Not So Critical Thinking: A House Divided
July 29, 2012 5 Comments
This is my commentary about the recent schism in the atheist/skeptical community.
It particularly deals with the following events: Thunderfoot vs P.Z. Myers, Elevatorgate, JREF vs Greta Christina and Rebecca Watson vs D.J. Grothe
I am writing this commentary because I have to, for my own peace of mind.If you are tired of these topics, please skip this post and enjoy your stay.
What baffles me to no end with the mentioned events is, that for movements that pride themselves on rational thinking, evidence-based reasoning and skepticism, we have no facts or evidence for this (supposedly) large, systemic problem of sexism and misogyny.
I will not deny that these things happen, women are groped, hit on, sexualized, even at public events. I also do not deny that Elevatorgate happened, its actually well documented, as well as Gretas complaints to the JREF.
The question isn’t “is there a problem?”, because there -always- will be socially awkward situations, misogynists and objectification of women. There -always- will be a problem.
Sexism isn’t polio, it can’t be completely eradicated, there always will be a subset of human beings that subscribe to this misguided view. Just like racism will never be eradicated, or theism, to think otherwise would be utopian and naive.
The question should be “how big is the problem?” and “what can we do against it?”.
From what I’ve gathered from the respective blog-posts and the discussion currently running online, Rebecca Watson, Greta Christina and a slew of other prominent female bloggers both in the atheist and skeptics circles hold that this is a large, systemic problem for the community. Or, at least they think its enough of a problem to not only frequently blog about it, but also to hold lectures and talks at conferences about it.
Obviously RW and others on “her side” (I will address this later in this post) find the problem is large enough to dedicate considerable resources and time to warrant a large-scale campaign, going so far as to request the JREF to create anti-harassment policies for The Amazing Meeting.
As a skeptic and atheist, applying the method consistently, I start the same way I would approach any other claim:
- What evidence is there to support the claim?
- Is the evidence proportionate to the claim?
Starting like this should be quite familiar for every skeptic.
It should be noted again that asking for evidence, does not mean I a-priori reject the claim, or that I say it never happend. This should also be quite obvious to every atheist and skeptic.
The rational starting-position (as every activist atheist knows, and so should Rebecca Watson), is always disbelief of the claim until evidence has been supplied. Furthermore, not only that, but the evidence must be in proportion to the claim (as every skeptic should know, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence).
For me, to claim that there is a systemic problem within the atheist/skeptic community is quite extraordinary. I was not aware of this problem, but that might be just my own ignorance, but then again, this issue was never brought up, specifically in this scope, before Elevatorgate.
So what evidence is there for either claims (I am broadening my scope here).
There are anecdotes, hearsay, and guesstimates.
I dare to say that for any serious skeptic anecdotes presented as evidence should be shot down immediately. After all, aren’t skeptics like Rebecca harping on about how UFO abduction-stories don’t constitute evidence? (and they don’t)
What I’m trying to highlight here is a severe lapse in judgment from both the community and the lead bloggers. The skeptics aren’t behaving like skeptics, they are not analyzing this problem in the way they would, say, homeopathy or faith-healing. No, to my utter shock and disappointment they squabble around anecdotes and whispers in dark rooms about events that might or might not have happened.
Rebecca claims to have hundreds of comments of “rape-threats” on her blog concerning Elevatorgate, but who says these people that wrote those comments are -skeptics- or attend conferences? The internet lives of anonymity. There is no way of telling if the “rape-threats” were even serious, or if they came from people in the skeptics community, even less if they came from the atheist community.
Again, I will preempt the straw-man arguments, I am not suggesting they -weren’t- but rather highlighting the -lack of evidence- present in the general debate. Similarly I can ask how we know that the email Greta received was genuinely from the JREF or question what -exactly- happened between Thunderfoot and P.Z. Myers. There is a lack of transparency and facts in the discussion on these intra-community issues.
This isn’t even about who is wrong or who is right anymore. It is sad to see that by and large the skeptical community is anything but skeptical on these issues and rather than investigate, present evidence, analyze and use the skeptical method, they are content with jumping to conclusions and just selecting the “side” they already agree with (or are emotionally invested in).
Honestly I am just confused about these issues and every time the discussion comes up I am not sure what to say. I mean I identified as a feminist myself for years and now I seem to fall into the “anti” camp on this issue, and I’m simply not sure what to make of this. At this point I would be scared to ride an elevator with a woman at a skeptical conference out of fear to be the next elevator guy, the community just seems so tense.
I’m sure there are other people out there like me that don’t know what to make of this situation and we feel, justifiably, like we are in a crossfire between two radical groups.
I thought the skeptical community was above tribalism and partisanship, I thought the core of skepticism isn’t to take -sides- but to talk about evidence-based thinking.
A house divided against itself can not stand, we can not allow this schism to continue if we want to be effective as a community that stands for reason and critical thinking. We are setting a bad example of critical thinking and lose our credibility as educators. How can we effectively confront anti-science, creationism, homeopathy, UFOs and psychics if we show an anti-science and anti-reason stance ourselves?
Furthermore, how can we, as skeptics, promote free thinking and skepticism if we ourselves censor and misuse power to crush the opposition under the weight of authority? Shouldn’t we instead welcome dissenting opinion and critical thought with open arms? And if the opinion is wrong, shouldn’t we demolish it with facts and evidence instead of appeals to emotion and anecdotes?
How can we atheists talk about evidence and the scientific method if we use appeals to emotion as theists do?
How can we talk to theists about arguments from authority when we build cults of personality around prominent figures that supersede reason on diverse issues?
All these things make me want to disassociate myself from the label, but I won’t. I think it would be unforgivable cowardice on my part to just give up on the community instead of trying to change or influence it, even if its for naught in the end. I still see potential greatness in our movement and we need to focus ourselves on these issues to fix them, for the benefit of everyone involved, or not.
For me this whole ordeal is a learning-experience in critical thought, I benefited from it. It made me re-examine my adherence to the skeptical method as well as the consistency with which I apply it to other things than UFOs or god.
We must better ourselves so we can become the movement the 21st century needs.
PS: A very similar situation recently also creeped into the video-game industry and the gaming-community with Anita Sarkeesian, but that story is for another post and a different category.