After nearly two weeks of silence, cosmologist and atheist Lawrence Krauss has finally responded to the BuzzFeed article detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Since the article was published, multiple atheist groups and event organizers have distanced themselves from him, and Arizona State University (where he’s a tenured professor) put him on paid leave pending their own investigation into the matter.
I just wanted to go through his response and highlight what he says along with my immediate thoughts. Of course, as more information comes to light, I may come to different conclusions. But for now, as I’m reading through his letter, here are the big takeaways.
- He refers to the BuzzFeed article as “libelous,” defaming both him and the skeptic community at large. He also says the reporters had a “cavalier disregard for evidence,” implying they published allegations against him even when he offered rebuttals. He doesn’t say if he’ll be suing them, as some have speculated, but it ultimately doesn’t look like that’s the case since it’s not like BuzzFeed was purposely lying about him. Krauss says they cast his actions in the worst possible light, but that’s not necessarily grounds for a lawsuit.
- This was news to me: The day before the BuzzFeed story appeared, Krauss’ attorney sent them a cease and desist letter. The story was published anyway. Krauss says they “ignored counter-evidence, distorted the facts, and made absurd claims about me.”
- Regarding the allegation that he groped the breast of a woman who was taking a selfie with him, Krauss says the photo didn’t show this… which, for the record, is also what BuzzFeed said in the original article. They did say, however, that multiple witnesses saw it happen. Krauss says no complaint was filed and universities who were told about the incident and looked into it said “the claim was unsubstantiated.” That’s not to say nothing happened, but that the schools didn’t have enough evidence to prove it did. They certainly couldn’t confirm Krauss’ claim that the woman’s allegation was “fabricated with malicious intent.” But Krauss doesn’t say the incident didn’t happen, or couldn’t have happened, or that if he touched her it was accidental, or anything like that.
- Regarding the allegation that he’s been “quietly restricted” from Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario since 2012 due to a sexual harassment complaint against him — something the school confirmed with BuzzFeed — Krauss says he provided BuzzFeed an email from 2011 from the Institute’s director saying, “I do hope you’ll be able to visit again soon.” (Yes, those dates are accurate. I’m not sure why the 2011 email is relevant here.) He adds, however, that his supposed banishment from the campus “is also, as I have been told, false.” Krauss then offered his own version of what happened: He was told that, in 2009, there was a complaint against him regarding “inappropriate communication” with no further details. Krauss says “For all I knew then, and now, I may have offended someone’s religious sensibilities.” While one invitation to the school was rescinded because of that complaint, he’s received other offers to attend scientific meetings there. So was he banned? Krauss says he’s “requested that Perimeter clarify the situation.”
- There were allegations that Krauss and his companion (now his wife) propositioned a guest during a 2011 cruise sponsored by the Center For Inquiry, that the guest complained about it to CFI, that a CFI employee expressed reservations to the organization’s leader about inviting him on a future cruise because of that, and that Krauss was invited on that future cruise anyway. Krauss denies that he propositioned anyone and notes that the guest in question didn’t press the issue when she had the chance years later. He then cast doubt on BuzzFeed’s motives:
BuzzFeed also would have known that the CFI staff member who was most likely to have received the initial report had an intimate relationship with a source mentioned elsewhere in their story, who is highly critical of CFI, me, and the skeptical community. Reporters failed to reveal that obvious motivation for slander or other defamation.
- There was an allegation that, at the 2008 American Atheists Convention, Krauss was speaking to a woman at the bar and “started running his hand up her leg under the table.” Krauss denied all that in the original story. BuzzFeed quoted the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Dr. Robin Cornwell, who was also at the bar and backed up Krauss’ denial. But Krauss says they didn’t publish the very detailed denial that Cornwell sent them:
Dr. Cornwell offered a detailed account of who was there, where they sat and how the conversation proceeded, including the overt nature of the woman’s flirtation and my obvious discomfort… Rather than presenting a single detail of Dr. Cornwell’s thorough eyewitness testimony that was completely counter to the claim they wanted to report, BuzzFeed merely stated that Dr. Cornwell was a friend who “backed [my] account.”
- There was an allegation that Case Western Reserve University, where Krauss’ career took off, had also “quietly restricted” him from coming on campus. BuzzFeed said one undergraduate in 2007 approached him about the “difficulty of being one of the only female physics majors.” Krauss, they said, joked with her about how guys must be asking her out all the time and asked her out to dinner himself. She complained to the school about it, and one official told her Krauss’ actions could “constitute sexual harassment.” Krauss says in his response that the matter was informally resolved between everybody. He doesn’t deny anything that happened here, but says his innocuous comments were taken by the student in a way he never anticipated and didn’t mean, adding “BuzzFeed misrepresented the context, the nature of the complaint and its resolution.” He also said he’s been back at the school many times over the following years, though it’s unclear if those visits were before or after any supposed restriction was put in place.
- The most egregious claim in BuzzFeed’s article involves a 2006 incident with Melody Hensley, a volunteer at the time with CFI, who says in the article that she met Krauss in his hotel room before they went to dinner. He allegedly “pushed her onto the bed beneath him, forcibly kissing her and trying to pull down the crotch of her tights.” He later took out a condom, at which point she “rushed out of the room.” In the article, the implication is she didn’t expect any of that and certainly didn’t consent to it. Krauss doesn’t deny any of the details but says that he understood it to “be a consensual, reciprocal, mutually enthusiastic, and respectful physical encounter concluding with a mutual decision not to proceed further toward sex.”
- Krauss also notes that BuzzFeed said its reporting was based in part on “interviews with more than 50 people.” However, he says, a number of the people the reporters spoke to rejected the details or gist of the story. They even BCC’ed Krauss on their emails to BuzzFeed, saying things like “that is not what happened” or “this is not how Lawrence behaves.”
- In Krauss’ mind, the entire article is based on “largely anonymous hearsay claims against me that were countered by at least an equal number of presentations of counter-evidence by numerous individuals and two reputable academic institutions.” He also believes the article “involved the systematic distortion of facts to present them in the worst possible light.”
- What about the allegation that Krauss told a female ASU employee that he would buy her birth control so she didn’t “get pregnant and inconvenience him”? He rejects that categorically, saying he fully supports maternity leave. (He doesn’t deny saying those words, which could mean he said them jokingly.)
Krauss eventually offers something of an apology:
I am also brash and outspoken, sometimes obnoxious, in public and private. It is clear that there have been times when my statements, designed to provoke discussion, have made people feel intimidated, uncomfortable, or unwelcome to openly voice their concerns. I apologize to anyone I made feel this way and I hope that those who interact with me in the future will feel free to speak out to let me know immediately if my remarks seem so. My chief priority in my own communications is and will be to create and maintain a safe atmosphere for open dialogue on any matter and to provoke that dialogue.
I understand that there are many legitimate reasons why people may feel unable to speak out in uncomfortable situations due to social, professional or power dynamics. It is very important to me that people are able to speak openly with me whether or not my remarks seem inappropriate in any way.
Finally, he saved some criticism for BuzzFeed itself for conflating his actions with deliberate sexual harassment (which is obviously awful). He says at the end:
I am sorry to those who felt betrayed by what they read in the BuzzFeed article, but I also urge you to think critically about the content of the article, the context in which it was written, the manner in which it was written, the evidence that was not presented, and the agenda that appeared to drive those who wrote it.
Again, I’ve only just gone through this letter and I’m still working through my own thoughts. I have no desire to play judge and jury and claim one side is guilty of all wrongdoing.
I can see in Krauss’ letter why he’s frustrated and how he rationalizes things he’s done in the past. I also am disturbed by how many women who have interacted with Krauss have come away feeling marginalized or hurt, if not worse. It’s possible that Krauss has been acting inappropriately for years without realizing just how awful it was — you can bet he knows it now — and that treating him as a danger to women exaggerates the reality of the situation. That doesn’t excuse his behavior, though.
I’m curious to see how various organizations, universities, publishers, and fans treat him after today. I’m especially curious if anyone’s mind will be changed after reading Krauss’ response. I doubt it.