Bruce Gorton pummels the idea that it is better to be unified than correct

Guest post by Bruce Gorton, originally a comment on Then the community can embrace

Jamy Ian Swiss is precisely what is wrong with society, if the reaction to his last talk on Skepticism and ‘identity politics’ is anything to be believed.

I haven’t watched the talk, so recognise what I am talking about is how other people perceive what he said.

Now I had watched his previous talk at TAM and figured that Swiss isn’t a skeptic’s backside – mainly because he took one of his measures of being a skeptic as knowing who James Randi is.

Randi is awesome, and you really should look up his stuff, but it isn’t like he brought down two tablets from mount Sinai bearing the rules of what defines a true skeptic.

Skepticism is not simply about not buying into bigfoot, it is about questioning all claims. This is not only claims that are testable, but also claims which at first appear not to be.

When we think of claims which are genuinely untestable what we actually mean is that they have precisely zero implications for being true. An untestable god is an irrelevant god and the principle of economy demands one get rid of it.

And besides, how do we know something isn’t testable? In the 1960s the Higgs Boson was an untestable claim, then we tested and found it a year ago.

Skepticism isn’t a big tent movement. It is a movement that demands certain standards be applied to one’s beliefs. It demands that we question things in a genuine manner.

That supports feminism – because when push comes to shove the best data on gender inequality we have in society is furnished by feminists.

Feminists can point to the net benefit greater equality has had for societies that are more feminist, they can genuinely point to data detailing how gender inequality harms women and as a consequence harms all.

Heck feminists are even the ones who supply the best data on how patriarchy is harmful to men – with concepts such as toxic masculinity arising out of feminist gender theory.

When we turn to the Men’s Rights Activist side of the debate, we tend to find claims which are often outright lies, or that feminists had pointed out the same things forty years ago.

Genuine skepticism  sides with feminists because when you actually listen to the arguments and assess them ignoring that cancerous urge to shut down the complainer, the feminists have the facts on their side.

It is not because MRAs tend to disagree with feminists that makes them objectionable to skepticsm; while despising women and thinking of them as another inferior species makes them bad human beings, what makes them bad skeptics is their tendency to lie their asses off.

The same goes for anti-racism, the same goes for environmentalism. While one may bemoan the “greenies” who are less than scientific about it, global warming is a fact and so are the dangers of heavy metals in your water supply.

It is not about liking nature, it is about one side presenting facts mixed in with a little bit of bullshit, and the other side simply presenting bullshit.

One of the great slogans of the last decade or so was Stephen Colbert saying “Facts have a liberal bias.” Skepticism is about weighing up facts, trying to figure out what is true and considering the data set before us.

One cannot exclude social and identity issues from skepticism, one cannot proclaim that ‘politics’ is ‘divisive’ to unity within the skeptical movement.  Skepticism is by its nature discordant, it is the voice asking for evidence as everyone else cries their assent and it is the voice that demands basic honesty.

Silencing that voice  because it seems divisive is killing skepticism in the name of the skeptical movement. It is groupthink by definition, it is putting unity ahead of the goals of the skeptical movement.

And that is the cancer that eats at society’s core, the idea that it is better to be unified than correct. The idea that one shouldn’t “switch horses mid-stream” or that reality is by its nature democratic and that even if they are technically right the complainer is always wrong.

We see this in every single debate, whether it be something as trivial as video games or as large as civil rights. If you are demanding somebody leave identity politics at the entrance to the tent, then you what you are saying is in essence “stop thinking about it because thinking is hard.”

And that is precisely what the skeptical movement should oppose.


  1. says

    I’m not actually convinced that skepticism does necessarily support feminism or anti-racism or other human rights commitments. It supports skepticism that anything about gender rules is written in the cosmos, but I’m not sure it supports feminism itself. It’s quite possible to be skeptical of any kind of morality other than Might Makes Right or do it to them before they do it to you.

    I think it can support feminism, certainly. But I don’t think it’s compelled to.

  2. says

    Well, in my experience, feminism is an inherently skeptical practice, because it requires constantly questioning the received wisdom about gender, about politics, about economics, about biology even. Apply skepticism to the prevailing norms about gender roles will usually lead to rejecting those norms as based on inaccurate information or outright lies. I suppose “feminism” is the part where you decide to actually do something about it. So yeah, the distinction is there. Still, it’s not a very big leap, at least for people who have compassion for their fellow humans, to go from ‘people are being treated differently but there’s no factual difference to back up the differential treatment” to “let’s make sure people aren’t being treated differently when there’s no factual basis for the differential treatment. In fact, given the number of times we’ve skeptically investigated differential treatment and found no factual basis for it (race, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, class, etc.), let’s make equal treatment the null hypothesis.”

  3. CaitieCat says

    I’m with SallyStrange on this one – shocking, I’m sure – in that my feminism is informed by and closely intertwined with my atheism and skepticism. Skepticism, to me, demands inquiry into systems which are based on non-rational postulates. The concept that women are in any societal sense “less than” men is based in non-rational postulates. Logicaldottytriangle, feminism is an application of skepticism to the world.

  4. iknklast says

    As an environmental scientist, I can bemoan the lack of skepticism among many in the environmental movement, but I agree with this post – you can’t throw it all out the window just because some people prefer earth goddesses to factual analyses. I teach my students that environmentalism applies to every aspect of human life, and I also teach them that skepticism does – we must think about everything. Does that mean everything is objective? No. If you like Rocky Road and I like Butter Brickle, neither of us can claim that we have the “truth” because ice cream preferences are just that – preferences. But if somebody makes factual claims, it is a relevant question for skepticism.

  5. hjhornbeck says

    Sally @2:

    Apply skepticism to the prevailing norms about gender roles will usually lead to rejecting those norms as based on inaccurate information or outright lies.

    Agreed. If atheism can be called skepticism applied to religious questions, why can’t feminism be skepticism applied to questions of sex and gender? If you’re a skeptic but not a feminist, you’re not doing skepticism right.

    Of course, both communities have quite different backgrounds and experiences, which mucks up that tidy picture. But still.

  6. says

    Ice cream preferences are just that: preferences. But so is equality, and so is inequality.

    Yes, of course I agree that feminism is skepticism about gender arrangements. But it’s possible to be skeptical about the merits of different gender arrangements (for instance).

    Moral values and political commitments do have a great deal to do with preferences, and thus with emotions. (Or the other way around – with emotions and thus with preferences.) They’re not purely cognitive, much less purely logical.

    I don’t think we should kid ourselves that skepticism is just naturally on Team Feminism.

  7. Bruce Gorton says

    I suppose I look at it slightly differently – I tend to think of equality as the null state, and inequality as requiring justification.

    For an example of this where inequality is justified, we trust doctors more than other people when it comes to medicine. Doctors have the training and hopefully know what they are talking about.

    And I think there is an unconscious acceptance of this when you look at arguments for inequality – there seems to be an instinctive need to justify that inequality and provide reasons for maintaining it.

    With things like racism and sexism, there are a lot of “reasons ” that get furnished by sexists and racists for maintaining an unequal status quo, but these reasons tend to be either outright false or better explained by the effects of sexism or racism.

    For example with racism the disproportionately high numbers of non-whites in the American prison population is used to justify it by some, but this is often explicable by things like for example, how racism at all levels in law enforcement specifically targets people of specific races for harsher treatment.

    It seems a bit silly to justify unequal treatment, by pointing to what amounts to the results of unequal treatment.

    And of course there is no shortage of people willing to make up lies in order to back up their racist viewpoints.

    Thus with skepticism, examining those reasons for inequality and finding them wanting ends up supporting equality, not because skepticism aims to support social justice causes but because in order to oppose social justice comfortably requires reasons.

    When those reasons are found wanting, the default moves right back towards supporting equality.

  8. 'dirigible says

    “I don’t think we should kid ourselves that skepticism is just naturally on Team Feminism.”

    It can easily be so, although the case does (sadly) have to be made.

    Skepticism of constructed identities isn’t going to help otherkin much, though.

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