Skepticism is about the process

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 OK, point accepted: the cartoon was originally made with part of the point being perpetuation of a sexist stereotype gleaned from the internet.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.

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20 Comments.

  1. It seems Luke’s recent post on “skepticism” applies here:

    Skepticism and critical thinking teach us important lessons: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Correlation does not imply causation. Don’t take authority too seriously. Claims should be specific and falsifiable. Remember to apply Occam’s razor. Beware logical fallacies. Be open-minded, but not gullible. Etc.

    But this is only the beginning. In writings on skepticism and critical thinking, these guidelines are only loosely specified, and they are not mathematically grounded in a well-justified normative theory. Instead, they are a grab-bag of vague but generally useful rules of thumb. They provide a great entry point to rational thought, but they are only the beginning. For 40 years there has been a mainstream cognitive science of rationality, with detailed models of how our thinking goes wrong and well-justified mathematical theories of what it means for a thinking process to be “wrong.” This is what we might call the science and mathematics of Technical Rationality. It takes more effort to learn and practice than entry-level skepticism does, but it is powerful. It can improve your life and help you to think more clearly about the world’s toughest problems.

    Because skepticism hasn’t been “mathematically grounded in a well-justified normative theory” we have different interpretations or threshholds of what constitutes reasonable doubt and reasonable evidence. But I also doubt that it’s reasonable to charge every single person to become experts at say Bayes’ theorem in order to correctly apply skepticism.

    Requesting more evidence will always be a good rule of thumb. PZ requested it, and he got it. Or at least, he got what he considered evidence. Some might fault him for not enough skepticism, but to say that he wasn’t being skeptical full-stop would be incorrect.

  2. Its not skepticism that’s the issue. Its feminism.

    Feminism (at least in certain influential forms, its not a monolith obviously) generally believes that there are narratives, assumptions, prejudices, and generalizations at large in our culture that are harmful. Programmatically, it offers alternative generalizations, and uses social approval and condemnation as a carrot and stick in order to encourage people to accept the substitution.

    Often the intention to do this is articulated quite explicitly.

    So naturally its going to come into conflict with skepticism, which is by nature against generalizations.

    Skepticism isn’t feminism, and vice versa. One can be a skeptical feminist. But one needn’t be skeptical to be a feminist. And its entirely possible for someone to be skeptical to the extent that they’re not a feminist, and no further.

  3. Y’all are missing some significant points, which I’ll attempt to address.

    Quoting Patrick:

    Feminism (at least in certain influential forms, its not a monolith obviously) generally believes that there are narratives, assumptions, prejudices, and generalizations at large in our culture that are harmful.

    I agree, and concur with this statement. So far, so good.

    Programmatically, it offers alternative generalizations, and uses social approval and condemnation as a carrot and stick in order to encourage people to accept the substitution.

    This is mistaken. First, with “alternative generalizations”. Countering a problematic generalization, such as a sexist stereotype, doesn’t require replacing it with a DIFFERENT generalization. Breaking the generalization by weakening it or giving counterexamples works too, and that’s what almost all progressive feminists do. (At least, in my experience on Pharyngula, Shakesville, and related sites.) In my posts on the Pharyngula comment thread, I gave multiple examples of ways to weaken sexist portrayals without simply reversing them.

    By your argument then, you can’t claim that feminism as a whole opposes skepticism on the basis of generalizations. (Not to mention the irony factor here.)

    Second, the “carrot and stick” portrayal. I assume that this objection stems from social pressure being used where you would prefer rational argument. However, unconscious bias (as in sexism, racism, etc.) generally isn’t counterable by rational, conscious techniques alone. For instance, one commenter mentioned her son telling her “Scientists are men” even though SHE is a scientist, in spite of repeatedly reminding her son that she is one whenever he makes the comment. Social pressure may not be useful in a rational argument, but it’s undeniably useful in consciousness (and probably unconsciousness) raising.

    I’d also point out that attributing generalization to feminist viewpoints (as Hallquist does in this post and Patrick does in his comment), when such generalizations have not in fact been presented or implied, is notably characteristic of critics of feminism. I pointed out multiple examples of this phenomenon within the Pharyngula comment thread, summarized here: Comment link I think Hallquist is committing the same fallacy by claiming that PhysioProf believes men can “never” object, based on “one of PZ’s commenters”. Again, I and others gave several counterexamples of ways to object to a sexist interpretation without denying that other viewers COULD see that interpretation and back it up with evidence-based critique.

    Finally, PZ failed to address a key argument, which is vital to PhysioProf’s objection, and which Hallquist here has also missed. That argument is that this specific cartoon – not the artist’s body of work, not the artist himself, but the work alone – perpetuates a sexist stereotype in a societal context, via reinforcement of the aforementioned unconscious bias. PZ has never addressed this line of questioning, in spite of multiple commenters asking him to do so. That is the basis of PhysioProf’s objection.

    I’m not sure how many links will post here, so I suggest that to learn about unconscious bias and its consequences via stereotype threat and chilly climate, start by reading Ouellette’s blog article in Scientific American entitled “Is It Cold In Here”.

  4. 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.

    Holmes, you are very confused about what transpired in those threads. The “point” that PZ “accepted” was really only a very minor and, arguably, irrelevant one from the perspective of many of the discussants. If you had put on your skeptical “let’s see what actually transpired” hat instead of your credulous “ctrl-F” hat, you would have understood this (assuming your reading comprehension is better than most of the skeptic d00ds who did participate fully in those threads).

  5. @Patrick,

    Your post raises a question I’ve been struggling with: do we call this kind of craziness “feminism,” or something else, and if something else, then what? Personally, I don’t want to cede the term to the crazies, and certainly there are vehement critics of Andrea Dworkin who still call themselves feminists.

    On the other hand, when people like Physioprof hear their critics claim the mantle of feminism, they just take this as more evidence of butthurtness. So I’m not going to bother insisting I’m a feminist, I’ll go with Mistress Matisse’s “I am if you think I am” response.

  6. I’d also point out that attributing generalization to feminist viewpoints (as Hallquist does in this post and Patrick does in his comment), when such generalizations have not in fact been presented or implied, is notably characteristic of critics of feminism.

    The claim about this post is false. It doesn’t even use the word “feminist” or “feminism.” In the previous post, I did generalize a bit in the sentence beginning, “When you spend a lot of time…” but I didn’t make any claim about “feminism” there.

    I think Hallquist is committing the same fallacy by claiming that PhysioProf believes men can “never” object, based on “one of PZ’s commenters”.

    I said that because when a second commenter objected to the first commenter, Physioprof declared the second commenter a “butthurt dood,” and didn’t object to what the first commenter said. It’s not conclusive, but it’s some evidence.

    Finally, PZ failed to address a key argument, which is vital to PhysioProf’s objection, and which Hallquist here has also missed. That argument is that this specific cartoon – not the artist’s body of work, not the artist himself, but the work alone – perpetuates a sexist stereotype in a societal context, via reinforcement of the aforementioned unconscious bias. PZ has never addressed this line of questioning, in spite of multiple commenters asking him to do so.

    On the contrary, I think that’s part of what PZ was addressing when he pointed out the trend of portraying men as stupid in cartoons.

    I’m not sure how many links will post here, so I suggest that to learn about unconscious bias and its consequences via stereotype threat and chilly climate, start by reading Ouellette’s blog article in Scientific American entitled “Is It Cold In Here”.

    Already read it, and other things like it. It doesn’t justify Physioprof’s posts.

  7. Chris- I don’t really know. I don’t have a dog in the fight of who gets to actually use the term “feminism” since I don’t self identify with the term.

    The best I can say is that a lot of people who hold those attitudes call themselves feminists, and nobody seems to object, so I guess I’ll use their terminology.

    Pteryxx- I’m not sure what else I can say in response to someone who quotes me acknowledging that feminism is not a monolith, quotes me stating outright that I am critiquing only a part of those who call themselves feminists, and then who accuses me of making an ironic generalization about feminism. I’m not sure if I could have put in a better qualifier than I did, and from your post, I’m not sure it would have mattered if I’d tried.

  8. When I said “attributing generalization to feminist VIEWPOINTS”, I was referring to your interpretation of PhysioProf’s posts. From your subsequent discussion and Patrick’s comment, I infer that y’all do consider PhysioProf to be espousing a feminist viewpoint, whether or not you used the term “feminist” to refer directly to said posts.

    On the contrary, I think that’s part of what PZ was addressing when he pointed out the trend of portraying men as stupid in cartoons.

    I’ve got two arguments for why that particular justification doesn’t hold up: First, that portrayals of dumb men vs smart women generally are comedic, while portrayals of smart men vs dumb women generally occur in dramas and other situations where we’re expected to take the characters seriously. Second, that using a “dumb men” trope as justification for ignoring a “dumb women” trope is, once again, assuming that the only way to correct a sexist stereotype is to reverse it. Intelligence needn’t be preferentially associated with gender at all, and doing so without counterbalance, to either gender, is just lazy and offensive writing.

    As for whether the one commenter’s statement as you read it, or Ouellette’s article as you read it, constitute justification for Physioprof’s viewpoint, obviously I disagree with your weighting of the evidence. Again, I don’t think generalization is helpful, in either direction, and I don’t think you’re justified in using a generalization about feminists to back up your claim that Physioprof’s generalizing about men.

  9. Pardon, my previous reply was to Chris.

    To Patrick: All I’m saying is that you made an incorrect assumption about feminism conflicting with skepticism as a matter of principle; and I think you did so by preferentially assuming that (at least some of) feminism was about applying reverse generalizations. I’ve tried to point out, with my cites and examples, that feminism doesn’t need to use reverse generalizations at all. If skepticism is by nature against generalizations, as you say (and I find no fault with that statement), then feminism doesn’t naturally conflict with skepticism. Only generalizing does. In fact, I claim that generalizing conflicts with BOTH skepticism and progressive feminism.

    And my primary point through my comments here, as well as in the original Pharyngula discussion, is that once skeptics get over making erroneous assumptions about what progressive feminists like myself are actually saying, y’all will probably realize that we’re on the same side.

  10. Pteryxx- Please review my post, particularly including the last paragraph, and particularly including the second sentence in that paragraph. Then consider what it is about you, the reader, that made you draw the conclusion that I was arguing this:

    “To Patrick: All I’m saying is that you made an incorrect assumption about feminism conflicting with skepticism as a matter of principle;”

  11. Patrick- Yep, I have done. Here’s your last paragraph again:

    Skepticism isn’t feminism, and vice versa. One can be a skeptical feminist. But one needn’t be skeptical to be a feminist. And its entirely possible for someone to be skeptical to the extent that they’re not a feminist, and no further.

    Compare this with your initial claim:

    Its not skepticism that’s the issue. Its feminism.

    What it is about me, the reader, that led me to draw my conclusion from your post, is that in your post you’re drawing a distinction between skepticism and feminism. As I consider myself a participant in both, I think that distinction is false. Your post failed to acknowledge even in passing that skepticism and feminism (of the type you describe) could be in accordance with each other. Thus, I think you assume that they can’t. (If you actually do realize that the cultural-narrative-based principle of feminism does not necessarily conflict with skepticism, and you merely failed to make that qualification clear in your argument, then I’ll gladly withdraw my claim of assumption and critique the oversight instead.)

    Thus my response, in which I claim that skepticism and feminism of the type you describe are NOT in conflict, with reference to specific parts of your comment.

    To paraphrase my claim: It’s not skepticism that’s the issue. Nor is it feminism. It’s generalization.

    And to rephrase your post, since you said “I’m not sure if I could have put in a better qualifier than I did”:

    Feminism (at least in certain influential forms, its not a monolith obviously) generally believes that there are narratives, assumptions, prejudices, and generalizations at large in our culture that are harmful. Programmatically, it offers alternative(s) generalizations, and uses social approval and condemnation as a carrot and stick in order to encourage people to accept the substitution.

    With this edit, I now consider this statement accurate. You’ll note it obviates your argument about feminism and skepticism being in conflict, though.

  12. @Pteryxx: My feeling is that you’re not being malicious, but I’m confused by the massive reading comprehension fail in the face of clarifications by both Patrick and myself. Now I’m contemplating dedicating an entire post to the “butthurt dood,” to make things extra clear… though I know I’ve got more important things to write about.

    For now, I’ll focus on PZ: I’m not sure what you mean by “counterbalance.” Is it something even achievable in a short comic with only two characters? But whether or not PZ’s responses to the other side of the debate were good ones is tangential to my main point. PZ was at least trying. Physioprof skipped straight to the denunciations.

  13. Pteryxx- That was my first sentence. It was followed by a sentence qualifying it. At a glance, about 1/3 of my word count was dedicated to trying to avoid having someone like you make the argument you did. It doesn’t seem to have helped.

    Two explanations exist for that, one based on my writing, and the other based on your reading.

    My writing is freely available for review above.

  14. Chris – I do appreciate that you give me that much credit, and that you’re taking the time to respond. My main point is just that I think y’all are making unwarranted assumptions about your positions without realizing you’re doing it. Frankly I’m more concerned with showing how skepticism and feminism generally aren’t in conflict at all, than with justifying or denouncing PZ or PhysioProf specifically. I’d rather make the arguments and let y’all come to your own conclusions about how that reflects on their application of skepticism.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “counterbalance.” Is it something even achievable in a short comic with only two characters?

    By counterbalance, I mean it’s possible to weaken the unfortunate implications of tropes that reinforce biased beliefs. Yes, I think it can be fixed rather easily, even in a short comic with only two, extremely simple characters. To explain:

    In this particular cartoon, the bunnies have only two distinctions between them: their beliefs differ (the main point) and their genders differ (a side point). In my opinion, the gender difference is so overt (speech color, clothing, etc) that it distracts from the main point: readers are likely to infer the message “females are irrational” along with the intended message “dogmatism is irrational”. So, in the comments I suggested several fixes: changing the word balloons from pink and blue to less gender-associated colors, or using toy characters that weren’t obviously masculine or feminine. Either of those fixes would obviate the gender message, while preserving the intended message.

    Note that I didn’t argue “men should ALWAYS be the dumb ones” or similar. That would also be an incorrect generalization, because intelligence (or open-mindedness) isn’t correlated with gender. But that’s how many commentors in PZ’s discussion mischaracterized arguments like mine, up to and including PZ himself. In the entire 1300+ comment thread, I didn’t see one person argue that female characters should NEVER be wrong; but I did see “YOU’RE SAYING THAT females can never be wrong” so many times that I devoted multiple posts to debunking that fallacy. (If you want to search my comments in PZ’s thread, I summarized them here: Link to comment)

    That’s why I claim that the common statement “[feminist viewpoint/person/theory] says gender representations must ALWAYS be [X]” is frequently an unwarranted assumption that misrepresents the actual argument under discussion. Thus, skepticism demands that such a generalizing statement should be subject to extra scrutiny whenever it’s made. Particularly by the person claiming it.

  15. Skepticism applied to the gendering of familial, social, and professional structures *leads* to feminism.

  16. Nice post.

    Re,

    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.

    That was when PZ noticed it, yes, but as David Marjanović noted in comment 886 of that thread, “The link to that evidence was already posted in comments 115, 119, and 138“.

  17. Pteryxx- When dealing with the dishonest, the best route to take is to minimize what you say. Since you cannot read a post that included only 10 sentences without quote mining it, I would be a fool to offer you additional substantive sentences as ammunition.

    Perhaps someday someone will be able to have a substantive conversation about the degree to which “substitute new narratives” + “use social opprobrium to enforce those narratives” is compatible or incompatible with skepticism. But I’m afraid that conversation won’t be between the two of us.

  18. Pteryxx: “…you’re drawing a distinction between skepticism and feminism. As I consider myself a participant in both, I think that distinction is false. ”

    Are you sure that’s what you wanted to mean? Do you really mean to say that property of being A and being B cannot be distinct if a person has both of them?

  19. accidental lurker

    @Patrick The issue is not feminism, really. It’s social constructivism vs “old” rationalism. That’s where the basic incompatibility lies.

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