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Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in Politics | 26 comments

The hyperbole isn’t helping: Shermer, Benson, Myers and more

And again, way too much energy is being spent on deriving the least flattering interpretation of someone’s statements, and then describing that interpretation in a way that’s sure to press the confirmation bias button for the folks who are already on “your side”. I’m talking about the most recent intra-skeptical squabble originating with Ophelia Benson’s column in Free Inquiry, which included comment on remarks made by Michael Shermer, and Shermer’s response to those comments.

And, just as with the recent round of comment regarding evolutionary psychology, you’re going to read a bunch of posts here and at FtB that express different points of view. Some of these will involve painstaking attempts to appear objective, and some might even succeed – but to no avail. I don’t think there are enough people left who remember what “drama-free” might mean to be heard above the din.

This all starts with a misinterpretation. Here’s a key passage from Benson’s column:

The main stereotype in play, let’s face it, is that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing”.

Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that during a panel discussion on the online talk-show The Point. The host, Cara Santa Maria, presented a question: Why isn’t the gender split in atheism closer to 50-50? Shermer explained, “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”

It’s all there—women don’t do thinky, they don’t speak up, they don’t talk at conferences, they don’t get involved—it’s “a guy thing,” like football and porn and washing the car.

Each clause of Shermer’s explanation ends with “it”. He’s talking about who is the public face of “it”, and making the point that being a visible atheist is “more of a guy thing” (and note, he isn’t even sure about that himself, having pointed out – before the section Benson quotes – that it’s probably 50/50). So he’s to my mind clearly making a descriptive claim, rather than a claim that’s meant to be in any way normative.

He’s saying that, for whatever reason, it’s more of a guy thing to be an outspoken atheist. On average. He doesn’t endorse this, and he certainly doesn’t say that thinking is more of a guy thing. That’s an uncharitable interpretation on Benson’s part. As for Shermer, he should be aware that his words were likely to be misinterpreted, and had the opportunity to say “sorry, I can see how someone might think that, but they really shouldn’t have – it’s not borne out by the evidence of my words, nor of my past deeds and statements”.

Instead, he took the opportunity to drop another piece of fuel onto an already raging fire, making reference to the Malleus Maleficarum (ie. alluding to a “witch hunt”). And you know what? There is a witch hunt, but it’s not monodirectional. When our response to someone who misinterprets us is to use the anecdata of a commenter at Butterflies and Wheels to justify a claim that Benson and her commentariat exhibit an irrational and nonskeptic approach, you can’t expect anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to be open to persuasion. Especially, perhaps, when you’re offering a high-minded lecture on witch hunts.

The commenter in question says “anything I might say would be misinterpreted and twisted to use against me” – and so, Shermer is saying “don’t expect reason and debate at B&W, which is populated by irrational folk”. They say I’m a sexist? Guess what – I say they’re not skeptics, nor rational! And in this schoolyard, it’s the ones who shout the loudest who will most likely appear to be winning.

And then there’s the intervention of PZ Myers, who perpetuates the implausible interpretation that Shermer was saying women can’t think. Myers says:

Here’s what Shermer was caught saying in a video discussion about why women aren’t participating as much in the skeptical movement:

“It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”

You know what? That is a great big hairy naked sexist remark. It’s a plain assumption that men are intrinsically better suited to leading skepticism and atheism. You can’t get much plainer than “It’s more of a guy thing.”

No, it’s not a “plain assumption that men are intrinsically better suited to leading skepticism and atheism” at all. That’s confirmation bias in spades, or wilfully deceptive. Because it ignores the far more plausible assumption that Shermer is describing what is the case, not what should be the case, or what could be the case once we eliminate the privilege men are naturally accorded in society. So he’s not saying anything about “intrinsic” value – he’s referring to stereotypes and cultural norms, in this case the norm of sexism.

And yes, he could have put it more clearly. Yes, he could (should) have responded more soberly to Benson. But there’s just not enough evidence (from the video in question) to consider Shermer a sexist. Myers goes on to say:

Need I point out that the reason gender ratios have been improving is because people like Ophelia and Rebecca Watson and Greta Christina and Jen McCreight have been pointing out the discrimination for years, and have provided lists of excellent women and minority speakers, and conference organizers, rather than doubling down and denying the problem, have been receptive and made strong efforts to correct the bias?

Oh. So I guess it’s not a guy thing, and you were wrong, Michael. It might have been cleverer of you to just say, “I was wrong, I made a sexist remark, the evidence shows that it’s not a guy thing.”

Not to Shermer, I’d imagine – remember, he started those remarks by observing that the male/female ratio probably is closer to 50/50 these days. I doubt that he thinks the ratio has equalised organically or randomly, rather than through political activism. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it has equalised at all – at the “high end” of the market, there are sufficient numbers of outspoken atheists to ensure a gender balance at a conference, but for those of us still working at the skeptics in the pub level, or at occasional regional conferences, it’s rather more difficult because as much as everyone now knows about atheism – and that it’s really okay to be an atheist (ceteris paribus and all that) – stereotypes don’t disappear overnight.

I’m in my 40’s, and very few women my age (and in my circles) are outspoken atheists. But when I look at the composition of the atheist social gatherings I organise, mostly populated by younger folk, it really is 50/50. So, in 5 or 10 years time, when they’ve read a pile of books, finished their degrees or whatever they intend doing, I’ll have no shortage of women available and willing to speak (at South African conferences at least). But it’s not a magic switch that gets flipped – and for whatever reason, patriarchal cultures like mine did make it less likely that women would ruffle feathers in the way that atheists have to.

Finally: there’s a clear perception that I’ve picked up from Twitter (I’m @JacquesR) and via Pharyngula of Skeptic Ink being anti-FtB. I note this just to say: screw that. Just as we’ve long been encouraged to avoid regarding FtB as a hivemind, let’s remember to extend the same courtesy to this network? Most of all, let’s try to extend it to each other, instead of immediately assuming the worst when someone fails to use your preferred phrasing.