Staying Split: Sabatini and Social Justice

Author’s note: This is a contemporary post about an ongoing current event. It’s not a timeless essay in the way that most of my essays are, though it does contain insight and thoughts on timeless topics.


David Sabatini is a molecular biologist, previously employed as a tenured professor at MIT and a lead researcher at the Whitehead Institute. He was fired in August of 2021, after which most of his professional connections quickly dried up. He was almost restored to good standing in April of 2022 via a new position at NYU, but protests and external pressure caused NYU to withdraw their offer.

I shared a one-sided piece about Sabatini on Facebook, asking for people to falsify it. I was given various links and documents in response. I spent about five hours following up on sources, looking for original information, and trying to piece together a coherent take.

It proved to be impossible, and it proved to be impossible in a way that I think is interesting, and relevant to a lot of questions about how our culture functions (or doesn’t). This essay is my attempt to digest and debrief, essentially writing to myself.

Why was Sabatini fired and blacklisted?

Option A: Because he engaged in romantic/​sexual misconduct in conflict with the policies of his workplace, and created a hostile and sexualized environment that made work difficult or impossible for many of his subordinates.

Option B: Because a vindictive former lover enacted a revenge plot, partially enabled by an ideologue in the org’s power structure who was looking for any pretext to shake things up.

Option C (for ‘cynical’): Because scandal is costly regardless of whether it’s grounded in fact, and there are a large number of highly-motivated people who have concentration of force against groups like MIT or NYU when it comes to highly charged questions like putative sexual misconduct.

If you buy reports like that of Suzy Weiss, the timeline looks something like this:

  • Sabatini runs a world-class, cutting-edge lab without any complaints or issues for two and a half decades.

  • At a conference in Maryland in 2018, Sabatini hooks up with Kristin Knouse, a cancer researcher in her own right, 21 years his junior.

  • They mutually establish some ground rules for their relationship, with Kristin in particular insisting that it remain open and low-key so she can carry on with other preexisting flings. They keep the romantic connection fairly quiet, and meet up a handful of times, ending by July of 2018 (mostly due to Sabatini drawing away).

  • In August 2018, the Whitehead Institute adopts a no-tolerance policy for romantic relationships between lab heads (like Sabatini) and colleagues (like Knouse). Under previous policy, a relationship like theirs would have been in a grey area; now it would be straightforwardly forbidden. However, Sabatini considers the romantic phase of the relationship already over (and therefore believes there’s no problem). Neither of them mention anything to HR.

  • Sabatini and Knouse exchange occasional comms (a burst in late 2018 when Sabatini has a cancer scare, a burst in January 2020 where they have an argument about their relationship, a burst in April 2020 where things seem calmer and they commiserate about COVID isolation).

  • In late 2020, feminist ideologue Ruth Lehmann takes over as the director of the Whitehead Institute with an explicit goal of cleaning house and breaking up boys’ clubs; she takes complaints from Knouse and runs with them. Exerting pressure from the top, Lehmann elicits two more complaints, which is sufficient pretext to hire a law firm of prosecutorial lawyers who then relentlessly grill the lab staff until they have enough cherry-picked and out-of-context anecdotes to weave together a damning false narrative.

  • Sabatini is fired, and then there’s an update cascade. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute assumes that if [whatever happened] was bad enough for MIT and the Whitehead to sever ties, then they should sever ties, too. Navitor Pharmaceuticals sees that MIT, the Whitehead, and the HHMI severed ties, goes “yeesh,” and likewise jumps ship. KSQ and Raze Therapeutics see the pattern, make the obvious moves, and so it goes.

  • Months later, after the dust has settled, NYU takes its own look at what happened, and clearly concludes that either Sabatini was wronged or that he’s worth taking a risk on (since they move to hire him). But the narrative of the serial abuser has by now fully set into place, and the battle lines are clear. The protestors show up, and NYU, presented with a choice between being seen as being on the side of safety and decency and seen as allying themselves with a bad guy, folds under the pressure.

If you buy reports like that of Leonid Schneider, the timeline is more like:

  • Sabatini runs a sexualized, bro-culture lab environment for decades, getting away with it by virtue of the fact that the higher-ups value his success (and the copious grant money he brings in), and everybody who can’t handle or doesn’t like the atmosphere keeps quiet or is simply driven away.

  • In 2012, Sabatini teaches a small MIT course including promising up-and-comer Kristin Knouse. In 2013, he serves on her dissertation committee. Shortly thereafter, he offers to be an enduring reference for her; she accepts, knowing him to be a powerful figure whose endorsement could substantially further her career aspirations.

  • In the spring of 2016, Sabatini invites Knouse to attend the whiskey tastings he frequently hosts in his lab after hours. These events tend to be raucous and sexualized, often ending with everyone drunk. At one such event, Sabatini asks to speak with Knouse privately, walks her outside, and in quick succession a) offers to speak to the director of the Whitehead Institute on Knouse’s behalf, to help in her application to become a Whitehead Fellow, b) notes that her mentor, Angelika Amon, had told him that she worried Knouse was too serious and worked too hard, and c) asked her directly whether she ever “has fun” or “fucks around,” to which she nervously gives the only answer that seems acceptable (“yes”).

  • Immediately thereafter, Sabatini does indeed advocate on Knouse’s behalf with the then-director of the Whitehead Institute.

  • In 2017, Knouse becomes a Whitehead Fellow, with Sabatini as her mentor of record (though her actual mentor in practice remains Angelika Amon). Sabatini encourages her to lobby for a space adjacent to his own lab.

  • In 2018, Amon receives a terminal diagnosis. Knouse struggles with the news, since Amon is both her personal friend and a crucial professional connection. Sabatini swoops in in predatorial fashion with a practiced mix of flattery and veiled hints, assuring her that he will continue to open doors for her.

  • A month or so later, Sabatini invites her to a networking event in Washington, D.C. She accepts, but when she arrives in town, he declares that he’s not going to the dinner, and instead asks her to join him for dinner and drinks, during which he reiterates that she’ll be at a professional disadvantage after her mentor’s death (but that he is willing to step into the breach and be her champion). Afterward, he pressures her to join him in his hotel room, and then pressures her into sex, steamrolling multiple verbal and nonverbal expressions of discomfort.

  • Similar situations take place repeatedly over the following years, despite Knouse’s explicit objections and repeated attempts to point out her lack of interest and the inappropriate nature of Sabatini’s advances. Knouse continues to capitulate, though, since the alternative is (clearly) angering someone who is capable of doing massive damage to her career. By this point, Knouse has complained to multiple trusted advisors, including Amon; all of them urged her to make no waves until she could get clear of the Whitehead Institute and establish herself professionally elsewhere.

  • Eventually, Knouse begins seriously preparing to leave the Whitehead and enter the job market, following a path somewhat unusual for a Whitehead Fellow in good standing. The new director, Ruth Lehmann, reaches out to ask what’s behind Knouse’s decision to leave—is she unhappy? Knouse confides in Lehmann, who is both deeply sympathetic and sufficiently powerful to not-care about angering Sabatini. Lehmann runs anonymous internal surveys to confirm that Knouse’s account is reasonable, and then escalates to hiring a law firm to run an in-depth investigation, culminating in Sabatini’s well-deserved ouster.


There is a mental technique taught by the Center for Applied Rationality called “Murphyjitsu,” in which people check their plans against their established intuitions about how the world works in a general sense.

Essentially, the core insight of Murphyjitsu is that merely thinking about your plan, and asking yourself “can I see this working? Is success consistent with all of my past experiences?” is not sufficient. You must also ask yourself “can I see this not working? Is failure consistent with all of my past experiences?”

If one finds that both success and failure are conceivable/​coherent, then one does not, according to the standards of Murphyjitsu, have a real plan, and one must do more work.

Analogously: when I read the first account, and I ask myself “does this account feel consistent and coherent? Does this seem like the sort of thing that happens?” I get back the answer “yes, clearly.” I’ve known people to be vindictive and dishonest; I’ve known people to be uncharitable in their interpretations and to willfully misrepresent events; I’ve known broader groups to act from cowardice and go along with the mob rather than take a costly stand in defense of the innocent.

And also, when I read the second account, and I ask myself “does this feel consistent and coherent? Does this seem like the sort of thing that happens?” I again get back the answer “yes, clearly.”

I have also known people to be systematically abused. To be forced by circumstance to swallow their needs and endure tremendous mistreatment. To not-speak-up for years at a time, because they knew in their bones that doing so would result in their ruin.

Which means, à la Murphyjitsu, that I have to do more work. I find both accounts plausible—not necessarily equally plausible, but they both very much match my intuitions about How The World Works. Neither account is more than 90% likely, relative to the other; they are both in the same order of magnitude of believability.

My usual prescription in a situation like this is split and commit.

“Okay,” I say to myself. “If it turns out that Knouse’s interpretation of events is largely correct, and Sabatini is a pseudorapey asshole, then I know what sorts of things I would do. I know what kinds of lessons to take from this story, I know what kinds of comments to inject in places where people are discussing it, I know what updates to make about the competence and integrity of institutions and society at large.”

“Also, if it turns out that Sabatini’s interpretation of events is more accurate, and Knouse is a liar taking advantage of available MeToo momentum to execute a vendetta, then again I know what sorts of things I would do.”

(I’m not being super concrete about these things here, but to gesture in the general direction: in the former case, I want to put marginal energy toward keeping up the societal momentum we’ve had over the past decade, since we still have not reached a point at which people like Knouse are safe from people like Sabatini. In the latter, I want to put marginal energy toward dragging the pendulum back, since in our zeal to protect the marginalized we have created a whole new class of victims. Obviously in either case I want to maintain flexibility, and not devolve to blindly black-or-white policies, but the Sabatini scandal could be an interesting hint as to whether Scylla or Charybdis is currently a more salient threat. It’s a bit of useful information, to be combined with all of my other data.)

Alternately, it could (I supposed, at the outset) be that both of the accounts are substantively true, and the update is more just “people are shitty; be on guard.” It’s not necessarily the case that there is one villain in this story; a priori, there could quite easily be at least two.

What usually happens after you split and commit is that you find out which of the two possible worlds you’re in.

(Or rather, which of the two possible worlds you conceived of seems closer to the real world, which is usually more complicated than what you managed to think of.)

Either that, or you move on without having actually found the answer, because you can’t in practice chase down the answer to every possible question and in many cases the value is more in clarifying your own policies and values than in actually applying that clarification in the moment.

In fact, I’d like to amend the “usually happens” statement—what actually usually happens is indeed the latter thing, where you stay split and do not collapse the waveform (but you know how you will respond, if conclusive information happens to come across your path).

What is interesting to me is that, in the Sabatini case, I went actively searching for conclusive information, in part at the prompting of some of my friends, and was stymied.

Taking the image above as a rough representation of the situation (there’s a messy reality, and a cleaner narrative that each of Team Sabatini and Team Knouse superimpose on that messy reality), the method I employed was pretty simple: look for verifiable spots in each narrative that make that narrative falsifiable, and go check.

If e.g. Sabatini claims that he and Knouse had a friendly and wholly consensual back-and-forth, and that text exchanges between them will unambiguously represent this, and meanwhile Knouse claims that she repeatedly rebuffed his advances and sent many messages expressing distress and hesitation, then voilà—simple, right? Both accounts substantially stick their necks out, so it shouldn’t be hard to end up in a place where it’s clear who’s cleaving closer to the truth.

Unfortunately for my own, selfish desire-to-know-the-truth, this is not the case.


There are (without exaggeration) scores of articles and op-eds and thinkpieces about this whole scandal. And almost without exception, every single one of them seems to ground out in one of two documents:

  • David Sabatini’s civil action, lodged against Knouse, Lehmann, and the Whitehead Institute on October 20th, 2021

  • Kristin Knouse’s counterclaim, filed on December 7th, 2021

These are the two most thorough public accounts, wherein each of the principles lay out their grievances against the other. Notably, they are each a set of claims and allegations, which (presumably) the courts of Massachusetts will evaluate for truth.

They are not, in other words, facts, in the sense that I am used to using the term.

This critical meta-fact is lost upon the vast majority of the people writing about the scandal, most of whom are not well-versed in mental moves like those found in Murphyjitsu, and who are not fond of asking what they think they know and why they think they know it. Blue tribe accounts take Knouse’s complaint as gospel and repeat its claims as fact; red tribe ones take Sabatini’s. A few, such as the Weiss piece linked above, seem to accurately represent other primary sources (such as text exchanges between Sabatini and Knouse), but it’s not clear how far to trust them, just as it’s not clear how far to trust the original investigations into Sabatini’s lab.

Here is a small sampling of some of the close-to-crucial claims made by Team Sabatini—items which, if demonstrated true, are more likely in worlds where Sabatini is essentially innocent, than in worlds where he is essentially guilty:

  • That Knouse was the one who pushed for their relationship to remain open and casual, declaring to Sabatini that there would be “ground rules” to their relationship such that she could carry on with other flings with people she specifically described as “anesthesiologist fuck buddy,” “finance bro,” and “physics professor.”

  • That the sexual relationship between Sabatini and Knouse lasted for at most four months, ending before the relevant Whitehead no-tolerance policy went into effect in August of 2018, and that subsequent pings in pursuit of further romance came mostly or exclusively from Knouse, not Sabatini.

  • That the text exchange of April 2020 (coming several months after a heated text exchange in January 2020) was in fact warm, easygoing, and lacking anything in the way of vulgar subtext or pressure.

  • That the 200-plus-page Whitehead Report created by the law firm Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, investigating “gender bias and/​or inequities and a retaliatory leadership in the Sabatini lab,” did indeed conclude things like “[Sabatini] does not discriminate based on gender in terms of whom he supports” and “[w]e did not find any evidence that Sabatini actually retaliated against or punished any person for speaking out against him or raising concerns outside the lab” (as well as conspicuously failing to find that the relationship between Knouse and Sabatini was coercive or non-consensual).

  • That there were indeed multiple complaints from multiple lab personnel that the lawyers conducting the interviews for the report were clearly pushing an agenda and ignoring testimony which contradicted their preselected narrative.

  • That Dr. Lehmann, after taking over the directorship of the Whitehead Institute, variously stated that she intended to “clean up” a “boys’ club,” that she had tried unsuccessfully to “oust” a male professor at a previous organization for sexism, and that she was disappointed that she had failed but proud of her efforts. Separately, that she responded with surprising and overt hostility to Sabatini at a Whitehead retreat in the fall of 2019, prior to taking over.

  • That Knouse privately told a Whitehead faculty member in 2019 that she was jealous that Sabatini had a new partner in Europe, that she wanted to punish Sabatini, and that she had received advice that the easiest way to get him fired would be to establish that he had engaged in a pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior.

  • That it was specifically ten days after Sabatini informed Knouse of his interest in this other woman that she first made any sort of verifiable checkable mention to any third party that she had updated her conceptualization of their relationship from a consensual one to non-consensual.

  • That in fact only five members of Sabatini’s lab took the anonymous Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion survey that was precursor and pretext for the later investigation, and that each of those five members testifies that they made no complaints (meaning that the later investigation was initiated without cause).

  • That the Letter from Some Alumni of the Lab of David M. Sabatini was, in fact, produced by some forty-five alumni of his lab, speaking anonymously out of fear that if they did so under their own names they would be excoriated by the mob.

None of these (of course) mean that Knouse’s account cannot be true, but each, if borne out, is a non-negligible Bayesian update away from it, and toward the viewpoint expressed by Sabatini. There are other checkable facts as well; the above is just a sampling.

Symmetrically, evidence that would make the Knouse perspective much more likely:

  • That the Whitehead Report conclusively determined that Sabatini had engaged in
    conduct in violation of multiple Whitehead policies, including its prohibition on sexual harassment and retaliation (i.e. that it did not include the lines which Team Sabatini directly quoted in its suit).

  • That, regardless of policy at the smaller Whitehead Institute, there was a standing policy in place at MIT that was strengthened in January of 2018, such that even a consensual relationship between Sabatini and Knouse in the spring of 2018 would have been a clear and unambiguous violation.

  • That Sabatini openly interrogated a female master’s student in the lab about whether she was “fucking” another lab member, and then asked her to rank the other lab members in order of her willingness to fuck them. That Sabatini took a female post-doctoral fellow aside at a retreat and asked her to “choose” between two male postdoctoral fellows for sex. That Sabatini had the female lab members physically lift up a male lab member he referred to as a “Catholic virgin” and carry him across a figurative finish line to non-virginity.

  • That lab fellows would generally agree that the above incidents were representative of the overall atmosphere of the lab; that they were not the most damning-seeming incidents cherry-picked and then framed maximally negatively with minimal context, but rather that they paint an accurate picture of what one could expect in Sabatini’s lab.

  • That Sabatini aggressively pursued an undergraduate female scientist in the lab, calling her into long, closed-door one-on-ones that often veered into sexual topics, and that, when they were both attending a conference abroad, he attempted to pay for her to change her flight and her hotel room so that they could spend more time together at the event.

  • That Knouse, in May of 2016, texted a friend detailing an uncomfortable and disorienting encounter she had just had with Sabatini (the one described above, after one of the whiskey tastings). That Knouse verifiably shared these concerns with her mentor, Angelika Amon, shortly thereafter.

  • That Sabatini, prior to and during a Whitehead retreat in September of 2018, texted Knouse multiple times first asking and then demanding sex. That Knouse texted back, expressing hesitation due to the setting and her status as a candidate for fellowship. That Sabatini texted back about his “raging boner,” about being “revved up,” about having a “half-chub” in his pants, and about needing to take matters “into his own hand” if she didn’t come to see him.

  • That Knouse verifiably shared concerns with her mentor Amon again in 2019 and 2020, including disclosing the relationship and Sabatini’s demanding behavior.

Again, each of these is vastly more likely in the world where Sabatini is essentially guilty of all charges—none of them is by itself impossible in a world where he is innocent (and instead socially inept, for instance) but each one is a substantial Bayesian update in favor of the viewpoint expressed by Knouse.

These two worlds are insanely disjoint. It boggles the mind to consider that two such different accounts could have been circulating in the public eye for months, and neither obviously debunked. To quote Scott Aaronson:

Briefly: the lawyers’ complaint and the Weiss article paint such diametrically, almost comically opposite pictures of Sabatini, Knouse, and their relationship, that at least one of the two MUST BE LYING. Yesterday, I’d concluded that the lawyers must’ve been, because their version of reality was impossible to reconcile with the actual texts of Knouse’s emails. The trouble is, Weiss’s version of reality is ALSO impossible to reconcile with the stuff Sabatini is reported to have said!

In summary, Sabatini suffered a grave injustice in a version of reality that appeared to have been amply demonstrated by direct quotes. In a different version of reality, however, which also appears to be amply demonstrated by direct quotes, he was justly fired. In conclusion, then, 0=1, the universe is contradictory, and I give up, to return to easier questions like the computational complexity of quantum gravity.

Presumably, someone has access to the texts, and to the testimony of the lab members, but that person is not me, and it is not you, and it is not any of the dozens of pundits desperately trying to demonstrate how this incident is a perfect microcosm of the brokenness of our present system and the plight of helpless victims in the face of heartless systems &cet.

(I’m one of those pundits, clearly, but I locate the problem one level up.)

It’s also clear that, just as we-the-public did not get access to the direct text of the Whitehead Report, so that we could make our own assessment, so to will we-the-public not be given access to the pages and pages of direct source material that will be assessed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

… followed by a section C, a section D, and a section E, then:

… followed by a section D and a section E, then:

… followed by a section D and then two more pages of original sources.

If I could get clear, unambiguous information on any (say) five of the above eighteen points, I think I could update to a stance like “70% likely Knouse, 30% likely Sabatini.”

If I could get clear, unambiguous proxies on any of those points, that would at least be something. But every attempt to find proxies has failed. In my own Facebook threads, two friends of mine (whose reports I trust) had the following exchange:

I was curious after reading this and spoke directly to a Hughes scientist I know about this case; that scientist had heard of the case in some detail prior to our conversation.

Their impression, which you can take or leave, was that Sabatini’s behavior was a very clear policy violation and not ambiguous, that potential harassment issues in science often involve situations that are much more “grey” and difficult to evaluate, and that it was quite understandable that institutions would not want to be involved with someone with such a reputation.

That scientist thought there was a good chance Sabatini would be hired by a private institution or similar—perhaps one that doesn’t have students—and continue working in the field, however.

In reply:

What a previous (female) student in his lab told me was that she could not image him violating policy.

So … someone kinda close to the situation (much closer than me, anyway) thinks that it goes obviously one way, and someone even closer thinks that it goes obviously the other.

(Insert the typical warning about how Person A not being abused by Person B doesn’t update us all that much on whether Person B did or did not abuse Person C, but still.)

I would like to be able to find a source that seems to me to be exhibiting any unusual degree of epistemic hygiene, but alas, everything I look at seems to be biased in one direction or another. e.g. many sources find the following excerpts damning:

As one woman who worked in Sabatini’s lab would put it in a text to a colleague, “the only way to get him to like you as a woman is to sexually appeal to him … if you act in a way that suggests that you find him in some way attractive …”

At least one male member of Sabatini’s lab wrote that he believed that Sabatini orchestrated social events so that he could “drool” over attractive women

When the young woman started in the lab, she was greeted with advice as to how to get Sabatini’s attention and approval—she was told to “play hard-to-get” and to “entertain him a little, then push him away.”

… which—yes, unambiguously awful! Except that I have literally seen, with my own two eyes, people make claims exactly this level of bad about me with zero grounding in fact (and sometimes with evidence directly contradicting them, which did not deter them in the slightest).

It seems fairly reasonable to believe that the three people quoted above believe the things they are saying, i.e. they do indeed believe that Sabatini is a dog.

But I am … let’s say “not impressed” with the median human’s ability to distinguish [what they think they know] from [what they actually know], or their conscientiousness in keeping their observations separate from the interpretations they layer atop those observations. The fact that these people think that you need to do X, Y, and Z to please Sabatini does not convince me that Sabatini wants or is in fact pleased by X, Y, and Z.

(I once had a colleague assert that he could literally think of no other explanation for my stances in various disagreements except that I was so depressed that I was delusional; said colleague helpfully purchased me unsolicited illicit antidepressants in the spirit of friendliness. Later, that same colleague went on to say that the only explanation they could think of for my fiancé′s stance in their disagreement was that I had abused, gaslit, and mind-bent my fiancé. People who know Logan Strohl personally will get to enjoy the ridiculousness of this anecdote much more than people who do not, but suffice it to say that I find it quite plausible that the three individuals quoted above are Just Plain Wrong about Sabatini, or that they have some kind of axe to grind and are not particularly scrupulous about how they grind it. Unfortunately, I also find it plausible that they’re exactly on point. 😕)

Conclusions (such as they are)

I struggled to take away actionable lessons from all of this. Most of what came to mind were prescriptions on the level of culture, and so the frame I’m going with is “things people in my culture take for granted.”

1. You don’t have to care about this.

This one reads as somewhat hypocritical, but in my defense, my deep dive was prompted by a specific request from some friends. For most people, the Sabatini scandal should not rise to the level of more than passing attention, and even for me it is mostly fascinating on the meta level, as a lens into the forces shaping the zeitgeist. It’s not that the plight of a mistreated scientist deserves zero attention so much as that there are so many other things that are more worthy of attention—in a culture where people were a little less myopic and hypersensitized, perhaps hundreds of protestors would show up outside NYU feeling genuine panic and distress about one of the dozens of issues which directly impact their lives, rather than things which might marginally contribute to a culture of et cetera, whatever.

2. You probably shouldn’t have a settled opinion.

In Duncan-culture, it would be considered somewhat gauche to confidently claim to know what had happened here, and how we ought respond on the object level; one would typically lose points for such a claim, and subsequently be taken less seriously, unless one could adequately demonstrate one’s concrete reasons for confidence.

(I mean that part straightforwardly and seriously—in Duncan-culture, you would be listened to less after so demonstrably exhibiting such poor epistemic hygiene. “Okay, so there’s a person whose confidence is Not A Proxy For Truth,” thinks everyone else in the room.)

In our present culture, which has failed to have this particular social more, people are almost obligated to have a take, and in the more deranged corners of our society are treated with suspicion if that take is anything less than full-throated orthodoxy. This is bad; the correct answer to “are you on the side of abusers or are you on the side of justice” is “you keep using these words—I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”

Or, to put it another way, even if the people wielding torches and pitchforks are correct that two plus two equals four, you should still feel a little unsettled at how insistent they are that you profess it, and should probably start thinking of ways to avoid or disperse such mobs in the future.

3. If you’re not against the update cascades, then you’re with the update cascades.

It’s interesting to consider something like “where does morality live, in a society?” I have an as-yet-unwritten essay about how it basically lives in the bystanders, and in what will cause bystanders to take action. Someone shouting racist slurs in the grocery store will often be confronted by randos, because (at least in most places in America) we’ve reached the point where someone minding their business in the grocery store feels like it’s their problem if someone is shouting racist slurs. Something they directly care about is at stake; the slurs are rending at a part of the social fabric that they consider to be their concern.

The social justice side of this disagreement understands this principle; the people showing up in protest at NYU are showing up in protest because they feel that sexual misconduct tolerated anywhere is a threat to good people everywhere.

But the other pole is woefully underrepresented; people generally do not seem to consider that they have something of a moral obligation to pump against [infinite punishment via each individual and group making the locally sensible decision to turn their backs].

According to Duncan-culture sensibilities, the darkest chapter of this saga is the one where NYU, which was clearly on the verge of forming a real, independent opinion instead of parroting the party line of either side, caved to public pressure. It is in fact the case that we do not know what happened with sufficient confidence to have an opinion that strong! From all the way over here (and I consider the vast majority of the protestors at NYU to be “all the way over here” in the relevant sense) we cannot tell whether MIT was right to fire Sabatini, and we cannot tell whether NYU was wrong to try to hire him, and the responsible thing to do is a) say nothing, except to b) shout down the people who are shouting anyway, despite having nothing justified to say.

99.9999% of us lack the moral prerequisites to confidently mete out punishments on the meta level, i.e. to punish non-punishers like NYU, or to punish punishers like MIT. It’s certainly valid to hypothesize that either or both institutions did something morally culpable here (indeed, it’s logically necessary in MIT’s case, since they either harbored an abuser for decades or scapegoated an innocent man). But to move from hypothesis to conclusion, you need some kind of actual discerning information, and it can’t shouldn’t just be “well, this side felt more real to me.”

It’s particularly distressing that all of this seems to be downstream of the findings of the Whitehead Report, which really does seem to have accrued criticism far in excess of the usual “every report has its detractors” baseline. If it is in fact the case that multiple Whitehead employees complained about the lawyers’ behavior—if it is in fact the case that NYU took a look and genuinely thought that Sabatini had been mistreated—in those worlds, it is really really bad that the report ended up being sufficient evidence, in practice, for every institution of higher learning to turn its back on one of the foremost researchers of the generation. I don’t exactly expect courage and moral fiber from blankface institutions like MIT and NYU, but in Duncan-culture they do sometimes exhibit it, and it would’ve been nice to have a Welch stand up and say to all the people confidently declaring Sabatini a monster “Have you no sense of decency?”

I have other takeaways, but they’re less coherent. There’s something in here about paths-to-redemption, and how systems which kowtow to the mob don’t really have them. There’s something in here about monopolies on legitimate violence, and how those monopolies are threatened by modern social media, and we need norms and institutions to catch up. There’s something in here about people allowing themselves to draw conclusions based on nothing, and then other people updating on those first people’s confidence, which brings us right back around to the update cascades. There’s something in here about the erosion of faith in institutions, such that basically no one is willing to trust in an institution that reaches the opposite conclusion of what one thinks is correct.

(i.e. the red tribe currently thinks that NYU made a grievous error; if NYU had stood its ground, the blue tribe would have concluded that NYU had made a grievous error. Neither side, upon hearing the surprising conclusion, would pause to think “huh, maybe we were wrong about this?” because let’s face it, there aren’t many people out there who are actually doing their due diligence and making a genuine attempt to mete out impartial justice.)

But mostly, the thing I want to keep shouting is YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE PRETENDING TO KNOW. I feel mad about this—like the person in the grocery store squaring off against the raving racist, all of the people writing supremely confident opinion pieces that treat mere allegations as unassailable fact are threatening something that is precious and important to me. It’s not that I particularly identify with Sabatini, and it’s not that I fail to identify with Knouse. It’s that I want to live in a world where, if I live through what either of them claims to have lived through, it’s actually possible to get a fair hearing, and justice, and closure.

Right now, that seems to be literally impossible. These stories don’t end, they just fall out of the spotlight, until ten years have passed and suddenly someone drags it all out into the open again.

And that—

That seems really bad. You should be able to settle these things, once and for all, and that only happens if people are sometimes willing to admit that they simply do not know.

It’s not what it looks like.