We hadn’t

There are some memes that need correcting – and when I say “correcting” I mean “multiple repetitions of correction for however long it takes” because that’s how it is with memes: they’re god damn hard to correct and often trying to correct them just entrenches them instead. (So don’t correct them? No, because what else can one do, and because at least they’ll be easier to find.)

One that I see everywhere is that the mysterious “small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe” had been saying that TAM was bad for women before DJ Grothe called them out with that accusation.

We hadn’t. Or they hadn’t. I don’t know for sure if DJ meant to include me in that group or not, but either way – we or they hadn’t.

In his now notorious reply to Rebecca, he quoted only one item that specified TAM, and that one he cited via the generic address rather than the specific post. The generic address was that of The Skeptical Abyss – which is one of those anonymous sites set up for the sole purpose of talking shit about uppity women. The post DJ quoted from was a set-up for the next post, which was an order to name names. Another description for that would be an invitation to get yourself sued. The one item that named TAM comes from a site that is emphatically supportive of DJ and hostile to feminism and feminists.

The others are Rebecca, Stephanie (several times), and Jen. None of the passages he quoted mentions TAM.

So: DJ said a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics were scaring women away from TAM; Rebecca asked for specifics, and he provided generics. He did not provide any examples of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics talking about TAM.

I know I hadn’t been talking about TAM before that. For one thing, I didn’t know much about it. I had nothing to say. I hadn’t been talking about TAM, and I don’t know that any of the named women had either. But there is now a robust myth that we had all been talking a lot of smack about TAM before DJ ever said anything.

Not true. False. A dud meme.


  1. Gnumann, Tyhpos is my motor says

    Just think of all the actual work we could get done if we didn’t have to refute the same pratt over and over again.

    You know, it’s almost if someone is doing it on purpose…

  2. josh says

    Can someone point me to samples of this robust myth? My impression on initially reading DJs comments was that he was saying that generic fears propagating in the blogosphere had lead to the specific problem of lower attendance at TAM. Are people arguing that TAM was singled out before DJs facebook comments?

  3. says

    My impression on first reading DJ’s comments was that I couldn’t tell what the hell he was saying, which is why I asked him to elaborate. (For one thing, I really wanted to know if he did mean me, because I was scheduled to do a talk at TAM.) But he never replied.

  4. anthrosciguy says

    Arguing? No. Claiming? Yes.

    “Arguing” only in that autopilot Monty Python Argument Clinic sort of way.

  5. Chris Lawson says

    “Not true. False. A dud meme.” How I wish falseness was related to memetic dudness.

  6. josh says

    All right. Thanks for replying, I understand how hard it is to keep track of these sprawling blog-twitter-facebook-conference arguments.

  7. Samantha M says

    I recall at the time thinking one of the things DJ alluded to was the post Jen made about being warned on the QT about prominent male speakers sexually harrassing women speakers. I could have the sequences incorrect, and that certainly isn’t all DJ mentioned, but when I read his “well-meaning women skeptics” quote, that is what came to my mind first. I don’t recall that anyone mentioned anything about TAM or the JREF, though.

    That seems to me to be where part of the meme started. I am in NO WAY defending DJ, just trying to help y’all see where part of the idea may have originated.

  8. says

    Understood; thanks. That sounds plausible. I haven’t gone back and read all the posts from the few days between the WiS conference and DJ’s remarks.

    That sounds as if what happened is that DJ read Jen’s post and thought, “Uh oh…”

    and then turned that around on us.

    If that’s true –

    well fucking hell, really.

  9. Pteryxx says

    In context of the Facebook discussion where DJ made his infamous initial quote: the discussion was about suggesting a panel on sexual harassment for TAM, because of the harassment policy discussion resulting from Jen’s post; this was in the interest of solving the problem. During that discussion, someone asked DJ specifically if TAM *had* a harassment policy and if it did, what sort of results did the policy have. That was when DJ stated there had been no incidents at TAM, and followed up with blaming the drop in registration on bloggers spreading rumors. That was on Facebook, May 26, linked on Jason’s timeline.

    Here’s the discussion:


  10. wtfbits says

    My hypothesis (not a theory, so don’t ask for peer reviewed studies) is that this argument is simply a fight for status/power in the skeptic community.

    Some observations:

    1) In this matter, there is a strong correlation (Yes, I know it doesn’t imply causation) between attractiveness of the women and the side that they are on. This is easy to verify if you compare Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Stephanie Zvan, Watson on one side and Abbie, Miranda C. H, Sara Mayhew, Paula Kirby on the other. This explains their prudishness as anything sexual in the environment is going reduce the amount of attention they get. It is the same subconscious instinct to suppress sex that you see in religion.
    Notice how when Watson was younger & less unattractive (physically), she was happy to be a tool of the patriarchy objectifying herself.

    2) There is also a strong correlation between status based on achievements and the side in this fight. Dawkins, is of course a world famous scientist, Abbie is a woman who actually does science, Paula Kirby is published in the Washington Post, Coyne is also a well known scientist. As such, these people draw attention & status in the movement by virtue of their ideas and work. On the other side, you have…bloggers. Outside of the FTB community no one really knows much about them. Not only that, they have NO ORIGINAL ideas to share. All they do is pick greater minds & repackage the wisdom they extract. But it seems that they do not even understand what they are repackaging and selling. With no original ideas and not being as interesting as the people on the other side, they seek attention the way children do – falling down and crying even though they were not hurt, pretending to be stung by a bee and crying, accusing other kids of being mean etc. Classic examples are the elevator where nothing happened & the non-existent “threats”. It would be justified to say that the actors in these scenarios are perpetuating the unjust stereotype of women being drama queens.

    3) And then you have the no-status bunch or losers whose subconscious strategy is to curry favor with what is the dominant ideology in their environment i.e. FTB. I refer, of course, to Lousy Canuck & Laden. A more pathetic or groveling attitude divorced from reality I have yet to see in the skeptic community. PZ is an interesting case. I’m not quite sure yet where & how he fits in. I suspect he’s a case of ideology over critical thought.

    4) The level of narcissism and ego is inversely correlated. If you look at comments by the anti-Dawkins side you will find a whole lot of praise for each other (I call this giving each other blowjobs). You will also find a strong delusion that they are the courageous warriors & humanitarians fighting hard to make the world a better place. Note how they throw around words like “awesome”, “amazing”, “brilliant” when referring to each others’ blog posts. On the other hand if Dawkins refers to someone as being “brilliant”, you can be sure he is talking about a scientist who did a ground-breaking experiment. With FTB bloggers, you don’t know if the brilliant & amazing blogger has a new post about kittens or has some new word prefixed with the label Schroedinger. Reminds you of Chopra, doesn’t it?

    5) These are subconscious instincts not conspiracies. Since the anti -Dawkins side does not have much to contribute to actual science & skepticism, their push is towards feminism & social etiquette which is a subjective matter on which anyone can opine. Here they can claim expertise & authority & hence get status. Much like the clergy.

  11. Bernard Bumner says

    Is it merely coincidence and simply that entirely unconnected trolls are finding these threads?

  12. Tim Harris says

    Diawl (Welsh for the devil), wtfbits, what a silly, unpleasant, prejudiced, untrue and craven piece of argumentation. And I suppose you’re a fine upstanding lad, a magnet for women, with a pile of academic honours – perhaps you might like to post a photograph of yourself, together with a list of your achievements, which I suspect are not many: you might also have the simple guts to use your real name when making posts such the above one.

  13. Stacy says

    The “you’re scaring women off!” meme is notable for its one-sided skepticism.

    If the discussion of harassment policies is scaring women off, compare female attendance at other atheist/skeptical events over the past year. I heard women were well represented at the Reason Rally, for example.

    Or was DJ claiming that female registration at TAM went down dramatically over the course of the ten days between Jen and Stephanie’s posts and his claim about “a small number of…women skeptics”? Because if so, that strikes me as an extraordinary claim, one definitely in need of evidence.

    Show me some evidence that what DJ claimed is a problem, is really a problem.

  14. Stacy says

    (Ignoring the troll, but it was helpful of him to provide evidence–if more were needed–for the problem of misogyny.)

  15. Pteryxx says

    Let’s not forget that Jen’s remark came at the first Women in Secularism conference. It’s much more plausible that TAM attendance might be down because many women who can’t attend everything went to WiS, instead.

  16. Stacy says

    Heck, Blackford demands evidence before he’ll believe anything happened in that elevator in Dublin (shows how much a woman’s word is worth to him.)

    Why does he not apply the same rigorous demand for evidence to DJ’s claim about lower female registration at TAM? Show us the numbers. Show us TAM registration records for the time Grothe made his claim, and compare them to the records for the same time frame in previous years. Show us the emails DJ claims he’s gotten from women who are afraid to attend.

  17. Stacy says

    (I actually don’t particularly doubt DJ’s claim of lower registration, though I think it was highly dubious–read, fucking unskeptical of him–to claim it had something to do with the discussion of sexual harassment. I’m just pointing out that nobody who’s demanded extraordinary levels of evidence for harassment claims has ever scrutinized DJ’s claim.)

  18. says

    Blackford demands evidence for the miraculous elevator incident, and considers the accounts of what Buzzo did just unreliable accounts and not at all the kind of thing that should ruin a guy’s reputation – but at the same time he ordered me to name names, because omigod rumors and suspicion. Wut?

  19. Stacy says

    the accounts of what Buzzo did just unreliable accounts and not at all the kind of thing that should ruin a guy’s reputation

    Did he know there were numerous accounts over the course of at least two years of Buzzo sexually harassing women, aside from the camera thing?

    Fuck Blackford. Seriously.

  20. says

    Yes but they were ALL UNRELIABLE because they were.

    I started picturing him saying that whenever anyone says anything to him. “I had a shitty day.” “Pictures or it didn’t happen!” “That bus driver was so rude.” “What’s your evidence?!!” “Sally is such a sweetheart.” “Unreliable!!”

  21. MichaelD says

    It’s much more plausible that TAM attendance might be down because many women who can’t attend everything went to WiS, instead.

    Also the reason rally.

  22. Samantha M says

    I recall some sort of Buzz0 meltdown at the JREF Forum a million years ago and I don’t lend much credence to his skeptical abilities. However, I also remember Rebecca’s antics there and she did not strike me as a feminist. She has some good qualities but I know there was a time when she did not shy away from male attention. I feel bad saying that, and she can certainly change her position, but there was a time when I felt she lowered herself in order to cater to some guys and their flirtations. It appeared to me at the time that in order to be taken “seriously” by the “Skeptical Community”, you had to submit to a certain level of flirtation…a flirtation that some might see as harassment.

    It is a fine line we women walk, especially in more intellectual circles. We want to be appreciated, and if we are appreciated for our looks, then maybe we can hope it is for our looks AND our brains.

    As surprised as everyone was by the community split brought to light by the Dublin incident, to me it was business as usual. The thing that stunned me was I didn’t realize it could be any different.

  23. Smhlle says

    @19. I think on Facebook, DJG also said he had received dozens of (negative) emails from women about TAM registration. I believe that that’s some of the evidence he’s basing his theory on, but such evidence is anecdotal and necessarily private.

  24. MichaelD says

    I think on Facebook, DJG also said he had received dozens of (negative) emails from women about TAM registration.

    Just for clarity I just checked he doesn’t put a qualifier on it just emails.

  25. Samantha M says

    The bottom line is many people who see themselves as Many skeptics really are not skeptical. They align themselves with people they see as like-minded, and they are blinded by their allegiance. They allow their personal feelings to interfere with their ability to reason and they are unable to separate the two. This reminds me of the song lyrics, “There ain’t no good guys, there ain’t no bad guys, there’s only you and me and we just disagree…”

  26. Pteryxx says

    However, I also remember Rebecca’s antics there and she did not strike me as a feminist. She has some good qualities but I know there was a time when she did not shy away from male attention. I feel bad saying that, and she can certainly change her position, but there was a time when I felt she lowered herself in order to cater to some guys and their flirtations.

    Rebecca has said she used to be much more sanguine about feminism, sexual harassment and negative attention than she is now, having experienced it and spoken about it for so long. (I believe that was in the comments of one of her Elevator Incident posts on skepchick, back in June 2011; I don’t have a link handy.) Just goes to show anyone can step up and answer the call, IMHO.

  27. Samantha M says

    I respect her for that. I think sometimes when you’re in the game you don’t realize how insidious it is. I know back then I wished I had the guts to post MY pic so the guys would believe me, too, and back me up on what I said. But another part of me wanted to be judged on my thoughts, not my looks. And honestly, I feel that for many guys it was NOT conscious. And when they feel attacked as a gender, they don’t recognize themselves so they are defensive. Am I being some sort of an apologetic? I don’t mean to be. I just feel the truth lies in the middle.

  28. jennygadget says

    Pteryxx @ 19

    “Let’s not forget that Jen’s remark came at the first Women in Secularism conference. It’s much more plausible that TAM attendance might be down because many women who can’t attend everything went to WiS, instead.”

    This was my first thought.

    Smhlle @ 38

    “I think on Facebook, DJG also said he had received dozens of (negative) emails from women about TAM registration. I believe that that’s some of the evidence he’s basing his theory on, but such evidence is anecdotal and necessarily private.”

    Even if the number of emails he got is statistically significant, this doesn’t discount WiS from still being a catalyst.

    The mere existence of WiS is going to raise the bar for other conferences in terms of women’s participation and experiences. It also going to encourage women to speak out more about things they may have kept silent about in the past. Especially among the women who went, who are much more likely to feel now that there are people within this community that will back them up if they do speak out. And now, even if the community at large no longer welcomes them because they spoke out, there still is the possibility of there being another place to go.*

    This is actually the point of WiS, at least in part, yes? To facilitate this kind of change?

    I strongly suspect that many people who are defending DJ and attacking Watson, Benson, and Svan are not completely unaware of this dynamic, and that this is, in fact, what they are most upset/worried about. Not attendance at TAM by itself, but the shift in power and community focus that it represents.

    *I’m not sure if WiS was a one off thing or the beginnings of a yearly conference, but just the fact that one has been held makes the possibility of another more real in people’s threat/risk/reward assessments.

  29. Pteryxx says

    Samantha: a great deal of sexism, and other forms of bigotry, absolutely is unconscious. (See “implicit bias” and “stereotype threat” for instance, also unconscious bias in hiring*) It’s still just as harmful, so does it really matter if the person didn’t mean it? Raising it to the conscious level by calling them out is just about the only way of addressing it.

    *starter on hiring bias: http://techcrunch.com/2011/11/19/racism-and-meritocracy/

  30. says

    I just realized something. The worth of the word of a woman is worth less to the pro-harassment groups than it is under Sharia law! Something isn’t right with this.

  31. MichaelD says

    Slightly off topic but one thing I really like about butterfliesandwheels is how often you jump into the comments. I realize that not everyone has the time but I appreciate when it is done.

  32. says

    wtfbits says:

    My hypothesis (not a theory, so don’t ask for peer reviewed studies) is that this argument is simply a fight for status/power in the skeptic community.

    I would have settled for it not being cherry-picked drivel, where every datum that doesn’t fit the preconceived conclusion is either omitted or distorted.

  33. Samantha M says

    Pteryxx,I absolutely agree. Skeptics of all people should be capable of reevaluating their own belief system as well as pointing out the flaws in others’. Updating our belief systems among ourselves and learning from our mistakes can only serve to strengthen us as skeptics and as people in general.

    And thanks to you, Ophelia, for trying to unravel this mess so we can try to see where the breakdown in communication occurred. The Dublin thing got way out of hand, but I feel like it exposed a reality that was bubbling under the surface. But so many took their stand and flat out refused to think critically or even listen or follow the chain of events. It IS disheartening that we have SO much further to go, but identifying a problem is the first step in solving it.

    Back on topic, I can see where DJ might have considered forming an hypothesis about TAM female enrollment decline, and I can see how it might have occurred to him that since things have heated up on the skeptics front regarding certain women AND certain men,then a good portion of the community, it might be useful to explore that and any other avenues he could brainstorm at the time. But he wrote his thesis with false information, accusatory and condescension, when he really should have stuck with the gathering-evidence stage and had a civil discourse and brain storming sessions with everyone. He seemed to go with: How NOT to Critically Think,and BAM, I feel that parties on both sides have abandoned much reason as well.

    Okay! Problem identified! Let’s all go fix it! 🙂

  34. avh1 says

    Samantha, that’s pretty much it. DJ (inadvertently or not) did exactly what supporters of homeopathy did; he took two events which occurred at about the same time (declining female registration and some bloggers discussing sexual harassment at conferences) and tied them together. It also sounds like, from the post at Dana Hunter’s blog, that he did this because of pre-existing convictions – namely that sexual harassment was ‘junk science’ and had no place in scepticism.

    And one of the things I like about FtB is that people here *are* skeptical, even (especially?) of people that they like and respect. I come here to learn new things and so far I’ve never been disappointed (admittedly there are some things I’ve learned here which I wish I could un-learn, but them’s the breaks).

  35. Godless Heathen says

    “It’s much more plausible that TAM attendance might be down because many women who can’t attend everything went to WiS, instead.”

    I don’t know. I’m not sure how much overlap there is between WiS attendees and potential TAM attendees. I also think that in terms of numbers, many more women attended TAM last year than attended WiS this year, so I’m not sure that can explain all of it.

  36. says

    And yet Orac came there none.

    How peculiar…

    I think we’re all still waiting for his beat down on the term feminazis… waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting.

  37. Lyanna says

    Re: Rebecca and “lowering herself” for male attention, I’ve definitely been in the situation where I told myself a flirtation was harmless and respectful AT THE TIME…but then later I realized there was actually a very toxic dynamic at work.

    Often in those cases I actually felt discomfort at the time, but reasoned myself out of it and told myself I was being irrational or taking things too personally.

    And then later, away from the immediate social pressure of the moment, I realized that my discomfort was actually totally valid.

    So if she’s gone through some sort of change on this topic, I can see where she’s coming from.

  38. Lyanna says

    Michaeld’s comment appeared after I posted, so I just have to comment again to say: seriously. Why do all of these self-appointed wardens of civility and temperate discourse swallow camels and strain at gnats? They hover around silently until Ophelia says something they can nitpick at, and then they pounce, while the ERV-ites go merrily on about “feminazis” and other such charming terms.

  39. Samantha M says

    Lyanna, I know exactly what you mean. I feel like we all have a different threshold as to what we take personally and are offended by, as well, and that makes a set standard more difficult to determine across the board. With that in mind, it must be really confusing for guys to figure out what is okay and what is not.

    Honestly, I feel stronger as a woman after “hanging out” with the folks here on FtB. I feel like I am redefining my positions on what is acceptable and what is not, and I have realized that I have let WAY too much slide without speaking up. I am also figuring out that while I think some women seem to go a bit overboard, that is certainly their right to do so and I shouldn’t have an opinion on what they think is unacceptable, even if the same situation wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. I am fairly laid back in that regard and some people absolutely are not. And that is okay.

  40. Lyanna says

    I understand what you’re saying, Samantha, but I differ with this conclusion:

    With that in mind, it must be really confusing for guys to figure out what is okay and what is not.


    I don’t. In situations where I was uncomfortable but tried to rationalize it, I was mostly trying to convince myself that words like “cunt” were okay, or that blatant come-ons out of absolutely nowhere were okay, or that persistent harassment after I refused a guy was okay. I wasn’t trying to puzzle out some “gray area” of social norms. I was trying to rationalize away my discomfort with an obvious violation of social norms.

    I think it’s pretty easy for guys to understand that stuff is not okay. I think the “gray area”/”uncertainty” element is highly exaggerated. Most examples of harassment that I’ve heard of aren’t in a gray area at all.

  41. Godless Heathen says


    I agree 100%. I’ve always identified as a feminist and been aware of sexism and feminism, but I’ve definitely been in situations like that before and haven’t been sure how to respond in the moment.

  42. Samantha M says

    Lyanna, yes, I can see where those examples absolutely don’t fall into a gray area of any sort. However, I was thinking more along the lines of personal space infringement or sexual innuendos and the like. For example, I work with guys and a few of them hug me every time they see me, and I am okay with that. However, one of them hugs me for way too long, and that makes me uncomfortable. And some women enjoy joking around about sex a lot more than others.

    Our sexual harassment training at work informs us that if someone feels sexually harassed, then they are in fact sexually harassed. The same action by the same person could be viewed as harassment by one woman but not the other, and that to me is a bit of a gray area of sorts. Some people have zero tolerance and others have quite a bit of wiggle room.

  43. Lyanna says

    @Samantha, yeah, that’s true about the different thresholds. Maybe I’m being nitpicky, but I still wouldn’t call those gray areas? Because if you’re in a workplace, hugs and sex jokes are not appropriate.

    Now, if you’re friendly with your co-workers, the rules about “appropriate” and “inappropriate” get relaxed. People do things that aren’t strictly appropriate. And that’s often fine.

    BUT if you break the formal rules, and someone is hurt by it, then it’s on you, in my opinion. So when in doubt about whether it’s okay to break formality or not, it’s a good plan to err on the side of formality.


  44. says

    It’s just an inevitable consequence of identifying problems that people then pay close attention to how they are handled – and in this case it’s not a clumsy presentation but the clumsy response which has turned people off. (It’s like a guy who can’t catch shouting “No fair! She threw like a girl!”)

    If I was a female and interested in attending skeptic conferences, then by now I would have lost that interest in all except the overtly feminist ones. And the reason wouldn’t be Rebecca’s mild rebuke to her elevator buddy – nor the insanely vicious commenters – nor you Ophelia (despite the fact that I sometimes find your outrage about everything a bit “over-the-top”) – nor even DJwhoever who I’ve never heard of (though you certainly have managed to make him look clumsy!).

    But if those who are finding it hard to fill their meetings really want someone to blame, then I can tell them with confidence that it is Richard Dawkins who has convinced me that I want no part of it.

    It was not his ill-considered response to Rebecca that convinced me – I could have had the same reaction myself if I had interpreted the level of outcry as a response to elevator guy himself rather than to some of the responses to Rebecca’s video. But Dawkins’ subsequent refusal to back down has left me with a sense that the highest profile “leadership” of this “movement” is willing to deny the right of any person to even mildly express discomfort about a social situation (and is prepared to *use* some of the greatest horrors in our world as a tool for mocking those who exercise that right).

  45. Lyanna says

    Yeah, Dawkins doing that sent a really terrible message.

    I’m honestly puzzled by people finding Ophelia OTT, though–is it really so OTT to be very angry, and write a number of angry blog posts, in response to the commenters Alan correctly describes as “insanely vicious”? Or the people who make excuses for them?

  46. says

    I’m not puzzled by it, Lyanna. I have a style, and I can see not liking it, or getting tired of it. I do a Yosemite Sam a lot of the time – which amuses me, but I don’t expect it to amuse everyone.

    (I’m assuming that’s what Alan meant, rather than specific anger on this one subject.)

  47. onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork says

    Seriously? Ophelia is over the top??!! Oh, FFS. IDEK.

  48. Lyanna says

    I can see that. Your online persona is angry. Not a bad thing at all in my book, but I can see how it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

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