In the work that rung in the modern era, Descartes wrote “dubito ergo sum” before he wrote “cogito ergo sum.” And since the early Enlightenment and far beyond, skepticism, the willingness to doubt absolutely everything, has been the cardinal intellectual virtue.
This is no mere ideological prejudice. It gets results: The scientific method is a codification of the skeptic’s credo. It charges us to question not just the ideas that we don’t like, but also the ideas that are dear to us. It even asks us to imagine that we may be acting based on assumptions we don’t know we have made, and to question those too. The Royal Society, one of the great scientific institutions in the history of human progress, incubator for the ideas of Isaac Newton and countless others, bears as its motto the phrase nullius in verba: “Don’t take anybody’s word for it.”
In science, the results of applying the Royal Society motto speak for themselves. But the phrase wouldn’t look out of place on the seal of a law school or on a newspaper’s masthead either. The common law roots of our current legal system run deep. And the history of progress in criminal law since the onset of the Enlightenment is a history of enforced doubt. It can be read as the institutionalization of mechanisms that force the state to refrain from acting before settling questions.
This skeptical method is where the ideas of “due process” and treating the accused as innocent until proven guilty come from. And its consistent application is one of the things that separates an open society from its opposite. In journalism, the same structure applies. Journalistic best practice requires that before a story runs, it must be corroborated by multiple sources, fact checked, and tested for consistency by editors. This isn’t really a high-minded determination to stick to a code of journalistic ethics; it’s a self-interested way of making sure a publication doesn’t ruin its reputation by getting busted for running lies.
Skepticism, in other words, works.
Yet sometime in the past five years of our cultural history, the admonition that we shouldn’t rush to judgment somehow transmuted into the idea that we shouldn’t judge at all. And in a culture that takes “judging” to be presumptuous, skepticism can seem downright harsh. After all, to question a claim is to challenge it, and in a very real sense to mistrust—to judge—its utterer. To the question of “are you calling me a liar?” the skeptic must answer: “Maybe.”
This brings us, unfortunately, to the issue of sexual assault and to Rolling Stone. On Sunday, the magazine officially retracted its discredited feature about a brutal gang rape at UVA. The move came following the publication of an extensive report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which concluded that in publishing “A Rape on Campus” Rolling Stone failed to follow “basic, even routine journalistic practice.” Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author, has issued a statement of apology but will continue to write for the magazine, according to the publisher’s spokesperson. The magazine’s editors, while recognizing their missteps, “are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.” The fraternity implicated is now pursuing legal action against Rolling Stone.
The biggest loser in this whole story may not turn out to be Erdely or Rolling Stone, but rather a notion popular with a subset of feminists found primarily on college campuses: namely, that colleges should treat accusations of rape as true as a matter of course, or at least radically lower the standard of proof, in order to create a supporting and encouraging culture for victims who choose to report sexual assaults. Let’s call this the “rape credulity policy.”
When “A Rape on Campus” was published in the December 2014 issue of Rolling Stone, the rape credulity policy was at its high-water mark in terms of popular support. The policy’s adherents on college campuses and in the media denounced the first, tentative voices to be heard raising doubts about certain details in the story. Tasked with adjudicating allegations of sexual violence among students, many colleges (and the federal Title IX enforcers whom they fear) had begun to reject the traditional, skeptical standards for proof.
By running the story with Jackie, the young woman at the center of the whole mess, as essentially the sole source, the editorial team at Rolling Stone took the “rape credulity” approach. The results do not speak well for the movement to discard two venerable pillars of the skeptical method—the presumption of innocence and multiple sourcing, in law and journalism, respectively—in order to expedite the social changes its advocates consider urgent.
The collapse of Erdely’s reporting has turned the tables somewhat; even some reliably feminist media outlets like Slate dialed back support for the idea. But the idea is not dead by a long shot, in the political conversation or even at Rolling Stone, where the argument that skeptical methods can be put aside for special cases seems still to abound.
Consider this quote from the end of the Columbia report:
Coco McPherson, head of [Rolling Stone] fact-checking , said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
Clearly, the magazine has learned nothing. This particular fiasco exemplified how wrong things can go when we relax our policies of skepticism, even for a worthy cause. Things didn’t go awry in the ways one might have expected, such as the unjust conviction or expulsion of UVA students (though the frat house in question was vandalized, along with the frat’s reputation). No, it went awry in an altogether more chaotic and self-defeating way, rendering sexual assault victims, Rolling Stone, and feminists’ broader agenda the true losers.
That one fabricated, sensational magazine story could do this kind of damage is instructive, and it tells us something beyond the fact that Erdely and her editors aren’t very disciplined journalists. Many of us who oppose the automatic belief in accusations of rape on campus aren’t primarily worried about the possibility that large numbers of college men will be falsely charged or convicted. Rather, we worry about how far out of control things can spin when there are no institutional checks and balances forcing us to question our intuitive and emotional prejudices, which have a tendency to take over when we hear a really charged story, like the one Erdely heard.
When it comes to investigating accusations of rape, putting principle into practice may seem cruel. Yet the undeniable fact that accusers are often highly traumatized actually supports the case for treating sexual assault on campus and elsewhere the same way we treat other forms of violent crime. The fact that Erdely’s intentions are more benign than those of the people who claim that women make up rapes to harm men did not stop her from doing grievous harm to Jackie and to victims of sexual assault. In fact, according to the Columbia report, her good intentions may have exacerbated the damage:
Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, [and Rolling Stone colleagues] Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
“Maybe” seems like an understatement. Of all the times to be a skeptic! Consider Jackie herself. She appears to have played her part in this by lying to a reporter, but if this is in fact the case, her actions still suggest that something awful set her on a very bad course. She may have had a traumatic experience with a classmate in circumstances other than those she alleged; perhaps she was or is suffering from a mental illness. Then again, she could just be a gifted, twisted fabulist who got caught.
We don’t know exactly what happened, and probably never will. But it’s clear enough that, as much as her support system may have failed her, perhaps nobody did worse by her than Rolling Stone, which, in its combination of credulousness and hunger for a sensational story, made a bad situation into a national debacle.