Witch Hunts, Sex Scandals, and the Atheist Community

I attended The Amazing Meeting 2, the skeptics conference organized by magician James Randi, in 2004. I’ve been to many conferences before and after, but this one was a big deal for me. Though not actually an atheist conference, I think it was the first chance I had to publicly kick around my embryonic interest in atheism. A year later, I heard Sam Harris lecture on his new book, The End of Faith, and my interest in Christianity and atheism was ignited.

I bring this up because of dark clouds gathering over The Amazing Meeting. I don’t pretend to understand the issue, but an Elevatorgate-like discussion has blown up about an incident of sexual harassment at a previous TAM, how it was handled, and then the inevitable recursive discussions about the descriptions of those incidents, critiques of those discussions, analysis of those critiques, and so on, seemingly to infinity.

Are women welcome and safe at TAM? That the question is even being asked is incredible to me, but early evidence suggests the fraction of attendees who are women will be half of last year’s 40% because of concern over this story. It must be an unintended consequence to all sides for a conference that is accused of being unfriendly to women to now become even more populated by men.

Some good has come out of this in that it has encouraged conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies. That sounds like a positive step to restore confidence, assuming that they’re not extreme by, say, prohibiting a handshake or tap on the shoulder.

I’m amazed at the byzantine turns this topic has taken and the hold it has on some atheist bloggers. It would take me days to read all that has been written, and let me say again that, not having done that, I don’t pretend to be well-informed about the issue. But let me summarize an event that happened in my part of the country about 15 years ago that, while much more extreme, may have parallels to today’s anxiety about TAM.

Perhaps you remember the story about the Wenatchee child sex ring, what has been called history’s most extensive child sex abuse investigation.

It began in 1992, when, after much questioning, the 7-year-old daughter of poor and uneducated parents accused a family acquaintance of molesting her. After repeated encouragement by the Wenatchee police lieutenant who was acting as foster parent to the girl and her sister, the girls eventually named over a hundred abusers and many child victims.

Local Pentecostal pastor Robert Robertson tried to do the right thing and talk sense to the investigators. For his troubles, he and his family were sucked into the investigation, and the story was rewoven to include his church as a center for orgies with the children. Others who also tried to rein in the crazy were also charged or fired. (What explains a defense of the accused but that that person is similarly guilty?)

Child witnesses, mostly from 9 to 13 years old, were often taken from their families and placed in foster care. Many said later that they were subjected to hours of frightening grilling and if they didn’t believe they had been sexually abused, they were told they were “in denial” or had suppressed the memory of the abuse. They were also told that siblings and other children had witnessed their abuse, or that that their parents had already confessed.

Interrogators called some children who denied abuse liars. Children were told that if they agreed to accusations they wouldn’t be separated from parents or siblings. Many of them later recanted. [The police lieutenant] neither recorded nor kept notes of his interrogations.

Recantations were ignored. “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they say they’ve been abused,” [the] Wenatchee Child Protective Services [supervisor said.] “But (they) are usually lying when they deny it.”

In all, “43 adults were arrested and accused of 29,726 counts of sexually abusing 60 children…. Eighteen pleaded guilty, mostly on the basis of signed confessions. Ten were convicted at trial. Three were acquitted. Eighteen went to prison.” All confessions were later recanted, all felony convictions related to the sex ring appear to have been overturned, a third of the children claimed to have been abused were at one point taken from their parents and put up for adoption, and the city of Wenatchee had to face lawsuits claiming millions of dollars in damages.

It was a modern-day replay of the 1692 Salem witch trial in which several girls’ accusations resulted in 19 people being hanged and one more pressed to death.

No, just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire, and someone encouraging restraint isn’t necessarily part of the problem. I hope the Wenatchee example of good intentions gone horribly wrong highlights some potential parallels with the TAM situation and that all parties analyze the evidence dispassionately.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Links about the Wenatchee sex case:

  • “Wenatchee Witch Hunt: Child Sex Abuse Trials In Douglas and Chelan Counties,” HistoryLink.
  • “Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions,” Wikipedia.

Links about charges against The Amazing Meeting:

  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Discussion Podcast (part 1),” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/12/12.
  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Pt. 2, and Some Other Things,” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/14/12.
  • Jason Thibeault, “Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events,” Lousy Canuck blog, 6/15/12.

Word of the Day: Cottlingley Fairies

In 1917, two girls spent much of their summer playing by a stream. Repeatedly scolded for returning home wet and muddy, they said that they were playing with fairies. To prove it, they borrowed a camera and returned claiming that they had proof. That photo is shown here.

A total of five photos were taken over several years. The fairies were called the Cottingley fairies after Cottingley, England, the town where the girls lived.

A relative showed two of the photos at a 1919 public meeting of the Theosophical Society, a spiritualist organization. From there, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devotee of spiritualism, took the baton. He wrote a 1920 article in The Strand Magazine that made the photos famous. To his credit, Conan Doyle asked experts to critique the photos. The opinions were mixed, but he decided to go with the story anyway.

Spiritualism, the popular belief that we can communicate with the spirits of the dead, was waning at the time of the article. Magician Harry Houdini, annoyed by fakers using tricks to defraud the gullible, devoted much time to debunking psychics and mediums in the 1920s until his death in 1926.

Houdini and Conan Doyle had been friends, but the friendship failed because of their opposite views on spiritualism. Conan Doyle believed that Houdini himself had supernatural powers and was using them to suppress the powers of the psychics that he debunked.

Research in 1983 exposed details of the Cottingley hoax, and the two principles finally admitted that they had faked the fairies by using cardboard cutouts of drawings copied from a book.

I learned of a modern parallel to this hoax at The Amazing Meeting in 2004. James Randi told the story of Project Alpha, during which he planted two fake psychics (Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, actually talented amateur magicians) in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in 1979. Randi contacted the researchers before planting his fakes to caution them how to avoid being deceived. The advice was thorough and genuine, and if they’d followed it, they would have uncovered the trickery.

Two years later, after the lab’s successes were well known within the psychic community and the fake psychics were celebrities, the deception was made public. The press was so bad that the McDonnell laboratory shut down.

The moral of the story: unless you’re a magician, don’t pretend that you can expose a magician. Said another way, just because you’re smart (and let’s assume both that the researchers were smart and most skeptics are smart), don’t think that you can’t be duped. This was Conan Doyle’s failing.

Magician Ricky Jay said, “The ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners. … They often have an ego with them that says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’ No one is easier to fool.”

If you believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden,
you are deemed fit for the [loony] bin.
If you believe in parthenogenesis, ascension, transubstantiation and all the rest of it,
you are deemed fit to govern the country.
— Jonathan Meades

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Paul Hoffman, “Why Are Smart People Some of the Most Gullible People Around?” Discover, 2/10/11.
  • “Cottingley Fairies,” Wikipedia.
  • “The Derbyshire Fairy,” Museum of Hoaxes.
  • Emma Clayton, “Photographic expert uncovered hoax after testing cameras used by Cottingley cousins,” Telegraph & Argus, 11/17/10.

Humor: Paranormal Activity

Photo credit: James Randi Educational Foundation