A small fraction of the Horde gathered at Women in Secularism 2, and they dismounted long enough to stand for a portrait.
Mount up again, we’ve got a world to conquer!
May 20 2013
May 20 2013
Amanda Marcotte has written an excellent open letter to the Center for Inquiry — it’s measured and reflects the consensus of the 30+ people who packed my hotel room on Saturday night.
Well, there are exceptions. This was Justin Vacula’s response on twitter:
Get out, Amanda, you not welcome here. Take your dogma elsewhere (you too, Ophelia)
This is the same guy who couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to him at the Women In Secularism conference — we had more interesting people to talk to — so he spent his Saturday doing an interview for that misogynist hate site, A Voice For Men.
Who’s supposed to get out again?
May 20 2013
It took longer than I thought — I was so worn out from an invigorating and stressful weekend that I didn’t trust myself to drive all the way from the airport to Morris, so I got a cheap motel room and got some sleep before completing the journey. And that means I’ve arrived back just barely in time to switch out of the lampshade on my head and dancin’ shoes to tidy up and swing into professorial action and run some meetings. The blog thing will have to wait a little while as I get some work done.
May 19 2013
Russell Blackford (@Metamagician) made a problematic assertion on twitter (the following paragraph is from four sequential tweets):
Just to be clear. My stance as a pro-feminist man does NOT follow from the fact that I am an atheist. Even if I became a philosophical deist overnight, I would maintain the same stance. Let’s not oversellMere atheism what mere atheism entails. None of which is to deny that actual religions can be used to provide false rationales for some abhorrent views.
That’s a bit of a mess, so let’s unpack it. I find interesting because my pro-feminist stance does follow from the fact that I am an atheist; perhaps we ought to recognize that there is more than one way to be an atheist, something I’ve been saying for a long time, and apparently Blackford and I are very different kinds of atheist.
There are some peculiarities in that statement. There is also more than one way to be a feminist, so announcing that one would still be feminist if they were a “philosophical deist” is both trivial and irrelevant: irrelevant because no one denies that there are religious positions that are compatible with feminism, and trivial because Blackford selected as an alternate a philosophy that’s about as close to atheism as you can get. I think we’d have a very different answer if he had speculated about an overnight conversion to Southern Baptist, or Amish, or conservative Muslim. As he notes at the end, there are religions that would impose abhorrent views that are incompatible with feminism. So about half of his comment is empty noise that contributes nothing to his thesis.
The interesting part is this: that “mere atheism” does not entail feminism. I both agree and disagree.
The agreeable side is that if we assume he means “mere atheism” the simple position that no gods or supernatural forces exist, then it’s true that that does not directly promote feminism. We could have a hypothetical atheism that postulated other, non-divine phenomena that contradicted feminism. For instance, a libertarian atheism that rationalized virtual enslavement of half the population to serve the other half, which just happened to recognize that it was easier to maintain the existing patriarchal framework, rather than going to all the trouble of inverting it. Or we could imagine a scientific atheism on a world with extreme sexual dimorphism, where the female sex was significantly smaller brained than the male sex. Or we could postulate a solipsistic or psychopathic atheism, in which an individual atheist considered members of the complementary sex to be resources to be exploited.
Blackford says he is pro-feminist (and he lives on this planet), so presumably none of the above scenarios apply. So why would an atheist be feminist?
In my case, the absence of a god invalidates all truth claims by revelation and all the traditional authority of holy books. It creates an epistemic gap, which I suppose someone could fill with just about anything: whim, utility, emotional needs, dice-rolling, whatever. I have no idea how Blackford explains cause and reason, but I know how I do: by an acceptance of natural causes which can be examined empirically and by experiment…by science. I also concede that where I can’t apply science in evaluating human motives, I use empathy and the principle of equating another’s condition with my own.
My atheism entails using those methods to resolve ethical decisions, for instance. That’s my toolkit. My atheism has stripped me of the tools of dogma and authoritarianism (and good riddance).
So now my atheism compels me to confront the question of the status of women by evidence and empathy. And what answer do both of those give? That women are my equals. That they share all the attributes of humanity that I have; there is no deficit in the quality of the experience of being a woman vs. being a man. That I cannot make assumptions about the capabilities or desires of a person on the basis of their sex.
This same reasoning applies whether I apply it to sex, to race, to class, or religious belief. My atheism requires me to be egalitarian because the evidence of our common humanity demands it. My reliance on that evidence is not independent of my atheism, but of course people who are not atheists can also share that same appreciation of others; the difference is simply that my form of “mere atheism” which is driven by naturalism means I have no other recourse, no other way of justifying my interpretation of the world.
But then, I don’t need any other mechanism — it seems to me that science and love of my fellow human beings is more than sufficient argument to guide the entirety of my life. And those are necessary axioms that I am compelled to accept by my atheism, even if there could exist alternate axioms that would also fill the gap left by the absence of gods.
It’s just that those alternate axioms, those other atheisms, also make one a jerk.
May 19 2013
Amongst the debris left over from last night’s late ruckus in my hotel room, I find in my possession many empty wine and beer bottles, a quarter of a fifth of vodka, one set of mysterious keys and a Shelley Segal CD. Look for me at the conference and I’ll return them to you.
Except for the clutter, the room is surprisingly tidy and undamaged. You atheists really have no idea how to trash a hotel room, do you?
May 19 2013
It’s been a strange evening. I had a crowd of people descend on my hotel room after the evening’s events at Women In Secularism and a good day of wonderful and inspiring talks from strong women, and besides just wanting to talk and celebrate, they wanted to complain. These are people who came here for a conference on women’s issues, and they were really annoyed that the head of CFI, Ron Lindsay, chose to use the opening talk of the conference to basically chastise the attendees and instruct them in how to behave, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they were irate that their introduction to an event that they paid a considerable sum of money was to be greeted by a talk that pandered to people who hated the event, and were volubly complaining on the internet throughout the day about it. The impression they had was that the organization was unhappy to be sponsoring this conference.
That is a weird and impolitic message to send to attendees. It was especially weird to hear that on day one, and then to watch Melody Hensley, the person who did the organizational work to set up the meeting, make fundraising pitches at the evening reception on both days. Melody definitely stands behind the purpose of this event, there’s no doubt about that at all, but we’re simultaneously getting this bizarre vibe that CFI, as represented by Lindsay, does not like this feminist stuff, and would rather that we all went away and the MRAs who are crowing about his talk were here instead.
Who is he supporting? The people who actively invest in this meeting and CFI, or the jerks who lurk on the internet and rage at women all day long with no commitment to any cause besides hatred, and are openly hoping to see the meeting fail?
What has also caused all these people to lose confidence in Lindsay is that today, he posted a complaint against Rebecca Watson, who is here both as a speaker and as a sponsor of attendees here, comparing her to a propagandist for North Korea, and blathering misconceptions about his odd understanding of the idea of privilege and asserting that there is an effort to silence men (he’s very resentful of the idea that men might be expected to be silent long enough to listen to the experience of minorities). Or rather, he’s unhappy with the hyphenated entity Myers-Watson (really, we aren’t married, not even close), because he also posted a tirade against me for stating that shutting up and listening, that is, paying attention to and respecting the experiences of the underprivileged, is an appropriate strategy for learning about and responding to the concerns of people outside your class, sex, and race. Which, I thought, was the goal of this conference.
A lot of people are extraordinarily irritated by this effort by the head of CFI to undermine a CFI-sponsored conference. That’s why this one tired old man was listening to a crowd of annoyed conference attendees packed into his hotel room at 2am complain about mismanagement and loss of confidence in the administration of CFI. Attendees who paid $250 each, plus transportation and hotel costs, to listen to big names in feminism and secularism talk, and who got that plus a director who seemed more interested in appeasing an obsessed gang of manic, moronic anti-feminist spammers who’d been flooding the twitter feed (a strange corruption of the usual use of conference hashtags that I’ve never witnessed before) and countering the purpose of the conference.
I was put in the unusual and awkward position of having to reassure these attendees that CFI really was a great organization (something the head of CFI should have been doing, right?) despite the apparent opposition of the man in charge…a man who had just posted a bitter complaint about me on the web. I had to remind them that the woman who was specifically in charge of this conference, Melody Hensley, was on their side, and supported the cause of women in secularism despite the apparent intransigence of her boss.
I’m only here as an attendee myself, yet here I am having to defend the organization. I have no reputation as a diplomat, yet here I am trying to put out the fires that the CEO of the organization himself has enflamed. What kind of screwed up mess is this?
OK, I give up. I’m going to bed to get a couple of hours of sleep. Let’s hope Ron Lindsay wakes up and realizes he’s just blown up what ought to be a great success for CFI (the speakers here have been phenomenal) and turned it into a colossal PR disaster, and tries to change course. If it’s not too late already.
May 18 2013
Rebecca Watson has a few things to say about The Silencing of Men at Women in Secularism, and Ron Lindsay’s opening talk. You know, there is a very, very tiny grain of truth to what he said — I’ve been in a few situations this weekend where I’ve felt uncomfortably like an outsider because I’m a man — but the thing is … that’s fair. I should be somewhat marginal here, because this is an event to try and correct the privileges I can usually rely on feeling at other events. So my internal conversation when I’m feeling that way is “OK, that was a bit weird. Shut up. Think about it. Do they have good reason to think that way? Maybe I should consider where they’re coming from more.” My plan is to listen and learn here.
What I think now is that even if Lindsay hadn’t said those objectionable things that so thrilled the Misogyny Brigade, he would have been wrong to speak at this event anyway. He objected to being told to “shut up and listen” and instead asserted his privilege as the head of the organization to lecture at the attendees…but shutting up and listening in this case was exactly what he needed to do, and speaking in the opening session was an extraordinarily impolitic thing to do instead.
It is perfectly legitimate to tell someone to shut up when you’ve heard their voice in a thousand variants many times before, and you need some small space in which to express yourself, too. This conference should be that space for the many who have been shushed.
May 18 2013
I’m off in Washington DC at Women in Secularism 2, and I’m taking it easy. You can try to follow what’s going on at the conference via twitter, but that’s going to be a mess: unlike every other conference I’ve ever been at, the twitter feed for this one is nearly completely divorced from the reality of the event. It seems that if you put on a woman’s conference, the anti-feminists will send a representative or two to attend and throw out occasional twisted remarks prejudicial to the event, which will then be echoed by the obsessive mob in the lovely manosphere.
It’s genuinely bizarre. If you thought the #wiscfi hashtag was a corrupt mess before the conference, it’s even worse now. It’s representative of the endemic bigotry against women that even atheist/skeptic cons don’t get this degree of malicious nastiness from their opponents.
It didn’t help that the opening remarks (by a bearded white guy, no less) were basically a high five to the people trolling the con — Ron Lindsay tut-tutted the attendees for using the concept of privilege to shut down conversations with…who? The thugs who hate the whole idea of Women in Secularism? It was the most inappropriate, uninspiring, wrong-headed conference opening ever. The director of CFI trolled a conference built by his own organization, and offered words of encouragement to the people trying to disrupt it!
All I can think is that he decided to make all the other talks look good by starting off on the lowest note he could. He shouldn’t have bothered, all the talks on the first day were excellent. Oh, you aren’t here? We’ve got three people from FtB live-blogging it all.
Jason/Miri/Kate covered the first panel, on faith-based pseudoscience. The panelists discussed the ways medicine in particular is undermined by quackery, and to give the True Skeptics™ conniptions, specifically addressed how religious lies contribute to the problem.
Jason/Kate covered Amanda Marcotte’s talk on how feminism makes better skeptics. She mainly talked about how patriarchal assumptions corrupt decision-making, highlighting, for instance, the opposition to Plan B, which cannot be attribute to rational decision-making at all, but is entirely faith-based. And when you look at the agenda of the theocrats of the religious right, it’s appalling how much of it is all about controlling women.
Jason/Miri covered Rebecca Goldstein’s talk on religion, humanism, and moral progress. She covered the philosophical and historical theme of “mattering”, of struggling to live a notable or even extraordinary life. Humanism is the only attempt to make lives matter that has progressed to including everyone.
Check in with those guys throughout the day as they take on the job of representing the conference accurately to the world — you sure won’t find that on twitter, which is worrisome. I wonder if other groups will organize to bully other events by disrupting their twitter feeds? Nah, only defending the rights of women seems to generate that much hate.
May 17 2013
Maybe it’s something in the air: Spring brings out the sociological criticisms of science, or something. But for some reason, this week people have been talking at me about the “deficit model” repeatedly, and it is really beginning to annoy me. The latest source is Alice Bell in the Guardian, who says some sensible things (don’t treat scientists as a priesthood!) and then gets all mushy-mouthed over the myth of the deficit model. How nice of her, though, to define it for us.
It’s the critique of the so-called “deficit model” many of us have been dancing to for decades. The deficit model, if you’re lucky enough not to have come across the term, assumes science has the knowledge the public are deficient in, and that many of our social ills will be solved if we all listened to the experts. It’d be a nice idea maybe if science, the media, policy or people were that simple, but they’re not (I talked about similar issues in my Radio Four piece on scientific literacy last year).
Oh, no…it brings back cranky memories of those annoying rounds of argument with Mooney and Nisbet, who loved to slam us with sneering rebukes that we’re true believers in the Deficit Model, and don’t you know, everybody rejects that model nowadays.
And I’d just, what, say what, I what? I’m right here, why are you arguing with that caricature? Look, I’ve spent decades battling creationists, giving them the actual facts in the face of their distortions, and I know they heard me, and I know they’re not so stupid they couldn’t comprehend what I was saying, and yet they’ll be back the next week saying the same lies. I know that there’s more to getting people on the side of reason then calmly stating the evidence while equipped with a Ph.D. I don’t know anyone who subscribes to this “deficit model” of which you speak.
Here’s the model I actually accept; let’s call it the Obstacle Model. Everyone has a whole collection, to varying degrees, of obstacles that interfere with effective progress: for instance, there’s poverty, and racism, and sexism, and religion, and authoritarianism, and ignorance. Focusing on just one without paying any attention to the others means you won’t get very far. Every good educator knows that teaching is a multi-dimensional problem.
Correcting ignorance has a rather critical role to play in the solution. I think the other factors I listed are more important in giving people the will and capability to make decisions, but addressing an intellectual deficit is essential in giving them the power to decide how to decide; without it, you’ve got a blundering herd of enthusiastic incompetents.
But ignorance also has a special place because it’s the one thing teachers are commissioned to address, so if you’re interested in deprecating expertise, finding a straw man like the “deficit model” to set on fire is a handy tool to knock those scientists and educators down a peg. It’s also a useful bludgeon if you’re a sociologist and want to assert your authority over those puffed-up boffins (not that I think most sociologists have an inferiority complex, but some of the dumbest things ever said about science come out of the mouths of sociologists).
You want examples? Alice Bell continues by citing sociological analyses of the scientific establishment.
The deficit model sticks around partly because it feeds scientists’ social status, implicitly underlining their powerful position as people who get to define what counts as important, true, reliable knowledge. Stephen Hilgartner put it well back in 1990, saying such top down approaches implicitly provide the scientific establishment with the epistemological right to print money. Something we don’t appreciate enough though is that also serves the handmaidens of the deficit model – science communication professionals, less powerful scientists, many science “fans” – offering them some social status by association. Play into a game of hierarchies, and even if you don’t get to the top, you get to climb a bit. Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic sociology of the university campus, Homo Academicus, talks about the way students are happy to submit to the idea that they are inferior to senior academics because doing so earns them subsequent admittance to a distinguished club of graduates. I think we can see similar patterns at work in terms of the way academic ideas are shared outside of universities too.
O My Fellow Scientists, do you feel like you have the right to print money? Here we are in an occupation with relatively limited recompense — we tend to be solidly middle class, which is very nice, but not much more — and we had to spend much of our youth in training, which from a purely economic point of view, represented a tremendous loss in earning potential. Deferring getting an entry level job because you spent a decade in graduate school and post-doctoral positions isn’t sound financial sense. Are these critics even aware of how many scientists get thrown into the churn of the unending provisional appointments? Somehow, though, we always get this criticism from creationists and other outsiders that we’re in it for the big bucks, as if we’re investment bankers or oil company executives.
O My Fellow Scientists, do you feel like you have high social status? I certainly don’t. Scientists are not particularly well-regarded in the communities I live in, except among ourselves; I follow politics, and scientists certainly don’t play much of a role there. Except when they’re trying to fill knowledge deficits (which is constantly trivialized by these critics of the deficit model), scientists are treated as awkward nerds with no social skills at all — the archetype we see flaunted on shows like The Big Bang Theory. You’re very confused if you think Sheldon is regarded as having high social status. He’s a pretentious clown.
O My Fellow Scientists, do you scorn your students and think of them as your inferiors? Maybe some do; I certainly don’t. I’m in this teaching position because I respect and enjoy the company of students. I identify with my students.
And here’s the thing: that hierarchy? Definitely a mixed bag. I remember being a student, and my professors were pretty much just like me, except with added obligations. Graduate school was wonderful — they had to order me to wrap up and get the thesis done. I tried to keep my post-docs going as long as I could stretch them out, because every step up the academic ladder meant less playing in the lab, more uncertainty (where am I going to get a job?), and more teaching and administrative responsibilities. If I had my druthers, I’d still be a grad student.
Even now, I’m dragging my heels about getting promoted to full professor, despite the nudges from my unit head. Promotion would mean a little more money (but I’m not in this job for the money!) and additional responsibilities in campus-wide governance. Why should I do that? Because I’m a good citizen of my university, not because I have some illusion that it will let me lord my superiority over others.
But OK, Bell does salvage the article in the end.
Less cynically, top down models also stick around because scientists do, genuinely, have special ideas and information to share. We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world. We should listen to them. As David Dickson wrote in 2005, factual reporting of science can be socially empowering for audiences. It’s worth remembering this. Political systems of scientific advice in government are built partly for this reason too, to make best use of scientific expertise. I don’t want to throw the baby out with bathwater, and lazy critique of science is not just silly, it can be dangerous (if you’ve never read Merchants of Doubt, do).
Yes, that is the way it works. I’m glad to see a realistic perspective on the matter — now if only everyone would realize that most scientists share this same view, and that this deficit model crap is a sociological contrivance intended to take a back-handed slap at expertise.
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