Tempest Tossed Out of Court: Karen Stollznow retracts sexual assault claim against Ben Radford

In his 2014 piece, Radford vs. Stollznow: Tempest in the Skeptic Community,” AVFM’s Robert O’Hara described accusations of stalking, harassment and sexual assault lodged against Ben Radford, a well-known figure in the field.  Karen Stollznow, also a writer and skeptic, told her story in a since-pulled blog post for Scientific American. The story was quickly picked up by many of the usual subjects, spreading beyond the skeptic community to Slate (since pulled) and the Ada Initiative, an organization that “supports women in tech and culture.”

As Robert O’Hara reported, the two sides, in conjunction with counsel, were very close to issuing a joint statement retracting the claims when Stollznow decided to litigate further. Stollznow immediately created an Indiegogo fundraiser: Give a Voice to Harassment Victims and quickly pulled in more than $60,000 to continue her legal fight. Radford, on the other hand, spent more than 25,000 borrowed dollars in attorneys’ fees to that point. AVFM readers joined with Radford’s friends and colleagues to contribute to his own legal fund, raising a small but admirable $10,249. The case dragged on for the next several months as Stollznow fought to adjudicate the case in Colorado, Stollznow’s new home, but a state completely unrelated to Radford or the accusations.  Witnesses were deposed and both sides, it seems negotiated anew.

On May 22, Radford tweeted a joint statement in which he and Stollznow affirm that “it would be wrong for anyone to believe that Ben Radford stalked, sexually harassed, or physically or sexually assaulted Karen Stollznow.” Both parties asked bloggers to delete the allegations and expressed the desire to put the matter behind them.  After a couple days, Stollznow even deleted the accusations from her Indiegogo page. Vindication, right?

Have you ever engaged in that old thought experiment? If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? Well, for the past few weeks, we learned that a retraction of sexual assault claims can crash without the tiniest noise. Not one of those who spread the accusations, inside or outside the community, said a word. Not a single apology or even a pro forma “So…Stollznow and Radford issued this joint statement.” In fact, the night before Radford released the joint statement, Stollznow posted a picture of her newborn baby to Twitter. The child is indeed adorable, but she could have just as easily posted the same image of the statement that Radford did. Stollznow also had the time to post to a thread in which she offered sympathy to another of the skeptic community’s top accusers complained that the man she accused would be speaking at a conference.

The deafening silence continued. Hemant Mehta, a man wholly deserving of the title “Friendly Atheist,” reached out to Stollznow, asking for confirmation of the statement.

It seemed as though news of Radford’s pyhrric victory would go unheard.

Until today. Mehta published If You Promote a Story that Turns Out to Be False, Don’t You Have an Obligation to Correct It? an essay in which the frustratingly and admirably polite man summarized the story and published the settlement document. The primary point of Mehta’s essay was to engage in a discussion of morality and journalistic integrity:

Stollznow now says the allegations weren’t true. Maybe you believe her. Maybe you think there’s more to the story. Maybe you think she signed it only because it was costing too much to keep fighting this battle in court. But as far as the legal system is concerned, this issue has been resolved. Radford has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

And yet every single one of the bloggers I linked to above has been silent about this matter. Unless I missed it, they haven’t posted the joint statement. They haven’t updated old posts with a mention of it. They haven’t offered their opinion on it one way or the other. As far as they’re concerned, Radford is still a bad guy even though the statement explicitly says he didn’t do what he was accused of doing.

They owe him an apology.

Or, at the very least, they should tell us why he doesn’t deserve one.

Mehta’s standing in the community (seriously, the guy’s really nice) may have been the catalyst for a couple of the accusers to break their silence regarding the joint statement. Rebecca Watson of Skepchick demonstrated her respect for the truth with Apologizing for a Thing I Wasn’t Wrong About & Didn’t Know or Care About.”  In a 466-word post in which she manages to use “I” and “me” only 22 times, Watson asserts that she stopped arguing Stollznow’s side after Stollznow disrespected her.  Watson explains why she covered the allegations in the first place: “she [Stollznow] made the claims, I found them newsworthy, and I made it clear that her allegations were just that: allegations, which neatly fit in with the horrible things I already know to be true about Radford[.]”

PZ Myers jumped into the ring, demonstrating why traffic to his blog network keeps trending downward, with I sincerely concede that Ben Radford is a litigious jerk.” No, PZ Myers is not the most gracious man, instead blaming the victim. Radford was thoughtless, you see, in declaring an end to his years of false accusation hell and expensive litigation around the same time Stollznow had scheduled the birth of her child:

Really, on what planet does compelling a woman to sign a legal document denying previous accusations on the day she’s scheduled to go into a clinic for induced labor somehow affirm that I was mistaken in all of my previous impressions of the guy? It makes him a small-minded cartoon villain on top of all the unpleasant things about him. That he’s smart enough to work the legal system does not change the fact that he’s a leaky sack of shit.

Stephanie Zvan, another of those who were happy to accuse Radford, published For the Record,” a bulleted list of reasons why she hadn’t noticed the nearly two-week-old statement contradicting an original essay that, no doubt, earned her a lot of hits. Perhaps the most offensive of the “apologies” to date, Zvan manages to slip an accusation of rape into an article about an accuser who withdrew her charge of sexual assault: “[I] …hope Ben Radford and onlookers have both learned something about getting clear consent for sexual behavior and eliminating misunderstandings.”

What’s the takeaway from the conclusion (one assumes) of this sordidness? There are no winners when it comes to false allegations. Radford, though vindicated, is still assumed guilty by some of the nastier people in organized skepticism. It’s highly doubtful that his Google results will ever be allegation-free. (Not to mention that he kissed a lot of borrowed money goodbye.) Stollznow and her husband have a new baby to which they must devote their time and attention. The skeptic community, once a lot of fun, has been cleaved in two, its smaller and more vicious and vocal piece trying to consume the other. If nothing else, this sad episode should remind skeptics that they should approach serious accusations in the same manner as any other claim: with skepticism.






UPDATED VERSION OF MARCOTTE: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/08/07/karen_stollznow_writes_about_her_experiences_with_sexual_harassment_why.html














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