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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.

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  • I find men to be very quiet when it comes to religion in my circles. Women are the opposite. Religion is all touchy feely, maybe that’s why women gravitate toward it more than men and are more outspoken about it. But I that men would rather not approach the subject at all…

    • Yeah…just look at, say, the catholic church. It’s basically a girl’s club, because girls are into all that touchy feely stuff, while men are into atheism.

  • Chas Stewart

    I agree that Shermer’s riposte was somewhat incendiary but they were also insightful. These types of accusations based on an off hand remark (when Shermer has a large body of evidence from which to derive informed opinions) are difficult to deny and my evidence for this is what happened to D.J. Grothe. Grothe was vilified for giving his opinions on what had happened at TAM over the last couple years that he had organized the event and the anger against him only grew as he attempted to defend himself by explaining his reasoning. This all happened on their turf, in their comment section so it was obvious that he wanted to reach the people that felt wronged but they took this opportunity to heap on heaves of bile on to him. I’m not saying this is necessarily a FTB problem but a witch hunt problem and it may be part of why Shermer decided to defend himself in this way. It’s kind of like a preemptive defense against the childishness though I’m not sure it was effective.

  • “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?”

    Amen on both points.

    I’d like to think that we’re all free (as freethinkers and skeptics) to support or critique any people and ideas we find here at Skeptic Ink, at FtB, at Patheos, the A+ forums, or even the SlymePit.

    The attitude that we have to align ourselves and pledge fealty to some preset collection of ideas or community of commentators or particular personalities runs contrary to the fundamental principles of skepticism. 

  • Unfortunatly, the principle of charity is not something Ophelia (and her commenters) are considering. As you note, the most charitable interpretation of Shermer’s observation — a statement of what he sees — is that men are quite active. Atheism is a ‘guy thing,’ I would say, like needlepoint is a ‘girl thing.’ This isn’t to say men are being excluded from the ‘needlepoint community’ or that some inherent gender ‘thing’ makes men not attracted to needlepoint…and it is not to say that women aren’t rational thinkers or whatever spin was put on Shermer’s comment.

    As a semi-hardcore World of Warcraft player, I note, through my voice interactions with people in the game, that it is a ‘guy thing’ in the sense that it’s mostly a game that, for whatever reason, attracts a male population. This does not mean designers or the playerbase is sexist or whatever, but is just how it is. Considering that, there are many women in my guild including one of the main tanks I raid with – a fantastic player.

    • A 2008 Nielsen survey estimated that about 38 percent of the WoW playerbase was female:

    • girl

      I’m a girl and I’ve never tried needlepoint but I’ve been an atheist my entire life.
      Also, my sister is the only World of Warcraft player I know.
      Assuming atheism is a guy thing is incredibly sexist.

      • Wow, so many reasoning error crammed into a mere three sentences. Impressive! To help you out: (1) a single data point is not a reasonable response to a statistical claim; (2) you seem to think that Justin’s idea would imply that an arbitrarily selected woman would be more likely to do needlepoint than be an atheist, but that is not the case. Look at this hypothetical table:

        P Q
        M 700 3
        W 300 7

        In this scenario, P is “more of a guy thing” and Q is “more of a gal thing”, but you would still expect to know far, far more women that are P rather than Q.

        • (3) You left out the word “more” in “more of a guy thing”, which is an extremely important word. (4) Shermer doesn’t seem to have “assumed” this, but rather decided it based upon some observation and evidence. He might have been wrong, but that’s a completely different thing from assuming something as a fundamental premise.

        • (5) “my sister is the only World of Warcraft player I know” — She may be the only person who you *know* plays WoW, but try doing a survey of 50 male and 50 female acquaintances of about your age, and let us know what you find.

    • There are so few black university students here at Harvard in 1964. That’s because studying is a ‘white thing’, in the sense that it’s mostly a pursuit that, for whatever reason, attracts a white population. This does not mean universities or society are racist or whatever, but it’s just how it is. Considering that, there are many black students on my campus including my lab partner in Biology 101 -a fantastic student.

      • That’s not how it was seen or experienced by many blacks in the 1960’s. Here’s what many would have argued then, and I think it still would be argued in some ways today. The manner in which institutions are structured, including entrance requirements, for example, can inadvertently give an advantage to one group over another. Thus, certain entrance tests of the 1960’s were heavily biased in favor of the experiences of white, middle class to more affluent, and especially male students. Some research also demonstrated this bias in IQ tests during that period. Thus, the level at which racism takes place is not so much “personal” – one person vs another, although that can still be present – but, institutional. The way an organization such as a university is structured makes it easier for someone who is white, from a middle-class or more affluent background, and who is male (especially back then) to successfully enter and succeed there. I suspect that many blacks, Latinos, and some Asian-American students might feel this way and have had experiences and/or are more likely to know someone who has had such experiences.

  • “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?”

    Looking over what your first 3 posters had to say, I’m kinda laughing at this.

    • If you’re laughing, you might be misunderstanding me. I don’t dispute that there has recently been a strong anti-FtB tone on many posts on this network. My point was that there are some – including me – who would reject that characterisation being extended to their own part of the network.

      • SIN gets advertised as a “good” skeptic network. As a counterweight to FtB. Your commentors (at least the first few) drive that home. I just found the dissonance between your statement (“We’re not anti-FtB”) and the general thrust of your commentors (“FtB is the devil and going to corrupt us all”) funny.

  • Thanks for a very level assessment of the situation. It seems the reaction is due to the perceived implications of Shermer’s statement more than the statement itself. Those who found it sexist seem to think it implies men are superior. In my interpretation it points to a problem in need of a fix: Why is it more of a guy thing and what can be done to change that?
    I find it interesting that many of those screaming “sexism” are also those most active in trying to promote greater female presence in the atheist/skeptic community. Why is such promotion necessary unles it is indeed more of a “guy thing” (In the sense of over-representation of men, not superiority)?

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Yes, Jacques, a whole lot less hyperbole would be a very welcome change in the overall atmosphere of online engagement.

    • Ardent, since you’re such an amazing skeptic and loathe hyperbolic messages Could you possibly take Shermer and others to task over

      “In an article entitled “Nontheism and Feminism: Why the Disconnect?” in the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine, author and journalist Ophelia Benson targets Michael Shermer as the embodiment of misogyny.”

      I just reread Benson’s piece and she doesn’t say anything like that.

      • An Ardent Skeptic


        I have been taking lots of people to task for all kinds of hyperbolic rhetoric from all sides of this debate. I have not called anyone a baboon, flying monkey, twat, cunt, gender traitor, chill girl, sister punisher, shitbag troll, sexist, misogynist, etc. I have been called a cunt and a moron for doing so.

        I have done my best to try to bring reason and evidence into this discuss. Admittedly, I have not been particularly successful because this rubbish has continued for over 1 1/2 years.

        Comments like yours are completely unhelpful as they are just meant as snotty retorts. If you think I have been in error in this debate point it out, If there is merit in your thinking, I will be most willing and happy to apologize for my mistakes.

        I cannot police everything that everyone in this debate has said for the last year and a half. I’m tired, particularly of comments like yours which only serve to take potshots for what was an sincere comment I made to a post calling for an end to the hyperbolic rhetoric from all sides.

        • Yes, I’m taking a pot shot at you as your criticism is generally one sided and aimed largely at one specific group. And no you have not called people out for use of cunt, you have not called out Shermer and others for the hyperbole.

          I’m taking a potshot at you because you behave as if you’ve been entirely impartial when you haven’t. An impartial person wouldn’t equate calling a woman a slag with calling someone arguably behaving in a sexist way, sexist. You picked a side a long time ago and have stuck with it. Don’t pretend otherwise.

          • An Ardent Skeptic

            Just who do you think it was that called me a cunt and a moron, Julian? That would be none other than Hoggle, author of the k in the c crack which I described as a “steaming pile of excrement”.

            The only side I am on is the side of critical thinking based on evidence.

            Jacques post is about the hyperbolic rhetoric coming from ALL sides. I’m am agreeing with the point of his post.

          • Sorry but I don’t see what that has to do with my criticism of you. I also don’t want to drag someone’s comment thread into a personal spat so I’ll drop it.

        • For heaven’s sake you don’t even admit Shermer’s description of Benson’s piece is way over the top. You’re fine calling out hyperbole so long as it comes from the “other side.”

  • GreenGlowingGoo

    Sorry for posting so late, but something seemed off. You state that Shermer’s answer was descriptive, but that doesn’t make sense. Allowing the fact that Shermer was talking about the public faces and speaking out, the question posed was why.

    If what you are saying is true, when Shermer was asked by the host (after he answered the initial submitted question by stating he thought attendance was 50/50) why more men spoke out, he answered with “Because more guys are doing it.”

    He can’t mean “for whatever reason…”(as you said), because he was asked for the reason. It’s like answering the question “Why is the sky blue” with “for whatever reason… It’s blue”

    So when he says “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 has to be WHY. And that does make it a normative claim. Or else he is just going in circles.

    • I don’t follow your objection. My claim is that Shermer is saying something like “standing up and talking about it, etc., is regarded/perceived as more of a guy thing” – in other words, that the stereotype/prejudice suggests it as an option to men more than it does to women. Your analogy doesn’t work, in my view, because the sky being blue is not a matter of perception, but one of fact. But anyway, to complete the analogy, Shermer would be responding by saying something like “I can’t explain why we perceive the sky as blue, but we do happen to perceive it that way”.

      Lastly, if you’re right, then Shermer said something that involved circular reasoning. So, sure, that wouldn’t make sense – but that hardly means that he couldn’t have meant it that way.

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