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We both admire Lawrence Krauss. We were fortunate enough to interview him. But, the manner of the allegations against him, and his subsequent exit leaves us with a series of questions.
As a couple of science communicators who have just once had the opportunity to interview Lawrence Krauss over a beer in the back room of a Sydney pub, it came as a surprise that we may be asked to provide comment on the situation which has befallen the prominent physicist, cosmologist, author and outspoken atheist.
Anyone with an interest in physics, the philosophy of science and religion, and those who consider themselves part of the sceptical community (the scientific and logic based one, not the Illuminati conspiracy based one), have no doubt followed Lawrence Krauss for some time. He has appeared in documentaries about science as well as the existence of God, frequently gives talks at festivals and conventions around the world, and is a regular on various television programs such as Australia’s discussion-based panel show Q&A.
Basically, the guy is recognised as a renowned expert in the field and a very big deal to the people who are interested in these kinds of things. Even right now, a couple of his books stare down on me as I write this opinion piece.
In early 2018, BuzzFeed released an article which contained scathing details about Krauss’ activities in a number of different settings, accusing him of sexual misconduct with various women across decades of his work within academia. BuzzFeed claimed to have multiple email exchanges between these women and their respective universities about Krauss’ behaviour, arguing that a number of these institutions put in place certain arrangements for dealing with him, including banning him from the grounds. Lawrence Krauss released a lengthy statement to counter the BuzzFeed article saying the claims were “false and misleading”. While acknowledging he did meet and have interactions with these women, Krauss says these allegations are a product of his unapologetic presentation style and his fame.
Celebrity physicist Lawrence Krauss has agreed to step down from Arizona State.
In February, BuzzFeed News revealed a decade-long history of allegations against the famous physicist. https://t.co/cVLxoO5nEK
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) October 21, 2018
A friend of Lawrence Krauss and fellow atheist scientist, Sam Harris played it Switzerland when he said he has personally never seen Krauss “misbehave”, adding “not knowing the range of his behaviour, I can’t really offer a defence… I certainly don’t accept everything that BuzzFeed wrote, but there is enough there to worry me.”
Lawrence Krauss’ employer, Arizona State University, rightfully sought to follow up on the allegations and this has ultimately lead to Krauss’ forced retirement at the end of 2018. The University found Krauss was in breach of their Code of Ethics as well as their policy of Prohibition of Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation. These findings led the dean to recommend firing Krauss, who offered his resignation before further action was taken. Lawrence Krauss released a 51-page account of the case claiming he had not been allowed access to all of the evidence presented against him, not been represented by a lawyer or given the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses. Krauss goes on to assert that had he appealed, he was confident he would have been exonerated. Krauss reasons that his decision to retire was an acknowledgement that the working environment at Arizona State had forever changed for him, rather than an admission of guilt over the allegations.
At the time of writing, this case has not been in or been put down to sit in any civil or criminal courtroom. A number of the allegations against Krauss were not made by the people he was accused of harassing, but by witnesses, some alleged victims even claiming the instance in question was not that big of a deal. As time has gone on, and more details have seeped into the public domain, it seems likely that BuzzFeed inflated the accusations against Krauss. However, as time has gone on, it also seems Krauss may have made some poor decisions which made women feel unsafe, uncomfortable, disrespected, and potentially violated.
Also on The Big Smoke
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- Sci-gasm podcast: A beer with physicist Lawrence Krauss
When deciding how we could write this piece, we started by discussing what we knew about the case and we agreed that we cannot possibly know all the details that the University, the women or Krauss know, but that due process should be followed. When we interviewed him back in 2017, we agreed he was obviously intelligent, well-spoken and had logical, coherent arguments to support his views; we also agreed he had a kick-ass sense of style. What was interesting was that even though our perceptions of the man and our understanding of the facts were the same, our opinion on this whole torrid affair was different.
This brought us to a profound realisation: our opinion of this case says more about us than it does about Lawrence Krauss, the accusers, the University or anyone else who was involved. One could argue that in our society everyone has the right to be perceived as innocent until proven guilty, or argue a precautionary principle; stating that suffering from sexual abuse is far worse than being accused of it, or maybe you are of the view that regardless of whether Krauss did anything or not, someone needs to take responsibility for the opening of this Pandora’s box. At the end of the day any outside opinion is a result of personal biases and limited information. To put it another way, your personal circumstances, such as your job, whether you have children or not, which God you do or do not believe in will shape your opinion of Lawrence Krauss and whether you see him as a sex pest, a target of a smear campaign, or somewhere in the middle. As with science the best you can do is recognise you may be wrong and wait for more information to come to light, and if no more details become available, you will have to come to terms with the outcome of this case.
These issues are seriously heartbreaking, not just for those involved but also their loved ones, and can carry lifelong consequences. The sad realisation is that we as a society have so much further to go in recognising, acknowledging and appropriately dealing with situations where women (and men) are made to feel uncomfortable at the advances of individuals who act inappropriately.
If there is any kind of positive to take from incidents involving this type of behaviour of the accused, it is that we are finally talking about it.