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Why we should not dismiss conspiracy theories

by Matthew Dentith

Often when we think of conspiracy theories we also think of conspiracy theorists. There’s David Icke and his theory that the world is secretly controlled by blood drinking, alien shape-shifting reptiles. Then there’s Glenn Beck, who worries that the world is controlled by a combination of liberals and socialists who want to destroy America and American values. Icke and Beck are big, identifiable names in the conspiracy theory literature, and their views are rightfully treated with disdain by most of us.

Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of conflating the wackiness of some conspiracy theorists – like Icke and Beck – with the question of whether it is a rational to believe a particular conspiracy theories.

Think of it this way: it would be silly to dismiss the thesis of atheism just because we can point towards some atheists who have less than rigorous reasons for believing that God does not exist. The truth or falsity of the thesis of atheism is a fact independent of what we believe about the world. Either there are Gods or there are not.

However, what makes atheism a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold depends both on the evidence and the arguments they put forward in support of their position. In the same way, what makes a conspiracy theory a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold also depends on arguments and evidence, and it would be a mistake to dismiss someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory merely because Glenn Beck also believes it.

One person who expresses this worry is Robin Ramsay, the editor of “Lobster”, a British para-political magazine. Ramsay argues that we often confuse what we take to be problems with the reasoning of certain conspiracy theorists –  like David Icke and Glenn Beck – with issues to do with belief in conspiracy theories generally. While we can single out a sub-set of conspiracy theorists who believe that ‘nothing happens by accident’ this tells us nothing particularly interesting about whether belief in conspiracy theories tends to be irrational. After all, while conspiracy theorists who assume the existence of conspiracies without good reason certainly do exist, they are, in the end, just a subset of the larger group of conspiracy theorists.

Luckily, there is a way to respect the pejorative claim that “They’re just a conspiracy theorist”, but only if we are willing to distinguish between belief in conspiracy theories and the thesis of conspiracism. Conspiracism describes a particular problem with belief in conspiracy theories on the part of certain conspiracy theorists, or what we should properly call ‘conspiracists’ – someone who believes in the existence of a conspiracy without good reason.

Conspiracism is a folk-psychological thesis. When we say: ‘They’re just a conspiracy theorist’ what we are really saying is: ‘Look, this person believes some conspiracy theory pathologically.’ Conspiracists are not merely wrong to think some event was caused by a conspiracy – i.e. they have not just made a faulty inference – they have, rather, jumped to the conclusion a conspiracy is the best explanation. However, analysing conspiracy theories solely through the lens of conspiracism turns out to be problematic, because, after all, conspiracism assumes that belief in conspiracy theories is prima facie irrational.

This is not to say that discussions about the psychology of particular conspiracy theorists should be off-limits. Rather, we should not let folk-psychological theses about the rationality of certain types of conspiracy theorists – conspiracists – influence discussion about whether particular conspiracy theories can be warranted.

People like David Icke and Glen Beck might be the kind of people we immediately think of when we hear the term ‘conspiracy theorist’, but this does not make them typical. Rather, they are significant and thus prominent, but nothing about that significance or prominence tells us anything about how typical they are with respect to the wider group of conspiracy theorists.

Which gets us to the nub of the problem: under what conditions is belief in a particular conspiracy theory irrational, and when is belief in conspiracy theories, in general, pathological? Answering the former question does not necessarily tell us much about the latter.

So, whatever we believe about the potentially pathological psychology of conspiracists, this does not tell us anything particularly useful about the merits – or lack thereof – of individual conspiracy theories. We cannot use our skepticism of the beliefs of particular individuals like Beck and Icke to justify a suspicion of an entire field of theories, which span from the utterly mundane to the bewildering complex.

If that were the case, then Republicans of a certain stripe would be justified in thinking Anthropogenic Climate Change was not occurring merely because some Democrats believe it as a matter of dogma, rather than because they have looked at the evidence. Yet damning belief in conspiracy theories generally because of the beliefs of certain conspiracists is rife in public discourse, even though it turns out to be, at best, a mistaken reaction to the absurdity of some conspiracists and their peculiar conspiracy theories.

If, in the end, there really is an argument which justifies the common sense intuition people have that belief in conspiracy theories is bunk, it will not be based upon a view – like conspiracism – which assumes conspiracy theories are irrational. Rather, it will come out of the analysis of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ and examining in depth just how hard (or easy) it is to show that they are warranted.


This post is adapted from chapter 3 of Matthew Dentith's forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, which will be published on November 8. Matthew speaks at TedX Christchurch on November 1.

Matthew also has a PledgeMe campaign to help him raise the money to travel to Miami to present a paper at the Conference on Conspiracy Theories at the University of Miami next March. He would welcome your contribution and offers a range of intriguing rewards to donors.


An Open Letter To David Cunliffe

by James Macbeth Dann

Dear David,

I want to first congratulate you on the campaign you ran. You gave it your all, and did well in the debates. I was deeply disappointed in the result that Labour got on September 20th - but I’m sure no-one feels it more personally than you do. It is in your response since that result that I have to disagree with you.

In the last leadership contest, I supported Grant Robertson, and I intend to again this time. However, once you won, I gave you my full support. I was one of the key organisers of the 2013 conference in Christchurch, which was your first big event as leader. I volunteered on the Christchurch East by-election campaign, including a couple of times when I was your driver for the day. I enjoyed talking with you in a personal capacity, away from the spin and the advisors. Through this year’s campaign in Ilam, I appreciated having you here in the electorate, and in wider Christchurch. We had a good walkabout at Bishopdale Mall. I ran interference on Gordon Dickson for you. Good times.

I gave my campaign everything, and I am sure that you did the same. We ran a two ticks campaign in Ilam. All our material had “Party Vote Labour” proudly on it. We delivered tens of thousands of pieces of paper with your face on it. But the reality, the hard truth, is that people in the electorate just didn’t connect with you. I lost count of the number of times I door knocked someone who told me they had voted Labour all their life, but wouldn’t vote for us as long as you were leader. People who would have a Labour sign - but not one with your face on it. While those examples are strictly anecdotal, the result on election night isn’t. It’s unavoidable. It’s practically the worst result in the Party’s history.

I can’t imagine how that feels. I know you’re an ambitious guy, that being Prime Minister is something that you’ve probably dreamed of since you were a kid. I know what that’s like; I’ve entertained those thoughts myself. You’ve been closer than most people will ever get. But you’ve had your shot. The Labour Party isn’t a vehicle for you to indulge your fantasy of being Prime Minister. While you might think that it’s your destiny to be the visionary leader of this country, the country has a very different vision - and it doesn’t involve you.

It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Labour party, one that is closer in both age and understanding with the people it needs to represent. It’s not just time for Grant, but also for people like me. I think I did a good job in a very difficult electorate, and would like to build on it at the next election.

However, I won't be part of a party that you lead. Not because I don’t like you, but because I simply don’t want to lose again. That’s the reality David. The people of New Zealand don’t want you to be their leader. The comparisons that you and your supporters have thrown up don’t hold water - you aren’t Norm Kirk and you aren’t Helen Clark. You’re David Cunliffe and you led the Labour Party to it’s most devastating result in modern history.

So I’ll promise you this. If you win, I’ll step aside from the party, to let you and your supporters mould it into the party you want. But in return I ask this: if you lose this primary, you resign from parliament. In your time in opposition, we’ve had you on the front bench, where you let down your leader at the most critical point of the 2011 campaign. You ran for leader and lost, then destabilised the elected leader. Then when you got your chance as leader, you led Labour a party that was polling in the mid-30’s to one that sits firmly in the mid-20’s. There is no place for you in this party anymore.

Kind regards and best wishes for the future,

James Macbeth Dann

James Macbeth Dann was the 2014 Labour candidate for the Ilam electorate.


Science and Democracy

by Nicola Gaston

Science has a bad habit of asking – demanding, even – to be placed in a position of power.  To be referred to as an authority on all things.  To be trusted by the public.

Not that this last is a bad thing in itself – indeed, I think it is rather important.  But if science is to be trusted by the public, then we scientists need to take that trust seriously.  What does it mean for us to insist on a place of privilege for scientific knowledge?

In the last few months, several different occurrences have focused my thinking on this topic.

First there were allegations of misconduct by CRI (Crown Research Institute) scientists at NIWA with respect to the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme. When asked to comment, I was at pains to highlight the different circumstances of those scientists employed at our universities, who have the statutory privilege of academic freedom, and that of our CRI scientists, who work in an environment in which commercial and governmental financial pressures have a much more direct impact.  Not that this affects scientific outcomes directly, necessarily – but the uneasy coexistence of public good and commercial research in our CRIs leaves their staff in a situation that is not always straightforwardly navigated. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to the transparency that might assist public understanding, either.

Secondly, the NZ Association of Scientists ran a survey of NZ scientists who were willing to share their experience with the National Science Challenges. The results were far more pointy-ended than I had expected, based on a year of discussions where everyone publicly seemed to agree on the need to make the best of a bad job.  It was a lesson in the power of anonymity in giving people a voice – a lesson reinforced by the emails I then received, in particular from CRI scientists who are, as one correspondent reported, “gagged from talking to the media on topics that might seem critical of government policy from 2 months out from the election”.

A third moment of reflection was prompted by the release of the plan for the Science in Society project: A Nation of Curious Minds. This is a really positive initiative, aimed at “developing stronger connections between science and society” and putting “special emphasis on our young people and science education”: a really laudable initiative that has come out of the process behind the National Science Challenges, and I don’t want to come across as critical in the least.  Except for just one small thing. It may even be nothing.

One of the actions recommended in this report is that the Royal Society of New Zealand develop a new code of practice for public engagement for scientists. In the fine print, we are given additional clarification that this will pertain to the “social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge”.  Again – this sounds fine.  Except – from what I can tell, it seems that we already have this.

The Royal Society of New Zealand has a code of ethics, which has quite a lot to say about the responsibilities of scientists.  This became very clear to me in discussions that followed the original Radio NZ story on NIWA and the Ruataniwha matter – so much so, in fact, that in the NZ Association of Scientists submission on the recent National Statement of Science Investment, we recommended that the government should “amend the CRI Act to require that the boards of CRIs support the RSNZ code of ethics”. This seemed a sensible way to avoid creating new pressures on scientists who have – very fairly – a duty to their employer, while addressing issues of public confidence in science. If the RSNZ code of ethics is to be effective, it needs to be part of the scientific consciousness. The issue may only be that of public perception, but that makes it no less serious an issue: public trust in science matters.

The code of ethics has a few things to say on matters of public engagement and the communication of science.  In fact, it is explicitly based on the need to maintain public support for “work in the areas of science, technology, and the humanities”.  As such, a member is required to:

  • strive to be fair and unbiased in all aspects of their research and in their application of their knowledge in science, technology, or the humanities (Rule 2.1(2)b)
  • not present themselves as experts outside their areas of expertise (Rule 2.1(2)k)
  • only represent themselves as experts in their fields of competence as defined by their formal qualifications or other demonstrable experience (Rule 4.1(2)a)

Our responsibilities to the public who fund our work are made explicit. A member must:

  • endeavour to make the results of their work as widely available to the public as possible and to present those results in an honest, straightforward and unbiased manner (Rule 6.1(1))
  • accept that researchers working on different approaches to a problem may reach different but supportable conclusions within the context of their own research (Rule 6.2(2)d)
  • avoid attempting to influence public policy in situations where the available evidence is contradictory or inconclusive without making the state of that evidence clear (Rule 6.2(2)f)

These rules are there for good reason. They may not be perfect.[i] But do they have failings in their description of the “social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge”? A case may yet be made, but for the moment, I do not think so.

So why might we need a new code of practice? Where might this be coming from? In the background to all this, we have a Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister who warns of the dangers of scientists acting as advocates. While his concerns around the importance of being an honest broker are genuine, they are not without their issues: "we need to confront the tensions between being objective and deploying our judgment."

Perhaps more to the point, the ‘honest broker’ approach does not appear to have made any impact on the PM’s willingness to listen.

In the absence of voices from the CRI community, we may need to look to university academics for examples of where science, engaging with the public and policy makers, might run into problems.  The most obvious example is Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, who was memorably called a traitor to NZ for his comments on our declining water quality. Even more significant were the Prime Minister’s comments to the BBC, where he stated that he could always provide another academic to give a counterview.

This week has provided several reminders of all these events.  In fact, all in one day, I came across evidence that the work of Dr Joy is still attracting attention, this blog post by Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury, and the online attacks on University of Otago health researcher Dr Lisa Te Morenga, by Jordan Williams and Carrick Graham of Dirty Politics fame.

What does this all add up to? I’m not sure that I know.  Is it a coordinated anti-science campaign, or do we scientists take for granted a public faith in science that is simply not there?

What I do believe, is that any privilege we have as scientists is a privilege based on public trust in scientific activities.  Such trust should not be based on myths about scientific objectivity, nor on nonsense about us being best placed to make policy decisions: it should be based on a culture of honesty and integrity, and of open criticism and discussion of the facts without fear nor favour.  These are the values that make science work, and we (scientists) need to stick up for them.  And we (the public) need to stick up for them too.

A lot has been said recently about the importance of evidence-based policy. Science has an important role to play in informing – but not dictating – policy that is responsive to the needs of the real world. But as the dust settles in the aftermath of our most recent election, I am left thinking of the importance of evidence-based policy making – the open discussion of data, with due acknowledgement (as required by the Royal Society of NZ’s Code of Ethics) of the different values that may impinge on a research problem, and that ways in which researchers may reach different but supportable conclusions on the basis of a different research approach. 

Is this, after all, what democracy might look like between elections?

[i] I am particularly intrigued by rule 5, under which members are required to be unbiased in their evaluation of colleagues work – which rings a little hollow in the context of studies that demonstrate the pernicious nature of (unconsicious) gender bias in the scientific community. A requirement that members take account of the latest offerings in unconsious bias training might well be in order.


Nicola Gaston is Senior Lecturer in chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, Principal Investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute and President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.


Compulsory voting and election turnout

by Alex Mackenzie

Rarely is there harmony on anything around election time. But everyone seems to agree that not enough New Zealanders are voting (see here, here, and here). That this election saw a rise in turnout since the last one is hardly worth celebrating when you consider both that the 2011 election was the worst turnout since women were enfranchised, and that nearly one million eligible voters stayed at home. The trend for the past three decades has been a dramatic decline.

One solution which is empirically guaranteed to increase turnout has been ignored by almost everyone: compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is a system whereby citizens are legally compelled to attend the polls, with the failure to attend attracting a small fine (in Australia, which has had compulsory voting for nearly a century, the fine -- strictly enforced -- is $20).

The term "compulsory voting", therefore, is a misnomer because the compulsion relates to turning up rather than to voting. Proper compulsory voting systems provide for conscientious objections prior to the election and a "none of the above" option on the ballot paper. Given the secret ballot, there is also the option of handing in a spoiled or blank paper.

There are two basic reasons to favour compulsory voting. First, there is near universal consensus that it is guaranteed to increase turnout immediately. Birch’s extensive review of the empirical literature concluded that turnout levels increase by an average of 15 % at the election following the implementation of compulsory voting. This is desirable because low turnout is, in nearly every case, unequal turnout.

In the 2011 election, non-voters were much more likely to be young, unemployed, and poor. And unequal turnout spells unequal influence. As Lijphart observes in his often-cited article, the existing studies on the relationship between voter turnout and policy outcomes “all find compelling evidence that unequal voting participation is associated with policies that favour privileged voters over underprivileged voters”. In other words, it really does matter who shows up and who doesn't.

The second reason is that compulsory voting is a logical extension of the right to vote. This is because the value of the vote stems from its exercise. Voting is important for theoretical reasons, but it is first and foremost valued because it makes a difference. And in contrast to other sources of power, when it comes to voting, we are all worth the same (as the Electoral Commission's advertisements stressed).

Insofar as compulsory voting results in greater participation, it promotes the right to vote. The first goal of democracy may have been universal suffrage. But we should not be content with this if certain groups consistently fail to exercise their rights and suffer as a result. As Lijphart emphasises, we should aim for "universal or near-universal turnout".

The major arguments against compulsory voting can all be answered. First is the claim that compulsion is undemocratic, such as the "forced consent to government" objection made in this post on No Right Turn.

But as noted above, a well-designed system will allow for legitimate abstentions both before and during an election - there is no compulsion to actually cast a ballot. A variant of this argument is that we have a right not to vote, and compulsory voting violates it. Not only is there no right not to vote, but even if there were, a compulsory system that provides for abstentions would not violate it. Again, the right to vote is about participation; if it implied legal protection for its converse, it would be self-defeating.

Second, it might be said that increasing turnout doesn't solve the underlying problems associated with why people aren't showing up. But the attractiveness of compulsory voting doesn't depend on it being able to address voter apathy. And it is incorrect to think non-voters are apathetic - the vast majority stay at home for reasons other than political disaffection. In any case, compulsory systems are better at tracking people's reasons for abstaining, meaning the system at least helps us identify the underlying problems.

A particularly dangerous and related objection is that society should not compel the disinterested to vote. But, as Bart Engelen notes, the point of democracy is to reflect the views of all citizens, whether engaged or not. Requiring a sufficient level of interest or intelligence as a precondition for voting goes against everything the right to vote is meant to achieve and protect. In Engelen's words, "democracy is everybody's business".

Compulsory voting immediately raises turnout and in so doing goes some way to remedying the ills of unequal turnout. It promotes and enhances rather than diminishes the right to vote, which is not a right to be left alone but a right to participate. Arguments against the institution either exaggerate the degree of compulsion involved or rely on questionable premises about who should vote. A discussion of the merits or otherwise of compulsory voting has, lamentably, been almost completely absent from New Zealand politics thus far. It's time to have that debate.

Alex Mackenzie is a University of Auckland law graduate working at Russell McVeagh


Three times over, and never again

by June

 I read something on Twitter a while ago. A question from a well-meaning friend of someone who had recently been sexually assaulted.

“How do I convince her to go to the police?” he asked.

And I felt an instant pit in my stomach. A combination of fear and frustration.

I wanted to get involved. You don't. You can't. Please don't try.

But I didn't. And thinking about it now I hope that he was given similar advice by others online.

There's a lot of talk about rape and sexual assault. Figures being dropped that indicate the low rate of complaints compared to the high number of attacks.

Questions over why people don't press charges. Questions over how we can get more prosecutions. But little discussion over exactly why it is that when someone is raped, or attacked, or violated, the most difficult thing possible would be to press charges.

I know. Because I did. And to date it's my biggest regret.

I was still at school when I initially spoke to police. And incredibly naïve. I was young at the time of the assault. He was a much older man. I'd trusted him. He'd shattered that trust. And the guilt that I felt for years was unbearable. When you trust an adult, and they hurt you in the worst possible way, it's impossible for a child to realise that they somehow didn't make it happen. Because adults are there to protect kids. To conceptualise anything else as a kid who trusts that the world is a good place in inconceivable.

But ultimately, that was the easy part.

I never approached the police. They came to me. Actually, they went to my mum. She passed the message on one day after school. I walked in the door and she sat me down. The police had been to her work that day, she told me. Told her that other people were involved. That my name had come up. And should they talk to me?

They wanted to talk to me with the promise that there would be no pressure to lay charges. They just wanted to talk. So I agreed. And there began a four year whirlwind of police, lawyers, courtrooms, accusations, red tape and second guessing myself.

When I met the detective for the first time I found myself not having a casual chat, but making an official statement. It took a couple of hours and I found myself having to describe intimate details of the abuse to a complete stranger. The detective was a middle-aged man – nice enough – but the whole ordeal was intimidating. The initial statement was the first, but certainly not the last, time of having to recall and describe personal, intimate moments, in intricate detail to people whose job it was to judge whether I was telling the truth or not.

And then, when it was over, he gave me a ride back to school. I walked into calculus class and tried desperately to forget the past few hours and pretend everything was fine.

Then he was arrested. And it all became very real. Word got out. I overheard teachers and students discussing who they believed and I had friends no longer talk to me because they'd decided that I was in the wrong.

Possibly the most difficult thing, once the charges had officially been laid, was not being able to move on in any real sense. Rather than trying to forget the past and get on with life, I HAD to remember. And remember everything. And it felt like life was completely on hold while I waited for anything to happen.

I assumed, in my naivety I guess, that the wait between the arrest and court date would be smooth and relatively short. Years later I was receiving regular calls from the detective to update me on various moves by the defense.

When charges were laid it looked likely that I would give evidence to support another complainant’s statement. There was a lot of evidence and a number of victim statements.

Over the years evidence was thrown out and dates were postponed. By the time I went to court I was too old for any sort of barrier protecting me from seeing him so I was forced to sit a few metres away from him throughout the trial.

Finally though, a court date arrived. I have never been more intimidated or frightened as walking into the courtroom that morning. I was taken to a small room and had to sit there for a couple of hours while a jury was chosen. I had no idea what I was about to walk into. I desperately tried to stop shaking and my mind was spinning with the idea of entering a courtroom full of strangers and talking about details of abuse, with the man responsible watching and listening to my every word.

I'd read about the process. But nothing can prepare a person for actually sitting on a stand, being called a liar and being yelled at for hours on end, by a complete stranger, while a room full of people judge your every word and try to figure out if you're lying.

I didn't want my partner or family with me. It all seemed too personal to want to talk with them beside me. So the court appointed a support person to sit with me. When she walked in she seemed more scared than me. A friendly-seeming woman, but her timidness made me incredibly uncomfortable. So I denied the offer of her sitting with me. I was on my own. In a way I'd never felt before.

I was on the stand for a day and a half. I sat, on my own, in the witness booth to the side of the courtroom. Opposite me were the jurors. Every time I looked their way I could see them dissecting every word I spoke. When I started breaking down a few of them seemed sympathetic. Others seemed to portray a look of total disbelief. When the defense lawyer stood up to cross-examine me, he immediately went on the attack. I was accused of lying, making things up, being vindictive, being overly imaginative, dreaming what happened, of the whole thing being in my head. When I couldn't answer his questions immediately he started yelling. So much so that the judge would intervene at times and tell him to stop.

The questions never stopped. “What way were you facing? Were the curtains closed? What colour were the curtains? How old were you in spring of 1992? Why are you hesitating? If you don't know that then how can we believe anything else you say? Was it raining outside or sunny? What happened, word for word? Where did his hand go? For how many minutes? What did you say? What did he say? Did he ejaculate? What did he do then? Did you tell him to stop? If you were so scared why didn't you cry out? What did you do after? You stayed with him? Why would you stay with him if you were so scared? Were you pressured into pressing charges? You've spoken to people about this? They could obviously have put thoughts in your head. You used to have vivid nightmares as a kid didn't you? So this could easily have been a dream? Oh, you say you've developed social phobias? That's an easy thing to say. You look fine to me.”

It didn't stop. When I cried, he pressed harder. When I got defensive he used that as evidence that I was lying. The day ended and he still wasn't done.

“Remember that you're still under oath,” the judge told me as the court adjourned for the day.

“So you can't talk to anyone about this tonight.”

I left. I cried. And the next day I returned for more.

The whole trial lasted a week. The jury left to make their decision and I received a call from the detective about six hours later. They couldn't decide. It was a hung jury. We had to go back and do it all again.

“I'm sorry,” he told me. He sounded like he was struggling not to cry.

So the waiting began again. I went back to my life. All the while, once again, not being allowed to forget and move one. In fact, having to remember every detail.

At the time I was drinking and partying a lot. Trying to find normality by living to excess and putting myself in dangerous situations. It was during one of these situations that I was raped by somebody I thought I knew reasonably well. Looking back, it was a deliberate thing. I was drunk but had gone to bed and was asleep. He woke me, bruised me, ignored protests and raped me. Then he got up and left me in tears.

At Family Planning the next day, while getting the emergency pill, I told the woman, through tears, that the sex was consensual. All I could think was that if I said otherwise I'd be pressured into going through the whole process again. And that was something I'd never do. After all. I got drunk. I let him drink in my house. I put myself in unsafe situations. These things don't happen on multiple occasions without some blame being placed on the person that let it happen. So I tried to forget and focus on what was still ahead. Another trial, another judge and 12 strangers judging every word I say. I focused on remembering the details of the childhood assault while trying desperately to forget the details of the adult rape.

And before I knew it I was once again sitting in a corner room of the courthouse with the prosecution lawyer and the detective – both of whom I'd come to respect and rely on – both of whom had let this case take over their own lives as well as mine. The longest wait was the hour or so of sitting in that room, trying desperately to distract myself with music and books, while also trying my hardest to focus on not losing control of myself throughout the day.

I will always be grateful for the two people that went above and beyond their roles to support me through the months I spent in and out of court. From the detective sneaking my cigarettes into the courtroom so that he could sneakily let me have one with a makeshift cardboard ashtray when the court took breaks, to the lawyer who tried desperately to prepare me for any question that the defense might throw at me on the stand and who objected passionately every time the questioning got anywhere near personal attacks.

But  none of this made the ordeal any easier. His family would wait outside the courtroom so that as I walked down to enter, I'd have no choice but to see them, standing as a group, staring, glaring at me as I entered.

That added to the guilt. This person was someone I trusted. And they were people that he loved. And I was actively trying to tear their lives apart.

While in court the first time around he had said, “I never hurt her. I only ever loved her.”

Self doubt brought about by manipulation started playing on my mind again. I felt like the most vindictive person possible. I just wanted out. But once again I made the by-now-familiar walk into the courtroom and took my place on the stand – facing a different group of 12 strangers – the people that would ultimately decide my, and his, fate. One of them, a woman who sat at the end of the front row, had a kind, almost sympathetic face when I spoke. I made a point to focus on her as much as I could throughout the day.

The process went through the same as the time before. It was easier, because it was no longer completely foreign. Being placed under oath wasn't as frightening, my lawyer's questions were comforting, and his hadn't changed. As much as he attacked, blamed and denied everything I said, his questions didn't change so at least this time I knew what was coming. Once again he kept me on the stand for the entire day. And was due to continue the next. Once again I spent most of the day in tears, was forced to recall every detail of every moment. Made once again to recall physical feelings, smells, conversations and fears. And once again told that I probably made it up, or dreamed it, or just felt like being vindictive. And once again I was exhausted, scared, emotional and questioning everything I was doing. But it was easier. And it was almost over. And in a couple of days I would be able to return to my life and do my best to rebuild it.

The next morning there was an article about the trial in the paper. Nothing long or detailed. A small paragraph in the middle of the paper that mentioned a man was “back in court”. And that one word changed everything. “Back”. The last trial had resulted in a hung jury. Another case against him was not allowed to be made known to the jury. So his lawyer took that word and ran with it. After a couple of hours the detective came to me and knelt in front of me.

A mistrial had been called. I'll never forget looking at him as he told me and noticing he had tears in his eyes. It brought home how important this had become to so many people. It was no longer about me. I now had a lot of people counting on me. And the pressure felt huge.

Technically the police were entitled to force me to return for the third trial. But he gave me the choice. Call it off or make a new date and do it all again. I wanted out. I wanted to forget. I desperately wanted to never have to walk into this courthouse again. But by now I had so many counting on me. The person who pressed charges earlier and had a not guilty result. The people coming after me who maybe wouldn't have to if we had a guilty verdict. The police, the lawyers, the countless people that were now invested in this. So I said yes. A new date was made and the waiting continued.

Thinking back now the third trial is a blur. I was exhausted and scared and, years on from initially making a statement, I just wanted it to be over. The sight of his lawyer both made me terrified and nauseous. I got through it. But I broke down multiple times and when I did he went in for the kill. Verbal accusations of lying, making things up, imagining things, being pressured by other vindictive people, being vindictive myself and they didn't stop. I remember giving up the fight. And just crying my way through.

The trial continued for a few days but I didn't return. I couldn't face seeing him on the stand or hearing him talk.

A few days later I was home in the kitchen. I remember it clearly. I was sitting on the bench looking out the window, waiting for toast to cook, when the phone rang. It was the detective and this time he didn't try to hide the fact that he was crying.

The only words I remember from the phone call were “NOT GUILTY”.

I hung up. I cried. And I don't think I really stopped for days. I struggled to find a way to return to a normal life.

Years of my life had been focused heavily on one thing and now it was over. And it had been for nothing. I don't know what he's doing these days. I don't like to think about it. I just hope that this at least gave him a wake up call and nobody else was hurt by him.

Thinking about any alternative to that is not something, even to this day, I can bear thinking about. Knowing that I could have stopped this happening to others and failed. I fear it might break me.

I've struggled with a lot of personality faults over the years. I have an intense fear of being judged. I struggle with confrontation of any sort. I fear failure to the point of panic. I get nervous around figures of authority. It took me a long time to overcome social anxiety and while I always liked the idea of being a court reporter I am yet to be able to bring myself to face stepping into a court room.

I firmly believe that pressing charges and going to court affected me more, in the long term, than the abuse itself.

I suffered nightmares for years about being in court. I can still see his lawyer's face more clearly in my mind than I can his.

I found it difficult not to hate myself. Not to blame myself.

Even now, when things get hard, I fall back into those habits. I still struggle to come to terms with my past. That those months in and out of court have had a more detrimental affect on my life than not having pressed charges ever would have.

My time in court was a while ago. I have no idea if things have changed for the better. But if I, or anyone I knew, found themselves in a situation where the option was there to press charges, I would never advise to do so.

The court process for victims of sexual assault is easily the most traumatic thing possible for someone who is already traumatised. I don't have the answers for how it could be made better. I don't know how to go about making the number of rape and assault prosecutions higher. I don't know how to make convictions more likely without being detrimental to the rights of the accused.

But I know that it's not easy. It's terrifying. It's traumatic. It's something I'd never do again.

And that may be the saddest thing of all to have come to terms with.