“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.
“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.