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.