More thoughts on the Michael Shermer, PZ Myers dispute

Last night I gave my initial reaction to the dispute between PZ Myers and Michael Shermer. After having some time to digest the issue further, here’s a few more thoughts. If you are interested, here’s the subsequent letter sent to Myers from Shermer’s attorney.


In addition to making serious accusations of rape or sexual predation against someone based on anonymous sources and then proliferating the charges on an open forum like Free Thought Blogs — you know, rather than advising the woman that he is just a professor and that she should get an attorney and go to the police — the other problem that I see with PZ Myers’ recent post is that of accountability.

For Jason Thibeault, one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the truth of the claims against Shermer is that a witness, also anonymous, corroborated the evidence — oh and by the way, the witness, in Myers’ words, “doesn’t particularly like me — so no accusations of fannishness, OK?”

Here is Thibeault’s infallible logic:

And the reason I’m willing to trust PZ to have vetted his claims before making the accusation public like he has, is exactly because I know he treats these accusations seriously and trusts the victims but verifies the stories before putting his own sizable bank of trust on the line (emphasis mine).

Essentially, then, Thibeault trusts Myers because he trusts Myers. Brilliant. How can one possibly know with complete certainty that Myers treats the accusations seriously and that he is even capable of verifying the information in a way that would pass legal muster? He is a scientist who runs a blog, for Christ’s sake, no background in law or criminal justice and no amount of support from his fellow feminists will change that. In fact, other than his word, I, nor anyone else, has any way of knowing if Myers is more or less ethical than Michael Shermer. What we do know is that Shermer has basically been written off as an allegedly misogynist hound by a handful of far left feminist bloggers over at FtB for daring to criticize Ophelia Benson and their brand of feminism, thus subsequently raising the ire of the whole group-thinking bunch, not the least of whom was Myers himself, proving once again that not even self-proclaimed freethinking atheists are capable of examining an issue with a clear head without the cloud of parochialism setting in.

Two other things that strike me about Myer’s post was the context in which he outlined the “evidence” by using language like “explosive,” grenade” and the hyperbolic “Boom,” as if he was actually enjoying exposing an alleged rapist, hardly an appropriate tone given the nature of the offense. The second anonymous correspondence was also problematic:

Michael Shermer was the guest of honor at an atheist event I attended in Fall 2006; I was on the Board of the group who hosted it. It’s a very short story: I got my book signed, then at the post-speech party, Shermer chatted with me at great length while refilling my wine glass repeatedly. I lost count of how many drinks I had. He was flirting with me and I am non-confrontational and unwilling to be rude, so I just laughed it off. He made sure my wine glass stayed full. …

Unless Shermer forced the wine down her throat, I don’t see an offense here, yet to Myers this is “mainly illustrative of his tactics,” with no mention that the woman intentionally kept drinking with Shermer. If this event even happened, the woman was free to stop drinking the wine and leave. Yet, she chose to keep tipping them back. It’s perhaps natural then to expect two people of the opposite sex with some things in common to get a little flirty after a few drinks, yet again, to Myers this episode “tells you exactly what kind of behavior to watch out for with him.” What about her? Does her non-confrontational nature always force her to have long conversations over wine even though she might not be interested?

Perhaps the worst problem in all of this — and the real bugbear about anonymous sources — is that anyone can make an accusation against anyone and a person’s character can immediately be castigated just by the nature of the charge, regardless of whether there is actually any truth to the claim, and since Myers and his “followers,” along with Shermer, have had tensions in the past, forgive me if I’m suspicious of some anonymous claims that would support Myer’s and Benson’s previous allegations that Shermer is indeed the cad they say he is.

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About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

15 Comments on "More thoughts on the Michael Shermer, PZ Myers dispute"

  1. I think Myers needs therapy to help him realize he's not qualified to judge others in the capacity he does.

  2. Ah, I think I see the problem, here! It's simple: you are desperately trying to blame the victim. Everyone has been assuming you're a decent person who can possibly be convinced by reason, but actually you can't possibly imagine a world in which the default response to "see drunk person who matches your sexual preference" is "rape them".

    Three points:

    1. Drunkenness legally means there is no consent. To anything — not just sex. A contract signed when one party was provably drunk is invalid. Why are you so desperate to claim Shermer has the right to waive this established principle in order to have sex with strangers?

    2. Sex without consent is rape, by definition. So: if you have sex with someone who's drunk? You committed rape by law. It may not be legally actionable (and the other person may not consider that they were harmed) but the crime was there. It really isn't all that difficult to simply NOT HAVE SEX WITH DRUNK PEOPLE. Really! I've managed it all my life, as have a great many other people!

    3. The tactics Shermer has been witnessed using by multiple witnesses are precisely the ones designed to get someone drunk without them realizing they are doing so. In particular, continuously topping up someone's drink so they can't tell how many glasses they've had is a classic rapist gambit. (In fact, alcohol is involved in 30% of cases of rape, according to… )

    Your previous post showed you to be either a bit obtuse or just sexist. By posting this continuation, you've definitely shown you're in the latter camp. "But, but, but, can't a dude deliberately get chicks drunk before trying to score?" That's your "innocent" question. And your defense of Shermer boils down to "bros before hos, dude, everyone knows bitchez lie." The rate of false accusations of rape is in the single digits of percentages, 6 to 8 percent depending on who you trust — meaning that, lacking other information, any particular accusation is an order of magnitude more likely to be true than false. And rape is distressingly common; about the same percentage of women are raped as vote for either party in the average national election. Rape is not an unusual thing, and claims of rape are overwhelmingly true. You are demanding extraordinary evidence for ordinary claims, which is behavior unbecoming of a skeptic.

    • What if both people are drunk? Are they both rapists?

    • "A contract signed when one party was provably drunk is invalid."

      If a party drinks voluntarily then signs a contract courts will usually uphold the contract, and for good reason.

      "if you have sex with someone who's drunk? You committed rape by law"

      No, only if intoxication renders a person incapable of consent. It's not rape to have sex with someone lacking sobriety.

      "continuously topping up someone's drink so they can't tell how many glasses they've had is a classic rapist gambit"

      It's right there on page 32 of the Classical Guide to Raping.

    • Oh please! If sex with a drunk person is always rape then I raped my husband last night. He was mad at me earlier in the day but a couple of cocktails after dinner put him in a forgiving mood…

    • Vicar: Your point #3 implied that the victim is drunk in 30% of the cases. But according to the website you provided (… ), it's the perpetrator who is drunk 30% of the time, not the victim.

    • This strikes me as way over-the-top black-white thinking. Legally, if one party is *extremely* intoxicated, it may have some bearing on a legal case. But no court takes these arguments seriously – that one partner being drunk (and presumably, the other entirely sober) constitutes rape. That's just silly. What is the definition of drunk? It probably is unwise to operate heavy machinery when over the legal limit (.08 BAC in most states), but that certainly doesn't mean that judgment is impaired. A good portion of the sex that occurs is due to the fact that both partners are drunk. Are they raping each other? I agree that the level of impairment should be considered during a legal proceeding if there is a charge of rape, but your post is ridiculous. It's no different than a rapist using the defense that he or she was drunk and therefore not responsible for their actions. Are you really saying that all sex involving alcohol is rape? A married couple after a couple of bottles of wine on Valentine's day? And which one is the rapist? Lastly, where I'm from, keeping one's glass full is a sign of a good host, and a behavior that doesn't necessarily imply nefarious intentions. PZ Myers actions were horrendously awful. To publish such vague and nebulous allegations and call them "rape" is absurd, until more evidence is forthcoming.

  3. Vicar: This is an absurd bastardization of my main points, and you know it. The thrust of my argument was against Myers and how he chose to handle these allegations.

  4. 1."A contract signed when one party was provably drunk is invalid."

    Not necessarily, and in any case besides the point. And it would be interesting to see how this would be "proved."

    2. Sex without consent is rape, by definition …"

    The drunken women, to the extent we should believe her retelling, does not allege that she was raped or even touched.
    ("And that’s the entirety of my story: Michael Shermer helped get me drunker than I normally get, and was a bit flirty.")

    Note that the woman admits to getting drunk on other "normal" occasions, presumably without other people's help; Shermer "helped" her get drunker than her usual degree of drunkenness. Again, we have to treat her account with guarded skepticism, do we not?

    1. "In particular, continuously topping up someone's drink so they can't tell how many glasses they've had is a classic rapist gambit."

    Do you have evidence that Shermer was topping up the drunkard's glass SO that she lost count? According to her story (dimly remembered, by her own admission), he was refilling her glass when it was empty. One shouldn't infer nefarious intent on Shermer's part.

    FYI: Such a tactic isn't a "Classic rapist gambit." Did you know that 70% of rapes involve no alcohol at all?

  5. Could we please stop calling this a "dispute"? That requires two sides honestly and equally differing on some point. All I see here, is a barrage of unprovoked attacks stretching back to December 2012, escalating in mendacity and irresponsibility to the point that Mr. Shermer required legal restitution.

  6. If I go out of town for a weekend, leave all the doors open, and return to find my home burglarized, are people aloud to say that I made a bad decision and should not do that in the future, or is it that just blaming the victim?

  7. sonofrojblake | August 23, 2013 at 4:16 am | Reply

    "if you have sex with someone who's drunk? You committed rape "

    What if *I* was drunk, too?

    What if I was drunker than them? What if I wouldn't have done had I been sober? What if I regretted it in the morning?

    This has happened to me. Am I a rapist? Or a victim? Or both? Or neither?

  8. jfarmer, the problem isn't that you left the doors open but that someone invaded your private space and took what belongs to you. Next time you go away for the weekend, with your trust in the honesty of others shattered, you'll lock the doors, windows and might even install a security system. When people say you made a bad decision, they are using their own experience or the experience of others when their own homes were burglarized. However, if you have no experience of your own and you trust the people who live in your neighbourhood, it might well have not occurred to you to lock your doors.

    Whether to have trust in an unknown man presents a particular dilemma for women. When Rebecca Watson said she was uncomfortable about what transpired with Elevator Guy, there were many to trivialize her experience and to even accuse her of sexism for any alarm signals that went off simply because the invitee was male. Yet a woman who trusts a man not to take advantage of her being drunk to have sex with her is a fool.

    So what do men want of women? To have trust in a man until it's proven that he's untrustworthy? Or to not trust a man until he's proven to be trustworthy?

  9. “Having sex with someone who is drunk is rape”

    This seems like a broad and ludicrous statement. What constitutes “drunk”. The leagal definition (.08% blood alchohal)? If so, why do we consider people with that limit responsible for any action they take? Is there some point of inebreation where a person becomes unable to make there own decisions besides loss of coherence and consciousness?

    The idea that drunkennes of any level prohibits a person from making any personal decisions is outrageous. Sex is not a contractually obligated relationship, contract law does not apply. Using such a broad definition of rape minimizes the very real and serious crime.

    As for “victim blaming”, because these are wholly unsubstantiated allegations, it is not appearance there is a victim and asking for the matter to be investigated properly by legal authority instead of being used as a salvo in some egotistical, personal spat is not blaming the victim. By this teisted logic any defence of any acusation is blaiming the victim. Hiding behind this attack of character is a sign the commenter has little in the way of a valid argument.

    The point is Myers should not have reported these anonymous and unsubstantiated claims before reporting them to the authorities and allowing them to investigate. PZ’s failure to do this is telling of ether his ineptitude in dealing with serious situations or his malice tactics imployed in a popularity dispute. Whichever is the case I think PZ should now have to deal with very serious legal repercussions of his actions. This will ultimately be a very expensive libel case.

  10. Vicar, I'll put this simply so you can understand it- If you want to be taken seriously about such a serious charge, you don't have an avowed enemy of the perpetrator publish it like a damn gossip magazine on their blog. There is no better way NOT to be taken seriously. And in case you can't fathom this, let me tell you straight out-this is an outright insult to those of us that have been forcibly raped. It is a slap in the face, it trivializes our trauma, and in case you were wondering, sort of enrages me. So seriously, take your righteous attitude and examine it just a little, think you can manage?

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