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So-Called “Litmus Tests”: Skepticism and Social Justice

There’s this argument that keeps cropping up. Some skeptics argue that skepticism — skeptical organizations, conferences, publications, meetups, etc. — should branch out from the traditional topics we’re usually associated with, such as astrology and UFOs and Bigfoot, and spend more time applying skepticism to social justice issues. The drug war; abstinence-only sex education; laws about birth control; laws about homosexuality and same-sex marriage; police policy… that sort of thing.

The idea here — and it’s one I hold myself — is that, if we’re serious about making skepticism appealing to a more diverse population than the white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men we’ve usually attracted, we need to do more than just have more women and people of color speak at our conferences. We need to widen the scope of our attentions, outside the topics that traditionally concern white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men, and into topics that more commonly concern women, people of color, poor people, blue-collar people, people who don’t have college degrees. If these folks don’t see skepticism taking on issues that matter to them, they’re less likely to get involved with skepticism, or even to see skepticism as having anything to do with them.

Also, the idea is that these issues, you know, matter. They affect people’s lives. Decisions often get made about these issues with little or no evidence or critical thinking — and as a result, the decisions that get made are bad ones, and they seriously screw up people’s lives in concrete ways.

This idea gets a fair amount of pushback. And one of the most common arguments against it is that if skepticism addressed social justice issues, it would amount to a political litmus test. Not all skeptics are politically progressive (the argument goes) — and we shouldn’t insist that they be. What skeptics have in common isn’t our political affiliation: what we have in common is our skepticism, our philosophy of applying critical thinking and hard evidence to questions of fact. Social justice issues aren’t questions of fact (the argument continues) — they’re questions of subjective values, so skepticism doesn’t apply to them, and trying to make skepticism apply to them would turn into mission drift. If skeptics want to do social justice work, they should by all means do it — but they should do it outside the world of skepticism.

An example of this sort of thinking comes from this piece by Barbara Drescher at ICBS Everywhere, Mission Drift, Conflation, and Food For Thought (via Token Skeptic). Here’s an excerpt:

If, for example, secular conferences take on gay marriage, why not polygamy? Do all skeptics, secularists, and atheists agree with me that polygamy should be legalized? How about an effort to eradicate marriage altogether? What about government-run health care? How about education? Is privatization the answer? What about charter schools? Education, after all, is a central issue for those who care about social justice, so why should skeptics and secularists talk about it?

I’ll tell you why: we do not agree on the solutions, nor do we agree on what is “fair” or “moral” in these areas. These are issues of values. Skeptics can discuss evidence regarding specific questions (e.g., whether outcomes-based teaching is effective), but skepticism cannot tell us whether or not the education of children should be the responsibility of the government. When groups endorse specific values and conclusions which cannot be empirically supported, they’re endorsing ideologies and, in the case of skepticism at least, rejecting the very methods they claim to promote.

And when I was on the diversity panel at TAM9, D.J. Grothe made the same argument — that historically, skepticism has not been about social justice, and that skepticism shouldn’t be telling people what conclusions they should come to about these questions.

I’ve been thinking about these arguments a lot — and I think I see the problem.

Those of us who are saying that skepticism should address social justice issues”?

We’re not saying, “Skeptics all have to agree on social justice issues..”

We’re saying, “Skepticism should address social justice issues.”

I’ve seen a lot of arguments proposing that skepticism broaden its scope. I’ve made some of them myself. And I haven’t heard a single one say, “All skeptics have to oppose abstinence-only sex education.” “All skeptics have to oppose the drug war.” “All skeptics have to oppose ‘stop-and-frisk’ policing policies.”

What we’re saying is: Let’s examine these issues. Let’s apply skeptical, evidence-based, critical thinking to these issues. When we have conferences and local meetings, when we publish magazines and newsletters, when go on radio and TV… let’s talk about the drug war. Let’s talk about syringe exchange. Let’s talk about sex education in schools. Let’s talk about fraudulent claims made by cosmetics companies. Let’s talk about birth control policies. Let’s talk about policing policies. And let’s take the principles of skepticism — the principles of critical thinking, and the careful gathering of evidence, and the use of the scientific method to screen out bias as much as possible, and the prioritization of evidence over prejudices and existing beliefs — and apply them to these issues… to look at which policies are actually effective. We can keep talking about astrology and UFOs and Bigfoot, too — but we can broaden our scope.

Here’s the thing. Political positions aren’t just questions of subjective values. Political positions make testable claims. Much of the time, anyway. Advocates of the drug war make the claim that a zero-tolerance policy will reduce the sale and consumption of drugs, and the harm done by these drugs. Advocates of abstinence-only sex education make the claim that abstinence-only will reduce sexual activity in teenagers. Advocates of “stop-and-frisk” make the claim that these practices will reduce the number of illegally concealed weapons. Etc.

And therefore, these topics are absolutely fair game for skepticism. That’s exactly what skepticism does. It looks at testable claims, and… you know, tests them. If skepticism can evaluate claims about telepathy and astrology and faith healing, to test whether these claims are supported by the evidence… why can’t it evaluate claims about the drug war, or sex education, or policing practices?

Skepticism has a tremendous amount to contribute to questions of social justice. Conversations about social justice issues are often, to put it mildly, not very evidence-based. They’re often based on preconception and prejudice, on deeply held beliefs with a strong emotional component. People’s ideas and feelings about race, about gender, about drugs, about poverty, about sexuality… they often run strong, they’re often not very rational, and they’re often highly resistant to change. (Especially when the biases in question work to our own advantage.)

These conversations aren’t just appropriate for skepticism. They are in dire need of it.

Now, of course, core values do enter into these political debates as well — values that genuinely are more subjective. When it comes to syringe exchange, for instance, there are some who support zero tolerance and oppose a harm-reduction approach purely on principle — the principle that illegal drugs are bad, and the government should not be facilitating their use in any way, even if doing so would significantly reduce the harm done by drug use.

But this isn’t always the case. Often, political opponents do share the same values and goals, and simply disagree as to the most effective way to reach those goals. And when that’s the case, a skeptical approach is entirely relevant.

And even when core goals and values differ, a skeptical approach can still be tremendously relevant — because it can help reveal the actual goals and values of the people advocating a political policy.

I know this is going to come as a huge shock to you all, but sometimes politicians aren’t entirely honest. Sometimes, politicians have agendas that they don’t reveal to the general public. Sometimes, politicians claim to have one goal or value, when in reality they have another. (I know. Shocking, isn’t it? Alert the media at once!) If a politician is supporting abstinence-only sex education, for instance, and they’re claiming to take this stand because they’re concerned about rates of teenage pregnancy — and if skeptics can force them to admit that abstinence-only actually makes teenage pregnancies go up — that forces them to reveal their real agenda. (Most likely the enforcement of their religious values.) And that’s something the public deserves to know, and has a right to know. Especially if the public actually does give a damn about teenage pregnancy, and wants their elected officials to take it seriously.

What’s more, even when a political issue is largely a matter of subjective values, skepticism can still get into the fray without any mission drift — by insisting that the facts that do get bandied about in the debate are, you know, true.

Abortion is a perfect example of this. Yes, there generally are major differences in core values between pro-choice and anti-choice people. But there’s also a huge amount of misinformation being thrown around in the abortion debates: misinformation about the effects of abortion on women who have them, about the funding for Planned Parenthood and where they spend most of their money, about the sentience of a twelve-week-old embryo. And it’s entirely appropriate for skepticism to debunk this misinformation, and to work to stop its spread. It’s entirely appropriate for skepticism to insist that the debate about abortion be based on good, hard evidence — and to call people out when they distort, twist, or flat-out lie about the facts.

That’s not a litmus test. That’s not a demand that all skeptics have to be pro-choice in order to be called skeptics. The skeptical movement doesn’t have to take specific sides in the abortion debate. It just has to take the side of truth.

And in fact, skepticism does take on politically loaded issues. Global climate change leaps to mind, as does vaccination, and creationism being taught in the public schools. These are hot-button political issues — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a skeptic say that we shouldn’t address them. Why is the drug war different? Is it that vaccination and global warming and science education have a direct impact on the people who’ve traditionally made up the skeptical movement — white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men — and many of these other political issues don’t? Or is it that most skeptics already agree about vaccination and creationism and global climate change — but we don’t already agree about police policy and abortion and the drug war? Are people really making the absurd argument that skeptics can’t take on these other political issues, simply because we don’t all agree about them?

If we keep talking about the same subjects, over and over and over again, we are going to keep attracting the same kinds of people. If we sincerely want to draw a more diverse crowd to skepticism, we need to address issues that different people care about. And the fact that a particular issue hasn’t been traditionally addressed by skepticism doesn’t mean that it can’t be, or that it shouldn’t be. Of all the disciplines in the world, skepticism in particular should not be primarily defined by “we’ve always done it this way.”

We’re not asking for a litmus test. We’re not demanding that all skeptics be politically progressive; we’re not demanding that all skeptics agree on a particular position on the drug war, or policing policies, or birth control policies, or same-sex marriage, or any social justice issue. Any more than we demand that all skeptics agree about God, or the soul, or life after death. Some individuals may make individual arguments for particular positions on particular issues — but that’s very different from saying that all skeptics have to march in political lockstep in order to be considered skeptics. We’re not asking all skeptics to agree on these issues. We’re asking skeptics to think about them. And talk about them. And focus attention on them. And give a damn about them.

And if that’s too much to ask — if your idea of skepticism is, “sitting around talking about stuff we already agree about” — then all I can say is, “You keep using that word ‘skepticism.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Comments

  1. davesmith says

    Hell, yes! (Great post, Greta!)

    One of the things I like about skeptical conversations is that when the community discusses anything, evidence gets respected. A high degree of respect for evidence is the essential difference between the skeptical community and other kinds of communities. Skeptics can carry on a conversation that does not have to respect religious opinions, nor is it bound (I hope) to partisan or even philosophical (i.e. Chicago school of economics) dogma.

    The skeptical conversation that takes on everything is the best hope for having a long-term healthy political discourse in the country. It transcends the university, where careers and careerism can have a pernicious effect on publishing.

    There should be a forum that approximates a pure market place of ideas. If the skeptical community can’t host that forum, then who can?

  2. Walton says

    I wish the skeptic community would take more of an interest in immigrants’ rights, and in opposing xenophobia and anti-immigrant legislation.

  3. says

    I think what some people think they are doing when they suggest that skepticism should avoid social justice and other “political” issues is being neutral. What they are really saying is that some people have views that are indefensible with reason, but those people mean more to the “movement” than the people with a more fact-based viewpoint. They are putting up an artificial barrier, protecting some areas of life from critical examination, in order to prevent alienating certain groups of people. The fact that these barriers alienate other people is either not understood or doesn’t matter to them, or some combination.

    The choices people make tell us who they are better than any words they say, so when someone for instance chooses to take feminism off the table to avoid offending anti-feminists, they are saying that they value sexist people and sexism enablers more than they value feminists. Or when they make a big point about how they aren’t specifically atheist groups, and ask the atheists to go easy on the religion-debunking. Oh, you’re welcome to send them checks and attend their meetings, but keep your views to yourself and don’t rock the boat or try to change anything. After all, the white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men built the skeptical movement for white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men, and if you don’t like it you can leave. They won’t miss you.

    Sounds sort of like that John Hagee video going around recently, the more I think about it.

  4. okstop says

    Hell yes! I love this post!

    I’ve always been baffled by the fact that some skeptics I knew would acknowledge the importance of religious belief in setting moral codes throughout history and yet failed to recognize, when it was pointed out that once we banish religion, we still need something to say about morality.

    Like you said, we don’t need to all agree. Why would we? But the question of “well, what now?” is a thuddingly obvious one. Like it or not, morality has been the province of religion for ages now, and it seems undeniable that any broadly skeptical mission HAS to at least address the issue of what happens to a key component of the social fabric when the stuff that USED to underwrite it is swept away. I suppose that simply choosing not to talk about it is an option, but to deny that it does need to be discussed strikes me as obtuse.

    Besides, one of the ancillary complaints about religion is not just that there’s no basis for believing, but that (because it is ill-founded) it results in irrational, pernicious results. If it’s a legitimate strike against religion that it provides us with BAD moral codes, it’s not saying much in favor of whatever successor epistemology is on offer that it doesn’t have ANYTHING to say about moral codes. Freethought can and should form a substantive basis for tackling social justice issues.

  5. Eidolon says

    I have to say this is the best post I’ve seen on this subject. Unlike some other writers, who have a a lot of ‘should’ in their posts, you simply point out that where something is testable, we should not be afraid to do so.

    The issue is not, at least for me, so much one of ‘I should’ as “That is simply wrong and here are the facts to support that.”
    I’ll admit to being concerned about mission creep but I do believe Greta has convinced me otherwise.

  6. says

    Great post. Indeed, there is a large factual component to all political and social justice debates, and all of that is definitely accessible to skepticism. But I would also argue the reverse: “traditional” skepticism has a large value component as well. For instance, would skeptics get so up in arms to combat quackery if it didn’t hurt people? They probably wouldn’t even be skeptics at all if they didn’t have certain values, like valuing curiosity and knowledge over respect for authority and conformity. Skeptics value science not just because it works, but because it might impact society in a way that they see as valuable.

    By the way, the whole argument that people should be welcome in the skeptics movement regardless of their political ideology is based on values, not science.

    As for the fear of a litmus test, are people already required to sign a statement that they don’t believe in Bigfoot, UFOs and homeopathy before they are allowed into skeptical meetings? If not, if we already tolerate skeptics with what many would consider “skeptical blind spots” – which we clearly do – why would expanding the topics under discussion change that?

  7. Frogmistress says

    Yes! Excellent points!

    Let’s start discussion on some of these issues!

    We definitely need to start demanding facts, not the truthiness we get, from politicians. We need to call out the lies! No one needs to agree on any ‘side’ for that.

  8. says

    Absolutely agree with Greta. The idea of addressing social and political issues with the tools of critical thinking should not be controversial. Heck, many skeptics do it already! I’m thinking about the recent Bruce Scheier/Sam Harris debate about ethnic screening in airports. Or the quick examination of the policies behind Kony 2012 viral video campaign…

  9. okstop says

    My better half, who isn’t active on these boards, passes along this:

    “Is it possible that this is all tied up in the issue of making the skeptical movement a safe space for women, at least in part? It may well be that the people who are ‘uninterested’ in talking about social justice ARE uninterested because they don’t want to have to address the issue of sexism and harassment. Making a broad claim to be uninterested in these issues would, perhaps from their viewpoint, stop any discussion of sexism at the get-go. We should be careful not to fold the question of sexism and harassment into the question of whether to address social justice issues. Not only can we treat one without the other, but if we let the former get folded into the latter, it can get ‘drowned out’ by a more general, more abstract discussion.”

  10. Sivi says

    Eh, but this can run both ways. If you have “skeptical” speakers promoted who claim economic problems are due to burdensome labour rights, with the solution being a more libertarian economy; if you have speakers talking about how immigrants represent a threat to our secular values; if you have groups promoting skepticism about climate change, these are all things addressing social justice issues, but I could see a group wanting to avoid them entirely to avoid conflicts over political issues.

    Like @Walton above, what if your local skeptical group wants to promote individuals who are anti-immigrant, or xenophobic? Is it better to have those people come give talks and have them positioned to the group and to the public as good representatives of skeptical thinking, or is it better to avoid that altogether and to address those issues though different channels?

    I lean towards applying skepticism to social justice issues, but there’s a good chance that many people will think ideas which run counter to social justice are the real skeptical positions.

  11. okstop says

    Sivi, I think the working assumption here is that xenophobia, to take an example, isn’t something that has a rational basis. In theory, if someone is a genuine skeptic, and their anti-social-justice positions ARE in fact badly grounded, we can and should dialogue with them about that.

  12. Sivi says

    Okstop,

    I know, the best way is to engage with it and critique it.

    In principle. In practice, though, skeptics have their blind spots the same as everyone else, and might not be convinced by by a rational argument on a specific topic. Or, someone might call themselves a skeptic, but might just be anti-religion and anti-alt med, but not hold those positions for rational reasons. Which gets right back to arguments about who gets counted as a “real” skeptic.

    Too, not everyone is well-equipped to make those arguments, particularly in public or in person. And having, say, a talk by an anti-immigrant skeptic will make it difficult for a social justice-oriented audience member to argue against those views and convince an audience of their faults, since the speaker is being positioned as an authority.

    I feel like a lot of people here haven’t spent much time around groups or individuals with a fairly large conservative (or at least non-social-justice people) membership. When you’re one of the few people who wants to speak against that, it can be very tempting to just say “let’s avoid the topic altogether”.

  13. okstop says

    Sivi,

    I see where you’re coming from, but I just can’t connect on some of these points.

    I’d say it’s a pretty easy call to say that someone isn’t a “real” skeptic if that person is only anti-alt-med (for instance) and refuses to apply skeptical criticism on a broader scale. That doesn’t strike me as too low a bar to set. It’s okay to allow that the evidence on certain things isn’t conclusive, or just that you don’t know enough about a given issue, but everything – EVERYTHING – must be in principle subject to the same standards of rationality, or it’s just not skepticism in any reasonable sense of the word.

    I absolutely get your point about the potential harm of having unrebutted anti-social-justice speakers. I would suggest that social justice issues addressed in a skeptical milieu should also be in a point-counterpoint format, if practical.

    I don’t really understand the impulse to avoid the topic if you’re one of the only ones who wants to speak out on it, but that’s probably just my personality rather than anything objective.

  14. Pen says

    I really agree with this. Social and political policies almost always affect somebody, somewhere in ways they consider negative and the only justification for that is real evidence of necessity or harm done elsewhere.

  15. Sivi says

    @Okstop,

    It’s probably easier for people who’re better than me at staying calm. Oh, and I meant one of the only ones wanting to speak out /against/ something, not just on the topic.

    I have an easier time with applying social justice stuff online, for a couple reasons.

    One, there’s less of a non-skeptic argument, so I don’t worry as much about the skeptical/atheist community being tarred with anti-SJ comments as much, and I worry less about uneducated “bystanders” being convinced by anti-SJ arguments.

    Two, I find it a lot easier to marshal my facts and arguments online. In person, it’s even odds whether I get mad and argumentative, or mad and upset and needing to walk away. This makes me less inclined to argue social justice issues in public.

    It’s also tiring to be the one (or one of few) person arguing an issue. If everyone else is saying “yeah, but men are portrayed badly in media too” in a talk on misogyny, you end up being dismissed as shrill or ideological by that certain sub-group of skeptics (you know, the ones who infest reddit and talk about how all stereotypes have some truth to them, etc).

  16. Sivi says

    “One, there’s less of a non-skeptic argument”

    should be

    “One, there’s less of a non-skeptic audience”

    And I should state again, that I do think skeptics should address social justice issues, using the tools of skepticism; I just think this can end up being misapplied, and feel like using SJ issues as a litmus test isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  17. says

    Greta hits the nail right between the eyes, again. The list of amazing essays that I have to memorize for informal debates and conversation is getting unwieldy.

    #12,@Sivi, well, I, for one, have spent lots of time in communities dominated by pretty explicitly anti-social justice folks. Hell, my boss hints pretty strongly that he wouldn’t hire a woman or person of color in the office at all. I push back when I can, as much as I can, but I also can’t afford to lose my job. So I know exactly what you mean when you say that it can be very tempting to just say “let’s avoid the topic altogether”.

    But that’s exactly why I want the skeptical community and movement to address these issues. I want the numbers and mass of bodies and social pressure that comes with those bodies to make people have to look their irrational, un-skeptical bigotry in the face, when they otherwise wouldn’t, including when there are people around them who can’t or won’t speak up, due to being so outnumbered.

  18. okstop says

    Sivi,

    “It’s also tiring to be the one (or one of few) person arguing an issue. If everyone else is saying “yeah, but men are portrayed badly in media too” in a talk on misogyny, you end up being dismissed as shrill or ideological by that certain sub-group of skeptics (you know, the ones who infest reddit and talk about how all stereotypes have some truth to them, etc).”

    Yeah, that is a tough one. You do what you do, however best you can do it. If online is what works for you, by all means. As a general principle, though, I think we should encourage social justice discourse. Obviously, everyone should take into account their own abilities/proclivities.

  19. Sivi says

    @Okstop,

    Yeah, if people are able to engage in person, I definitely think they should do it. For myself, I’ve mostly withdrawn from realspace movement skepticism, for a lot of the reasons I’ve listed above.

    Part of what concerns me is movement atheism/skepticism’s reputation in the broader social justice crowd, which is pretty bad, to put it mildly. I’ve seen people complaining (legitimately) about “white cis middle-class straight men” starting to throw “atheist” or “‘skeptical'” in there too. And “internet atheist” is totally a thing.

    This is why I’ve been so pleased to see a lot of the blogs on FTB working to push things in a better direction, even if it means cleaning house a bit.

  20. says

    Another sort of “litmus test” is that such a discussion will show up a) what people really believe and b) misconceptions each side has about the other. Another noted sceptic expressed puzzlement over the fact that conservatives should not deny that birth control prevents more unwanted pregnancies than abstinence-only education. I doubt that many seriously deny this. Rather, for them sex for fun is worse than a few unwanted pregnancies. So, they are for abstinence-only education. They are not blind to the fact that birth control is more effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies, but for them the fact that it makes sex for fun easier means that, for them, abstinence-only education is the lesser of two evils. (Actually, many would prefer that no-one talk about sex at all; abstinence-only education is a big leap for many since it means actually talking about sex).

    So, in this case, the sceptic believed that the other side was blind to reality, rather than having different priorities. Also, serious discussion would cause the other side to admit what their real priorities are.

    Before one criticizes them that they should come out and state what their true goals are explicitly, remember how many people support gay marriage since they think that it is better than the current situation with no recognition of non-traditional sexual partnerships and because it is a more realistic goal, rather than coming out and saying that they actually would like the state to stay out of this area altogether (as many do).

    Another area is abortion. Conservatives who are against abortion even in cases of rape, incest etc are often portrayed as being “worse” while actually they just take their own position more seriously. One might disagree with this position, but one has to admit that if one believes abortion is murder, then an exception in the case of rape or incest makes no sense. Also, conservatives are not “anti-choice”, as the “pro-choice” label seems to imply; they see it as an issue where choice should be irrelevant. Again, one can disagree with this position, but calling oneself “pro-choice” casts the others in a wrong light. Exactly the same thing is the case with “pro-life”: the other side is not “anti-life”, but has a different definition of what a human life is. The conservatives might disagree with it, but painting the other side as “anti-life” doesn’t help further meaningful discussion.

  21. Ray Moscow says

    Greta:

    We’re not saying, “Skeptics all have to agree on social justice issues..”

    We’re saying, “Skepticism should address social justice issues.”

    Hmmm … I agree that social justice issues need to be addressed, but I’m not sure of the right forum for this. You’ll find far less agreement even about what the important social justice issues are than you will about, for example, whether religious claims are wrong, what harm they do, and what we can do to counter them.

    My experience on a ‘biblical errancy’ panel for some years showed that we skeptics had pretty clear and similar views on the Bible, and we could work together on a lot of things, but if we got into politics or other subjects, it just didn’t work.

  22. okstop says

    Sivi,

    Well, a big part of that house-cleaning is going to be getting social justice concerns on the agenda for skeptics! After all, as I said earlier, it’s just naive to think that we don’t need to have something to say about secular morality. It’s fine to point out that religion has been bad for social justice, but there’s the inevitable question of “so what would be GOOD for it?” Skepticism isn’t just good because we get more true beliefs, it’s good because it frees us from some godawful burdens of injustice. It’s an intersectional issue. We definite need a “cleaner house!”

  23. says

    To be fair I’m not sure how much barbara for example would disagrees with you. After a back and forth on her position I think she’d agree with most of your article that skepticism should be applied to testable claims on these issues. She just wants to keep conclusions and direct advocacy to a couple issues (global warming and vaccination) which I do find to be a fairly special pleading kind of argument.

    For what it’s worth I’m in agreement with you I’m just not sure how opposed the other side is. (click on her link and read the comments if you want to see specifically what she said)

  24. says

    This has incuriated me for a while. It is often pointed out that much of politics and activism is claim-based (either promoting claims (like the vaccine–autism link) or relying on them (like unprecedented government spending under Obama)), and that this is fertile ground for skeptics to explore . . . but then a provincial psychic scam tends to get more of our attention than a national budget scam — even while the media play no less credulously into the latter than into the former, leaving a conspicuous gap in the dialogue for skeptics to fill.

    Thank you for saying this loudly and eloquently!

  25. says

    Ray Moscow: I see quite a bit of disagreement among atheists over what harm religion does, and how best to counter it (and whether this means countering religions or countering the actions of certain religious people). It does fall a bit along identity lines — atheist / skeptic / humanist — but i think that’s a further demonstration that this is a community that can work together starting from not much more than an agreement on the basic facts (since, i imagine, so many of those facts are not shared by the public at large).

  26. karmakin says

    Just to add on/clarify what I think Sivi is saying, when it comes to pushing social justice issues, there’s a very real possibility that we could lose, and we need to be aware of that, especially on a local level. It’s entirely possible that we could see anti-immigration or anti-feminism accepted as the proper skeptical position, either in the broader community or local communities.

    It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t push for social justice, it’s just that we do need to realize we need to do it in such a way that brings people to our side instead of pushes them away.

    I do think gender plays a large part of this, however I do think that like most other social justice issues, they come down to two basic mindsets. Do you desire a competitive world or do you desire a co-operative world? I do think that pretty much EVERYTHING comes down to that question, at some level. And that’s where the big divide is.

  27. Sivi says

    @Karmakin,

    Yeah, that’s a good way of putting some of the concerns I was trying to articulate.

  28. Ganner says

    We should be applying skeptical principles to every facet of life and society. It doesn’t mean we have to make the same value judgments or have the same opinions – it means that the end goal of a skeptical movement should be that no matter the circumstance, facts and evidence should be critically examined.

  29. says

    Sivi / karmakin: Without addressing your stated reservations, i’d like to ask what you think about the very large and vocal libertarian demographic within skepticism. (My local group, for instance, when we introduced our political leanings one day, came down half independent, half libertarian, and one each Republican, Democrat, green, and socialist.) Is free market ideology — which i understand is largely an American skeptical phenomenon — in the kind of position now that you worry anti-immigration and anti-feminist ideology might find itself?

  30. MurOllavan says

    Ethics has been the province of religion for ages, because skeptics have let it be so. The atheist movement is quick to criticize the morality espoused by religions, but slow and seemingly uninterested with providing a sound replacement.

  31. okstop says

    karmakin,

    Thank you for that; it was very helpful.

    I guess my response to this is two-fold. One part is that if the arguments really do shake out on the side of, well, anti-progressivism, so to speak, aren’t we committed, as skeptics, to accept that as the “correct” stance? I mean, isn’t our whole position that the only way to “lose” is to adopt a position without actual justification?

    That said, the second part is that I don’t believe for an instant that regressive positions will turn out to be well-founded. That is to say, I think that continued discourse in a skeptical vein can ONLY result, eventually, in the embrace of a progressive social program. “Reality has a liberal bias” and all that.

    In essence, then, my response is that if you believe the second bit, there, you should be all for talking about this in skeptical circles, but also if you believe the first bit, you should likewise be in favor of it. The position I can’t make sense of is the worry that skeptical discourse on social justice will ultimately FAIL to support progressive policies, implying that those policies are ultimately not well-founded, but concluding that holding onto the polices – which are, in this scenario, quite possibly mistaken – is more important than getting to the “right” (for lack of a better word at the moment) answers. I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting, for the record, but that’s the only position I can see that would suggest we should be wary of talking about social justice in the skeptical milieu.

    Okay, there’s one other – if you believed that skeptical discourse about social justice issues will not reliably lead to what you take to be the genuinely just and beneficial positions. That raises all sorts of other meta-ethical questions, though.

  32. says

    @okstop in #31: there are other reasons to avoid talking about politics, though. There are still pretty strong social taboos against talking about religion and politics, for example. Also, it is known that such discussions always get very heated, and people often just don’t want to deal with that – especially when the topic in question isn’t of personal interest to them. And finally, an organization may want to present themselves as a unified front to the outside world, and discussing topics that you know your members strongly disagree on will shatter that image. I think all these factors are at play in the “Big tent” skeptical community.

  33. Sivi says

    @Okstop,

    I think what Karmakin and I are saying is that we could lose those battles NOT on the basis of what comes out as correct and well-grounded in reality. That we could lose within the skeptical community politically, not factually.

    What people see as the skeptical position may not always match up with what you or I see as the skeptical position. I do know people who are skeptical of the claims of feminism, are skeptical of privilege, of multiculturalism, who feel they have a rational basis for the skepticism, and who work to convince others of this.

    Evidence and argument are not always as clear-cut as people like to think, and smart people are perfectly capable of marshalling them to support anti-SJ positions EVEN IF there’s better argument and evidence to be found on the SJ side.

  34. okstop says

    Deen –

    I’m pretty sure that one of the points of Greta’s original post, whether implicit or explicit, is that we all have a stake in social justice issues. Personally interested or not, the issue is pressing and it could be argued that we have an obligation to talk about them.

  35. screechy monkey says

    Deen@6:

    As for the fear of a litmus test, are people already required to sign a statement that they don’t believe in Bigfoot, UFOs and homeopathy before they are allowed into skeptical meetings? If not, if we already tolerate skeptics with what many would consider “skeptical blind spots” – which we clearly do – why would expanding the topics under discussion change that?

    Exactly. And whenever someone is trying to “explain away” such blind spots, like Penn Jillette and (formerly) Michael Shermer and James Randi dismissing global warming, or trying to justify why religion should be downplayed in skepticism, you almost always hear the phrase “skepticism isn’t a set of conclusions, it’s a method.”

    And now, suddenly the fact that skepticism doesn’t or might not lead to a set of universally agreed about conclusions on a set of issues means that they are off limits?

  36. okstop says

    Sivi,

    I suppose I get what you’re saying – I’ve known smart people who took some pretty dumb stances on some pretty important issues (e.g., denying the existence of sexism, etc.). Still, I think part of the commitment to skepticism is the commitment to arguing the positions we think are actually supported by the evidence, and if we think that progressivism really is right, what choice do we have? Isn’t it a bedrock principle of skepticism that rational discourse can eventually bring about consensus around the right outcomes (progressivism in this case)? I agree that there’s a real possibility of political set-backs, but since when is that a reason not to fight? Besides, what’s the alternative? Letting it be? I don’t see it. Either we really think that rational discourse will ultimately win in the end on this issue, in which case we have every reason to keep pressing it until something gives, or we abandon altogether the idea that rational discourse can bring about a consensus on these issues, in which case we’re just screwed.

  37. Feats of Cats says

    I agree with what you’re saying here, Greta, but I think we’re still missing some things out.

    Something that drives women (including myself) away from meatspace skeptic gatherings is socially-acceptable sexism. Gendered insults, rape jokes, unwanted sexual attention. But what’s there to prove or be skeptic about those things? What data do you use?

    I guess this might be outside the scope of what you’re talking about here, but I’m getting sick of people demanding peer-reviewed evidence that women are being harassed or else it didn’t happen.

  38. says

    @okstop:

    I’m pretty sure that one of the points of Greta’s original post, whether implicit or explicit, is that we all have a stake in social justice issues.

    Oh, I agree. Although I would add that even within the social justice issues, people are going to have different priorities.

    By the way, to head off any possible miscommunication, in #32 I didn’t mean to imply that the reasons I listed were good reasons. I just think that they are understandable motivations that people may have to avoid certain topics, other than being afraid they could be shown to be wrong.

  39. 42Oolon says

    There is no issue to which skepticism is not applicable. It is simply a method of testing claims through empirical and logical investigation.

    I think some of the resistance may stem from the fact that, applied to many progressive positions, skepticism produces difficult conclusions.

    For example, when applied to climate change, my skepticism has made me a big advocate for nuclear power, genetic engineered food, bigger cities. (Blame Stewart Brand.)

    In fact, many areas of several academic fields of study begin to look like ideological navel-gazing, including aspects of feminism, economics and cultural theory. (Blame Nassim Nicholas Taleb.)

    In the end, skepticism often shows us that we do not know the answers to questions for which we need answers, right now. We do not know if stimulus or austerity will work, but we need to do something about the debt. Skepticism just makes sure that when we choose a path, we are being honest about whether we are guessing or not.

  40. says

    @screechy monkey in #35:

    you almost always hear the phrase “skepticism isn’t a set of conclusions, it’s a method.”

    And I actually agree with that. The thing is, they don’t really mean that. What they mean is “skepticism is a tool, but please don’t talk about what you think you want to do with it”.

    @Feats of Cats in #37:

    But what’s there to prove or be skeptic about those things?

    Unless one discounts the social sciences as a form of empirical science, an awful lot can be said about sexism in society, and its influence on the position and well-being of women.

  41. 42Oolon says

    @Feats of Cats

    “Something that drives women (including myself) away from meatspace skeptic gatherings is socially-acceptable sexism. Gendered insults, rape jokes, unwanted sexual attention. But what’s there to prove or be skeptic about those things? What data do you use?”

    A skeptical approach tells you that the above reasons are what you tell yourself are the reason why you are driven away. It tells you nothing about what drives others away, or even that others are driven away. You may have anecdotal evidence, but that is of little value.

    If the question is how to make more women attend, we need much more data. We need to answer: Are there barriers to women attending? Are the barriers you identified widespread or are you an outlier? Or is this something that few women are interested in, or more women are into it, but being pushed away? Is there a biological or genetic difference between men and women in terms of their interest in this topic? If not, what are the primary barriers to attending? Are what women say the barriers are, indeed the real barriers? Even if we can identify barriers with some certainty, can we change them? What changes can be shown to work?

    It may be impossible to get answers to these questions, at least in any reasonable time frame. So what we can do is acknowledge that data will not be forthcoming and we must do what we can on insufficient info. Data on the reasons most women say they are pushed away would be easier to get, and remedies targeted and eliminating these barriers would seem to be a plausible hypothesis on which to proceed. We acknowledge that we don’t know with any certainty that these measures will work, and we advocate for more research. In the meantime we make guesses based on general values or axioms, and a cost-benefit analysis.

    EG if you want more women to attend, perhaps try having more women as speakers. We acknowledge that we may not have the “best” speakers if we were evaluating merit blind to sex and gender and we balance that against our intention to be more inclusive and the value of a more inclusive panel to the movement. We acknowledge this is a guess to fix a problem, we ask the opponents to evaluate their need for certain person to speak against the likelihood going with a woman may help solve the problem.

  42. Sivi says

    Thanks to 42Oolon for providing evidence in support of what some of us have been saying.

    “We need to answer: Are there barriers to women attending? Are the barriers you identified widespread or are you an outlier? Or is this something that few women are interested in, or more women are into it, but being pushed away? Is there a biological or genetic difference between men and women in terms of their interest in this topic? If not, what are the primary barriers to attending? Are what women say the barriers are, indeed the real barriers? Even if we can identify barriers with some certainty, can we change them? What changes can be shown to work?”

    These things have all be addressed, and in many cases answered, both generally, particularly on this blog network, and on this blog specifically.

  43. says

    @42Oolon in #39:

    I think some of the resistance may stem from the fact that, applied to many progressive positions, skepticism produces difficult conclusions.

    I doubt that this explains much of the resistance at all – not in the least because from where I sit, skepticism seems far more dangerous to conservative positions. But more important to this discussion: almost every time the issue of the scope of skepticism comes up, it’s because of a pushback against progressive ideals invading the skeptical discourse. When was the last time you heard anyone complain or worry that a topic might hurt the skeptical movement because it could drive away feminists? Or ask for self-censorship because otherwise secularists and/or atheists would feel unwelcome?

  44. 42Oolon says

    @sivi

    I doubt these issues are capable of answering by way of blogging. If you are referring to research on the issues, I think this would take years if not decades to establish answers that would survive a skeptical, empirical analysis.

    But if you are right, that is great and all that remains is to implement the solutions that have been identified. There should be little opposition because these solutions have been demonstrated to be effective.

  45. Greta Christina says

    Hmmm … I agree that social justice issues need to be addressed, but I’m not sure of the right forum for this. You’ll find far less agreement even about what the important social justice issues are than you will about, for example, whether religious claims are wrong, what harm they do, and what we can do to counter them.

    My experience on a ‘biblical errancy’ panel for some years showed that we skeptics had pretty clear and similar views on the Bible, and we could work together on a lot of things, but if we got into politics or other subjects, it just didn’t work.

    Ray Moscow @ #21: What exactly do you mean by, “it just didn’t work”? Do you mean that people didn’t agree, and it started arguments, sometimes heated arguments that upset people?

    If so — I don’t think that’s a very useful definition of “working” or “not working.” Like I said in the piece: Sitting around and talking about what we all already agree on is not, by any useful definition of the word, skepticism.

    If not — than what do you mean by it?

    I agree that we’ll find less agreement on social justice issues, or even on which ones are important, than we do about religious claims. I just don’t think that’s a good reason not to take them on.

  46. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    They are putting up an artificial barrier, protecting some areas of life from critical examination, in order to prevent alienating certain groups of people. The fact that these barriers alienate other people is either not understood or doesn’t matter to them

    Or they assume that, being more progressive and liberal and thus hippy-dippy types, these people will calmly and smilingly accept alienation.

  47. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Also, conservatives are not “anti-choice”, as the “pro-choice” label seems to imply; they see it as an issue where choice should be irrelevant.

    What? Conservatives oppose the right to choose whether to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

    How is “anti-choice” not a valid description?

  48. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I do think gender plays a large part of this, however I do think that like most other social justice issues, they come down to two basic mindsets. Do you desire a competitive world or do you desire a co-operative world? I do think that pretty much EVERYTHING comes down to that question, at some level. And that’s where the big divide is.

    Fortunately, skepticism can engage with the evidence that cooperative strategies usually lead to better individual and group outcomes.

  49. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    The position I can’t make sense of is the worry that skeptical discourse on social justice will ultimately FAIL to support progressive policies, implying that those policies are ultimately not well-founded,

    I think the concern is that broader social justice issues may fall afoul of the “I’m SO SMART, and I’m SO SKEPTICAL, that I don’t need to EVER examine MY arguments for bias” and “who cares about trivial stuff like the OUTCOME, I just don’t want anyone telling me what to do!” mindsets that certain “skeptics” cultivate – as, for instance, economic matters are often observed to.

    Of course, that’s MORE likely to happen if the “so smart, so skeptical” and “don’t tell me what to do!” groups are the only ones willing to engage with the topic. And in my experience, they don’t want to keep from discussing it to keep it a personal matter, they want to keep from discussing it because they perceive that there’s already a tacit consensus in favor of their view and they don’t want to risk disrupting it.

  50. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I guess this might be outside the scope of what you’re talking about here, but I’m getting sick of people demanding peer-reviewed evidence that women are being harassed or else it didn’t happen.

    Peer-reviewed evidence might be called for if you want to make a specific claim about the percentage of women who are harrassed. “It’s a problem” isn’t a peer-reviewed-evidence topic, and given the number of reports and the amount of discussion, the options are either 1) accept that it happens somewhat frequently and is a serious deterrent to women’s participation or 2) embrace some contrails-level conspiracy theory to explain away all the reports.

    The more skeptical position should be obvious…

  51. okstop says

    42Oolon –

    The fact that you speak as if there is no research on these things shows that you haven’t actually looked into it. We have:

    -Psychological studies showing that gender bias in fact affects the way people, especially men, treat women.

    -Sociological research that argues persuasively that sexism is the best explanation for a variety of systemic problems.

    -Anecdotal data on such a large scale, from such a cross section of sources, across such a wide array of situations, that it reaches sufficient “mass” to be taken seriously as a source of information about what’s going on.

    -A clearly documented history of overt sexism in many institutional contexts.

    -And excellent research showing the typical responses of women to various sexist signalling, in a variety of contexts.

    This is an incredibly well researched issue. If – and I say “if” because I don’t know for sure this doesn’t exist – if there is no research on sexism in the skeptical movement specifically, it is a MORE THAN REASONABLE inference to make given what we know about the prevalence of sexism & harassment paired with the lack of a compelling argument as to why the skeptical movement would NOT suffer this general malaise.

    In short, if we know that the vast majority of all social organizations and movements – especially those with a traditionally mostly-male membership – have major problems with sexism, it’s a no-brainer to get to the inference that the skeptical movement would have a similar problem. The anecdotal evidence we have about harassment within the skeptical movement isn’t the sum total of the evidence, it’s just the basis for thinking we’re right in the (wholly justified) assumption that the problem we already know exists extends even to here.

  52. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    If you are referring to research on the issues, I think this would take years if not decades to establish answers that would survive a skeptical, empirical analysis.

    And let me guess: you want us to go do years if not decades worth of research and let the status quo sit unchallenged in the mean time, and aren’t even slightly interested in the research that’s already been done over previous years and decades?

    EG if you want more women to attend, perhaps try having more women as speakers. We acknowledge that we may not have the “best” speakers if we were evaluating merit blind to sex and gender

    Why would you expect that moving the proportion of speakers who are female more towards an equal number wouldn’t get you the best speakers? And ignoring the research showing that people who think they evaluate blind to sex or gender are usually mistaken, why don’t you find it surprising that a group supposedly evaluating blind to sex or gender ends up with mainly male speakers? Is it because you assume that men are simply better speakers than women? What’s skeptical about that?

  53. Feats of Cats says

    @43 Sivi

    These things have all be addressed, and in many cases answered, both generally, particularly on this blog network, and on this blog specifically.

    I don’t mean to say they haven’t; my thought was more that the stance of objectively assessing data might not apply to this type of problem, and in fact has been used against addressing these kinds of issues–like I mentioned, the recent surge in the harassment discussion of people demanding data for women’s experiences to be validated. Data is central to skepticism, of course, but it seems like real problems in the movement are being pushed aside by many because there’s no study proving misogyny exists in a certain context (or racism, homophobia, transphobia, whatever). So where’s the line between requiring data vs. listening to people saying there’s a problem? I don’t know. But I don’t want it to get pushed aside.

    @42 42Oolon (P.S. way to be comment 42!)

    A skeptical approach tells you that the above reasons are what you tell yourself are the reason why you are driven away. It tells you nothing about what drives others away, or even that others are driven away. You may have anecdotal evidence, but that is of little value.

    See, but it’s not just me; lots of women are saying these things and getting dismissed as anecdote. How do we go about compiling our complaints to turn it into data? Moreover, the fact that sexism is embedded in our culture and offensive to those it discriminates against really shouldn’t still be up for debate at this point.

    It may be impossible to get answers to these questions, at least in any reasonable time frame. So what we can do is acknowledge that data will not be forthcoming and we must do what we can on insufficient info. Data on the reasons most women say they are pushed away would be easier to get, and remedies targeted and eliminating these barriers would seem to be a plausible hypothesis on which to proceed. We acknowledge that we don’t know with any certainty that these measures will work, and we advocate for more research. In the meantime we make guesses based on general values or axioms, and a cost-benefit analysis.

    But again, how do we compile our experiences? If you’ve spent any time on this blog or Pharyngula or Skepchick, it should be obvious that this is not just my experience and it is driving people away. Do we need an online survey or something? Is proof required for the claim that when you treat people as objects or lesser people, or act in a way dismissing their problems, they will react by avoiding you?

  54. Josh says

    Finally, some discussion of this! As an atheist myself I’ve long said that atheism as a philosophical position is great but atheism as a social movement is currently worthless, and writing like this is the first step to proving that wrong.

    As has been pointed out before, atheists/skeptics don’t exactly have a stellar reputation among social justice activists. In addition to the global-warming deniers and widespread libertarianism mentioned above, consider Hitchens’s neoconservatism and cheerleading for the Iraq war, as well as Harris’s torture apologism and insistence that Islam Did 9/11 (in stark contrast to actual research on the root causes of terrorism). It’s not just the most visible spokespeople, either – the most disgusting stuff often comes from the rank and file on forums such as /r/atheism.

    Then, consider that the atheist/skeptic movements are mainly composed of white men. Those who care about social justice are going to be suspicious of this, since other social movements with this kind of makeup don’t have a good track record (see the examples mentioned in the above paragraph, as well as MRAs). Historically, the most significant social movements have been based on challenging some aspect of upper-class heteronormative cis white male privilege, so movements created by the most privileged classes tend to be ignorant regarding this.

    In short, you’re going up against a lot here, but this must be done for the movement to matter to anyone outside your bubble. I always think back to the black churches serving as the backbone of the civil rights movement, and feel ashamed that the atheist community has not taken nearly as significant a role in something that’s helped those who needed it the most. Though it will take time and a lot of intense & complex dialogue, I do believe that this can be changed!

  55. Sivi says

    @Feats of Cats,

    Erm, if you look, you’ll see I was agreeing with you, and doing my best not to outright call BS on 42Oolon. I was saying they were proving my point by doing the exact same “skepticism” about social justice issues that I see coming up in skeptical circles in real life.

    I agree with you that the concerns you brought up for why you don’t attend realspace movement events were entirely valid, and the only way 42Oolon could make those statements, here of all places, was if they’d been living in a cave on Mars for the past couple years.

  56. Sivi says

    Oh! There was a typo (sorry, I’m a bit jittery today).

    That was supposed to be “These have all BEEN addressed, and in many cases answered…”

  57. says

    Great essay, Greta.

    On this subject, I have a thought: bigotries of various sorts, such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc, etc, are assertions about the world. A racist asserts “people of my race/ethnic group are better than other people”. A sexist asserts “men are better than women”. A classist asserts “the rich are better than the poor”. And so forth.

    As assertions about the world, these are testable. And, moreover, they have been repeatedly tested, and found to have no factual basis. So, the properly skeptical position is to say “these false, unsupported ideas are wrong, and we should not believe them”.

    Basically, human equality is the null hypothesis.

  58. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    As assertions about the world, these are testable.

    Well, if an answer is provided to the obvious question “better HOW?”

    No wonder the status quo doesn’t want skepticism to discuss them.

  59. Sivi says

    @Flewellyn

    Yeah, but see how many people claim that there are “realistically” differences, and that they’re just following the evidence. And they have studies to back them up, peer-reviewed studies. And often these studies aren’t easily shown to be terrible (unlike, say, anything by Satoshi Kanazawa).

    I agree with you. But I don’t think evidence or argument going to be sufficient to convince a distressingly large number of people in the movement.

  60. says

    The research shows that when people live in a society where they feel that they’re supported and safe—i.e., a socially just one—they flee religion like crazy. See: Sweden, Denmark. So, if skeptics and atheists want an audience for their views, they should be supportive of social justice. Duh.

  61. says

    Well, if an answer is provided to the obvious question “better HOW?”

    No wonder the status quo doesn’t want skepticism to discuss them.

    Oh, I assure you, the bigots are happy to discourse on the subject of all the ways in which they are better than the subjects of their hatred. We’ve all seen it. They’ll even go to great lengths to try and scientifically “prove” their bigotry, q.v. The Bell Curve.

    Swatting down such nonsense is fodder for any socially-conscious skeptic.

  62. says

    I agree with you. But I don’t think evidence or argument going to be sufficient to convince a distressingly large number of people in the movement.

    If evidence or argument does not convince a soi-disant “skeptic”, then that person has no right to claim the label.

  63. John the Drunkard says

    Ooh! Big progress in this idea.

    While atheism, per se, may not be ‘about’ social justice (consider Stalin/Ayn Rand)and even skepticism may not necessarily require a commitment to social justice; it does indeed make sense to say that social justice is, inherently, a matter of skepticism, empiricism, and good old-fashioned Anglo-American pragmatism.

    Commitment to social justice requires rejecting belief from authority and tradition. This is pointless if there is no possibility of improving social practice by re-asessing beliefs, by testing the results of actions in real life.

    So: I am an atheist becuase I hold a skeptical stance towards religious truth-claims. I would be inconsistant if I did not extend the same skepticism to claims about society–especially as so many of these claims are rooted in religion.

    And: while we can’t realistically propose an official ‘atheist’ or ‘skeptical’ set of beliefs about society. We can agree that a range of better, and still improvable, beliefs can be arrived at by rational means.

    I don’t know if this means we should devote our energies to public debates on the matter. Especially with all the Objectivists and Bolsheviks cluttering up the discussion.

  64. okstop says

    “If evidence or argument does not convince a soi-disant “skeptic”, then that person has no right to claim the label.”

    This.

  65. Sivi says

    @63

    But then, since I imagine most people here are pretty secure personally in their acceptance of the evidence and arguments of social justice, then we’re back to using willingness to accept those as a litmus test for who’s really a skeptic.

    If we’re willing to cut those people out of movement atheism and movement skepticism, part of me’s all for it, and part of me knows that purity tests for movements are a slippery slope.

    Also, some of these people are pretty big players in the movement, so we’d have to figure out what to do with people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.

  66. says

    But then, since I imagine most people here are pretty secure personally in their acceptance of the evidence and arguments of social justice, then we’re back to using willingness to accept those as a litmus test for who’s really a skeptic.

    That’s fair enough. Let me reformulate:

    If NO AMOUNT of evidence and reasoned argument will convince the person in question, and their counterarguments are clearly based in irrational premises or are blatant derails, then they lose the right to call themselves skeptical ON THAT SUBJECT.

  67. Nurse Ingrid says

    Great point, Amanda! To which I will add: there is a huge body of research showing that when a society increases opportunities for women (jobs, education, reproductive self determination, healthcare, etc) — that society’s standard of living increases for both men and women. So the evidence shows us that promoting gender equality is in everyone’s — and every society’s — own best interests.

  68. Ahriman says

    I’ve been dealing a LOT with the postmodernists on campus lately (I’m in grad school in Education). And I think the skeptics should get involved in social justice issues if just to provide a voice that is “progressive” without being anti-reality.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Sokal when he wrote the following: “The recent turn of many ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.” (See http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html for info on the Sokal hoax)

    Abandoning social justice issues to the postmodernists is like abandoning UFO sightings to the foil hat crew.

  69. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    If evidence or argument does not convince a soi-disant “skeptic”, then that person has no right to claim the label.

    So how do you propose wresting it away from them, especially in spaces where they’re already entrenched?

  70. okstop says

    Sivi,

    Again, I’m not sure what the problem is that you’re having. Either we take it that we can tell when an argument has been presented rationally and with good supporting evidence, or not. If we can tell when an argument has been presented rationally and with good supporting evidence, and the interlocutor still rejects it, without providing rebuttal to the argument or a rational basis for withholding belief, what’s the problem with calling out that person on inadequately applying skeptical principles? It’s not all-or-nothing, in-or-out. It’s a matter of saying, “you, self-proclaimed-skeptic, are not living up to the standard you set for yourself in calling yourself a skeptic.”

    If we can really tell the difference between rational discourse and obstinate irrationality…

    If we can really make a simple, straightforward statement of what it means to embrace and apply skeptical principles…

    and if we really think that genuine conclusions can be reached on social justice issues via application of skeptical princples (aka rational discourse, requiring and responding to evidence and argument)…

    then where is the problem?

    If skepticism is NOT some “mushy” concept, why not call people out when they are not being true to their professed skepticism? Maybe most people here ARE pretty secure in their rigorous application of logic and argument… but you know what? If we’re right about progressive solutions being the ones that are, ultimately supported by the evidence, then by definition those people are WRONG to be so secure.

    It boils down to this. If progressive policies can be supported as being most desirable by evidence and argument, we (speaking generally, of course) have an obligation to make the argument, period. If they can’t, then as skeptics, we have deeper troubles than just worrying about how to convince people – we should be asking ourselves why WE endorse them.

  71. okstop says

    @#71, Azkyroth –

    By persistent, passionate, well-argued struggle. The only way you ever dislodge any entrenched faction.

  72. 42Oolon says

    @okstop

    No, I accept most of what you say. I have been amazed at the resistance to basic progressive strategies aimed at addressing this problem.

    A truly skeptical approach would require specific research on this particular community to identify barriers (whether it be sexual harassment or under-representation, both or something else). Further research into what an equitable mix of men and women would be (it could be 60-40 women-men or 10% men). And then we need evidence of how to effectively solve this problem and what methods work. Does education help? Do quotas? Will subjecting attendees of The Amazing Meeting to diversity education help or cement denial? Only then could we say: “this” is the problem, as best we can determine, and “these” are the best solutions. My point is that skepticism applied to social planning can send us needlessly down the rabbit-hole of “more research is needed”.

    Such particular study is not feasible for this movement and, like you, I do not think it is necessary. I think we can still be skeptical, and point to the best evidence we have and suggest that these solutions are a good idea, not because we have proven they will work, but because all things considered, this is our best guess at a solution. But we should be clear about how certain we are that we have identified actual barriers in this circumstance and how certain we are that the suggested solutions will work.

    I’d really like to hear about studies that have identified measures that have been successful in reducing systemic discrimination if you know of any.

  73. says

    Josh: I think those cases are illustrative of the need to agree on facts independently of staking positions. For instance, Hitchens supported the Iraq War from a very different perspective than the Bush Administration and criticized falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and overt racism within the anti-war movement that liberal skeptics of the time, from my vantage point, largely ignored. Now we see both criticism and praise for Occupy from skeptics (consider Shermer and Cromwell), though i haven’t seen enough of an emergent dialogue for them to establish a common factual footing and move on from there.

    By the way, since you mentioned r/atheism (also not my favorite venue), r/skeptic has taken somewhat warmly to this one: http://tinyurl.com/79mzlje

  74. says

    Ahriman: Do you read Natalie Reed? Her take on postmodernism might provide a channel through which you and fellow empiricists could reach out to the postmodernists, and perhaps even ally yourselves toward specific social justice causes (while maintaining open debate, of course): http://tinyurl.com/89mnmrv I’m trying to do the same, by inviting a postmodernist professor to give a talk to our freethought group — also partly in hopes of getting the freethinkers more conscious of social justice advocacy.

  75. okstop says

    42Oolon –

    I’m extremely happy to know we’re basically on the same side. I don’t think that the skeptical approach will ‘send us down the rabbit-hole’, though. Even the demand for evidence can become unreasonable when it reaches the point that well-formed, well-supported arguments are being rejected just because there’s no study of THIS PARTICULAR group, for example. I hate arguing epistemology for these purposes, but, if necessary, I think we can show good arguments that the evidence as it stands is sufficient and, what’s more, that rejecting the evidence we already have as insufficient is inconsistent with their behavior in regards to other issues (a fortiori from the fact that the standards they would be attempting to apply would be inconsistent with believing much of anything).

  76. says

    So how do you propose wresting it away from them, especially in spaces where they’re already entrenched?

    By persistent, passionate, well-argued struggle. The only way you ever dislodge any entrenched faction.

    And if that doesn’t work…the prongs…

  77. Vix says

    I would suggest everyone here do a little experiment. Go to any major skeptic/atheist web forum, do a search for ‘poll’, go through and find all the forum polls dealing with social justice/civil rights/political persuasion/etc. and see how peoples opinions actually distribute.

    I’ve done this many times, and more often than not the results lean overwhelmingly towards the left/liberal/progressive side. Much more than one would find in the general public.

    This is usually a very surprising result if you were basing your opinion on a community by the tone of debate in its politics section. Sometimes it can seem like half the community are just the worst kinds of right-wing ditto heads and the other half are struggling in arguing against the torrent of bullshit coming from them.

    But what I’ve found after lurking/participating in many skeptical/atheist online communities for many years now (10+ in some cases) is that the overall tone of the community is usually dominated by just a handful of very active members.

    It’s my opinion that truly right-wing Skeptics/Atheists are actually a very small minority. But a very vocal minority. I feel many of the prominent skeptic/atheist voices that uphold the ‘values taboo’ in the movement are more often than not of a more progressive persuasion, whereas those prominent non-progressive figures in the movement(Penn, Shermer, etc.) seem to have no problem wearing their politics on their sleeve and using their position in the community to promote their views.

    I think this has distorted the overall perception of both the skeptical and atheist communities.

    So I’m all for the prominent left/progressive/liberal figures in the movement breaking the ‘values taboo’. It’s about damn time. I believe their the majority. And if this runs all the right-wing morons out of our community because their views no longer go unchallenged by the highest intellectual levels of our community, all the better.

  78. 42Oolon says

    @Feats of Cats

    I think you and I share a viewpoint. Greta is suggesting we apply skepticism beyond pseudo-science, cryptozoology and theism, to social justice issues.

    I am simplifying, but you have significant anecdotal evidence of discrimination and present this as persuasive that a serious problem exits.

    But the skeptical response is to discount your evidence as anecdotal and require better evidence. They may want a peer-reviewed longitudinal, double-blind study specific to this community and ruling out other factors and anomalies… This is all good skeptical reasoning.

    You (I think) and I are concerned that the only way to discuss this on a truly skeptical level is to acknowledge that that level of evidence could be gathered, it would be persuasive, but we don’t have it.

    My point is to acknowledge this criticism, but respond that the claim we are making, and the solutions proffered, are not so extra-ordinary as to require the level of evidence being required, before acting.

    I have learned a lot from these discussions, thanks everyone who replied to my posts. I am pretty new to this blog and I’m impressed by the level of discourse.

    I expect this has been said many times, but the problem I see in the movement is a complete lack of understanding of the idea of substantive equality.

  79. Ahriman says

    @Cornelioid

    I hadn’t read Natalie Reed. I skimmed the post, and I have to say that the postmodernists I’ve run across all fall into the “other ways of knowing,” “everything is socially constructed” camp. I’m in the university setting dealing with PhD’s and reams of published works, so I don’t think I have a shallow perception of who these folks are. However, I get her drift. I completely agree with the points she made about recognizing and eliminating bias and how it is compatible with skepticism. Except when I make those points with the pomos here, they tell me that science is an inherently racist and sexist enterprise a la: http://isthisfeminist.tumblr.com/post/23173035763/this-woman-is-doing-science-is-this-feminist

    But I’d like to think they aren’t all completely off their rockers. Thanks for the link!

  80. says

    @Vix: Thanks for that. I agree with your impressions but remain uncertain as to how best to quantify them. I admit to being especially wary of polls taken amidst a group sharing a low opinion of polls. : ) As i mentioned above, my own campus group is not so skewed.

    @Ahriman: Welcome! I didn’t mean to suggest that you’d “misread” your adversaries, but rather that your approach might be cushioned by using the testimony of a skeptic and self-identified postmodernist.

  81. Ahriman says

    @sivi_volk:

    Ummm. Yeah. Sorry if I gave you the impression that I’m completely devoid of a sense of humor.

    It’s damn funny satire! I just wish the people in some of my classes were being satirical. But that is why they are being satirized and why the satire on the tumblr is successful (because people like the ones in my classes exist).

  82. Feats of Cats says

    @42Oolon

    I believe I see where you’re coming from and agree with you. More research would help define the boundaries and extent of the problem for better solutions, but for now we need to accept the problem exists and do our best to deal with it with what we have, which is largely the collective voices of women who have felt driven away from the movement.

    It’s like when ordering a pizza for a group, some vegetarians say that they’d like non-meat pizza because last time they weren’t able to eat. The meat-eaters reply that their experience is anecdotal and where’s the data on how many vegetarians there are if they even exist? and until they have solid evidence in hand they’re going to just keep ordering meat pizza. Even if there’s only one vegetarian in the group, they deserve to eat, so just order some damn cheese pizzas and we can get actual data on how many vegetarians there are later.

    I guess cheese pizza is a solid anti-harassment policy. It’s not going to hurt anyone to have it, but is necessary for making everyone feel included.

  83. okstop says

    “I guess cheese pizza is a solid anti-harassment policy. It’s not going to hurt anyone to have it, but is necessary for making everyone feel included.”

    LOVE. IT.

  84. Eric O says

    Excellent post.

    Several years ago, in my early twenties, I considered myself a skeptic and a libertarian like Penn Jillette though perhaps not to the same degree. I was skeptical about the usual subjects like God, alternative medicine, alien visitation, and bigfoot. I was also “skeptical” about issues that conflicted with my pro-market ideology, like the necessity of affirmative action, the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and the effectiveness of public schools to name a few.

    It was skepticism that finally got me to reconsider my political position. Firstly, I slowly began to realise that my skepticism on many issues was, in fact, denialism. As I began to learn more – and think more – about privilege, climate science, and economics (among other things), the empirical justification for many of my libertarian views began to slip, which made it harder and harder for me to justify my libertarian ideology as a whole.

    At some point, I asked myself why I was a libertarian. To be fair to myself, it wasn’t because I had a “fuck you, I’ve got mine” attitude – in fact, I’m proud to say that I never got sucked into Ayn Rand’s philosophy, even at my douchiest. I was a libertarian because I sincerely believed that libertarianism would lead to a happy, prosperous, and free society. When I realised that libertarianism was more likely to hinder than to help achieve this goal, I dropped it.

  85. ik says

    I agree with this, and also think that skeptics should criticize these very movements as well.

    An awful lot of these movements seem to center around either fervor or norm-busting. I think that use of skepticism would make them more powerful and meanwhile make them alienate fewer people. They would gain more true allies.

    I also think it would help us find some unexpected solutions.

  86. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    The meat-eaters reply that their experience is anecdotal and where’s the data on how many vegetarians there are if they even exist? and until they have solid evidence in hand they’re going to just keep ordering meat pizza.

    When you put it like that – or more precisely, when you make the topic “pizza” – it really illustrates how idiotic that basic position is.

  87. crystalsinger says

    The whole “how do we wrest away the self-claimed title of ‘skeptic’ from what are actually evidence-deniers (e.g. climate change ‘skeptics’)” is a thorny problem. You have two groups—skeptics and evidence-deniers—both laying claim to the ‘brand’ of ‘skeptic’. The ‘consumers’ in this context are the less-critically-thinking public, who are often able to be convinced as to who has the stronger claim by being bombarded by whomever has the loudest megaphone (or biggest advertising budget).

    There is no quick fix. Longer-term, education—especially in core skills such as critical thinking—is key. (But difficult to implement when this can be positioned as ‘brain-washing with lefty pinko ivory-tower claptrap’ by those with a vested interest itoo poising the creation of a scientifically-literate, critically-thinking public…)

    In the short-term… we (the ‘true’ skeptics) need to forge for ourselves a bigger, louder megaphone, or put together a bigger advertising budget. Preferably both.

    And, despite our instinctive aversion to top-down dogma and groupthink, we also need to find a way to present a very united, consistent position on a range of core issues. Which is difficult in a unity that values freethinking and is largely akin to ‘herding cats’, as they say. :-)

  88. crystalsinger says

    * “…interest itoo poising the creation of…” above should be “…interest in opposing the creation of…”
    #damnyouautocorrect :-/

  89. crystalsinger says

    * and “…difficult in a unity that values freethinking…” should be “…difficult in a movement that values freethinking…”

    *headdesk*

  90. Simon says

    what an awesome post. Greta, I’ve been enjoying… Almost feeding from… Your posts for a long time. first time to comment. from the other side of the planet (New Zealand). thank you so much. I’d give you a big hug, if I could.

  91. says

    Phillip Helbig #20:

    Also, conservatives are not “anti-choice”, as the “pro-choice” label seems to imply; they see it as an issue where choice should be irrelevant. Again, one can disagree with this position, but calling oneself “pro-choice” casts the others in a wrong light.

    No. The pro-lifers are casting themselves in a wrong light by constantly trying to frame the debate around the fetus while conveniently ignoring the woman (which is itself an example of how they view the woman), which also shifts the debate away from the effects of pro-life policy on women.

    Anti-choicers are trying to cast themselves in a favorable light. You are ignoring the detrimental effects of anti-choice policy and focusing on how pro-choicers are casting anti-choicers in an unfavorable light, disingenuously calling it false by appealing to anti-choice framing and the concept of “balance”, which you are abusing rather badly. How the fuck is this skepticism?

    42Oolon #39:

    We do not know if stimulus or austerity will work

    Please do not include those of us who have not been living under a rock for the past 30 years in your “we”. Austerity doesn’t work, at least not for 99% of the population, and we have 43 years’ (and counting) worth of virtually global application to support this.

    But if you want, we can always start at 2008 and go backwards.

    This idea gets a fair amount of pushback. And one of the most common arguments against it is that if skepticism addressed social justice issues, it would amount to a political litmus test.

    Well, that would be because reality has a well-known liberal bias.

    Though, given that the Right loves to whitewash its own history by painting racist corporatists like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon as examples of ‘reasonable old conservatives/Republicans’ while ignoring their stellar failures and embracement of fascism during the 20s and 30s, I would actually moreso say that the Right has an anti-reality bias.

    And how have all the people complaining about how skepticism needs to go back to “traditional” areas not noticed that Penn Jillette is an AGW denialist? That idiot is the fucking face of popular skepticism for many people, thanks mostly to Bullshit.

  92. says

    @42Oolan in #80:

    But the skeptical response is to discount your evidence as anecdotal and require better evidence. … This is all good skeptical reasoning.

    No, it’s not. It’s cargo-cult skepticism. It sounds like skepticism, uses all the language of skepticism, but it’s not actually skepticism. The reason it’s not skepticism is because it ignores the vast amount of scientific literature that exists on the topic of sexism, harassment, and diversity. It also misunderstands who is making the extraordinary claim here.

  93. says

    Actually, in further response to Phillip at #20, it should also be noted that “pro-life” people do not give a shit about what actually happens in the child’s life after it’s born, preferring to simply assume everything will be all happy and bouncy and smiley because IT’S ALIVE! That is pro-reproduction, not pro-life.

    Phillip’s disingenuous babble also ignores how ‘pro-life’ Republicans are not merely legislating against abortion, but also against access to contraceptives.

    I should not have been so generous in my assessment. Phillip, you are not merely abusing balance, you are turning the entire concept on its head and demanding that we submit to the counterfactual terms of a bunch of bullies who think it okay to obfuscate, misrepresent, and even outright lie about abortion and its supporters just because they believe in their cause.

    You are not merely unskeptical, you are a “centrist” charlatan of the worst type: the type that aids and abets conservatives in their bullying by ‘calmly’ demanding that we liberals — conveniently, always liberals — submit to the bullies’ terms of “fairness” even though those terms are blatantly (at least, to anyone who isn’t a conservative/”centrist”) set up to enable the bullies in their use of logical fallacies and dog-whistle-laden Gish Gallops of propaganda and outright lies meant to further their counterfactual, misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist and sociopathic (not meant to be an exhaustive list) agenda.

    In short, you are part of the reason why Greta wrote this post, because a lack of skepticism allows you and your red-state cronies to run around spouting crap like “Bush Derangement Syndrome” and “liberal media” every time someone in the mainstream dares to criticise a Republican administration.

  94. Ariel says

    A very interesting discussion. If you can tolerate an outsider’s bird’s eye view, here it goes.

    What’s the motivation of putting social justice on the skeptical agenda? Greta answers:

    the idea is that these issues, you know, matter. They affect people’s lives. Decisions often get made about these issues with little or no evidence or critical thinking — and as a result, the decisions that get made are bad ones, and they seriously screw up people’s lives in concrete ways. (…) If these folks don’t see skepticism taking on issues that matter to them, they’re less likely to get involved with skepticism, or even to see skepticism as having anything to do with them.

    In effect two aims are proposed:

    1. Promoting good decisions.
    2. Attracting people to skepticism.

    Greta also observes that “the idea gets a fair amount of pushback” and that the critics stress a widespread disagreement among the skeptics on the issues involved. She proposes a remedy:

    We’re not saying, “Skeptics all have to agree on social justice issues..”
    We’re saying, “Skepticism should address social justice issues.”

    The problem is that (ceteris paribus) the remedy invalidates the motives to a substantial degree. If we accept that the skeptics are hopelessly divided on basic issues, how can their voice make a difference (i.e. how can they help as a group in achieving aim (1))? As for the second aim, I suspect that the folks Greta mentions do not search for a group merely “taking on” issues that matter to them (i.e. a heterogenic group discussing these issues with a broad spectrum of opinions presented); they would be rather attracted to a group which promotes particular solutions (the ones to their liking). And if the skeptics are really so divided, they are not such a group. Period.

    These are pretty obvious worries and some of you tried to address them in the discussion. I choose two comments which in my opinion are very characteristic.
    Vix #79

    I’ve done this many times, and more often than not the results lean overwhelmingly towards the left/liberal/progressive side (…) It’s my opinion that truly right-wing Skeptics/Atheists are actually a very small minority.

    This amounts to negating the basic premise Greta started with: diversity of the skeptical group. (And yes, I also often have the impression that I’m a very small minority :-) ) If this assessment is correct, there is no real problem for you here – the so called “skeptical movement” can easily become (has already become?) one more among the plethora of leftist political groups on the horizon. (One could only ask if there is a need for such an additional leftist group and your answer may well depend on the part of the world you happen to inhabit; anyway, politically I’m too far from you even to try to provide an answer.)

    Another characteristic reply:
    okstop #31

    That said, the second part is that I don’t believe for an instant that regressive positions will turn out to be well-founded. That is to say, I think that continued discourse in a skeptical vein can ONLY result, eventually, in the embrace of a progressive social program.

    Sure, you can believe that, you can think that leftist ideology is the only rational position. But I take an outsider’s point of view, didn’t I promise that? So: I think it’s little more than a value laden belief. And yes, I have a problem with it. I find it unacceptable to assume that every possible skeptical discourse can ONLY vindicate my position. With such an approach, if you get the majority in the skeptical movement (perhaps you already have it, I’m not sure), you will be only able to alienate the rest of us.*

    *Which is perhaps not so bad from your point of view – I confess that my suspicion is that what you really want is to create an efficient leftist group. But I’m ready to change my mind here and now, I promise, so pleasssse, don’t spank me for that :-)

  95. says

    @Flewellyn in #67:

    If NO AMOUNT of evidence and reasoned argument will convince the person in question, and their counterarguments are clearly based in irrational premises or are blatant derails, then they lose the right to call themselves skeptical ON THAT SUBJECT.

    I think that’s the key here. Nobody is a skeptic about everything (and even that I’m skeptical of ;)) and we’re just going to have to accept that. They can still be skeptics and valuable allies on other topics, but they should definitely expect to be challenged on their blind spots or pet beliefs.

    And if that makes people uncomfortable or unwelcome in the skeptical community, well, maybe that should be a hallmark of someone who isn’t a “Real Skeptic”.

  96. says

    Deen #95:

    It also misunderstands who is making the extraordinary claim here.

    The “extraordinary claim” being that, “with the stroke of a pen and the stamp of a seal” (thanks Stephen Fry), institutionalized discrimination is no longer true. Stuff which has been happening for centuries and millennia, which has been drilled into our brains and identities by parents, peers and media since the moment we were born, all magically disappeared in the years between 1960 and 1970.

  97. says

    @Setár in #99: yeah that too, but the one I was referring to more specifically is the claim that somehow the skeptic/secular/atheist communities are somehow unaffected by the sexism and other biases that exists in the society they are embedded in.

  98. Sili says

    If we sincerely want to draw a more diverse crowd to skepticism

    What makes you think that “we” want that? Could it not be that we prefer our Old Boys Country Club not be integrated?

    To quote:

    I know this is going to come as a huge shock to you all, but sometimes politicians aren’t entirely honest. Sometimes, politicians have agendas that they don’t reveal to the general public. Sometimes, politicians claim to have one goal or value, when in reality they have another. (I know. Shocking, isn’t it? Alert the media at once!) I

  99. Ray Moscow says

    Greta @ 46: By “didn’t work” I meant that we couldn’t find much agreement on the most basic things, aside from our rather narrow (though IMO important) focus on the Bible, its problems and its detrimental influence on society.

    For example, the group’s founder was a very passionate communist (I mean, the kind who loved Lenin and Stalin), some were libertarian (the Ayn Rand kind), some were Republican, and there were even a few liberals like me. Our thoughts about social justice were so different that we could barely discuss them, and reaching anything approaching consensus was impossible.

    But I agree with you that social-justice issues are too important not to address. It’s just that I think it’s too much to hope that most ‘skeptics’ will be able or willing to work toward goals that you or I think are important.

  100. says

    @Ray Moscow in #105: doesn’t that suggest that it is these more necessary to talk about these topics with a skeptical eye, not less? Probably not in a biblical errancy panel, of course, as it would take too much time away from its main purpose. But I’m sure there should be some place within the skeptical community where we can tease out which assumptions are behind the different viewpoints, which ones hold up in practice, etc etc.

  101. Setar, too lazy to log in on his blackberry says

    When does the presence of ignorance not indicate a need for more skepticism?

  102. Ray Moscow says

    @Deen @106: After seeing the sort of discussions we got after what I would have thought to be an uncontroversial subject (the right not to be sexually harassed) was breached, I’m not so optimistic that the wider skeptic community is going to get anywhere on social-justice issues — except with those skeptics who already share similar views on those issues.

    But hey, what do I know? I hope I’ll be proven wrong.

  103. says

    @Ray Moscow in #108: you might well be right about that. But how much more optimism do you have that, say, the subset of the skeptic community who doubt AGW will come around? And has that ever stopped anyone from bringing it up again?

  104. okstop says

    @Ariel #97

    IF I believe in/support policies x, y, and z…

    AND I am a skeptic…

    THEN EITHER my belief in/support for is in line with my professed skepticism and thus supported by evidence…

    OR it is acknowledged to be without proper support.

    BUT IF I believe my positions to be well supported…

    THEN of course I think that any rational discourse about the subject will ultimately wind up supporting my side of it.

    In other words, if I didn’t think this, it would be tantamount to admitting that I don’t think my positions are well supported (which includes the possibility that no position can be well supported in this fashion, i.e., “it’s all just opinion”).

    Now, do you think this is “all just opinion?”

    Do you think your views are well supported?

    Okay, then. You already believe – at this moment – that a truly rational debate about the issue will end up supporting your side, whatever that side may be.

    Just like I do.

    Now, I AM open to the possibility that I was WRONG to think my views were well supported. But AS OF RIGHT NOW, I don’t believe that. I wouldn’t be willing to agitate for these views if I didn’t think they were correct – I’d still be gathering evidence and thinking about the issue.

    I had thought I made that clear. Repeatedly.

    If now, I apologize.

    But don’t tell me you have a problem with someone who think his or her side is right and that examining the issue will show that result. That’s simply absurd. Of course the people agitating for a certain outcome/policy/etc. think they are right.

    THAT is not where problems arise.

    Problems arise when those people are not open to being convinced that they are wrong.

    If you want to criticize anything, criticize that.

  105. okstop says

    Well, evidently I don’t know how to use tags. Help? Someone with the power to edit and/or delete comments? Help? Greta?

  106. says

    Maybe this is why I can’t get anyone to give a shit about pit bull denialists- the safety issues mostly affect lower income neighborhoods. hm.

  107. says

    Skeptifem: Pit bull denialists? You mean, versus pitbull demonizers like Colleen Lynn of DogsBite dot org, as debunked here?

    Quite frankly, I’d rather listen to people who have experience raising, working with, and rescuing the breeds than to someone whose only credential is having been attacked by a dog. And I think the classism issue runs in the opposite direction: They’re being targeted by self-righteous types who associate them with the poor and working class.

    BTW, a friend of mine’s pitbull is in training to be a therapy dog. I’m sure you’re appalled.

  108. Vix says

    @Arial #97


    “This amounts to negating the basic premise Greta started with: diversity of the skeptical group. (And yes, I also often have the impression that I’m a very small minority :-) ) If this assessment is correct, there is no real problem for you here – the so called “skeptical movement” can easily become (has already become?) one more among the plethora of leftist political groups on the horizon. (One could only ask if there is a need for such an additional leftist group and your answer may well depend on the part of the world you happen to inhabit; anyway, politically I’m too far from you even to try to provide an answer.)

    I believe when when Greta was talking about diversity she was talking about diversity of ‘people’ not ‘ideas’. Nothing I posted contradicted a need for more of that. The Skeptic and Atheist communities are still predominated by white guys unfortunately.

    And a diversity of ideas is only a good thing up to a point. So much diversity to allow creationists, holocaust deniers, and 911 truthers under our tent? What would be the point of our tent?

    You can chalk this up to my biases, but it is my opinion that modern American conservatism is as intellectually indefensible as the aforementioned groups. Buy they have enjoyed a small enclave in our movement because of a taboo against getting into political and values based discussions by the Skeptical and Atheist “leaders”.

    It is still my contention (or possibly naivete) that this enclave could not survive in our movement if full open discussion of political and value matters opened up in the community from the top down, because I also still contend that they are an insignificant minority overall.

    In the skeptic/atheist movements political and and values debates have been relegated to just occur on web forums and blog comment sections. This has not only lowered the quality of these debates in our movement but also has giving a very false impression of the intellectual makeup of the community.

    I’ve seen this play out countless times:

    1) A political debate breaks out on a forum.

    2) A few individuals take up intellectually indefensible position (conservatives) and a few few people argue against them.

    3) Someone creates a separate poll on the subject to delineate the opinions of the community.

    4) The number of votes that go to intellectually indefensible position is close to equal to the number of individuals actively arguing for it (a few), and the number of votes for the other options is closer to the number of active members of the board (many many more)

    If one was to assume the number of individuals holding a particular position in a debate was proportional to their numbers in the community overall, one would get a very false impression indeed.

  109. llewelly says

    UFOs, cryptids, ghosts, astrologers … the traditional haunts of skeptics, quite frankly do not matter to most people.

    So Called Alternative Medicine, religion, and social justice issues matter a great deal, to many people.

    This is another step forward in the pursuit of relevance.

  110. scimurph says

    Great post, I don’t often comment but this is a subject I feel strongly about. THIS is what would make me engage more with events and in the skeptic community in general, I hope more skeptic organisations take this on board.

  111. Tussilago says

    I see several people have already answered Phillip Helbig at #20 about the term “pro-choice”.
    I just want to add that I can’t think of any other term that sums up the position that a woman has a right to choose whether to get pregnant and whether to remain pregnant – that no state, government, family or anyone else gets to tell her what she “should” do. A position with no “should”. How could that reasonably be called anything BUT “pro-choice”?

  112. Steve says

    Surely, you don’t think any idea or meme is truly original? Everything we think is derived from someone else’s thought, but shaded by our own experience and ratiocination, hopefully putting a new spin on it or casting it in a new light.

    Of course skeptics should be encouraged to address social, political, and ethical issues, even if it means repeating and recasting old, worn ideas and arguments. Who would you rather be doing it — theists, for God’s sake?

  113. Yolanda says

    Re: Walton’s comment about skeptics discussing immigration

    I think Walton’s desire to see skeptics discuss immigration is a good one. However, the assumption that the skeptic position should automatically assume that any argument against immigration is inherently xenophobic is incorrect.

    A true skeptic is going to look at BOTH sides of the issue and will look at arguments both limiting and expanding immigration. It’s quite possible that there could be sound rationald arguments for the side you may not like. It’s quite possible that there is good empirical evidence that may support limiting immigration. . I think the important thing to remember is that a skeptic is not going into the issue discussion with a preformed opinion. The skeptic goes in with an open mind and a willingness to see all the evidence and to examine all the arguments. The skeptic is going to apply scientific and logical standards to all the evidence and arguments–not just the ones that they like or for which they feel an emotional attraction. In the end, it’s possible that there could exist sound evidence and good arguments for limiting immigration and that evidence and those arguments may not necessarily imply xenophobia.

  114. Yolanda says

    I think skeptics should be asking for evidence and asking to see arguments about every social issue. At the core of every social issue position is a truth claim about the nature of reality and the universe. As such, why not expect proponents of all sides of every social issue to defend their truth claims with proper evidence and arguments. It is our failure to do this in the social issue arena that keeps our society deadlocked and paralyzed from making decisions. In other words, we have not been allowing rational, critical thinking to inform our decision-making about the really important issues that matter. Instead we have been confining our rational thinking to trivial issues like Bigfoot, pendulum dowsing, astrology and other nonsense. It’s true that it’s important to regularly demonstrate that these things are nonsense, however, at some point we have to get to bigger issues.

  115. says

    Yolanda #121:

    It is our failure to do this in the social issue arena that keeps our society deadlocked and paralyzed from making decisions.

    And it doesn’t help when people post handwaving like you did in #120:

    A true skeptic is going to look at BOTH sides of the issue and will look at arguments both limiting and expanding immigration. It’s quite possible that there could be sound rational arguments for the side you may not like.

    A “true skeptic” isn’t going to wave their hands around about invisible possible rational arguments. They present the arguments, because they know full well that invisible rational arguments out there somewhere hold as much weight as the invisible dragon in their garage somewhere.

  116. says

    Yolanda, explain what? You didn’t even tell me where I was unclear. A simple “I don’t get it” is not helpful at all.

    And frankly, when you respond with nothing but an unhelpfully vague “I don’t get it” it’s very hard to believe that
    you’re approaching the discussion honestly, or even seriously.

    I will reiterate: you appealed to the possibility of rational anti-immigration arguments, stating that a “true skeptic” would consider this possibility. My response is that skepticism involves drawing conclusions based on the evidence, and as such a skeptic would not consider the possibility of rational anti-immigration arguments when none have been presented yet.

    Furthermore, when you start talking about “true skeptics” and condescending to others who do not fit the bill as determined by you, you are implicitly claiming that you are a better skeptic than the person to whom you are talking. This does not follow when you are taking the decidedly unskeptical position of claiming that something exists or could exist without presenting any evidence to indicate such. Would you say that “[i]t’s quite possible there could be sound rational arguments” for religion or UFOs or Bigfoot? Absolutely not, because none have been presented yet, and if they had you could just present them. So what makes “political” issues like immigration policy exempt from that? And what makes `it’s possible!` anything more than silencing, if you’re not presenting any of the arguments you say might exist somewhere?

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  1. […] Greta and Natalie have written arguing that the skeptics’ movement should get involved on the issue of recreational drugs. I’ve been sort of ambivalent about that, but no longer: During a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart repeatedly refused to admit that anything was more addictive or harmful than marijuana. […]

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