On August 8, I wrote to the relevant editors at Scientific American after Dr. Karen Stollznow posted her blog piece about sexual harassment. I did so because Dr. Stollznow’s piece contained several inaccuracies, which were repeated in blogs and then showed up in letters to me. These inaccuracies are damaging to the reputation of the Center for Inquiry, an organization to which I have a fiduciary obligation. I asked Scientific American to issue an apology and make three specific corrections. I did not ask for the post to be removed. In my view, it would have been preferable if it had remained posted, but with the corrections. Scientific American decided otherwise. My email to Scientific American appears below.
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I am writing to you in connection with the blog post entitled “I’m Sick of Talking about Sexual Harassment!” by Karen Stollznow that appeared on ScientificAmerican.com on August 6 (link below).
In this blog post, Ms. Stollznow alleges that she was sexually harassed by an employee of an unnamed organization. However, Ms. Stollznow’s references to the organization are so thinly veiled that almost immediately upon appearance of this blog post many identified the organization as the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit educational organization of which I am president. See for example this blog post:
As the Skepchick blog post indicates, Stollznow gave “all the clues necessary” for a reader to determine she was referencing CFI.
I am very troubled by this blog post because, among other reasons, it contains several false statements regarding the actions and work culture of CFI. These false statements are extremely damaging to the reputation of the organization. In particular, Ms. Stollznow falsely alleges that:
1. CFI first adopted a policy prohibiting sexual harassment after “Elevatorgate” — a controversy that occurred in the summer of 2011. This allegation is false. CFI’s current harassment policy was adopted in 2007, and a prior, abbreviated one was in place in 2003. By falsely alleging that CFI adopted a harassment policy only in reaction to a 2011 controversy, Stollznow implies that CFI did not take sexual harassment seriously until then.
2. When CFI suspended the employee that Ms. Stollznow had accused of harassment, the suspension was allowed to run concurrently with his vacation. This is false. By making this false claim, Ms. Stollznow implies that CFI was not serious in disciplining the employee. Many of the blogs that have commented on Ms. Stollznow’s accusations have accepted her false claim and have ridiculed CFI, with much damage to the organization’s reputation. See, for example:
(“The company felt that suspending him temporarily while he was on vacation was sufficient discipline.”)
3. CFI “has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys.” This allegation clearly implies that CFI’s “history” is extraordinarily bad. This allegation is false. I have been president & CEO from July 2008 forward. During that time, there have been only three complaints involving employees that could be described as involving sexual harassment claims, even under the broadest understanding of sexual harassment. This includes Ms. Stollznow’s claim. Ms. Stollznow’s claim is also the only one in which there was a specific finding of any sexual harassment, so the allegation that CFI has a “track record” of disciplining harassers lightly is false. No harassment was found in the prior cases so there was no discipline for harassment. (In one of the prior cases, an employee was disciplined, but for numerous other offenses.)
Out of an abundance of caution I will mention one other incident: a few years ago, an employee hired a male stripper to perform during office hours. We would consider this more gross misconduct as opposed to sexual harassment, but, in any event, this incident lends no support to the false claim that CFI treats “harassers lightly.” The employee was terminated almost immediately.
CFI depends heavily on donations for its income. Ms. Stollznow’s false claims can be expected to have an adverse impact on our ability to raise funds. Indeed, following the appearance of Ms. Stollznow’s blog post, I have already received two e-mails indicating that individuals would not support CFI. Ms. Stollznow’s allegations also will have an adverse effect on our ability to recruit staff.
I am frankly shocked that this blog post was allowed to appear in Scientific American — a journal that presumably recognizes the importance of evidence — without any fact checking whatsoever. Certainly no one checked with anyone in our organization regarding Ms. Stollznow’s claims. If anyone from your journal had done so, we could have refuted these false claims. Furthermore, you would have been informed that Ms. Stollznow’s allegations were thoroughly investigated by an experienced, impartial, outside investigator. Because of the length of the investigation, CFI expended approximately $40,000 in fees and costs. (Our annual budget is roughly $5.5 million.) The allegation that CFI does not take harassment complaints seriously has absolutely no foundation in fact.
I request that ScientificAmerican.com issue an immediate apology and a correction which clearly states that:
1. The Center for Inquiry has had a policy prohibiting sexual harassment since at least 2003, and its current policy has been in place since 2007;
2. The employee referenced in Ms. Stollznow’s blog post did not serve his suspension during his vacation; and
3. The Center for Inquiry does not have an extraordinary history of sexual harassment claims, nor is there any evidence to support the allegation that it has a track record of disciplining harassers lightly.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this.
Very truly yours,
Ronald A. Lindsay
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Update: As has been noted in the comments, Karen Stollznow is correctly referred to as Dr. Stollznow, not “Ms.” (See comment #12 below.) This has been changed in the opening to this post.