The feminist witch hunt continues!

Now I know why I got such an unusual number of first-time commenters on my post about Shermer on subliminal influences yesterday, all of them wrong about what I’d said. It’s because Shermer did a Facebook post about it, in which he completely missed my point.

That’s partly my fault; I didn’t spell it out. As usual, I wrote for regular readers, who would get the implications. That saves a lot of tedium for the regular readers, but it can confuse others.

Nevertheless – I think Shermer’s response is a good deal nastier than it needed to be. (I note, again, that he didn’t email me to ask for clarification. I note, again, that he has never directly communicated with me in any way. I tried to communicate directly with him a few times via Twitter, but I got no response. I suspect he doesn’t lower himself to respond to nobodies, and that his rebuke of me for not emailing him about what he said on The Point was just noise. I suspect he would have ignored me if I had emailed him.) I especially think that in view of the torrent of nasty comments his eSkeptic post attracted last week. I think a more thoughtful or attentive person would have been disturbed by that torrent, and have decided not to add more fuel to the fire. He didn’t do that. Instead he got venomous.

The feminist witch hunt continues! Ophelia Benson and PZ Myers have caught me again being a sexist: Trolling through my Scientific American columns Ophelia discovered that in my October column I report on Leonard Mlodinow’s book Subliminal, in which he reports on studies that report on people’s report of how they feel about politicians based on various subliminal cues, one of which is the pitch of the voice, lower judged as more truthful than higher (although looks matter even more). Guess what? My reporting of Leonard’s reporting of the studies’ reporting of subjects’ reports makes ME a sexist! Wiiiiiiitch. Seriously. I couldn’t make this up (note PZ’s comment on my own voice!)

No. I didn’t say that, and it’s not what I meant. (Actually you could make it up, Dr Shermer, and in fact you just did.) It’s true though that I didn’t spell out what I did mean, so now I’ll spell it out.

From his SciAm column again –

WITH THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION looming on the horizon in November, consider these two crucial questions: Who looks more competent, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Who has the deepest and most resonant voice? Maybe your answer is, “Who cares? I vote for candidates based on their policies and positions, not on how they look and sound!” If so, that very likely is your rational brain justifying an earlier choice that your emotional brain made based on these seemingly shallow criteria.

Before the election, I urge you to read Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon). You will gain insights such as that higherpitched voices are judged by subjects as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices, and that speaking a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume leads people to judge someone to be energetic, intelligent and knowledgeable.

What he’s describing there is a disadvantage for men with higher-pitched voices and men who look less competent. But what he’s also describing there is a much bigger disadvantage for nearly all women, period. And he’s describing it in terms of non-rational, buried influences, that we don’t even realize (unless we’re told, and not always even then) have that kind of influence on us.

Well that’s how it is with stereotypes. Stereotypes are what I was talking about in my Free Inquiry column. Stereotypes are why I objected to what he said on that video. Stereotypes are why it’s not helpful to say “it’s more of a guy thing.”

The fact that he had written that column showed me that he was familiar with the whole idea of implicit associations, and that made me think he really should have been able to understand that that was what I was getting at in the column. He should even have been able to think I had a point, despite his resentment at my criticism of what he said. He should even – I think – have been able to see what was wrong with what he said, instead of reacting with outraged vanity.

He certainly should have been able to refrain from accusing me of witch-hunting.

That’s all I was saying. I wasn’t saying “Shermer is a sexist because he reported this thing about authoritative voices.” Godalmighty. I am not that stupid.

But I’m beginning to think Shermer may be gullible enough – or maybe it’s simply vain enough – to take the torrent of slymer comments on his eSkeptic post about me as fully credible and indeed authoritative. Some skeptic.


  1. Jason Dick says

    Well, I am a regular reader, and I didn’t understand what you were getting at in that post. I do understand where you’re coming from, though: I know how annoying it can be to reiterate the exact same explanations over and over and over again.

    Schermer is pretty much being a douche canoe either way, though. It’s shocking and disturbing that he still doesn’t realize how sexist he’s being.

  2. barrypearson says

    My question here is: does “Leonard Mlodinow’s new book” accurately describe how the general population reacts to various forms of speech? My question is about “is”, not “ought”.

    I have had coaching in presenting more effectively. (A comment at one of my seminars said “like Jasper Carrott but without the timing”!) So I try to slow things down and lower my voice. I can’t fight the audience.

    Margaret Thatcher did something similar – lower her voice upon advice.

    Is this a dispute about Shermer or about the general public’s prejudices?

  3. says

    Jason – Well the post was too cryptic. It was meant to be kind of a “think about it” type thing, but it was a good deal too cryptic. I should try to remember not to do that, especially when it’s about a particular person.

    But yeah. I think he’s being a flaming asshole.

  4. says

    What is it about the power of feminism that so many people seem to feel compelled beat against it using their reputations (as opposed to reason or political clout) as weapons? Do they really think it is so small and vulnerable? Do they really not understand the damage done to weapons in a fight?

  5. says

    Barry – I don’t know how accurate Mlodinow is (and I haven’t read him), but I think in general inuitive reactions to voice and appearance and so on matter enormously. I certainly don’t think I’m immune to that kind of thing – I know very well I’m not. Same with stereotypes.

    It’s two things. It’s making the point that subrational influences matter, and it’s a dispute with Shermer about how he responds to mild criticism from his inferiors.

  6. Rabidtreeweasel says

    When it comes to the way people look I do think there are gender stereotypes at play regarding who we assign authority to. I’m sure it’s true in part with voices as well but there’s also the fact that a lower, evenly timbered voice is more soothing. My children certainly preferred it when I adjusted the pitch of voice, especially when they were infants. To this day I know I myself prefer lower pitched voices but I have a sensory processing disorder. I do more tend to think of “shrill” in regards to women and “girly” in regards to men when it comes to high pitched voices. I need to think about that some more and start catching myself when I’m doing it because really what I dislike is a specific frequency, it shouldn’t have anything to do with gender.

  7. says

    I guess this started out with how Shermer and others stumble into a libertarian sort of “Just World” fallacy where things are how they are because that is how they should be, and the best possible outcome just so happens to put straight white upper-class college-educated men at the very top, and trying to change things or look for deeper reasons for the way things are upsets the natural balance of things… is that fair? Because now it looks like that, plus Shermer being incapable of dealing maturely and rationally with said criticism of his position, to the point that he appears to be either foolish or dishonest in his interpretation of the post about subliminal influences.

  8. Aratina Cage says

    Shermer should have asked himself if his blurting of “It’s more of a guy thing.” could have come from an unconscious, buried, non-rational part of his brain. He could have asked that of himself. And the answer is clearly, “Yes, that could have been where it came from, especially given the immediate response to my words by the interviewer, and my awesome conscious mind could be fooling me about why I said what I said.” Such is the nature of the human mind.

  9. julian says

    The post wasn’t cryptic. I admit it took me a second to get what the point as but when I did it was a huge “No shit!” moment.

    Maybe I just got lucky and guessed right :/

    My question here is: does “Leonard Mlodinow’s new book” accurately describe how the general population reacts to various forms of speech?

    That’s what I’m wondering. I don’t know nearly enough about the field to really evaluate research but it sounds like such a complicated thing to measure I wonder if, even if the basics of the piece are “true”, even there aren’t any aspects of it they failed to expand on.

  10. Aratina Cage says

    It’s long past time for an 11th commandment of atheism.

    Totally. “There are no probably no gods, now stop worrying and enjoy your life x 10” is clearly not good enough for the evil athiest masses. What do you think the next commandment should be, and which god do you think should give it?

  11. says

    Well, I’m not sure if I’d count as a regular reader, and if someone tried to figure out what side of the issue I’m on most would probably conclude that it isn’t really yours, but I did get that your point in that post was to point out that he acknowledges hidden stereotypes that can influence various things and yet in your mind isn’t doing that in his column and in his comment that “it’s a guy thing”. If there’s any real confusion, my suspicion is that in his mind his main point isn’t about those sorts of stereotypes, or he doesn’t think they’re really involved, and so reading it as if it is criticizing him leads him to conclude that it is a different criticism entirely.

  12. Stacy says

    Shermer should have asked himself if his blurting of “It’s more of a guy thing.” could have come from an unconscious, buried, non-rational part of his brain. He could have asked that of himself.

    He could have. But how long did it take him to acknowledge that AGW is a real thing? Remember the time a few years ago when he conflated the number of regulatory laws on the books (regardless of content) with the theoretical effectiveness of market regulation? And now this “Poor me, she called me a misogynist. Witch hunt!” thing.

    Maybe he just needs more time to work it all out. But I won’t hold my breath. (Surprise me, Michael!)

  13. says

    For what its worth I understood what you were driving at with your original post though maybe my interest in social psychology was part of it (shrugs).

  14. Rodney Nelson says

    I was able to understand your point in your previous post. But then I don’t have an emotional involvement in “it’s a guy thing” like Shermer has.

  15. Aratina Cage says

    Remember the time a few years ago when he conflated the number of regulatory laws on the books (regardless of content) with the theoretical effectiveness of market regulation?

    I had forgotten about that. I’ve never really paid much attention to Shermer, and things like this and that are probably why.

  16. Stacy says

    my suspicion is that in his mind his main point isn’t about those sorts of stereotypes, or he doesn’t think they’re really involved, and so reading it as if it is criticizing him leads him to conclude that it is a different criticism entirely

    I think you’re right, and that’s the problem. It shouldn’t take a Super Skeptic to notice (for example) that an unconscious bias to find deeper voices more authoritative effects how women are perceived.

    We are half the population. Stereotypes affecting us shouldn’t be conceptually marginalized, up on a shelf somewhere in a pink box labeled “women’s issues.”

    He knows about stereotypes and unconscious biases; he’s written about them. He could therefore be receptive to Ophelia’s criticism. Instead he’s responded defensively.

  17. says

    I got it. I saw it as basically “Michael Shermer paging Michael Shermer.”

    You know there’s research that shows humans (at least ones here and now) tend to read “deep voices = voices to trust and grant authority to”. Is it a stretch to see how this inclination (whether innate or cultivated) could contribute to a result where men are paid more attention and gain a high profile while women are dismissed or overlooked as people who don’t want to participate? Or that this pervasive attitude could lead some women to voluntarily refrain from the hassle of working twice as hard to gain half the recognition? Is it so difficult to put both of these factors (along with others, because surely there are other similar factors) into a category labelled “we can work to fix or ameliorate this” rather than writing off women as an entire group by shrugging and saying doing stuff is “just a guy thing”? Yeah, I’m pretty sure you could figure this out on your own, buddy.

    p.s. This is not a witch hunt. This is a witch hunt.

  18. says

    Joe –

    Shermer and others stumble into a libertarian sort of “Just World” fallacy where things are how they are because that is how they should be

    I keep thinking about that, and meaning to do a post about it. It’s such a trap. Why would Right Now be better than all other possible times? There’s no reason. You’d think a skeptic would not be hostile to that thought. Or as Stacy put it –

    It shouldn’t take a Super Skeptic to notice (for example) that an unconscious bias to find deeper voices more authoritative effects how women are perceived.

    No, it shouldn’t.

    I’ve written about this before, by the way. Via Clay Shirky, who said if the voice of authority is always male then “authority” will come to be seen as male. I’ll have to find that post…

  19. gordonmacginitie says

    Greater respect and attention to deeper voices is an instinct, or perhaps an acoustic phenomenon. It has been observed in newborns. No way is it a stereotype or cultural bias. It is definitely not learned and is very difficult for a listener to compensate for. There is also the problem that telephones and elderly ears diminish the overtones of higher pitched voices, making them less easy to understand. There is no one to blame for these particular disadvantages to women any more than there is for the difference in average height.

  20. says

    +1 from me as another who *got* your point pretty easily… Maybe it was just the snark that made him see it as an attack again. Fear of the Witchfinder General can make any man lose his rational poise, even one with a deep manly voice.

  21. says

    @ 21 – it’s not about blame. It’s about awareness, and attempting to compensate.

    I don’t think I said it was a stereotype. Shermer said “subliminal influence,” and I think I used that phrase. The point is that it’s subliminal and sub-rational, and that we might want to try to correct for it.

  22. sheila says

    Well I understood you first off, but then I am a regular reader. And of course, illogical prejudice against women is so much more visible to women.

  23. says

    That’s the thing, of course. Yes, I’m more alert to it than Shermer is, because it’s me (along with other women) he’s insulting…but to him and people like him that’s “witch hunting.” It’s PC, it’s raaaaaaaaaaadical feminism, it’s feminazi, it’s blah blah blah. But it isn’t. It’s just that we have the motivation. If Shermer gave a few more fucks, he would too.

  24. says

    Yeah, it was blatantly obvious to anyone who was actually reading what you wrote what you were getting at, the legions of whiners (led by Shermer) aside. Honestly, this is the guy who wrote Why people believe Weird things? It looks like he hasn’t come nearly as far from his Randist roots as he likes to imagine he has.

  25. evilDoug says

    “It’s a guy thing” immediately means half of the population should recognize him to be a Superior Person.
    A column in a perceived-to-be-prestigious publication would make that a Clearly Superior Person.
    And you, a Lowly Woman lowly woman, tried to call him out. You have damaged His Reputation, or at least sawed a bit off of one leg of his oratory stool. You must learn your place.

  26. Silentbob says

    If Shermer read the comments on the thread in question (which he did – he refers to PZ’s comment @6), it’s a pity he missed Ophelia’s own comment @35 where she makes her position perfectly clear.

  27. psanity says

    I used to subscribe to the Skeptic e-newsletter thing, e-Skeptic — and after a few months became irritated that it wasn’t really “Skeptic” news. It was Michael Shermer news. It was an organ that existed to promote Shermer, not the magazine. It was endlessly about what Shermer was doing, what he wrote, what he said. So I noted that the editor-in-chief of Skeptic was more than a little narcissistic and annoyingly willing to exploit his organization’s resources on his own behalf, and unsubscribed (though I continued to buy and read the magazine until recently). That was a couple-three years ago.

    Now, lately, it seems like Shermer is just determined to undermine movement skepticism (such as it is) with his own self-centered obtuseness. What, suddenly, is all this to-do about women, minorities, people who (can you believe it?!) have no college degrees? Don’t those people occupy their own, y’know, things that they do? Why are they bothering his things, and challenging his obvious wisdom? I think his problem may not be so much that he doesn’t see people who are not like him, as that he doesn’t see people who are not Michael Shermer.

    That may account for the baffled bashing around, as in that video, where he appears to start out trying to say what he supposes to be wise and correct, and then spins off into disaster because he completely does not understand the situation, the frame of reference, or what the words mean.

    And of course, criticism of any kind is not to be borne.

    Pooh. He lost me way back at “willing to exploit his organization’s resources on his own behalf”.

  28. Hamilton Jacobi says

    oratory stool

    Very apt. If only Mr Shermer had put his stool sample (“It’s more of a guy thing”) in a jar and taken it to his doctor instead of plopping it out on the table in front of everyone.

  29. ethicsgradient says

    I think it was your last paragraph that looked like it had got personal:

    Do you see what I’m getting at, Dr Shermer? I’m sure you do, now that I’ve pointed it out. But do you see its relevance to you, yourself? That I’m not so confident about. Probably because I’m a woman, and I have a higherpitched voice.

    I don’t think this new post has really addressed why you put that “relevance to you, yourself” bit in. It may not have been calling him sexist for that particular article, but it does come across as calling him sexist in general.

  30. latsot says

    Dalillama, Schmott Guy:

    the legions of whiners (led by Shermer)

    Shermer is being a dick, but *honestly*? *Legions* of whiners *led*?

    Way to make shit up.

  31. Pierce R. Butler says

    Aratina Cage @ # 11: What do you think the next commandment should be…?

    jenny6833a @ # 6 seems to have been alluding to R. Reagan’s notorious edict, “Thou shalt not criticize thy fellow Republican.” (A commandment which was repeatedly and gloriously broken during this year’s primaries, to the immeasurable betterment of the nation and the world.)

    Unfortunately, at least for jenny6833a’s desires, that particular taboo has long since been shattered to dust among the online god-free community. In my limited experience, the terminal rupture came when certain optimists tried to house PZ Myers under the same ( virtual roof as Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney, leading to the Deep Rift of the Great Accommodationist Wars.

    Better historians than I can surely point to earlier Schisms – the pros and cons of Saint Madalyn Murray O’Hair would no doubt prove a fertile field in which to dig for such shards. Of course, to explore such territory involves the consideration of women’s roles in the whole situation, and by now we all know that such thoughts inevitably lead to gigantic and irreparable seismic upheavals.

  32. says

    I read the initial post more as “gee, do you think there might be a reason that it’s “more of a guy thing”? A reason that might have to do with unconscious biases and subliminal pressures to privilege male voices over female ones? A reason that might have to do with women, unconsciously, being viewed as less authoritative and confident? Do you think that might influence who gets chosen to speak and who feels encouraged to speak? Do you think, as ” skeptics,” that we should take care to ensure that our reasons for encouraging certain voices and speakers has more to do with expertise and skill than pitch and timbre?”

    But I’ve been reading awhile.

  33. says

    You just got here, I take it? You missed the first wave of trolls, already banned and deleted, but we’ve still got some of the second wave popping in. As for the led by Shermer part, you did catch that he whined about Ophelia’s post on his Facebook, immediately before the first wave of slymepitters turned up to defend him? I call it like I see it here.

  34. latsot says

    Hi Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I’ve been here a while. I’ve been following the Shermer business and have criticised him on a number of occasions, here and elsewhere. I’m on Ophelia’s side. Perhaps you could have gleaned that from my saying that Shermer is acting like a dick, but I agree that might have been too subtle.

    So to clarify: I am not endorsing Shermer’s comments, I think they are foolish. I am endorsing Ophelia’s comments, which I think are sensible.

    What I’m criticising is your hyperbole, which I think is…hyperbolic.

  35. says

    Tom Foss – yes that’s it! 😀

    latsot – I frankly don’t think it is all that hyperbolic. Given all the slymer comments on his eSkeptic post about me, he must have known perfectly well that his Facebook post about me would attract more of the same.

  36. latsot says


    It didn’t seem to me as though Shermer was “leading legions of whiners”. I think he has been whining and lots of other people have been whining and that he’s been courting dubious attention, but it does seem hyperbolic to say that Shermer is “leading legions”, as though he’s assembling and commanding some kind of army. That just seems a silly way to describe what’s going on. It annoyed me and continues to.

    Having said that, I agree with you that Shermer’s Facebook post was probably intended to generate comments from people who had more interest in attacking you than in considering what you (or even he) said.

    So I apologise in part to Dalillama. I felt the language was silly and hyperbolic. I still do, but I’m certainly not trying to defend Shermer and perhaps I judged Dalillama’s point a little harshly.

  37. johnthedrunkard says

    Probably too late, and too far down to be of interest, but in regard to the significance of voice pitch:

    In Borodin’s opera ‘Prince Igor,’ the central love duet is between a contralto and a tenor. Borodin sets up a major shift in the audience by crucially arranging the tenor line ABOVE the contralto.

    I haven’t heard this for some years. Anyone care to speculate what some Libertarian and/or misogynist types might make of this? (No I don’t mean Shermer–probably)

    I have visions of exploding heads in the box seats.

  38. jacklewis says

    So when you wrote “Do you see what I’m getting at, Dr Shermer? I’m sure you do, now that I’ve pointed it out. But do you see its relevance to you, yourself? That I’m not so confident about.” You were expecting a gracious thank you?

    The obvious question is, why did you not write to the author of the book instead? Here Shermer reports on a book he read and he is now responsible for the conclusions of the book’s studies… Why would that be?
    And when you disagree with studies, does that mean that somehow their findings are no longer related to reality as awful as it may be?
    I’m not surprised Shermer is not particularly fond of being deconstructed with far from charitable interpretations of whatever he writes or 4 words out of an hour of discussion, I wonder why you think he would respond otherwise? Do you have higher standards for others than for yourself? It sure seems so.

  39. A. Noyd says

    Ophelia isn’t taking issue with the book, its conclusions, or Shermer’s reporting of them, o illiterate one. She took issue with Shermer’s inability to apply his apparent awareness and understanding of unconscious biases (as evidenced by his reporting on the book) to the situation of women’s attendance at skeptic conferences. That is, she’s saying he should have been able to do better than opining that “it’s more of a guy thing.” How is it uncharitable to say someone should be able to do better?

    (And don’t worry, no one who knows you has high standards for you.)

  40. Stacy says

    @jacklewis, I’m sure I speak for many when I say, your concern for the blogger’s tone is noted.

  41. jacklewis says

    “How is it uncharitable to say someone should be able to do better?”
    Her interpretation of his remark was uncharitable. He was stating his perception of a situation (while retracting himself 3 seconds later… the horror) but apparently only the first part was heard by the mob of judgmental sinners holding the stones.


    Yes tone that thing most human beings care about but you and most selfish unfeeling brutes think is so passe. Point well made.

    “I’m sure I speak for many”
    The need for a herd is strong in this one.

  42. A. Noyd says

    You didn’t actually answer my question. I was asking what was uncharitable about Ophelia’s remarks on Shermer’s article about the book. I merely mentioned the “guy thing” quote from the video in order to correct your utterly mistaken assumption that she was taking issue with anything about the book or the contents of Shermer’s article.


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