Kavin Senapathy fired by CFI


Unbelievable. Kavin is a super-star skeptic — one of those people who gave me hope that the Center for Inquiry wasn’t totally hopeless. Now, after being dismissed, she tells all.

Last October, however, I received a letter from CFI suggesting that “we part ways” and dismissing me from my role as co-host of Point of Inquiry. I believe the dismissal was a response to my outspoken views on CFI’s negligence toward matters of race and diversity — issues that the organization has often sidestepped in the past. If that is indeed the case, it sends a discouraging message. At a moment when racist pseudoscience is making a disturbing comeback, skeptics shouldn’t shy away from talking about race — and we can’t afford to overlook the white privilege among our own ranks.

That refusal to deal with the biggest social struggles of our time is what has always left me infuriated with the skeptic movement — oh, sure, let’s debunk ghosts and chupacabras and UFOs, but racist and misogynist beliefs are just too hard. They love the magic tricks and tests of dowsing, but eugenics? No one in organized skepticism seems to be smart enough to cope with that.

Merging with the Richard Dawkins Foundation didn’t help, and actually made it worse.

CFI’s 2016 merger with a charitable foundation led by Richard Dawkins, an author and biologist who has repeatedly come under fire for Islamophobic and misogynistic remarks, did little to burnish its reputation. (Recently, Dawkins has been widely criticized for suggesting that eugenics would “work in practice” in humans.) As author Sikivu Hutchinson put it in 2016, “CFI’s all-white board looks right at home with [the Dawkins Foundation’s] lily white board and staff.” (Y. Sherry Sheng, who was born in China, was appointed to CFI’s board later that year.)

Then, there was this embarrassment:

Two years ago, in an inept attempt to address the issue, CFI published a special issue of Skeptical Inquirer: “A Skeptic’s Guide to Racism.” The issue, penned exclusively by white men, demonstrated CFI leadership’s woefully shallow grasp of how racism works. In an article on “critical thinking approaches to confronting racism,” the magazine’s deputy editor, Benjamin Radford, referenced the view of evolutionary psychologist and author Steven Pinker that “the overall historical trends for humanity are encouraging”— a view that has been criticized as glossing over the plights of the most marginalized people. Radford’s contribution to the special issue also seemed to ignore the elephant in CFI’s room: He made not even a passing mention of the staggering racial disparities within his own organization — and within the very pages of the publication he was writing for.

Seriously, fuck Ben Radford. That guy should have been fired years ago, and instead they put him in charge of an issue on racism?

Dawkins’ appointee to run the organization didn’t help, either.

It wasn’t just that CFI’s leadership stumbled on matters of race; it often seemed to discourage any discussion of the topic at all. In an anonymous 2019 letter addressed to CFI’s Board of Directors, nine CFI staff members and associates expressed concerns about the conduct and views of CEO Robyn Blumner, including what they saw as her unwillingness to substantively address race and the lack of diversity within the organization itself. “[Blumner] declares loudly and regularly that issues surrounding harmful inequalities of race, gender, and class in our country’s premier scientific institutions should not be discussed on any platform or in any forum in which CFI is involved,” the letter read, adding that “in the absence of authority to meaningfully contribute to these important conversations … CFI staff are experiencing escalating difficulty in building rapport and trust with potential supporters, which undermines our ability to advance CFI’s mission.” (I provided input into the drafting of the letter, at the authors’ request.)

I see why Kavin was dismissed — she was pushing hard to move CFI to address real issues. Easier to kick her out than actually address the failures of the institution.

Last September, CFI announced that the newest member of its board would be yet another white person, actor and Saturday Night Live alumna Julia Sweeney. Disappointed, I reached out to board member Leonard Tramiel, whom I’d regularly interacted with. “You elected another white person to the board? Really?” I wrote. “Yup,” Tramiel replied. “Finding people that want to serve on the board and have the appropriate qualifications isn’t easy.”

“Easy.” That explains a lot. Bigfoot is easy. Haunted houses are easy. Psychic mediums are easy. Faced with the prospect of addressing a hard problem, CFI collapses with a loud farting noise, like a punctured bladder, and throws away the talent that might have made them relevant.

Jesus. All the old skeptic and atheist organizations I was associated with and supported have just rotted away. I wish I’d gotten out earlier.

Comments

  1. says

    “Finding people that want to serve on the board and have the appropriate qualifications isn’t easy.”
    That sounds a lot like the excuses for the lack of diversity in STEM.
    “We want to hire a woman or another minority but we just can’t find any qualified candidates.”
    Lazy bullshit.

  2. says

    It’s really discouraging to read about everything that’s going on with CFI at the national level. Getting involved with CFI Los Angeles was my first brush with anything resembling organized skepticism and atheism. I still go when I can to some of the activities at CFI L.A., and I really like the local CFI-L.A. executive director (James Underdown), but it seems like at the national level the organization is seriously dysfunctional. (Heck, they even kind of messed with CFI-L.A.; the national board mandated a couple of years ago that CFI-L.A. sell its building, the property value of which had increased dramatically since it was purchased years ago, and find a new location; after a long search, a new building was finally found, but it’s smaller than the old one and less conveniently located and for some time we haven’t had the regular lectures that there used to be at the old building because the theater space is still under construction. Not sure it was worth the profit CFI made from the sale, especially since it’s my understanding that all that profit went to the national CFI and not the local CFI-L.A.)

    Not that everything’s always gone smoothly here either, of course. There was a big schism a few years ago when a bunch of people basically dissociated themselves from CFI-L.A. because of a conflict with Jim Underdown—it seems to me that Jim was on the right side in that conflict (many of the people who left openly said that they thought CFI-L.A. was pushing too much for feminism and inclusivity), but it was still disruptive. And then for a while the Skeptics Book Club that met at the CFI-L.A. building was run by a frothing misogynist. I don’t want to say I’m happy anyone died, but I will say I didn’t start going to the Skeptics Book Club again until he passed away and someone else took over running the meetings.

    But anyway, at this point what skeptical/atheist organizations are out there that are doing things right? I’m still going to go to events at CFI-L.A.; as I said, I like the local leader and most of the people here, even if the national organization is screwing everything up. But are there any big skeptical/atheist organizations left (especially that have a presence in L.A.) that aren’t just ridiculous disasters?

  3. Hj Hornbeck says

    In an article on “critical thinking approaches to confronting racism,” the magazine’s deputy editor, Benjamin Radford, referenced the view of evolutionary psychologist and author Steven Pinker that “the overall historical trends for humanity are encouraging” …

    [Begins twitching uncontrollably…]

  4. Rich Woods says

    @Ray Ceeya #1:

    It could well be lazy bullshit, but it could also be that the people they’ve approached so far who do have the necessary experience and the ability to change the attitudes within such an organisation have taken a look at it, thought about the likelihood of success, and said, “No, I don’t want that shit on my CV.”

  5. says

    Two years ago, in an inept attempt to address the issue, CFI published a special issue of Skeptical Inquirer: “A Skeptic’s Guide to Racism.” The issue, penned exclusively by white men, demonstrated CFI leadership’s woefully shallow grasp of how racism works.

    Didn’t anybody tell them that it wasn’t supposed to be a “how to”?

  6. harryblack says

    Its infuriating how many skeptics refuse to accept intersectional concepts due to the horrifying possibility that they may have to accept not being the loudest and most authorative voice in a ‘debate’ and that their smug hyperlinks wont mean as much.
    Not accepting reality because of its implications. How very skeptical.

  7. Bruce Fuentes says

    As a white man of Hispanic origin, I learned early that all organizations run and dominated by white people are inherently racist and misogynist. The only way that changes is with diversification. Most organizations fight this diversification either consciously or unconsciously. Until more people learn about, understand and stop fighting against the concept of white privilege, nothing will change.
    I have benefitted hugely from my white privilege. My mother as not Hispanic and my father was a very light skinned Puerto Rican. My brothers and I were able to, for the most part, avoid the challenges our darker skinned relatives faced. I can also tell personal stories of discrimination and prejudice that many white people will dismiss as overreaction but should make them think about their white privilege. The previous generation can tell stories that should shock your soul. This white privilege will continue until the privileged acknowledge and understand that things that happened, 50, 100, 200, 300 years ago do matter and have drastically affected where they stand in society.
    In a sense skeptic and atheist organizations are worse than racist religious groups. One would think that supposed followers of the scientific method would put away their prejudices and hates and follow where the science leads. They do not, and instead they use their influence and organizations to perpetuate discrimination and white privilege.
    Rant over.

  8. pilgham says

    @Ray Ceeya #1:

    Yeah, that phrase “Finding people that want to serve on the board and have the appropriate qualifications isn’t easy.” really makes you wonder what exactly the phrase “appropriate qualifications” means. Given that the board is all white.

  9. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    An organization that takes its name from Richard Dawkins is a doddering shitshow filled to the brim with privilege? You don’t say!

  10. skephair says

    Heard on the radio a while age, a researcher had been looking into the structure of boards, and found that the major selection criteria for new board members was “will get on with the rest of the board”, which obviously keeps the status quo, and also encourages only considering people already known by board members. She followed up with that in Norway, when they legislated a minimum female level of membership, the average level of qualifications of women on boards went up, because boards were forced to go outside of their cosy circles.

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