Monday, February 11, 2013

Lack of Skepticism in the Skeptical Movement

I’ve been waiting to write about the recent Shermer vs. Benson showdown and the related PZ Myers Cameo. This recent debate brings up two issues that I have begun to notice more and more within the skeptical movement which are:

1.  Prominent bloggers (like all of us) fail to properly use skepticism when they write about issues they are passionate about. In this case that issue is sexism within the skeptical movement.

2.  There is lack of skepticism applied to blog posts written by prominent bloggers.

Now, before I discuss the problems and these issues there is a lot of background material. I would request that everyone—even those familiar with this debate—to review the history I will be discussing before reading what I write. I ask this both because I don’t want to prejudice your views with my discussion and because I believe reading the history in chronological order can prevent people from being biased by other bloggers views.

Without further ado here is the reading material:

First: Listen to the question posed to Michael Shermer and his response starting at 11 minutes 30 seconds in this video.

Second: Read Ophelia Benson’s response to Shermer’s comment entitled Nontheism and Feminism: Why the Disconnect?

Last: Read PZ Myers response to Shermer entitled That’s not a “response,” Michael, it’s a “denial.”

Note: this debate is rounded out by numerous other blog posts but I’m going to limit myself to the posts listed above as I think they are the best examples of problems by prominent bloggers.


I want to begin with a few general things I believe most skeptics agree on.

Quote Mining: We call people out on quote mining. When someone fails to include important parts of quotes we call them out on failing to interpret a quote in context.

Straw Man: When a writer attacks someone by inventing a position that person does not hold we criticize them for doing so. We know that we can’t have a debate on an issue if the other party insists on mischaracterizing our own position.

Misleading Rhetoric: When someone uses misleading rhetoric to frame an issue in an inflammatory way we point out the misleading use of rhetoric and try to frame the issue neutrally.

What we hear first sticks: When the first information we hear on a topic is incorrect it is difficult to correct that misinformation. This is a huge problem skeptics face when the media puts forth misleading or incorrect articles and then we are left with the mess of trying to correct public perception.

Defense: When our own positions are criticized with quote mines, straw men, and misleading rhetoric we defend our position. We may apologize for being unclear but we then respond by trying to correct others views on our opinion.

With these common skeptical themes in mind I want to discuss Benson, Shermer, and PZ Myers writings. In this post I’m going to start with Benson, then address Shermer and PZ in upcoming posts.

Ophelia Benson: Nontheism and Feminism
I’m going to start discussing Benson’s views with agreement on one point (primarily to avoid having my position straw manned). I agree that there is an unfortunate and problematic stereotype that men are thinkers and women are emotional. This stereotype is harmful and we should be careful with our words to avoid perpetuating this stereotype.

With that out of the way I’ll address the issues with Benson’s post and explain why it is so problematic. First I want to quote Shermer in full. Shermer was asked why the male/female split in atheism was not 50/50. The host then pointed out that she had trouble finding women who wanted to go on her show. Shermer then said:

I think it probably really is 50/50. It’s who wants stand up and talk about, go on shows about it, go on conferences and speak about it, you know, who is intellectually active about it. It’s more of a guy thing. -Michael Shermer

A few minutes later in the conversation Shermer goes on to point out that at James Randi’s most recent conference there were more women than men speakers.

Now let’s look at Benson’s interpretation of what Shermer said. I reorder Benson’s quote to fully show what she is stating about Shermer. I have noted my reordering so that it is clear.

Shermer said exactly that …(order flipped)… 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.”
Now at this point in Benson’s article she has not linked to Shermer’s quote, nor has she quoted Shermer in full. Thus, at this point Benson has made her first two skeptical fails. First she framed the issue in a non-neutral inflammatory manner. Second, she straw manned Shermer’s position.  In fact, Benson approaches a lie about his position due to her use of the word “exactly.” Using “exactly” implies that she is either directly quoting Shermer or stating the only reasonable interpretation of Shermer’s position. (As discussed below Shermer’s statement is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations.)

Benson’s audience at this point has been primed with the idea that Shermer made a seriously derogatory comment about women. And, she has already told her audience exactly what Shermer meant by his quote. With this priming in effect Benson goes on to quote Shermer. But, she skeptically fails again when she quote mines Shermer. She fails to include Shermer’s short statement “It probably really is closer to 50/50.” Which turns out to be important.

After quote mining Shermer, Benson again restates her straw man of Shermer’s position stating:
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. –Ophelia Benson
Benson’s quote mine is fairly important here. The only reason Benson can accuse Shermer of saying women “don’t talk at conferences” is because she omitted Shermer’s 50/50 remark and his statement that more women spoke at Randi’s conference.

Now, Shermer’s statement really was ambiguous. It could be interpreted in different ways and, as I will discuss in my following article, it really was problematic even under a neutral interpretation. The big issue here is that Benson has framed Shermer’s statement in the most inflammatory way possible and made sure that her audience will interpret Shermer’s statement in that manner. To make matters worse, she has framed the issue using techniques most skeptics would criticize including quote mining and straw manning.

Shermer, is then left to try to overcome the huge problem of initial bias created by Benson’s accusation. Which Shermer addresses in his article here (the same article that I had you read earlier).

Now, Benson is of course entitled to interpret statements by others in any manner she wants. Thus, she can choose to believe that Shermer “exactly stated” that women don’t do thinky. This is because words are ambiguous and we can each interpret what we hear in whatever manner we want. However, it is difficult to have a conversation when we interpret ambiguity in a manner that is very likely not the way it was intended by the speaker. And, if we look at the context around what Shermer said we find that there is not enough information to come to the conclusion that Shermer really was disparaging women.

From reading comments surrounding this incident I have read numerous posts by people who claim to have logically deduced the only possible thing Shermer could have meant. The strange thing is people have come to exactly opposite conclusions. Well, not so strange really. Because, they all fail to remember something critically important: a person can make logically inconsistent statements. We all know people misspeak or poorly phrase their words, especially when speaking off the cuff, thus we can only guess at exact meaning.

Benson has told us that Shermer disparaged women. His quote could be interpreted that way. But, it could also be interpreted as simply restating the premise of the question he was posed which was “it appears that more men are active in skepticism.” In fact, if we read Shermer’s article it appears that the later was closer to his intent.

This brings me to my criticism of Benson. She has completely derailed the possibility of a reasonable debate by firing up her readership with quote mining, straw manning, inflammatory language, and failing to directly link to the quote she attacked.

This is a big issue because Benson has made a serious accusation against Shermer. She has told us he disparaged women by insulting their intellectual ability. This type of accusation is likely to make a lot of people angry at Shermer and thus carries potential to seriously harm Shermer’s reputation.

Now Benson has put Shermer in that difficult position we as skeptics find ourselves in all too often of fighting the uphill battle against initial incorrect information. We as skeptics should be critical of this even when the problematic statement comes from a skeptic. As I will discuss in my next piece, Benson actually had grounds to criticize Shermer and if she had stuck to those grounds the whole debate that arose may have been avoided.

Prominent bloggers have serious power to frame issues and frame their readership's view of an issue. As skeptics I would dare to say that we value neutrality and we hope that leaders in the movement would keep their arguments free of the rhetoric that we so often criticize as skeptics. That is why I find it so disappointing to see Benson, someone I usually trust and respect, using such misleading arguments. The big problem I noticed when reading comments on this issue is that skeptics tend to take sides with their favorite blogger rather than using a skeptical view to look at their points. But taking sides is not a skeptical thing to do as we all know. I even found myself initially caught up in this because I often disagree with Shermer's libertarian views and I uncritically assumed he had been sexist. It was only after checking up on source material that I realized Benson manufactured this issue.

Thus, this whole debate has been a little reminder to myself to always check an author’s sources and to distrust those who don’t link to primary material. Even when the author is a fellow skeptic.

Update: Read my next post in this series entitled Shermer, it's not a guy thing here.

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