Not So Critical Thinking: A House Divided

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:

  1. What evidence is there to support the claim?
  2. 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.

5 Responses to Not So Critical Thinking: A House Divided

  1. Jason Walker says:

    It’s been a while since this was posted – and I’m not sure how popular this blog is – so I don’t know if anyone will read this, but here goes my attempt to satisfy a bit of your curiosity:

    Question #1) Is gender based harassment going on in general in the US and Canada (where most TAM Vegas participants are from)?
    Answer: Of course. Anyone who has worked in a kitchen, an office, or in the military can tell you that harassment of women happens every day, on a huge scale. If you’re a working woman and you haven’t encountered this type of thing, you’re lucky in the extreme. I don’t know any working woman (including my girlfriend) who isn’t harassed to some degree or another by male colleagues on at least a weekly basis.

    This harassment ranges from minor (constant derogatory comments about the intellect of women – and this isn’t limited to things that are seen as acceptable, like “dumb blond” jokes) to more serious types of harassment, like sexual touching. Just last week my girlfriend threatened to rip the lungs out of a coworker who kept rubbing her every time he walked by. Management at her workplace has actually fired women who complained about harassment (the managers are all male, of course, and one of them is about the most sexist guy I’ve ever encountered (I’ve actually worked with the guy in the past. He’s nasty)), so she just threatens them with physical violence instead;). It seems to work. It’s amazing how many wimps there are out there, hehehe.

    Question #2) Is there gender or sexual harassment going on in the skeptical community? Specifically online?
    Answer: It’s hard to judge what’s going on by reading online discussions. How do we know that 300 “I’m going to rape you to death” comments weren’t left by one script kiddy? It possible for a single voice to be heard many times. We have to be wary of jumping to conclusions about such things, if only for fear that they could be used against us in the future. Imagine one insane nutjob deciding to use a script to post thousands of comments claiming to come from skeptics saying “I’m going to kill Richard Hoagland”. It’s possible for this to happen, and we don’t want people to jump to the conclusion that Phil Plait is organizing a murder mob. He wouldn’t do that… but it could still damage his (and our) reputation if someone were to fake it.

    That said, many people in the skeptical community ARE being harassed. Both men and women. Men are threatened with death, women with rape. Both are threatened with crimes against their families. This is revolting. We shouldn’t tolerate such threats. Based on the available evidence posted by all parties, many of the threats are coming from outside the community, but at least some are coming from inside. That said, who cares where the threats are coming from? Would you like to be threatened with rape and/or death? No, of course not! Anyone receiving such threats should be viewed sympathetically, regardless of whether or not you agree with their position. It isn’t their position you’re expressing sympathy for, it’s the *person*. Remember that. Behind every avatar is a person (and a flying bison). Treat those avatars like the people they represent, and we won’t have any issues.

    Question #3) Is there gender or sexual harassment going on at skeptical events?
    Answer: If anecdotal accounts can be believed, probably a bit. However, as has often been stated, anecdotes are the beginning of an investigation, not the end. At the present time we (meaning the online community) can’t say how bad the harassment is because the evidence is of such low quality. Low quality though this evidence is, it is suggestive enough to warrant further investigation. But even before that happens, we can take some easy steps to minimize harassment at these conferences. The first few steps to prevent harassment generally make everyone safer (not just women), and require little effort to implement. And who knows? They might help protect against future anti-skeptical protesters and disruptive infiltrators too (hey, it happens at other conferences. It’ll happen in a big way at a TAM or NECSS too eventually).

    Question #4) Is there gender discrimination in the skeptical movement?
    Answer: There does not appear to be widespread, active gender discrimination in the skeptical movement. There may be (and likely are) a few misogynists in the community, but that is a symptom of a problem in our society at large, not a symptom of an issue with the skeptical community itself. Over the medium term it will probably prove fairly easy to identify extremists of all types in our midst and limit the harm they can do. For now we just have to be vigilant.

    Above all, remember the first rule of skepticism: “Of thine own self first be skeptical.”

  2. Jason Walker says:

    Question #5) Did one side or another or the “elevatorgate” side overreact, or inappropriately handle the online reaction?
    Answer: Yes.

    Here’s a few comments about the elevatorgate (stupid name, btw) scandal that I’ve put in loose chronological order:

    a) The initial video comment by Rebecca Watson was mostly fine, if a little bit… off on the tone it used. Rebecca treated it both as a joke and serious matter. Either one or the other please, not both. She probably used the tone she did to try and lighten the tension around what she viewed as a serious matter. But here’s the thing: you can joke about a serious matter, but you can’t *treat it* like a joke. That was the first mistake, and it led to all that followed. But a minor, minor mistake in her treatment of the subject is no excuse for the negative reaction that followed from “higher ups” in the skeptical community. But I suspect those negative reactions would have been dealt with if it weren’t for what I discuss in section b).

    b) The vitriol that the online community threw at Rebecca is frankly normal for any topic whatsoever. I’ve seen people threaten to kill other people online over LOLkitty pictures. I’m sure we’ve all seen news articles with a title like “4 year old killed in random way that no one could have predicted or prevented, including the parents”, and we’ve all see the comments sections of those articles filled with “damned liberals. Good riddens to their spawn” or “good. Another neocon bits the dust”. People on the internet laughing at the death of a four year old child? Commonplace. Normal. Heck, people have been killed in REAL LIFE over virtual items in online games. That’s just… the way it is right now in the wild west that is the internet. It sucks when it happens, but it always does, no matter the topic. The topic doesn’t matter, only the popularity. If a topic becomes popular enough it *will* be trolled. Maybe that’ll change eventually, but it hasn’t yet. More on this in d).

    c) Richard Dawkins is (was) a dick (aha). He could be a lovable asshole at times (especially when arguing for something you believe in), but he was an asshole nonetheless. That’s ok! I’m a jerk too! Everyone knew he was an asshole though. Everyone acknowledged it. So why anyone would be surprised that he’d post a sarcastic comment on any topic whatsoever is beyond me. That’s what he did. It’s where most of his fame came from. To not expect that is stupid. He really liked to go around and mindlessly saying “first world problem” without bothering to fully understand the situations that he was stepping into. I haven’t looked into every time he did this (I doubt that I could, heh), but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to provisionally claim that he received criticism for his comments much of the time. He was a media whore, but then again, that was his job. He had to be, and he was pretty good at it.

    d) Rebecca and her supporters overreacted to the perfectly normal negative comments that were left about her elevator-guy vid-comment (a comment that was fairly innocuous, honestly). It’s the internet FFS. Every thread degenerates into swearing and a nazi flamewar eventually. DON’T FEED THE GODS BE DAMNED TROLLS! (he said, inexplicably shouting at his screen.) I don’t know why people can’t get that through their heads. Well, actually I do. They can’t stop feeding the trolls for the same reason I can’t: emotional investment. We all become invested in the things we say (type), and feel it necessary to defend ourselves. It’s an instinctual response, but it’s an incorrect one. If Rebecca had fought her very human instinct to feed the trolls, it might have ended right there. That was the second mistake. That escalated a minor disagreement about what constitutes correct etiquette in edge social scenarios (like elevators) into a major fight over sexual harassment. But… who knows? Maybe this sexual harassment fight was something that would have happened anyway. Maybe it was just a discussion whose time had come. Maybe the community required a fight like this in order to evolve to the next (social) level. *shrug* Like everyone, I can only offer my thoughts on what might have been, not facts.

    e) Skip a year into the future. By now we’ve learnt a few things:
    i) This issue isn’t going away.

    ii) Quite a few people on both sides are overreacting to minor things (Surly Amy and D.J. Grothe being the biggest examples on either side that I’m aware of).

    iii) D.J. Grothe has all the media savviness and survival instinct of herd of elephants raging and rampaging through the middle of a village of poacher’s families. Which is to say, pretty much none at all. At this point I’d support his forced removal as head of the JREF. Not because he’s a bad guy, but because he doesn’t understand how to run even a small organization like the JREF. I’ve been flabbergasted by his continual inability to act in a politically savvy fashion. And, like it or not, a leader in his position has to be politician. Not the baby kissing bribe taking kind, but a *real* politician. Someone who can build a consensus. Someone who can lead multiple combative groups into a compromise. It’s been said that leading skeptics is like herding cats. Yes. And Grothe is trying to herd skeptics rather than entice them. It’s mindblowing how bad he is doing at his job right now.

    iv) Finally, it’s becoming obvious that we’re going to be dealing with this “he said she said” crap for a long while now. When dealing with issues like this our own biases (and we all have them) become the deciding factor in who we’re going to believe. I’m going to repeat myself one more time. When dealing with any issue where personal bias becomes important, remember the first rule of skepticism:

    “Of thine own self first be skeptical.”

    (PS, this was a long post, and I’m not going to bother spending the hours necessary to go through it and fully copyedit it. You’ll just have to live with a few spelling and grammatical errors. Sorry;).)

  3. tradamtm says:

    Since I posted this article I have researched quite a lot about the issue and you repeated essentially what I already know, but thanks nonetheless.

    I mostly agree.

    The problem is still: What are we going to do to fix it?
    Is this even fixable at this point?

    The problem seems to be that Elevatorgate has exaggerated the already fragile division in the movement and its turning into -the- reason people get into groups and declare loyalties one way or another.

    Gone is the discussion if religion is a target for skepticism for example, or the discussion about how to deal with pseudoscience in education.

    At this point the skeptical community is chasing its own tail. Either its going to stop soon or fall over.

    My point with this article wasn’t necessarily to highlight the division, but to remind skeptics what its all about.
    Its about education and the promotion of reason and skepticism.

    The discussion about sexism/misogyny/misandry can (must) happen, but it can’t ABSORB all of the community as it does right now.

  4. Pingback: Why I Decided To Drop The Feminist Label « liveware.problem

  5. Pingback: Technical Difficulties: Why I’m not an Mens Rights Activist | liveware.problem

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