On Scams And Hoaxes, And Those Who Fall For Them

My wife regularly accuses me of thinking that most everything about life is some form of a scam or a hoax.  That is an exaggeration, but like all exaggerations it starts from a germ of truth.  I definitely think that huge numbers of things accepted by many and most people without questioning or thinking are scams and hoaxes, and that if you don't have your scam and hoax radar up all the time you will regularly get taken in.

Most recently we see this phenomenon playing out in the UVA gang rape story that appeared in Rolling Stone on November 19.  By now, just two weeks later, the story has substantially fallen apart.  Is the story a complete hoax or does it have some underlying elements of truth?  That's impossible to know, and I'm certainly prepared to accept that the large majority of reports of rape are truthful.  But this one had lots of objectively verifiable details that were easily ascertainable to be false.  Examples:  the fraternity had no event on the alleged date of the event, September 28, 2012; UVA fraternities accept new pledges in the spring rather than the fall; the victim alleges she was led out on a side staircase, but the fraternity's building has no side staircase; and so forth. 

Meanwhile, lots of the usual suspects had not only accepted the story hook, line and sinker, but had also declared skepticism on the subject of allegations of rape to be completely out of bounds, and on that basis gone aggressively after anyone who dared to express it.  Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast has a good roundup of some of these, like Mark Hoofnagle at Denialism Blog ("Can we call this anything but typical victim smearing? How dare the New York Times thoughtlessly promote this unethical critique of Rolling Stones reporting and this rape victim."), or Amanda Marcotte (“it’s really time for people to understand that rape denialism is like Holocaust denialism: a broad refusal to face reality.”), or Rebecca Traister of The New Republic ("symptomatic of exactly the patterns of incredulity and easy dismissal of rape accusations that keep many assaulted women and men from ever bringing their stories to authorities or to the public.”)  And Moynihan has lots more of same.

Sadly, as much as rape victims need and deserve support, skepticism is just a necessary approach to dealing with human beings.  Rule skepticism out of bounds on any given subject, and it follows as the night the day that the scamsters will come out to flourish.  One would think we had learned that lesson in the area of spectacular gang rape allegations from prior incidents that include the Tawana Brawley hoax of 1987 and the Duke lacrosse allegations of 2006, both of which were completely debunked, but only after upending the lives of falsely accused perpetrators.  In the end, lack of skepticism is no favor to those who truthfully report rapes.  For example, it would be far preferable from the point of view of the next legitimate rape victim for the Rolling Stone reporter to have asked a few questions, uncovered a few discrepancies, and then not run with this story, as opposed to the current situation of having it blow up spectacularly.

If you think there are areas where truth and justice are so sure to be on one side that all skepticism can be ruled out of bounds, well, you are going to get taken in by lots of hoaxes.  Plenty of people who should know better find themselves with egg all over their faces for exactly this reason.  A good example are the 88 members of the Duke faculty who signed a statement of support for the accuser in that situation at the early stages of that process. 

Meanwhile, the phenomenon of attempting to rule skepticism and dissent out of bounds is by no means limited to the area of allegations of sexual misconduct.  Indeed it is a key part of the playbook to today's political Left on many subjects.  Exhibit B is the field of climate alarmism, where even mild questioning of any element of the orthodoxy brings upon oneself the epithet "denier" and the comparison to holocaust deniers (as Marcotte does with rape allegation skeptics above).  Among those heaping abuse and name calling on anyone daring to question the climate orthodoxy, see for example Think Progress here, or Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki here.  Result: lots of people who should know better getting taken in by preposterous claims about global warming and the supposed dangers of fossil fuels.  How about over 200 members of the Harvard faculty here?

And don't even get me started on the "poverty" scam.