Blind Spots and Male Privilege

Scientists are human beings. We have our faults, blind spots, and weaknesses—no different than anyone else. One common blind spot is a belief in one’s own objectivity, that being a skilled researcher and clear thinker in matters scientific means one is somehow above making errors of judgment in other areas.

A case in point: prominent physicist and science writer Lawrence Krauss has defended convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, saying

I know it is not politically correct to say that, because in general this is a very sensitive issue and all other things being equal one should take the side of the young women. But all things are not equal in this case, from my point of view. It is a judgement call, and I will not turn my back on a good friend so easily.

Some of his points are fair–Epstein has served time for his crimes (though arguably not enough if the accusations are even halfway true). The main problem though is in the manner of Krauss’ defense, as many others have eloquently pointed out. Krauss says he personally has seen no evidence of Epstein’s crimes, and effectively accuses the prosecution (and by extension the accusers) of fabricating a case for monetary gain.

None of my friends have been accused of crimes of this magnitude, guilty or not, so it’s hard for me to say how I would behave under the circumstances. (It’s always important to remember the distinction between forgiveness and defense: one may still love or admire someone, still know their faults, and accept they are needing correction.) Krauss seems to be selectively picking and choosing what evidence to believe, so that on the balance his friend comes out ahead. So Epstein paid for sex with very young girls, but it’s ok—they were of age; billionaires are bound to have people who accuse them of crimes frivolously for monetary gain, so that must be what’s going on here because it’s impossible the accusations could actually be true. Krauss claims to be fair-minded, and there’s no reason to doubt him in the general case—except that the evidence seems to be strongly against Epstein in this case. Unfortunately, accusing scientists and skeptics of being insufficiently skeptical in this instance is similar to accusing scientists and skeptics of being insufficiently skeptical about claims of global climate change—the evidence seems to go one way, and skepticism isn’t about doubting everything forever and ever.

But there’s another point raised by Ashley Miller on SheThought: that of male privilege and how women are often made to feel unwelcome and frequently are harassed by their ostensible allies and colleagues in the scientific community. The stories she and Sheril Kirshenbaum relate are simply disgusting, and while Krauss has not been accused of any personal misbehavior, there is obviously still a male-dominated culture within the scientific community. Automatically taking the side of a man against female accusers—especially in the face of evidence—is a sign of such male privilege.

By taking this stance, Krauss runs the risk of losing credibility on other issues, especially when dealing with female colleagues and fellow skeptics. It doesn’t behoove male scientists and skeptics to stand aside and let their female colleagues handle the calling out of male privilege; it’s far worse to help it along.

Postscript: It’s not particularly relevant to this case, but I do know Prof. Krauss slightly—he was the keynote speaker at a big event I ran as director of a small planetarium in Tennessee. (In the link, I’m the chappie in the middle, while Krauss is on the right.)

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