A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Your Dogma is chasing my Karma - a suggestion to skeptics

One of the reasons I love science is its utter objectivity. Science doesn't care about your petty prejudices, political persuasions or reckless religiosity - it remains steadfast and unconcerned. Creationists can scream 'til they're blue in the face that the earth is less than 10,000 years old but it won't magically shave off an odd 4 billion years from the age of the Earth. Homeopaths can claim all they like about their elixirs but it won't change the fact that their concoctions are just water. Science is an objective tool - we can run the same experiments, and verify the same result is found. Skepticism, defined by Wikipedia as a "...questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts,or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere"  is an integral part of science for evaluating evidence. Critically this means remaining objective - an active skeptic in the scientific sense attempts to falsify their own ideas by testing it or looking for counter examples. They must examine all plausible interpretations and test them. Crucially,  it is a terrible mistake to only look to evidence that supports your position and disregard evidence at odds with it.
I'd like to think it is promising that many people are identifying themselves as skeptics. But are we honestly applying that label with all the intellectual honesty and rigour it entails ?

If creationists want the Earth to be <10,000 years old, they'd best invent time travel.....

About that I'm not as sure as I once was. Recent events have left me feeling more than a little disillusioned with the 'skeptic community'. Please be aware dear reader that I don't mean to disparage the skeptic community; many in the skeptical community have done great work in spreading understanding of critical thinking and the scientific method. But if the skeptical community wish to help others think for themselves, is it up to them to apply the same standards to their own discourse. But I note with sadness a certain dogma creeping into skepticism. This is worrying - again from wikipedia dogma is "authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted, or diverged from, by the practitioner or believers". It is the very antithesis of skepticism and yet recent comments from leading lights in the community have shown this very trait. To reduce skepticism to something resembling a religion would be a insult to intellectual honesty, and with that in mind I'm (hesitantly) offering my humble opinion on not only the whole "Elevatorgate" fiasco but rather the cracks that were and are already in the foundations of this noble movement that I cannot in good conscience ignore.

Digression - When I was a kid I thought "dogmatic" literally translated to "automatic dog".

By now pretty much everyone knows the elevatorgate story. If you don't know it, there's plenty of blogs on the issue. I'll get straight to what pains me about the whole furore, and please note I am not setting out to offend anyone. I inevitably will, but I do not mean to single people out for attack - we are all human, and emotions can get in the way of harsh critical analysis. The first red flag for me was dangerous error of making assumptions and assertions without evidence. This is the very anti-thesis of skepticism. Yet the whole elevator-gate affair was riddled with assertions and assumptions that were constantly overlooked. Rebecca Watson herself stated the she was "sexually objectified" rather than found to be sexually attractive. This is a assertion without any basis and perhaps a massive overstatement - she was asked for coffee politely and she politely refused. She has EVERY right to feel uncomfortable. But she has no basis to assert the intentions of the proposer. He may have been quite genuine and friendly, or perhaps socially inept. He may indeed have been hitting on her, but Watson insists she was sexually objectified, which she defines as "dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question". This is unsupported conjecture and she has zero basis for this drastic condemnation.

Initially this was my issue with the event - Watson was well within her rights to feel uncomfortable, emotions are entirely subjective. Indeed, from her accounts it seems to be a clumsy come on. But it is profoundly against the ethos of skepticism to make such a laden example when there is an absence of evidence either way. Watson could indeed be absolutely right - but equally she could be utterly wrong. The essence of the issue is without evidence, what Watson said was not a skeptical statement as it relied on assumption and assertion. Of course the issue IS emotive, and Watson could be at least initially excused for overstating the case.

But what I do have a problem with is constructing straw men arguments - this is exactly the sort of behavior that skeptics bemoan when it is done to us so it is both hypocritical and intellectually vapid to use such tactics in our own discussions. When Stef McGraw suggested a different interpretation of Rebecca Watson's anecdote, Watson dismissed it as the "anti-woman rhetoric my audience was engaging in". This is not only a straw man dismissal, it is also an ad homimen attack. Worse, Watson included McGraw along side those calling for her to be raped from a pulpit position. At best this was terribly thought out juxtaposition, at worse it was positively odious slur. In either case it is classic straw manning - misrepresenting another's position rather than addressing it truthfully is a terrible faux pas for self-proclaimed skeptics to make. Curiously, Watson did the same thing to Rose St. Clare and Paula Kirby when presenting with their differing opinion.

Straw man argument - an argument without a brain...

Nor was it limited to the main protagonists - plenty of commentators took unwarranted and unfair pot shots. My friend the Irish female scientist Zenbuffy eloquently summed up her thoughts on the matter in this blog. Immediately afterwards she was attacked by Jennifer Ouellette in Scientific American for "diminish(ing) the experiences and emotions of your sisters in skepticism. Remain open to the possibility that you, too, might be unconsciously influenced by cultural baggage." This was snide, condescending and prompted Zenbuffy to ask Ouellette if she had actually bothered to read her blog. Ouellette has since deactivated the link but Zenbuffys reflections on the matter can be seen here. Similarly, Paula Kirby received flak for politely stating her point of view. There is a certain dark irony that despite this being ostensibly about female empowerment, it seems that women can be staggeringly vicious to their fellow women over different viewpoints. This hardly encourages women to be skeptics does it ?

Worse were the other commentators who expounded a weak false dichotomy - you're either with us or a misogynist. This is intellectually false in every way and I cringed to read it - Whether or not you think Richard Dawkin's comments were well judged or not, I very much doubt the man is a hater of women. Nor do I agree with the vitriol spewed upon Prof. Dawkins - Dawkins has done so much for public understanding of science, more so than the vast majority of the skeptic community ever will do in their time. I read several comments from well known skeptic writers and activists, claiming they will boycott Dawkins and his future works, including Skepchick "I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library. I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same". That is frankly pathetic - you can dislike the man if you wish (I personally am a huge fan) but to dismiss his work shows to me that this rift is deeper than just a spat - it shows so called skeptics are more interested in the man than the message. It shouldn't matter a damn if Dawkins was Satan himself  (see what I did there?!)  who eats cute little babies for breakfast - either his work is solid after skeptical examination or it isn't. And if the work is solid, you do not have to like the man. It shouldn't even come into the picture. The fact that the comments made against him were so acidic indicates that cult of personality > actual substance. The implication that one was sexist or misogynistic if they didn't fully support Watson was frankly insulting and intellectually empty.


There's also the fallacy of invalid comparisons abounding, and hyperbole without proper context. Exactly the kind of thing my debating coach used to chide us for, and I now give out to students for. Yet for example, Dr. Phil Plait said "to a woman, being alone on that elevator with that man was a potential threat, and a serious one." But there are always potential threats - the question should be how likely is a particular threat ? Stranger rape is terrifying but relatively rare - most men (and women) are not sexual predators. As it is phrased it is more scaremongering than illuminating. But there was something curious about the whole thing - women were constantly depicted as weak potential victims, men as potential predators. Yes, both scenarios can and do occur. But then we're back to the question of perception of risk versus actual risk. Plait described the elevator scenario as "potential sexual assault". Which of course it is, in the same way that going for a walk is a potential death scenario. Sadly, almost all rapes are perpetrated by people known to the victim. For those interested in the figures try here, here and here. It is estimated by the FBI that 90,000 male - female sexual assaults occur in the US annually. Surprisingly, it is also estimated that 100,000 - 140,000 male - male rapes occur in US prisons annually. These are terrible crimes, but this approach is not a healthy one as it commits the fallacy of argument from exception and is so emotive it strangles attempts to critically evaluate the actual issue at hand.

People are many things, a thrilling combination of psychological and biological quirks. To assign them characteristics based solely or even chiefly on gender is far from scientific. Unless they are in someway biological, it is simply ridiculous to make statements alluding to "women" or "men" in general. How can one person speak for 3+ billion others ? People are individuals first and foremost. Trying to shoehorn the entire spectrum of human emotions and reactions into two categories based on mutations of the 23rd chromosome is plainly ridiculous yet it didn't stop many authors speaking generally about how men or women should act. 

 An unscientific attempt at characterizing people based on an accident of birth ? That rings a bell..

This brings me to my biggest gripe with the skeptic community - the entire argument has become dogmatic and utterly pointless. Feminism in the form of female equality is something I support (see previous post about protesting for pro-choice in Ireland) but is it not something consistent with skepticism - the truth is any ideological movement based on ideals and aspirations has dogma, and as such is separate to skepticism. It is equally laudable, but it is impossible to marry the philosophy of skepticism with ideologies.

This doesn't just apply to feminism - it applies to any other ideologies you or I subscribe to - humanist, environmentalism, human rights etc. Of course we should aspire to these goals, but forcing them onto the intellectual tool of skepticism is short sighted and doomed to failure - even inside these ideological arenas there is a great deal of assertion, subjectivity and dogma . I find myself in full agreement with Paula Kirby who is "saddened to see the movement tearing itself apart over something that I do not see as central to atheist activism in the first place, and reluctant to do or say anything that might add fuel to the flames." Admittedly the quote I am using refers to atheism rather than skepticism but Kirby's credentials in skeptics circles are rock solid. There is nothing to stop people being both feminist AND skeptical. But drawing parallels between an ideology and a method of inquiry is fallacious. This is how dogma gets into movements - and the irony of dogma getting into skeptical movement shouldn't be lost on skeptics.

By the same measure I think it's time Plait's "Don't be a dick" mantra is treated in much the same way. Though laudable as it may be, "being a dick" is subjective, dogmatic and just begging to be abused. It allows all manner of straw man arguments and the censure of valid critical approaches. It has net effect of sacrificing true skepticism for a more populist form where certain topics and viewpoints are taboo. Essentially a party-line for skeptics. I've seen this argument used to witch-hunt and demean valid questioning and as decent as the thought behind it was, I simply can't see a way to make it compatible with honest skepticism. It turns out I'm not the only skeptical thinker who has noticed this. Other writers have talked about it before me.

Don't be a dick - bet you thought I'd do something crass there..

So let me ask any skeptics who might be reading this - is the skeptic community clinging to dogma rather than cold clinical reasoning ? Indeed I asked some of my fellow scientists and colleagues their opinion on the skeptic community. Despite these people being professional skeptics, many of them told me they found the 'community' off-putting - The general consensus was that the skeptic community were more interested in the 'community' aspect than the 'skepticism' aspect. As one colleague noted "all those who are scientific are skeptical. But it hardly seems all those who are skeptical are scientific." Interestingly the opinions of my female colleagues towards Watson's side were almost universally negative. Many of them felt she had misrepresented other women and several felt patronised by skeptic writers presuming to tell them, as women, how they should feel and that they were anti-women if they felt otherwise. In essence they did not like the concept of these people speaking on their behalf. 

I admit to being partially in agreement there - many popular skeptic writers displayed a staggering lack of integrity or a knee jerk reaction unbecoming of critical thinkers. If my scientific colleagues who are in principle supportive of the skeptical movement can harbour such negative feelings towards it, spare a thought for how an outsider might feel, particularly when the issue garnered so many headlines.

Perhaps I might digress a moment to rely a personal anecdote?  When this story first broke, I heard about it from a science writer I respected and followed on twitter. He posted some searing condemnation of Dawkins and repeated the "not buying.." mantra. I found that surprising - a scientific writer disparaging a noted academic over what amounts to issue unrelated to their scientific credentials ? He followed up with nasty tweets about sexism in skepticism and those oppressing Watson. I politely suggested the issue may be a storm in a teacup and that perhaps it has more to do with social ineptitude than gender - the author's response was utterly unexpected. Instead of replying to me either to agree or disagree, or perhaps point out the flaw in my reasoning (which I would have been open to), he retweeted my comment to his 9000+ followers with a disparaging comment tacked on. I was upset and surprised - I replied that he was entitled to his opinion, but I didn't see how a condescending attitude would benefit anyone. He retweeted this with another barb, and then sent me a message belittling me. Essentially he painted me as a clueless sexist and some of his followers decided to take cheap shots also. This was particularly hurtful given that my last blog post was about a women's rights issue in Ireland which I actively support. I am a mere scientist, and not a 'blog personality' with thousands of followers on twitter. I don't have a column in any scientific dispatch. I don't have my own youtube channel with lots of fans. I'm so damn busy trying to do actual science (and music) that I probably never will. But I apply the principles of skepticism everyday, even if it means throwing out a cherished theory in my own research. I try to teach students critical thinking - not what to think, but how to think. I do my utmost to keep my integrity, and I do not think that is it acceptable to abuse others for or assume their intentions. I lost my respect for that science journalist sadly - to publicly misrepresent someone else is not becoming of a scientist, journalist or skeptic of any stripe. I really expected more. In a similar vein I lost respect for the journalist who took a pot shot at Zenbuffy ( here.). Like her, I am a small timer who writes for a handful of readers. But I will strive to be as objective as I can, and to maintain my own integrity. It is just rather hard when a community who supposedly exist to support this aim are actively antagonistic towards it.

There are many fantastic skeptics I have met - but the loudest voices in this fiasco seem to be the most polarizing ones. Perhaps it is time to question if these voices are really Representative of skeptic thought. So I pose this and leave it with you, dear reader. Skepticism is a method of enquiry, an attitude of investigation - does it really need a social club ? Particularly if this network cannot apply the principles it claims to uphold to itself.  This is the crux of the issue - Skepticism will survive without a dedicated skeptic community. But a skeptic community will not survive without skepticism.

A literal storm in a teacup ?


  1. Very interesting David, and like I mentioned on the "The Facebook" I do find myself agreeing with you a lot.
    Funnily enough Rebecca imparted this story to me before she went home and although I agreed with her saying I would also have found the elevator situation uncomfortable I would not have read into it so much. Perhaps this make me very naive - it is open to interpretation (as well).
    I have written in the past about how I really don't agree with many Skeptical women's out look on women in skepticism and that I actively oppose the singling out of a gender as a focus of any compaign to make the community more woman friendly. I personally think it can be a fruitless, overly emotive way of thinking.
    I agree that the sense of community should come first - and that is one of the reasons I keep the Dublin Skeptics in the Pub primarily socially based. So people can come out to the pub and just have a chat about anything they find interesting be it political, skeptical, feminist or religion - whatever is interesting...
    It distresses me that Rebecca felt threatened just as it would if a woman at my SiTP meeting said she felt the same about another member. And although her feelings are perfectly legitimate this arguement is purely retorical. We have no idea of the mans intentions, and if we were to inquire now we would not get a strictly honest answer IMO.
    Any situation in which a fellow skeptic is shot down for voicing some opposition has got to be worrying, especially if those with a differing opinion are attempting to look at the situation objectivly and rationally. It is a sad day when that happens.

  2. Excellent - loved the closing remark especially. I keep discovering new voices coming out of the woodwork, and I suspect many others simply do not want to speak up after seeing how some are handling disagreement.

    The best they can do is subvert some parts of the 'skeptical movement'. Skepticism itself will survive intact, and that should give us hope.

  3. Thanks guys - if you're interested, pop over to ZenBuffy's page now. PZ Myers is having a go at her for... well.. good question. Bad form though..


  4. Better watch out, or PZ will come over here and straighten you out too!

    You'd think he had better things to do than to go around insulting every blogger who disagrees with him.

    Sorry about the anonymous posting - can't get LiveJournal login to work for love nor money -


  5. No problems :) Dr. Myers might grace us here - I don't think disagreement is a bad thing, as long as we don't all strawman each other!

    There is no need, but I for one would like to understand other's POV and reserve right to disagree if needs be!

  6. I don't go chasing bloggers who disagree with me. Sometimes, though, when they directly confront me on twitter or in email I'll take notice.

    But sorry, I'm really done with this whole issue, which I think is a non-issue to begin with.

    I also think Oullette's link to Zenbuffy was perfectly appropriate; it's removal was an effort to be nice to someone who disagreed, not a nefarious unethical trick; and I agree that we don't want dogma in the skeptical/atheist movement. I don't think, though, that what you've said here is very relevant: there are loonies who accuse Dawkins of being a rapist & misogynist, and I'm not on their side; there are other loonies who accuse Rebecca Watson of being a "radical feminist" and describe her with obscenities, and I'm certainly not on their side, either.

    And on your last point: yes, these movements need a social aspect, or they'll fall apart. Rational movements need to accept women as full partners; they'll also fall apart if they're just the boys and their subservient girlfriends.

  7. A valid point and one I agree with - I think it's best if we're all done with the issue and leave it. But I am very grateful you replied, it means alot - I would hate to intentionally or otherwise be accused of twisting my facts.

    Yeah, I'm anal retentive, but I'm a stickler for details :)

  8. Very well written and calmly presented (thought that shouldn't matter to skeptics). The best synopsis of this episode that I've seen to date. Dogma in the skeptical/atheist movement is what this episode is about. "This is unsupported conjecture and she has zero basis for this drastic condemnation." You speak to much like a scientist, as likely do you female peers. Others have pointed out that the riff seems to be related to both professional background and age. Scientist like yourself talking about skepticism and journalist/English majors (Watson, Oulette, Marcotte, etc). talking about sexism. Reminds me of the old CP Snow book on two cultures. The other dimension is age perhaps represented by 1,2,3 wave feminisism. We also don't want a community of chicks and their subservient boyfriends unwilling to be skeptical of feminist dogma.


  9. PZ Myers said...
    "But sorry, I'm really done with this whole issue, which I think is a non-issue to begin with."

    And there lies your problem.
    That you think that what RW did to Stef is a 'non-issue'?
    Or are you going to stick to your tribal blindfold again and pretend that this never occurred?

  10. Well written and it includes the key issues that should matter to skeptics and scientists alike.

    I too, have lost respect for a couple science bloggers. I have concerns about their ability to be objective.

    My respect has been diminished for a couple other science bloggers who merely overlooked the key issues, like PZ, who focused on naming names and missed the entire false dichotomy/ad hom issue against McGraf, then bowed out rather than address the criticisms of his comments.

    I hope when the dust settles, the points you've outlined above are the ones we take away.

    *I do have one disagrement with you however. I don't think supporting a cause and skepticism are mutually exclusive. Perhaps they just require greater care to remain skeptical. I, for one, joined this fray initially because portraying women as vulnerable in a situation that I didn't see supporting evidence for hit a nerve. I thought it was harmful to women, not supportive as it was being portrayed.

  11. Very well put, David.

    When I started reading the fallacies and strawmen comments that had no evidence to support them, the first thing that popped in my mind was "are these people skeptics or godless creationists?" Imagine if scientists, who didn't agree on a hypothesis or theory, stooped to these levels of pointing fingers at each other and blogging with such personal attacks. Science didn't get as far as it did by jumping to conclusions, when there was no evidence to support it.

  12. I think you guys have hit it nail in the head. Arguments without evidence tend to degrade to name calling and position entrenching! I think it's time for a new subject but thanks all for the feedback :)

  13. Good post! Pity I only just found out about it.

    For me, the issue was (and is) about the easy acceptance of bullying in our movement. This shocked me at the time, and I am still angry about it, months later.

    Watson bullied Stef McGraw - someone far less powerful - in a way that was especially deplorable, and she should apologise for it. The people who actually defended the bullying - and actually went on the offensive against those who objected to it!! - have a lot of soul searching to do. Some apologies from the bullies, particularly Watson - and the enablers of the bullies such as PZ Myers - are sorely needed. I don't see how else we can achieve healing within our movement.

  14. Pre-script: Archive binge, sorry for random comments all over the shop.

    "Despite these people being professional skeptics, many of them told me they found the 'community' off-putting - The general consensus was that the skeptic community were more interested in the 'community' aspect than the 'skepticism' aspect." Boom! Headshot. Exactly why I don't go near any of them anymore, and pretty much why I never got involved in it in the first place (although early ventures tended to end up in UFO/CIA/NSA/Acronym-town....). Funnily enough, exactly what I was thinking while reading this too.

    Most communities online that I've visited are getting this way these days though. Even bastions of harsh anti-logical vitriol like Something Awful are getting too fond of "don't be a dick".... Sadly some real-world communities I've been part of for a few years are going that way too.


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