Hayley Stevens recently posted at SheThought on the kinds of crap many young, female skeptics get to deal with. You know the sort of thing:
When you share your critical thoughts with others, when you voice your opinion and speak your mind do not be under the assumption that it is okay to do this because this is attention seeking behavior and others will see through your wicked attempt at gaining an ego boost for yourself. By even contemplating writing your thoughts on your blog you are clearly attempting to make a name for yourself and make subjects all about you. Any negative reaction you receive as a result of sharing your thoughts is only deserved and you only have yourself to blame for being young, female and daring to be vocal.
It took all of four comments for her to get this in response:
Hayley replied that everything she listed had happened to her, repeatedly, and to others. Apparently, her personal experience didn’t count as evidence. She had to prove that it happened to her and had happened because of age and/or gender.
Come on Hayley, this is Skepticism 101. Claims require evidence, what is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, burden of proof etc. If you’ve got evidence of yourself being dismissed because of your age/gender, then obviously that’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. However, you haven’t presented any thus far. Perhaps you should consider the possibility that you, just like everyone else, are sometimes wrong?
So Hayley linked the commenter to a Reddit thread on which he (what, you thought this person was female?) had commented.
Hayley, as has already been pointed out to you, that post from Reddit was from a troll, looking to get a reaction from you. You fed them. They won. As we speak, they are most probably rubbing their hands with glee as they look for their next target.
Yes, what they did was horrible, but they weren’t looking for debate. They are not interested in rational discussion. It’s completely separate from the issues here.
I’ll say again, if there is evidence that young (and I’m younger than 30 BTW) female skeptics are being dismissed for ageist and sexist reasons, then I’d be the first to say that there is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But until that evidence is presented, I can’t help but treat this like I’d treat any other baseless claims. I’m not trying to wind anyone up, I’m not trying to be a contrarian, I’m simply asking for evidence.
That wasn’t evidence. That was a troll. A troll isn’t a real person who is tolerated and supported within a community. Oh, no, no, no. And our correspondent repeated the sloppy thinking about feeding trolls.
What this commenter is doing is far worse than being wrong about trolls, however. This commenter is getting the idea of evidence all messed up–and lecturing about skepticism while he does it. Even if we didn’t care about reaching as many people with skepticism as possible, even if we considered basic fairness to be of no concern whatsoever, this is why we shouldn’t tolerate this pseudoskepticism about sexism within skeptic circles.
So, how does evidence actually work? Well, it’s important to remember that systematically gathering evidence is a tool for reducing the role of bias in assessing a phenomenon. For this reason, it is important to decide ahead of time what constitutes evidence. If we just collect data then lay it all out in front of us to try to determine what it means, we give our biases far too wide a field in which to play. This process can be useful for generating hypotheses, but it can’t distinguish between competing hypotheses based on that same set of data.
Movement skeptics really should already understand this about evidence. After all, the big, high-profile event in movement skepticism, the JREF’s million-dollar challenge, operates on exactly these principles. The first two applicant rules are:
- This is the primary and most important of these rules: The Applicant must state clearly, in advance, and the Applicant and the JREF must agree upon, what powers or abilities will be demonstrated, the limits of the proposed demonstration so far as time, location and other variables are concerned, and what will constitute both a positive and a negative result.
- Only an actual performance of the stated nature and scope, within the agreed-upon limits, will be accepted. Anecdotal accounts or records of previous events are not acceptable.
That is how evidence works in skepticism.
So now a similar challenge needs to be put to those who just show up and say, “Where’s your evidence of bias?”, particularly when they say it to people like Hayley who had already given some. It’s time we stop saying, “Well, here’s more, if the first batch wasn’t good enough for you.” It’s time to say, instead, as I did to this commenter, “What do you consider to constitute evidence? What will satisfy you?”
The plain fact of the matter is that most of the people asking for evidence like this haven’t thought about bias deeply enough to have any idea what evidence they would accept. They’ve just gotten in the habit of asking for it when their preconceived notions are being challenged. As though there were some objective evidence for those.
After all, it isn’t as though the existence of biases were some kind of new and radical notion within the skeptical community. It’s one of the foundational findings of the field.
If these people want correlational evidence, fine. That’s sadly easy to do, as long as they understand (as a skeptic should) that one example of something happening to a man doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen far more frequently to women. If someone is numerate enough to agree to a reasonable test, providing correlational evidence isn’t hard.
Do they want some other sort of evidence? Well, then it’s up to them to decide what that should be–and up to me or to whomever else they’re asking for evidence to determine whether they’re being reasonable in their request. They may be. They may not be. Either way, if they specify publicly, then others can judge the fairness of their demands.
Do they not know what they want, at least in terms of evidence? That wouldn’t surprise me, actually. That’s probably the case for most people asking like this. All they know is that they’re not satisfied with what they’ve seen so far. They don’t know why. Even here, though, asking will do a lot of good. They claim to be skeptics. Let them unpack what exactly it is that they’re skeptical of when the topic is bias. There isn’t a better way for them to do this than to consider what it would take to change their minds.
So, for the sake of good skepticism, it’s time to stop answering calls for evidence of bias with anything other than, “What sort of evidence will satisfy you? No, I mean specifics.”