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.
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.”