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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.3 > Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts

Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts

Someone makes a public comment out of line with progressive opinion. Enforcers of such opinion promptly descend on the offender online, pelting him or her with abusive slogans in the name of justice. The offender buckles, offers submission—even while protesting that he or she didn’t really mean any harm—and promises, perhaps, to become a better person. Over recent months we have become all too familiar with this sequence, which by now constitutes a genre. For example, answering a question about the possibility of a transgender player competing against women in professional tennis, former champion Martina Navratilova tweeted on December 20, 2018:

Clearly that can’t be right. You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.

Given her history in tennis, Navratilova must have felt she was on solid ground in commenting on the principles of competition. Nevertheless, when the transgender cyclist Rachel McKinnon reviled her (a lesbian) as “transphobic,” Navratilova apologized, placed herself under a sort of gag order, and deleted the original tweet, in effect withdrawing her argument.

I am sorry if I said anything anywhere near transphobic— certainly I meant no harm—I will educate myself better on this issue but meantime I will be quiet about it. Thank you.

The story goes on from there, but the two tweets in and of themselves are enough to suggest an analogy between the extraction of an apology for an ideological offense and the extraction of a false confession in a criminal case. Both Martina Navratilova and an innocent suspect who confesses under pressure disown a position that originally seemed to them self-evident— that it “clearly” can’t be appropriate for a biological male to compete against women, and that one didn’t commit a crime one knows nothing about. Of course, a person who confesses to a murder faces penalties that go well beyond the shaming suffered by someone who apologizes for a tweet. Here, though, I am concerned with a larger point suggested by both the extracted apology and the extracted confession: that our certainties may not be as immune to coercion as we would like to think.

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PINKER ON POST-TRUTH & REASON Steven Pinker on “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era: An (Unnecessary) Defense of Reason and a (Necessary) Defense of Universities’ Role in Advancing it” COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Coconut Oil: Health Food or Health Hazard? by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Persistence of Memory… and of the Memory Wars, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES The “Lost” Tribes of Israel • The Pentagon’s UFOs How a Multimedia Entertainment Company Created a UFO News Story • The Problem with the Walking Dead And How They Flummoxed Science for Centuries • The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould • Why the Human Brain Did Not Evolve to Accurately Represent the True Nature of Reality • Homeopathy’s New Clothes: Release Active Drugs • Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts • Two Kinds of Progressive Atheism • Surfing for Truth in All the Right Places: An Empirical Test of the Backfire Effect and How the Internet Can Reduce Anti-vaccination Attitudes REVIEWS Reviews of “A review of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities” • “Spectacle of Illusion: Deception Magic and the Paranormal” • “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost” • “Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture” JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Chilling, Changeling Chupacabra!