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Skeptically looking down

Leeds Skeptics in the Pub replaced Steven Moxon’s planned talk titled  “Why aren’t there more woman in the boardroom?” with an open debate on “How should Skeptics Deal with controversy?” Tom Williamson of Skeptic Canary reports.

After that, the debate moved onto the question of “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?”. My answer was a strong and unequivocal “no”. Skepticism by its very nature is based on questioning. If someone puts up a barrier saying “you cannot question this” I find that to be an affront to skepticism. Also, I find that some people confuse the idea of questioning something with a desire to challenge and reject it. For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist. So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist. I think we need to bear this in mind when asking tough questions, and skeptics should not feel like there are any questions that cannot be asked.

There are problems with his proposed very controversial question though.

One, it’s meaningless. Literally meaningless; it’s colorless green sheep. Skepticism surely has to come into play in the formulation of the questions themselves. It’s no use asking questions that are so shapeless it’s impossible to know what an answer would even be.

Is the question improved if we make it “Are women in fact inferior to men?”? Not much. It’s a little clearer, but it’s still impossible to know how to answer.

Given that, it actually seems surprisingly unskeptical to ask such a question. Making questions precise and focused is part of the toolkit of skepticism. A mind with a habit of skepticism notices when questions are too vague to be meaningful.

Two, the real question isn’t whether people are equal, it’s whether people should be treated as equals. If you ask that question however – “should women REALLY be treated as equals to men?” – then it seems odd to say “that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist.” Dude, it kind of does. If you’re trying to resist treating a set of people as equals, and dressing it up as skepticism, that kind of is a hostile act directed at that set of people. That’s why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up.

It’s a particularly bad idea for “skeptics” to make a fetish of “questioning” this when most (or is it all?) of the people doing the questioning will not be the ones found unequal. It makes them look both fatuous and self-serving. They might as well ask “Are people like us REALLY superior to all other kinds of people?”

What skeptics can do of course is have a discussion about meta-ethics. But that’s a different discussion. Just asking themselves which underlings don’t get to be treated as equals isn’t that discussion.

 

Comments

  1. says

    One point: it’s not like asking ‘Are people like us REALLY superior to all other kinds of people?’ because that would be a question challenging the privileged status of ‘us’/men. It’s like saying ‘Is the higher status given to people like us REALLY unjustified?’

  2. LeftSidePositive says

    And, of course, tell this guy to wake me up when the Leeds Skeptics actually wants to host an hour-long speech by someone asking “Does 1+1 REALLY equal 2?” and has written a book called “The Maths Racket.” Does anyone go around actually asking these questions? Is asking that considered something that will arrive at deeper insights about our world, or simply an annoying exercise in mental masturbation?

    There is a difference between a question that you *cannot ask* because dogmatic people refuse to question their beliefs, versus a question that you SHOULD not ask, because it is frankly a waste of everyone’s time because the answer is already so well-supported that by asking it you must be either an idiot or a troll.

    In another parallel hypothetical, should the Leeds Skeptics host a speech on “Did evolution REALLY happen?” This is not, contra Ben Stein, an indication that one “cannot” question evolution, it’s just that it’s not worth anyone’s time to answer questions one should have figured out by sixth grade. It’s not that you’re not morally allowed to question, but when something is actually true and well-supported, it becomes abundantly clear that it will be functionally impossible to challenge any major aspect in a valid way.

  3. screechymonkey says

    The question isn’t really “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?”

    It’s “can we ask certain questions without arousing any suspicions about our motives?” And the answer to that is, no, sorry, you can’t. You might be able to have a subsequent discussion that is fair and pure and principled enough to dispel those suspicions, but we’ve all dealt with too many people who were “Just Asking Questions” (especially in skeptical communities, where JAQing off is a favorite pasttime of 9/11 Truthers and creationists, to name just two) for us to just assume that the motive is a neutral love of skeptical inquiry.

  4. says

    This is the moment where I sorely miss a ‘LIKE’ button on FtB.

    screechymonkey says:

    The question isn’t really “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?” … It’s “can we ask certain questions without arousing any suspicions about our motives?” And the answer to that is, no, sorry, you can’t.

    Bravo, gentleperson! Well-said. Applause.

  5. says

    So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist.

    Um… It kinda does. The question, as framed, clearly presupposes the hypothesis that women aren’t equal to men. Why is that not obvious to you?

    Try a thought experiment; utter the following sentence (modified from yours) in your mind: So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are blacks REALLY equal to whites?” that does not mean you are automatically a racist.

    To me, yes, it does. Context is important. What does that say to you?

    This is the 21st century, dude! That question qua question is not ‘controversial'; it’s rather stupid. Equality and equal opportunity amongst human beings aren’t up for debate any more.

  6. says

    Keep in mind that the sorts of people who ask questions like that typically perform the logical fallacy of conflating “equal” with “the same as”.

  7. S Mukherjee says

    I’m sure the Leeds society will not mind if the question is reframed as ‘Are men REALLY equal to women?’ and then the speaker proceeds to give all sorts of reasons why men are inferior creatures? I mean, I’m just asking, y’know!

  8. fastlane says

    So the author of that article was using a lot of words to justify JAQing off?

    Noted.

  9. Chiroptera says

    For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist.

    Actually, it probably makes you a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. And there are a lot of people who do confuse that with being a skeptic.

  10. Robert (SeraphymC) says

    Skeptics can ask whatever they like. They also would be fools not to think that the context of asking a question will also be taken into account and used to judge the merit of the question accordingly.

    Time is limited and we shouldn’t spend it JAQing off (this is perhaps the best new term I’ve heard of in quite some time).

  11. says

    Alex – you’re right. Only I wanted to preserve the skeleton of the original question and I wanted to include the risible buried premise…so I cheated.

  12. roland72 says

    The question “are women equal to men?” isn’t useful. And you can’t ask it without having an agenda. The question really should be “how do we make sure women and men are treated fairly?” It should surely be a given that fair treatment for people is something sceptics should wish for. If you pose the question that way then it’s immediately clear that regardless of whatever innate differences there might be (and good luck detecting those!) women are in fact not treated fairly by and large in our society. How to fix that is a proper field of enquiry for sceptics I would suggest.

  13. Matt Penfold says

    How to fix that is a proper field of enquiry for sceptics I would suggest.

    Oh, it certainly is, but a significant number of people in the sceptic community clearly do not think so. If something as mild as suggesting men don’t ask women for sex in a lift at 4am can cause the furore it did, just imagine what suggesting that women be treated as equals in the home or workplace might do!

  14. roland72 says

    @ Matt Penfold – yes indeed. And the sceptical way of finding out what women’s experiences are – i.e. LISTEN! – seems to be beyond the wit of many. But I hold out hope that progress is being made…

  15. says

    Two, the real question isn’t whether people are equal, it’s whether people should be treated as equals.

    This is true. The only problem with it is that it leaves open exactly the door they want left open. Like, “If we can all agree people should be treated equally” – which it’s easy for them to do rhetorically so that they can jump into the next part – “then it’s no problem for us to be bravely challenging the PC rulers in questioning/hinting/assuming/suggesting/discussing the Real Scientific Differences.” (Which would make me laugh if it didn’t have such serious consequences. People actually think that asking whether the dominant groups in a given social hierarchy really are superior is somehow daring and edgy. Ridiculous.)

    This was exactly the problem I had with a book by Peter Singer a while back.

    ***

    The question isn’t really “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?” … It’s “can we ask certain questions without arousing any suspicions about our motives?” And the answer to that is, no, sorry, you can’t.

    Exactly.

  16. David Evans says

    From time to time it is reported that teenage girls are outperforming boys in school. The usual response is not “this proves girls are smarter than boys” but “THE SCHOOLS ARE FAILING OUR BOYS!”

  17. Sili says

    For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist.

    Actually, it probably makes you a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. And there are a lot of people who do confuse that with being a skeptic.

    It’s an interesting question. But one I’d expect to see at a uni discussion group, not at Skeptics in the Pub.

  18. Michael says

    just imagine what suggesting that women be treated as equals in the home or workplace might do!

    In my experience that suggestion is not controversial amongst anyone but the seriously committed trolls. What I find always causes controversy is the assertion that because most western countries have legislation requiring that women be treated as equals then it follows that they must be and there is nothing else to talk about!

    Slightly off-topic but I was saddened to hear of the death of Sally Ride. Anytime I watch NASA TV I’m kind of impressed by the job NASA have done with gender equality in the workplace. My experience of working in an organisation full of engineers is that they find this pretty challenging.

  19. monkeymind says

    I think there is a huge scope for skeptical inquiry into the whole field of sex differences. There’s plenty of low hanging pseudo-scientific fruit there. If there are any Language Log readers here, do you remember Mark Liberman’s takedown of Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain”?

  20. Ysanne says

    Pet peeve as a mathematician:

    For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist.

    Why 1+1=2 holds is a fundamental question that is explored in every university maths program that deserves its name. In particular because this statement implies a certain set of assumptions to work, and there are perfectly sensible circumstances when it does not. Taking it as granted and obvious would seriously mess up any attempt advanced algebra later on.

    BUT! It is one thing to ask how we know that 1+1=2, and what (if any) implicit assumptions we need to ensure that this statement is true. It is a completely different thing to tacitly dismiss the simple, comprehensive and readily available answer, and pretend that there’s no good reason at all, and that it’s all just an agreement among people who are too afraid to question their assumption because their calculations concerning bridges and GPS might turn out to be wrong.
    (Side note: Yes, there are people like this, and they send their manuscripts to maths departments.)
    Asking a suggestively worded question like “are women REALLY equal to men” while ignoring the well-known answers and their associated assumptions is exactly this kind of dishonest willful ignorance.

  21. says

    monkeymind, Carol Tavris’s fantastic keynote speech at TAM this year actually touched on those issues, and I know she has written quite a bit on the subject. I encourage anyone interested in the subject to check out her work.

  22. anna says

    I would like to point out that the idea that women arent as smart as men was conventional wisdom for centuries. It isnt some daring shocking thing nobody has ever dared consider.

  23. says

    For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist. So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist.

    the reason no one asks the first question is that it’s accepted as true. The reason the second question gets asked a lot is because don’t accept it as true. IOW, the fact that someone asks the question does imply that it’s a question they found worth asking, which does imply disagreement with the currently prevalent answer.

    and that’s aside from what Ophelia pointed out: that the question “are women equal to men” is so vague as to be meaningless. equal in what? ability? social status?

  24. says

    Try a thought experiment; utter the following sentence (modified from yours) in your mind: So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are blacks REALLY equal to whites?” that does not mean you are automatically a racist.

    i see these sort of thought experiments a lot. but considering the existence of The Bell Curve, and of people who take that book seriously, I really don’t think such thought experiments achieve the desired goal. Rather often, those who don’t grok that they’re supporting systemic sexism by their JAQing off won’t grok that they can similarly support racism/homophobia/classism etc. with such “questioning”

  25. Ysanne says

    the reason no one asks the first question is that it’s accepted as true.

    Um, no. It’s because the people who’d bother to ask it understood why and when it’s true when they started learning algebra. The fact that most people just accept it without being able to prove it only illustrates that a lot of what we “know” in maths is really just having gotten used to “that’s how it works” through endless repetition from an early age.

  26. dirigible says

    “Precisely how stupid and misogynistic are male skeptics?” would make a good discussion. I look forward to Leeds Skeptics discussing this.

    What?

  27. says

    From time to time it is reported that teenage girls are outperforming boys in school. The usual response is not “this proves girls are smarter than boys” but “THE SCHOOLS ARE FAILING OUR BOYS!”

    This, but don’t dare to suggest that society is failing girls and women. Lower rates at higher levels just prove that women aren’t cut out for top positions and research.
    BTW, I’d also make the point that it isn’t so much schools that are failing boys, but society as a whole with the half-changed minds.
    “Boys will be boys” is an excuse that gets tolerated less and less the older the boys get, but suddenly they find themselves in an environment that actually holds them accountable for their bad behaviour that went unnoticed and unchallenged for years.
    But their still not getting the short end of the stick because patriarchy makes sure that they still get their places.
    Germany has a trainee system for professions, meaning that you get several years of on the job training with schooling and then you can call yourself a licensed nurse, for example.
    My husband works for a global player in the STEM field, and over the years they noticed that their male trainees suck. They lack discipline, they lack enthusiasm, they lack work-ethics, they easily give up. You can trace those things back to the messages those young men got all those years. They were told that TEM comes naturally to them, and if you believe that, any problems you might encounter are a personal failure. They got excused when they made their homework shodily or showed up on Monday morning late and tired. You know, young boys, hormones, weekend, wink-wink. The young women got differnt messages. For them succeeding in STEM was hard work. They had to put up with people dismissing them, ignoring them, watching their steps much more carefully than those of their male comrades. So they make the better trainees on average.
    But here’s the thing: Behind the closed doors there are words about not hiring too many women, because babies, you know. Make sure you get enough men (wait, they don’t become parents?). So, the top-level women are still competing against the about average men. They still have to be at least one, better two degrees better than their male colleagues to get the job after training.

  28. jose says

    I think being treated as equal comes from being equal. If homo erectus still existed, we wouldn’t treat them the same way we treat modern humans. They would have a different set of rights and we would expect different things from them that what we expect from ourselves. So whether we should treat men and women equally depends on whether they’re equal in terms of how we treat others.

    My answer would be yes, because in my opinion what counts when you’re dealing with people is their interests, what they want. So if a man comes to me and says he wants me to give him a hundred euros, and then a woman comes to me and says the same, I can’t think of a reason to give different responses, when they have come to me with the same interest.

    Another reason for equal treatment is that we have the same expectations for everybody in many cases. If we expect women to be as good as men at engineering but we don’t treat them as good, we’re being incoherent. And the thing is that we’ve seen cases of men and women doing good at every possible human activity I can imagine, from clerk to astronaut, and that often despite additional obstacles; so to me that means there is no reason to expect a priori something different depending on sex.

    A priori is important. When it comes down to individual cases, we do treat each person differently. We treat friends differently according to their personality, and we can have different expectations for different persons. But a priori I can’t think of any reason to confer a certain interest less value depending on who has it, or to expect different things depending on sex, so the conclusion imo is that we should give in general an equal treatment to others.

  29. jose says

    Just read Salty Current’s post. I guess I should add a disclaimer to the previous comment just in case. I don’t know anything about statistical studies comparing groups except that the ones based on race are bunk because race isn’t a real biological category. Furthermore, the best indicators of a variety of topics usually turn out to be social. School performance’s best indicator is the environment at home; competitive athletics’ best indicator is income. That’s the day to day. A study claiming inherent differences in some social activity due to sex would then be an extraordinary claim which would require extraordinary evidence backing it up.

    Singer sounds a bit like the catholic church… “gays are objectively wrong and disordered and doomed to hell if they act like they’re gay, but we should treat them nicely”… mmm right…

  30. Godless Heathen says

    “Precisely how stupid and misogynistic are male skeptics?” would make a good discussion. I look forward to Leeds Skeptics discussing this.

    The answer is a million. So, that’s settled.

  31. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Well, I have a question:

    Are Tom Williamson and Steven Moxon REALLY equal to a pile of hog shit?

    What? I’m just being skeptical!

  32. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    yeah, that’s a shocker, Daisy. Cluelessly Privileged White Dude doesn’t understand why women don’t want to have debate 112,345,654,234,765,234,754,234,346,234,675 about why questioning their status as “human beings” isn’t being skeptical.

    Its just so confusing why women are sick of this shit. I mean, white penises want to talk about how bitchez ain’t shit! What’s the problem? It’s not like that’s been the theme song of society for the last few millenia or anything.

  33. callistacat says

    “Must be nice, to be society’s default and therefore not have your personhood challenged by such questions.”

    The worse thing in the world, to me, isn’t hate or cruelty from one human being to another…it’s not even being acknowledged as human at all. Being seen as subhuman. That’s worse than any kind of physical pain anyone can inflict on me. And knowing that practically everywhere on the planet this view of me is accepted as fact. These people don’t even know what that’s like. They will never really know.

  34. Ysanne says

    Jadehawk in #29:
    Because it’s unquestioning acceptance without even realising that there are actually reasons and why this particular statement is true, and that it’s only true subject to a particular set of assumptions. This kind of acceptance is just parroting something that fortunately happens to be right.
    This is NOT how skeptical thinking works.

    There’s nothing wrong with questioning seemingly obvious things. What’s wrong is when people pretend that a question is still totally open, and refuse to acknowledge the detailed, logical and readily available answer.

  35. Ysanne says

    Gilliel #28:

    For them succeeding in STEM was hard work. They had to put up with people dismissing them, ignoring them, watching their steps much more carefully than those of their male comrades. So they make the better trainees on average.
    [...]
    So, the top-level women are still competing against the about average men. They still have to be at least one, better two degrees better than their male colleagues to get the job after training.

    Full ACK. Sadly, being used to fighting to succeed in an environment is not necessarily good for their long-term career, according to this study about why so many female chemistry PhDs in the UK don’t even want to try a career in academia: The chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention.
    Apart from the issues with work/life/family balance, one of the main reasons is the following:
    Female grad students encountering the typical difficulties of experiments not working etc. are very concerned that this reflects badly on their competence in a “we told you that girls can’t do this” way, putting them under extra pressure. (Their male peers experience difficulties and pressure as well, but it lacks this quality of personal failure, allowing them to deal with it more confidently.) When they subsequently compare themselves to their male peers, and see that they worked hard and were anxious whether they would succeed at all, while the men seemed to achive the same in a more relaxed fashion, they conclude that apparently they’re not good enough for academia, and go into jobs that they perceive as less competitive.

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