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commenting about

I’m been having a bit of back-and-forth with commenter OaringAbout on skeptic extraordinaire Steven Novella’s Neurologicablog. They brought up the increasingly tangentially familiar (and very plausibly artificial) equity–gender divide among feminists, in response to which i asked for some examples within the so-called “community of reason”. They obliged, somewhat, and while checking their claims, citing sources, and formulating my response, i synthesized some ideas i’d not taken the time to before—though admittedly with limited confidence in some of it. So, it seems appropriate to put it here as a touchstone, even (especially) if i’m forced to recant some of it in light of new evidence. But do read the background of the conversation first (and apologies in retrospect for the opportunistic moralizing at the outset).

@OaringAbout, thanks for responding. I have a few problems with your setup, though i don’t think they need to tint the rest of this exchange. One is that, while you seem partial to literalism (judging from the links you provided), you are willing to conclude from circumstantial evidence that people believe things that they have not said. The other is that likening the drawing of provisional conclusions based on circumstantial interpersonal evidence, perhaps analogous to journalism, to a bona fide science strikes me as unnecessarily haughty and perhaps hazardously self-assuring. (If i understand the chronology, for instance, evolutionary theories existed before fossils were understood as such, and Darwin’s early work was not based on fossils at all.)

To put us more in alignment: I don’t doubt that several feminists are antagonistic toward and perhaps even in denial of the science of sex and gender differences. What i doubt is that any prominent feminists identified with atheism or skepticism as movements or communities are so antagonistic. There is, however, widespread criticism among these feminists of the tendency of other feminists or atheists or skeptics toward biological determinism, loosely speaking the opposite extreme from tabula rasa along the traditional nature/nurture axis (itself, i understand, outdated in the face of such interactions as gene-environment interactions).

As i understand things, (a) there is a much longer, richer, and resilient tradition of determinism (including such myths as gender essentialism) in the public consciousness than of rasa, while (b) the general trend in the social sciences has been one of discrediting deterministic (and essentialist) assumptions in favor of greater influence from environmental (including natal and social) factors. I don’t have a reliable single source for this history (the Wikipedia “Nature versus nurture” page does not pass my smell test). Within the skeptical community, however, i do sense a predilection for over-reliance on fuzzy estimates for genetic-environmental influences. That is to say that, within the “community of reason”, i do perceive a problem of skewed perceptions in the direction of determinism. My response to your examples then boils down to my not perceiving a problem, certainly as much of a problem, with skewed perceptions toward rasa.

One of your points is that there are measurable differences between populations, albeit often quite small. I see two major problems with invoking these differences in discussions of sexism and racism (and so on). One is that the slow decay of social norms and the extreme difficulty in accounting for them in social research by itself implies that such statistical artifacts should exist; they do not necessarily constitute evidence in favor of either (genetic or environmental) hypothesis. The other is that statistical significance does not imply practical significance. Whether such differences are cultural or biological artifacts, they tend not to have any practical implications, for policy or (present context) for inclusivity.

To be specific: That “women are weaker than men”, for instance, is a stereotype, regardless of whether the mean strengths by gender are different in that direction. It is also, for instance, a stereotype that Asian-Americans have Asian accents, yet in my experience this is more often the case than not. Stereotyping amounts not to observing these trends but in allowing them to tint one’s projections and expectations, which makes it a specific instance in the fallacy of division. Moreover (and more importantly), there are measurable harmful consequences of maintaining such stereotypes (which also play into the difficulty of accounting for cultural factors i mentioned in the previous paragraph).

Your invocation of Hall’s comment to bolster Shermer’s remark is another example of the fallacy of division. There may well be spheres of human endeavor that one gender is far more likely to pursue than another, but the naked existence of so many other demonstrably influential factors precludes any reasonable attribution of this designation to skepticism or skeptical activism. I see no way to reasonably attribute it to anything yet, given the enduring potency of gender norms.

(Not to get off-topic, but as a test of symmetry: Are you prepared to defend your likening of the criticism Shermer has received to crucifixion as less hyperbolic than Benson’s use of Shermer’s remark to make her point about harmful gender assumptions within the movement? If not (i see no way that you could), should i consider it any more excusable than Shermer considered Benson’s?)

Regarding the gender gap in violent crimes, while it isn’t your point, i would be remiss not to mention that simple statistics are inadequate to conclude anything, for the reasons outlined above. There may well be a significant genetic or biological component, but (example) there is a lot of teasing apart of factors that must be done first.

As for your reaction to Giliell’s response, i admittedly don’t see the problem. It turns out that we have said many of the same things: that the statistical fact may have subtler causes than strictly biology, that cultural norms play a substantial role and require care to account for, and that the historical trend favors a stronger environmental component than popular culture (at any given time) would suggest. Where, for instance, do they suggest that one should tailor facts to fit dogma? And where do they conflate “some” with “all”? (You’ll have to pardon me for wanting nothing to do with the slyme pit, for (mostly) circumstantial reasons that i think are at least as sound as yours, but feel free to copy/paste whatever relevant portion you’re referring to.)

Regarding Katz’s quote, he is technically correct; sexual orientation (like sex and gender) is not binary, but rather bimodal. Does he go on to elaborate that he rejects bimodality as well? I would then agree with you that the assertion is highly problematic (it would amount to denialism). But there are very good reasons to criticize the binary, legal self-actualization among them.

Regarding the last comment you’ve linked to, i’m afraid that i tend to agree with LeftSidePositive’s characterization, at least of your contributions to that thread. I have seen no one stake a position that could reasonably be interpreted as denying the possible influence of biology on any particular gender difference; i would even go further and assert that only biological gender differences of practical significance should be bothered with in conversations about prejudice and privilege.

However, i agree (i think you’re taking this position?) that genetic and environmental influences are not well-situated as null and alternative hypotheses, respectively; both are known to be important, so it makes just as much sense from a strictly scientific perspective to switch these roles and assume biological origins until sufficient evidence emerges for some or other gender difference being environmentally governed.

And both have their places. When it comes to anti-discrimination policy, for example, which may involve wealth redistribution or restrictions on speech or other expressions (e.g. hiring practices), the threshold of evidence for the existence of the discrimination in the first place is generally quite high (too high in many cases). That is, the null is taken to be that people behave non-discriminatorily, i.e. as genetics or biology would effect.

In activism, however, as in most any other social endeavor (e.g. a school or workplace), inclusion and diversity are of some importance, far more than what precise numbers one should expect in a demographically blind (and thereby wholly unrealistic) society. In this setting the default to biological origins tends to be leveraged in support of inaction, and even of overt discrimination (see here for a particularly bizarre example). In contrast, what we should want (for an active, successful, and attractive community and movement) is for everyone to feel wanted and empowered by it, and no one to feel disadvantaged within it. This is the major problem with Shermer’s remark, so far as i can deduce and so far as i have observed among his detractors: He unnecessarily—albeit unwittingly but unfortunately also subsequently obstinately—excused the skeptical movement for failing to attract more women activists into it. I see plenty of room for harsh criticism of this attitude, and none of it relies on tabula rasa.

Categories: skepticism Tags: , , ,
  1. February 20, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    “In reality feminism is implied by egalitarianism”

    Thanks for replying so quickly. I agree with the above statement, and I think you do an excellent job of framing the issue. The reason I object to being defined as a feminist is that the term Egalitarian encompasses more than gender issues, not because I oppose feminist goals; however, I’m not always skilled in articulating this to people and get into some odd arguments about it on occasion. The relationship (or perceived relationship) between these two labels is something I’m trying to learn more about; can you recommend any resources to that end?

    • February 21, 2013 at 2:40 am

      Thanks! Though i might equally well thank you for posting your comment while i was taking a break. :)

      I think that that is a good reason to identify as an egalitarian rather than a feminist. I don’t think it outweighs the reasons to identify as a feminist, but so long as one is not perpetuating myths and stereotypes i think that personal preference can be respected.

      Here‘s a nice essay on the use of labels, but it doesn’t seem to be a starting point for much else.

      “Egalitarian feminism” appears to be a synonym for “equality” or “equity” feminism (in contrast to “difference” or “gender” feminism). It’s correct in its opposition to the pseudoscientific end of gender essentialism, so skeptics should occupy exactly one side of this divide, and so far as i can tell we seem to. But i don’t think that this is what you’re getting at.

      It may just be that the disagreements among feminist skeptics are more nuanced than the usual categories can account for. There’s also a lot of misrepresentation that needs to be factored out. At this point i have no better recommendation than to dive in.

      • February 21, 2013 at 4:27 am

        Thank you, I did find this article useful.

  2. February 20, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks for the clear and direct response to this problem. Having read some of the background material, I’d ask this: Do you think there is any (real) resentment in the feminist community towards women who do not identify as feminist? I ask partially because I identify as Egalitarian, and often I’ve received some weird responses to that. I’m not claiming that all feminists are women, that’s a destructive stereotype. But there seems to be (from my individual perspective) an equally destructive stereotype that all women are feminists. What are you’re thoughts on that?

    • February 20, 2013 at 7:25 pm

      That’s a good one, and it needs a bit of parsing. First, there’s the question of whether one is or is not a feminist, not by virtue of adopting the label but by definition. While there are schools of feminist thought, what it means to be a feminist is, loosely speaking, to support the pursuit of equal legal and social opportunity and representation for women as for men. This follows directly from such unobjectionable moral precepts as equal representation under law, the freedom to pursue one’s own interests (when benign), and the mitigation of the influence of prejudices; to not be a feminist is either irrational or malicious.

      Then there’s the question of identifying as a feminist, given that one is a feminist. I see no obligation to do so. However, there may well be resentment to people’s reluctance, and it may not be entirely undeserved; there is responsibility in abstaining from labels (like “atheist”) as there is in adopting them. (It might be helpful to note in parallel that i am an advocate for men’s rights though it would be wrong for me to identify as an advocate for men’s rights due to (a) the superfluousness of the label in light of the generally favored status of men and (b) the present unsalvageability of the label.)

      Whether to identify as, say, an egalitarian involves similar considerations, but the implications are weirder. The (as i see it) popular myth that feminists tend to be of either the “equality” or the “gender” variety seems to be reinforcing another myth, that feminism and egalitarianism are, if not mutually exclusive, in some sort of tension. In reality feminism is implied by egalitarianism. As a label, though, i have seen many people describe themselves as egalitarians as a means to differentiate themselves from what they perceive as “strident” or “radical” feminists. I think that using the label in this way is counterproductive because (a) “feminism” as a label still carries a lot of weight with and widespread support from decent people, i.e. it is not under great thread of stigma (think “liberal” 15 years ago); (b) what stigma does exist around the feminist label has less to do with a subset of feminists co-opting it for malicious purposes (see “men’s rights” above) and more to do with the failure of many to acknowledge that women face a certain amount or type of discrimination when in fact they do, i.e. a change of label wouldn’t help; and (c) the change to “egalitarianism” feeds back into the myth that feminism is at odds with egalitarianism, making the problem worse.

      (I think more people should start identifying as egalitarians (this is becoming common among polyamorists, as a way of distancing ourselves from patriarchal polygynists), but not as an alternative or in contrast to identifying as feminists.)

      Finally, as to the stereotype: It is perhaps rude to impose a qualification like feminist on someone if they don’t adopt it as a label, even if they are a feminist, sort of like telling someone they’re an atheist when they aren’t necessarily comfortable with the label. Still, this is more a concession to the person’s cultural hang-ups than a moral imperative, and it can be a useful tactic. All women (and men) should be feminists, which is to say that they should not view themselves as superior or inferior to men by virtue of their gender.

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