Since writing this post, I’ve avoided writing anything about alleged sexism in the atheist movement, in part because a lot of the debate centers around things allegedly said in blog comment threads (which I mostly don’t read) and other people’s hate mail (which I obviously don’t read at all.) But now there’s been another very public (by blogosphere standards) kerfuffle involving some clear-cut stupidity. Here’s what happened:
PZ Myers posted a comic strip about science and religion A 300+ comment thread about whether or not the cartoon was sexist ensued. PZ closed the thread, and wrote a post explaining why he thought the reasons that had been given for thinking the cartoon sexist were bad ones:
I tried tracing down the source of the image, with no luck; it appeared on reddit, on a couple of discussion forums, but no one seems to give credit to the artist. If we found more examples of this person’s work, and there were a pattern of always making the girl bunny the dumb bunny, then you’d have a case — the artist is consciously or unconsciously expressing a sexist trope. Without more information, you cannot possibly judge this cartoon as a reflection of an underlying bias against women. You cannot see a pattern in a sample of one. It’s also simply not true that portraying women as stupid is a staple of cartoons — from Fred Flintstone to Homer Simpson, the trend goes the other way. Yes, it’s still sexism — but if the comic in question had swapped the pants and dress on the bunnies, someone could object just as strongly. Given only two characters, one representing reason and one irrationality, there is actually no combination of sexes that isn’t going to offend someone, if you choose to see it only as a parable of sexual relations.
It isn’t. The two characters are having a conversation about science and religion, they are not using gendered language, and they’ve both been made childlike by portraying them as little cute bunnies. It’s fair to note that there are sexist biases in our culture, and that many of them belittle women, but that’s not what the comic was about; note it and move on.
Four hundred and eighteen comments later, someone said, “here’s a link to where the guy who made the cartoon said something sexist.” PZ quickly responded by saying, “Now THAT’s a smoking gun. OK, point accepted: the cartoon was originally made with part of the point being perpetuation of a sexist stereotype gleaned from the internet. In light of the evidence, I change my mind.”
I didn’t initially read these threads. Like I said, I’m not a big reader of blog comment threads. But then Physioprof, one of PZ’s fellow Freethought bloggers, whose posts show up in my feed reader, wrote a post titled “Skeptic, Skepticize Yourself,” trashing PZ. It didn’t respond to any of PZ’s arguments, but instead skipped straight to declaring that he ought to “unpack the influence of patriarchy and misogyny” on his reaction and “apologize for getting this so wrong.” Then, Physioprof wrote a second post, “Skeptical Hypocrisy,” about how one of PZ’s commenters was a “butthurt dood” because he objected to being accused of sexism.
Then is when I went back and read some of the comments. I got 50-some comments in to the first one before getting sick of it and Ctrl+Fing my way to the important stuff. That’s when I found PZ’s “OK, point accepted” comment, found that Physioprof’s posts didn’t come until about a day after the “OK, point accepted” comment, and found that Physioprof had left a bunch of comment’s on PZ’s second post, but none of those addressed PZ’s arguments either.
Now to state the bloody obvious: skepticism* is not a body of dogma, where you can just point to someone saying something that goes against the dogma and conclude they are therefore not a skeptic (or that they’re hypocritical about their skepticism or whatever). It’s how you reach your views that counts. And no, you generally can’t assume someone has arrived at their views improperly because you think they have the “wrong view.” This is risky even when there’s a fairly clear scientific consensus.
PZ was being the reasonable skeptic every step of the way here. He looked at the looked at the arguments that were initially given, decided they weren’t very good, explained his reasons for thinking so, and then changed his mind when given what he thought was a better argument. That’s what someone who cares about reasoning and evidence does. It’s Physioprof who’s failing at skepticism by skipping over the arguments and going straight for the denunciations.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Physioprof thinks, as a matter of dogma, that men are never allowed object to accusations of sexism made by women. This is the kind of crazy view that I’d normally be very reluctant to attribute to anybody, but it was actually taken by one of PZ’s commenters. In fact, it’s one of the things the “butthurt dood” was objecting to.
To make further bloody obvious points: harsh criticism of individuals has its place. Philosophy blogger Richard Chapelle wrote a post on this years ago that’s still one of the best things I’ve read on it. However, if you can’t say something nice, at least back up the not-nice things you say with reason and evidence. I think this is actually a more important point than usual skeptical demands for backing up religious beliefs. Most people compartmentalize their religious beliefs, making those beliefs mostly harmless, but baseless attacks on people are more harmful.
If this craziness had been confined to PZ’s comment section, I’d be only dimly aware of it and probably wouldn’t care much even if someone made a point of making me more aware. The fact that it’s infected the circle of appointed Freethought bloggers is a bit more worrisome. And I’ve seen other whiffs of people treating “skepticism” like it ought to be a body of doctrine.
Yeah, there are a lot of issues where the evidence is pretty one-sided. But a lot of issues aren’t like that, and the chatter I’ve heard about making the skeptic movement about anything any everything ignores that fact. I’m thinking in particular of chatter about getting the skeptic movement involved in government policy debates like the war on drugs. The problem is that Policy debates generally aren’t one-sided, there are both costs and benefits to any proposed policy.
Take the war on drugs: I think it’s pretty clear marijuana should be legal. The evidence shows marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol, and any drug that can be shown to be no more harmful than alcohol should be legal, QED. However, the question “should marijuana be legal?” is still more complicated than questions about the physiological effects of THC. If I had to debate marijuana legalization, I’d have to be ready for the possibility that my opponent would point to a cost of legalization that I hadn’t thought of. Or that they’d argue public policy shouldn’t always be about cost-benefit analysis.
So in short: skepticism isn’t supposed to be a body of dogma, it’s supposed to be about how conclusions are reached, and we need to keep it that way. And part of keeping it that way means focusing on what arguments people give for their views. It also means not giving people a pass when they attack others without backing up their criticisms.
*Note: I’m talking about the Paul-Kurtz-and-James-Randi sense of “skepticism” here, not the much older Greek philosophy sense.