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.