So a few days ago I wrote a post explaining why the infamous C-Word incident between Penn Jillette and Lindy West probably was between a fake Penn Jillette and Lindy West. Since then, I’ve received some new information that forces me to reconsider my previous conclusion. That is a nice and formal way of saying, I got it wrong. I’ve never fisked my own pieces before, so let’s see how this goes.
The new information came from two places. First, Travis Roy passed on a message from a friend of Penn Jillette that seemed into indicate it was the real Penn Jillette who dropped the c-word, but left wiggle room in my mind, and didn’t explain Penn Jillette’s publically tweeted denial. Then yesterday, to my surprise, Lindy West did respond to my email. While her tone in the initial email was guarded, she provided excellent details and context that I was unable to find before. I emailed her to sincerely thank her for responding with so much detail, and she responded again mentioning she would have sent me screencaps if they’d been available. That is way more than I deserved. Lindy West was more than helpful and I thank her for writing me back.
So what is the result of this new info? Let me rehash my own statements:
“First, what is the evidence? It’s a single TwitPic from Lindy West.”
This appears to be demonstrably false. Lindy West did do research, and perhaps even posted it to Twitter and I’m just unable to find it. I take her at her word, since in her email she mentioned she looked at pictures, status updates, going back years. She did the work. What is true, though, is that all everyone linked to was a single TwitPic, not the real stuff. While that doesn’t change that I’m wrong, it is poor practice I think.
“As far as I can tell, this was as far as Lindy West went in verifying who it really was.”
Yep, got this one awfully wrong, and there really was no reason to make that assumption. I should have give Lindy West way more credit and the benefit of the doubt, and so I apologize for that.
1) Penn Jillette is lying about not making the comment, and Ophelia Benson was attacked by a similar sounding, similar looking fake account.
2) Two different fake Penn Jillette accounts were involved
3) The same account attacked both Lindy West and Ophelia Benson.
These were the three possibilities I came up with, and I was leaning towards 3) as the most likely. Well, now what I have to consider is what is more likely: That Penn lied about not making the comment, or that someone has been working on a fake Penn Jillette account for years, integrating with Penn’s real life friends, and stealing pictures of his kids?
Well, the skeptic in me therefore has to change my mind, and conclude it’s more likely that Penn wasn’t being completely honest when he tweeted his denial I don’t know how else to say that. I’ve been trying to see if there was some super parsing of the words that could explain it, but I can’t see it. I don’t know what what Penn was thinking. I don’t know him, I don’t follow his career that closely to really know what he’s like, and when I said “..I’ve never heard him called a straight up liar” I was speaking out of gross ignorance.
So, again, I was wrong. What could I have done better? I should have waited longer to see if Lindy West emailed me. I should have asked around more. I shouldn’t have jumped to any conclusions on what Lindy West did or did not do. I did a number of non-skeptical things, though, I sincerely was not trying to justify my preconceived notion out of a duty to defend Penn Jillette. I thought the evidence pointed me somewhere else. I thought I had a real scoop, but nope, I had nothing.
The last thing I would want comment on, briefly, was all the defenses of Penn out of the idea that his comments were taken out of “context”. You know, I’m as much a believer in the importance of context as anyone. Context matters if you’re accusing David Silverman of being too cuddly with anti-choicers. It matters if you accuse DJ Grothe of being transphobic based on half a quote. However, in this case, context is not a “get out of jail free” card. I think what Penn said was a crappy, nasty, unnecessary thing to say in a public place (commenting on Facebook is not “private”). I would like to think he understands that, but I don’t know, and he probably never will mention it again.
I think he should have just apologized and moved on. Instead, he tweeted a denial. Some people wouldn’t have accepted any sort of apology, sure, but that doesn’t change what the right thing to do was. I’m not such a super fan of Penn Jillette that this matters that much to me, and I wrote about this all because of a profound interest in how stories can travel. I don’t think he’s terrible person. I don’t think Penn should be drummed out of cleaned out of skepticism, though I rarely think anyone should be pushed out.
In conclusion, I hope with both posts I’ve shown an example of applying skepticism in a proper way. Clearly, I messed up, but I’d like to think there is a lesson to be learned in presenting something, getting new information, and changing your mind. I’ll try to do better next time.