A Tale of Two Claims

By now almost everyone in the atheist/skeptic communities has become aware of the recent claims made by PZ Myers against a famous skeptic. I am withholding judgement (belief) in that claim until such time as evidence is produced. Many others in the A/S community are also withholding judgement.

I saw a claim of rape in my twitter feed, just today and I believe the claim.

“What’s that?”, I predict the social justice warriors will say. “How can you believe that claim but not the other? Doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?” Actually no, and I will explain.

First there is the source of the claim. In one case the source is 3rd hand, in the other the source is first hand. Why does that make a difference you ask? It matters for the same reason we as a society generally don’t allow hearsay testimony in court. People lie. People have motivations which are unknown to me. It’s a lot easier for me to assess the motivations of just one person (the claimant) than it is to assess the motivations and truthfulness of 3 different people. The source is not the only factor, however, as we shall see.

The second factor in my believing one claim but withholding belief in the other is impact. In one case (twitter) the importance of the claim to the wider community is trivial (no offense Deirdre). There won;t be any law suits or rage blogs about it. The fact is that if true, Deirdre’s claim will make virtually no impact on the greater community. The same cannot be said for PZ’s 3rd hand claim. An analogy if you will indulge me:

Let’s say that I come to work late and claim that I crashed my car on the way in. That claim if true has some small consequences and will likely be believed without further evidence. If, however I claim I crashed my car into a gasoline tanker truck on the interstate, folks are going to want to verify my story. It would have a greater impact on our town (community) if true.

The third reason I believe the tweeted claim is that it has details. In subsequent tweets more details are given. Details like the date, the method of coercion (or of bypassing consent) and the recovery from the event make it more credible. Contrast the tweet with the now famous post by PZ Myers in which only the most vague claim of “coerced into a position where I could not consent” is given. The extreme lack of detail is conducive only to making me ask questions, not to instant belief.

My final reason (that I will espouse on here) is motivation. The motivation of the anonymous claimant in PZ’s post cannot be fully examined *due* to her anonymity. Deirdre’s motivations can be examined from the context of the tweet stream. While there may exist a small chance that her motivation was merely to “win” the twitter conversation, at least I can examine that possibility in her case. I have no way of knowing if the anonymous accuser in the PZ post has an ulterior motive. It’s not like rape claims against famous people could possibly have another motivation, right Kobe?


I would like to thank Deirdre Crosse for allowing me to use her tweets in the posting of this essay.



3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Claims

  1. Shadow of a Doubt

    Good post, not all claims are created equal, and the circumstances behind a claim, including motivation, can enter into how much verification it needs.

    If aomeone on the street is stopped by the police at night, and is asked “What are you doing out this late” and responds with “I went to the store for a pack of smokes for my friend.”, that will probably be sufficient, and if not, then the pack of smokes being shown is likely all that matters, because the man likely has no motivation to lie and it;s a trivial question.

    The exact same question while equally trivial, can change dramatically if there was a robbery near the store that night, at this point the police will likely need to see the receipt for the smokes and want to examine the man for evidence, want to contact the friend for verificaion, want to compare the person to the description of the robber and so on.

    So when someone makes claim, which will likely have negative consequences in society for them (IE I am a rape victim.), in a situation that has no advantage to them I tend to believe it until I see evidence to the contrary.

    When someone is basically mounting a political attack add, such as “A friend I trust tells me that a friend she trusts told her that a person who I am having a very public enmity with raped her once at an undisclosed time and date.”, I view this with skepticism, as even if true, it is being said purely in the person’s self interest, in terms of blog hits, political clout and damage to one’s opponent. This does not mean for second I condone the rape if it actually occurred, merely that when someone makes it public for a blatantly self serving reason, it makes sense to verify before believing them, especially if they are known for hyperbole, stretching the truth and outright lying in the past.

  2. Axel Blaster

    I think the problem here is that you could be misrepresented a believing the claims by degrees of separation. So, for example, PZ can say he believes them from his source for the same reasons you present, but plausibly dismiss Deirdre’s because of the reasons you present to be skeptical of his sources.
    Also, he can also argue that because of community impact, his claims have more credibility.
    I think the only moral thing to do is not express opinions on the matter, ’til we know more. This false dichotomy: “pro-victims” vs “innocent until proven guilty” is a way to fill a hole in our incomplete knowledge of what is going on. Our biases are compelling us defend either side, as if they were mutually exclusive.

  3. Dogberry

    Political correctness is a good thing when used to move the attitudes of a whole society, but a hopelessly inaccurate tool to assess an individual claim. That holds true for “races”, sexes and any other in-group or out-group you can think of. I hope I shall remember that whenever some doubtful claim is made.


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