Geek Girl Con: Skepchicks

by | October 14, 2011
filed under Feminism

Skepchicks Panel at Geek Girl Con

Panelists Meg Winston, Amy Davis Roth, and Jen McCreight

“What can people do to keep their bullshit detector well calibrated, and why is this especially important for women?” That’s the question the Skepchicks panel at Geek Girl Con was asked.

The panel was  moderated by President of Seattle Skeptics Paul Case, and featured Seattle Skeptics co-organizer Meg Winston, Amy Davis Roth (aka “Surly Amy” of skepchick.org), athiest feminist blogger Jen McCreight of Blag Hag, SF writer Dana Hunter, and psychologist and HuffPost Religion blogger Valerie Tarico.

I realized heading in I didn’t have a great idea what skepticism was all about. I had the impression that it was a set of beliefs including atheism, but couldn’t really define it better than that. Luckily defining “skepticism” was the first question the panel was asked.

According to Amy, being a skeptic is about being neutral about what you encounter until you have evidence to back up the claims: “We are not scientists but we do use science to navigate claims.” Jen McCreight said she sees skepticism as “the application of scientific method, general rationality and logic.”

The panelists emphasized skepticism is a method, not a position, though following it does mean taking positions like atheism, because of the lack of scientific evidence that God or gods exist.

The next thing the panelists did was go into the FAQs and critiques of skepticism, the main one being the question, “Well, what’s the harm?” This was a question I shared, not seeing what the big deal was about people choosing to believe in horoscopes or homeopathy or Ogopogo if it’s not hurting anyone.

Jen McCreight and Dana Hunter

Jen McCreight and Dana Hunter

“Sometimes the content is genuinely harmless,” Valerie Tarico agreed. “The problem is the pattern isn’t. You need to have the skills to counter the things that are harmful.” Surly Amy was more blunt, pointing out that many things that seem harmless on the surface carry harmful implication: “Ghost hunting is harmful, makes you feel less safe in your home.” She recommended people check out Whatstheharm.net for lists of harmful effects of seemingly innocuous beliefs and practices. Panelists also noted things like bogus cancer treatments and unproven alternative remedies can be harmful if they stop people from seeking “real medical help.”

The most interesting part of the panel for me was the discussion of how beliefs and practices challenged by skeptics differently impact people based on gender. Panelists cited examples of pseudo-science targeting women, including the anti-vaccination movement being targeted to women preying on the fear of being a bad mother. They also pointed out many health and beauty products are scientifically unproven and can be dangerous but are promoted to women by marketing to body insecurity.

Jen McCreight also contended that skepticism is subversive for a lot of women since it’s about trusting science instead of intuition. She pointed out women are told from a very young age that they’re bad at science, and argued many cling to pursuits that claim to speak to intuition in order to fit into the feminine gender mould.

The thing that made me feel a little on edge about the ideas being promoted was the trust placed in science. It can be a big responsibility for laypeople without scientific background to weigh scientific claims, and “science” has often been used in the past to justify the oppression of women, LGBT people, and people of colour. It’s not uncommon to open the commuter paper in the morning and read an article about how science has shown men don’t find crying women sexy, or that men can’t see dirt around the house, or that women are happier when they have kids. Total acceptance of those findings without looking into how the experiments were conducted would be a problem.

So I got up to the mic to ask what you do as a skeptic when there’s not scientific consensus. Panelists responded that you don’t have to pick a side in that case.  Jen McCreight said it’s okay for skeptics to say “I don’t know”, but Amy added, “and it doesn’t always mean every possibility it equally likely.”

On the issue of past scientific findings that have been oppressive or just plain wrong, McCreight and Davis argued that science recorrecting itself doesn’t mean science is wrong.

“We see science as a process, not a set of answers. It’s not the man telling you what to do,” said one panelist.

I left the panel understanding a lot more about skepticism and how it relates to gender. And while I suspect the movement needs more anti-racist critique and I’m still a little uneasy about the potential of misinterpreting “scientific” findings, I like the idea of skepticism giving us a set of tools and a framework to avoid being duped and making bad decisions.

-Jarrah


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  • Hello fellow Canadians!
    I’m a tangential skepchick and I just wanted to add on to the discussion on science news.

    We don’t encourage the blind belief in science any more than we do anything else.

    Skepticism is a lot about doubting claims until you’ve had time to think them over. If you read some science news headline, don’t accept it right off. There is a lot of terrible science reporting done by people that want to sell papers or have an agenda.

    The skeptical community encourages skepticism of science as much as anything else. If something looks dodgy, question it. A lot of publicly published science is sponsored by special interest groups and they interpret their results with a bias.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for commenting and giving clarification on that – it’s good to know. I think the hour long panel really wasn’t enough time to get into that type of nuance, so I appreciate you sharing your experience with the skepchick community. Another question I’m interested in is what is the difference (if any) between skepticism and critical thinking?

  • Jarrah: The difference between skepticism and critical thinking is another nuance that you might get differing opinions on depending who you ask. To me skepticism is an “ism” in the sense that it is a world view that one subscribes to. A skeptic uses critical thinking, logic and evidence as tools to understand the world and come to conclusions about truth claims. It’s possible for someone to use critical thinking and still not be a skeptic if that person doesn’t apply critical thinking to all portions of their life.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks!