Skepticism, Sexism, and the Party Line

On the Skeptical Movement
Last week I stepped out of character and got involved in an Internet drama, or ruckus, or brouhaha, or morass, or cluster, or whatever word you want to use to describe it. On an episode I haven’t heard (#211, from August 4, link opens a Quicktime page/file) of a podcast I listen to (The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe), the panel of Skeptical Rogues (which includes one woman, Rebecca Watson) interviewed a woman, Carrie Iwan, who is a co-author of a blog I don’t read (Skepchick)–for no particular reason; I just don’t really read blogs as a rule–about her impressions of a skeptical event I didn’t attend: The Amazing Meeting #7, presented by the James Randi Educational Foundation. A rough transcript of the interview (with commentary and editorializing), should you not want to listen to the whole podcast or even download it, can be found here.

On Sexism in the Skeptical Movement
So this interview happens that I don’t even know about for a while, because I didn’t go to The Amazing Meeting and thanks to still having a lost iPod I am behind on my podcasts. But I’ve been a faithful and reliable participant in the SGU forums, and eventually a conversation that started in the thread about Episode #211 was splintered off to address the more general topic of Sexism in the Skeptical Movement. You can read those links at your peril; I’m not really going to refer to them, but wanted to link to them for context. They are very long, and a mess of topics on which different people stay focused to varying degrees.

Long story short, the average listener/participant/TAM attendee is shocked and outraged that anyone–particularly a woman–would suggest that the skeptical community is sexist to any degree, and then they turn around and say that women who suggest it are looking for problems and are fracturing the community and distracting it from its larger purposes.

When there is so much “real skeptical work” to be done (my quotes for emphasis, not anyone’s phrase in particular), how dare they bring up nonimportant points that waste people’s time, and besides, men are just sexual creatures who can’t help to sexually objectify women and should be excused for it. So yeah, that’s basically my version of events, so read into it what you will. It’s possible that I am completely wrong. It’s pretty obvious to me that the sexual objectification of women 1) is happening and a lot of people in the skeptical movement and elsewhere don’t notice it, and 2) that it’s not a nice thing to be happening and people should try to stop doing it, but you know what we modern, university-educated women are like today, especially the ones with those crazy liberal degrees: Our brains are full of poorly researched, feminazi claptrap. Our perceptions shouldn’t be trusted.

I bring up sexism and the skeptical movement and all these links not to rekindle the debate–if you are coming to this post from outside the “skeptical movement” then you don’t really care or even know, and if you are coming to this post from inside the “skeptical movement” then you’ve probably already read many sides of this conversation and have made up your mind, but because it’s an example, non-scientific for once, of what happens within the tiny, online-only piece of the skeptical movement that I have been involved with when you stray from the party line.

On the Party Line
I’ve been posting in the SGU forums for at least a year and a half, although less so lately. I’ve become somewhat disengaged with the “skeptical movement,” whatever that refers to, and I just haven’t had a lot to contribute beyond the chatty, socializing threads or the ones about television (and sometimes books). I’m not the only person with that problem; you listen or read or participate in these forums (the SGU discussion is not the only one out there) and you see a common thread of how to increase attendance at events or why discussion board membership is dropping. A long time ago I used to attend monthly skeptical meetings in San Diego, and they were talking about the same thing. You listen to people debunk the claims of [dowsing, anti-vaccines, aliens, cold fusion, alternative medicine, fad diets] over and over again, and discuss the logical fallacies employed by the proponents of said belief system, and you start to catch on. You learn what to do. I’ve long since learned how to spot garbage in print and in commercials, and I know when I am reading lies, wishful thinking, or flat-out ignorance. I get it already. After a certain point, listening to skeptical speeches or reading skeptical magazines is an exercise in reaffirmation–reaffirming how smart you are, how stupid that other person is, how important it is not to codify these beliefs within the legal system.

It’s not that I’m so interesting, or have so much to say of my own, but I can only listen to so many stories about how ghost hunters do anomaly hunting and make explanations after the fact, or that photographs of UFOs are very easy to fake. I get it already. I’m tapped out. I’m ready to move on, and yet, the tiny sliver of online-only piece of the skeptical movement that I’ve been involved with doesn’t move on. The people participating in it–who create the content that drives the SGU discussion forum and who make the responses that keep it going–enjoy these topics. It’s fun for them. And why wouldn’t it be? Everyone’s got their passion/hobby/interests. It’s just that these topics are so narrow. This is not “Skepticism,” it’s “Scientific Skepticism.” In fact, it’s “Scientific Skepticism on Topics that Particularly Interest the People Who Make the Podcast.” Great. I mean that. It’s a great podcast, and the hosts make every episode entertaining.

But I’m not on the podcast; I’m in the discussion forum. And it is in this discussion forum that the existence (and ensuing problems) with the party line become obvious. If it’s not on the podcast, it’s not really part of the Skeptical Movement, although the application of skeptical thought is so much broader and necessary than to scientific topics. People with science or technical interests have been drawn to the SGU for its science and technical topics, and have not necessarily done a lot of reading or studying outside of these fields. That’s fine. I’m no scholar, either. But I am interested in other things. I am open to the possibility that there is critical thinking to be done in fields outside of science. That, in fact, sometimes people who criticize some aspect of science or technology might have something important to say. Education, for example, and economics are fields rife with good and bad practices, and there are weird conspiracy theories in every discipline (like whether Shakespeare the Man is the same person as Shakespeare the Author). But everyone is so quick to criticize teachers and economists based on news reporting and personal anecdote. Who actually wants to read Derrida? Not me, and I have an advanced literature degree. But people are dismissing him as a charlatan before they’ve even opened a book to read a line he’s written–even in translation. The Problem of the Party Line, therefore, is twofold: First, something not on the assumed List of Skeptical Topics (even though it’s only a list of scientific skeptical topics, which is insufficiently acknowledged), is not worthy of consideration. Second, for controversies not on the List of Skeptical Topics, it’s OK to repeat generalizations, validate second-hand assertions, and ignore bodies of work that might present a different point of view. It’s the same kind of sloppy thinking skeptics are quick to point out (and rightly so) in people who promote “the woo.”

And Back on the Topic of Sexism
So the question of whether or not sexism exists falls into this category of subjects that do not fit the Party Line. Is the skeptical movement sexist? For that matter, is the skeptical movement racist? Is unintentional exclusion still a thing to be avoided? It’s hard to tell from the SGU discussion board, and the conversations on the topics at other places (like at the Skepchick blog). As soon as someone made an argument about an unpleasant topic a lot of people hadn’t considered–something outside of the party line–the dismissals began. The logical fallacies kicked in. The hysterical personalization of the criticism blinded folks. The gleeful reaffirmations of the party lines–There’s no sexism in skepticism because I AM NOT sexist; feminazis are looking for trouble; women like being objectified or they wouldn’t try to attract male attention–filled page after page of discussion. It makes no sense. No real thought is given at all to whether the women speaking up about an observation they’ve made might be reasonable, or if the observation could be accurate, or if blind spots could exist, or if their arguments might be valid. Nope. Claims of unnoticed sexism are just written off and then, which is classic, turned around so that the men who are yelling the loudest are suddenly the biggest victim in the conspiracy of women to feminize men and deny and vilify natural masculinity.

I don’t know what to think. Obviously, the topic is too touchy to broach again, unless you agree with the statement that sexism doesn’t exist and some women just like to complain, in which case you can continue posting sarcastic, joyful comments about male/female relationships and the (non)presence of sexism in the community. This is a sore-winner scenario, and it’s off-putting. Seriously off-putting. Furthermore, for stuff like this to be going on days and days later is really disappointing, especially when people have been wondering as a group what to do to increase membership. The demographics of the skeptical movement skew mostly male (apparently, mostly white male, but that’s a conversation for someone else to have), but it’s some kind of complete mystery why.

I am still unsure what group of people/social and political behaviors constitutes the “Skeptical Movement” in the first place, so I don’t know how big of a tempest in a teapot a flurry of hostility toward the topic of sexism in online boards and blogs represents. Maybe this is nothing. Maybe I should know by now that the gathering places on the Internet attract the most cantankerous and stubborn people interested in anything, and that the in-person events and exchanges are perfectly civil and polite. I could be the silly one who’s gotten herself into a right state over what everyone agrees is an inconsequential, insignificant conversation in the Grand Skeptical Scheme of Things. OK. But I’m not that enthusiastic anymore about the idea that mingling with people in the Skeptical Movement means I’m mingling with advanced critical thinkers with open minds. Now I know that there are some people I know online now, who listen to the same podcast as I do, and they’ve chosen to believe in some things and not others, and they can’t always say why. They are not, as a group, skeptical about their own biases and prejudices. They feel, as a group, that they are as victimized as the next person. But we all like the SGU. That’s nice. It’s a nice podcast. I learn interesting things about current events there, or at least they’d have been current if I’d been caught up.

But I’ve learned for myself the lesson every skeptic learns eventually, that no matter how hard you fight, or argue, or explain some new ideas, you really aren’t going to change a single person’s mind. And if it’s a hot enough topic, someone might even call you a cunt before you are done.

And that, Gentle Reader, is kind of a drag.

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