrace them, One just never knows

    1. David,

      The issues you raise were considered in our decision making process, as well as being raised by others who commented on our original statement. The specific incident was fully witnessed by several people, so presumption of innocence is not relevant. As for going through some form of due process, let me put a hypothetical: If you and others saw a guest at a dinner party groping another person in an unwanted and inappropriate manner, and the victim complained about it, would you ask that guest to leave and/or not invite them back, or would you wait for their right to reply and a lengthy judgement process before making a decision? As the statement above says, this is not a court of law, just the normal processes you hope would apply in a respectful social situation. – Tim Mendham, executive officer, Australian Skeptics Inc.

  3. 1.we cannot (and certainly policy statements cannot) protect others from harassment – there will always be abusers of one social norm or another.
    2.any such harassment requires an immediate response if it is to be fought at all. By refusing to make a stand at the time, particularly in the knowledge that (apparently) numerous witnesses were present that would have supported the claimant, has not helped. As you have stated- such egregious behaviour, which from Mr Mendham’s reply seems to have been inappropriate groping, should have led to an immediate response by any one of those present, if not the individual themselves.
    3. The claim that robust (why does every document need to be robust) policies and procedures ensure a claim is met immediately is in this case demonstrably false. Having been informed that an attendee was groped by an invited speaker are we to believe that the meeting organisers can be exonerated from the culpability that their inaction allowed a serial harasser to continue – until apparently outed years later.
    4. the claim against Krauss long after the event is one among many others , some of which have been discredited.
    5. Are we all so in awe of public figures that we stand by whilst a friend/colleague is so abused.

    I remain skeptical – these times require it.

    1. S Keeley’s comments contain a number of false assumptions made about the circumstances behind our statements on harassment and about protection from harassment in general. The main claim seems to be that no immediate action was taken, therefore the Skeptics/convention organisers were at fault. This needs addressing in some detail.
      The first point that “we cannot protect from harassment” is true in that no-one can offer 100 per cent protection. But that is not a determinant for policy. There are mechanisms and procedures that can be used to minimise that harassment. Vaccination is not 100 per cent effective, but it is a lot better than doing nothing.
      Keeley’s second point about the lack of immediate action is an assumption that no action of any kind was taken. Granted that an immediate response is often a positive step, but the absolutist claim that no action was taken is without merit. That there was no official action taken at the time was due to the victim’s request, which was and should be respected.
      The third point is an assumption that the meeting organisers were notified and that nothing was done for a year. Both of these are not true. Not everything should (and can) be reported to the public.
      The fourth point that action was taken “long after the event” is contradicted by the statement and by reality. Also, the “some of which have been discredited” claim is not relevant (even if true, which I am not sure is the case) – it is a logical fallacy called “poisoning the well”.
      The final point is again an assumption that Prof Krauss’ position overrode any action and witnesses did nothing. As made clear in our statements (and as stated above) the immediate action taken was determined by the victim’s wishes, not by any deference to celebrity. But that is not to say that no action of any kind was taken.
      Being skeptical requires looking at the evidence. I am not sure what Keeley is referring to about remaining skeptical. If he suspects ulterior or dubious motives in not confronting Prof Krauss immediately, then he is not looking at the statements and is making unwarranted assumptions that are simply not true.
      – Tim Mendham, executive officer, Australian Skeptics Inc

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