I’m tired of calling the discussion about sexism within the skeptic and atheist movements a “controversy”. As I see it, what myself and others who talk about the fact that our communities are as subject to sexism (and racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc) as the rest of society are encountering is denialism. Look, we know that skeptics and atheists aren’t perfect. Aspiring to an ideal of rationality and fairness doesn’t make us perfect, it just means we’re trying to be better. As we know, there are prominent skeptics involved in serious legal troubles. There are prominent skeptics with troubling views about climate change. Skeptics and atheists are people, flawed and aspiring to be better — just like everyone in the world.
Chris Hoofnagle has talked to many skeptic groups about denialism. He’s said on the topic:
“Then there are those who engage in denialist tactics because they are protecting some ‘overvalued idea’ which is critical to their identity. Since legitimate dialogue is not a valid option for those who are interested in protecting bigoted or unreasonable ideas from scientific facts, their only recourse is to use these types of rhetorical tactics.”
I have personally seen skeptics angrily walking out of talks about climate change because they were upset about – and denied – what the scientists were saying. Skeptics are capable of and do engage in denialism. In the case of the climate change denialists in skepticism it seems that many of them are pro-business libertarians. An “overvalued idea” that is critical to their identity is very likely their belief in the free market fixing all ills. The idea that that is not always true could be very upsetting.
Many skeptics and atheists seem to adhere to the “overvalued idea” that their love of rationality makes them better people than those who don’t profess an allegiance to truth over dogma. They seem to build much of their identity around the idea that everything they believe is grounded in reason and is therefore pure, just, and good. They love talking about the way the human brain is prone to error but never seem to think about how they are just as likely to be mistaken as someone who doesn’t identify as a skeptic. They will criticize racism, sexism, etc in credulous or theistic groups but somehow believe that those ideas are absent from their own minds or communities.
In defense of their closely held belief that “skeptics wouldn’t do that” what do they do? Well, they bravely present irrelevant, anecdotes about women who haven’t encountered sexism in the hopes that it will somehow trump the stories of many women who have encountered sexism within our movement and at the hands of our “heroes”. Then there are the rape threats, sexist slurs, online abuse campaigns, and then, in a twist of brilliant irony, the idea of calling the bullied the bullies. We have seen all of this before from creationists, alt-med quacks, psychic frauds, and UFO conspirators. When skeptics see these heinous and illogical “arguments” perpetrated by the “non-rational” they have been called out, criticized, and defended against. Now, when self-identified skeptics do it because they are reacting irrationally and emotionally to an issue or the people raising the issue?Now you call it a controversy?
I’m calling bullshit. It’s denialism. The fact that these people are on the same side as us on so many other matters does not give them a free pass to drop their professed ideals so they can hold on to their perks and precious self-conception as paragons of moral reason. In this matter they are as illogical, as unreasonable, and as deplorable as the people they have rightly called out in the past.
What kind of skepticism embraces those who abandon reason as soon as it becomes inconvenient for them?