Sunday, July 10, 2011

Richard Dawkins isn't the real issue here

There's a civil war of sorts going on in the skepticism community. Rebecca Watson, founder of and feminist crusader, wrote about being creeped out when a guy at a conference invited her to his hotel room for "coffee," and biologist Richard Dawkins allegedly posted a slightly-coarse response on her blog saying she's making too big a deal of it and the actions of one socially-inept nerd is not enough to conclude the secular community is misogynistic.

Being feminists, the Skepchick community went DEFCON 2 and called for a boycott of Dawkins books and asked readers to write him letters. Here's mine:

Dear Richard Dawkins,

There's a lot of talk these days about the value of diversity in skepticism. On September 30, 2007 when you recorded the "Four Horsemen" video with Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, you said:
It’s like it’s a good idea to have somebody from the political right who is an atheist, because otherwise there’s a confusion of values which doesn’t help us. And it’s much better to have this diversity in other areas. But I think I sort of do agree with you. But even if I didn’t, I think it was valuable to have that.
I was dragged into the secular community kicking and screaming when I was 14 when my mind rejected the comforting religious ideas I had been brought up with. When I was 18 I learned my set of political views made me one of those vile "conservatives" I'd heard so much about. It was not my intention to join either group, but I never really had a choice.

There's a lot of negative "locker room talk" about people from my political background in secular and skeptical circles, to borrow a phrase from moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I just wanted to thank you for saying not just that people like me should be tolerated, but that we provide an additional value as well. Thank you for making me feel welcome.

My letter touches on an issue I find much more important than this Internet squabble, and that's the push from Skepchick to have skeptics push liberal politics. I've already written about their affirmative action crusade, but they also want to push issues like abortion rights as something skeptical and secular groups should defend.

I am completely opposed to this for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that opposing abortion is not a scientific claim; it is a value judgment. Christopher Hitchens' pro-life stance should be a dead give-away here. Steven Novella wrote in his great essay "How to Argue" that science makes factual claims, not value judgments. His example to illustrate this point is:
Ultimately, all arguments over abortion come down to a personal moral choice: which should have greater value, the mother’s right to make choices regarding her own body, or the unborn fetus’s right not to be killed. All attempts to resolve this objectively have resulted in further arguments that are dependent upon value judgments, for example: at what point at or after conception does an embryo or fetus become a person? Also, how does the fetus’s total biological dependence upon its mother affect their respective rights?
I've heard Novella make this point over and over again on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe Podcast. Since Watson is a panelist on that podcast, I know she's heard the argument as well. Yet, she has trouble distinguishing scientific concepts from her own personal politics.

People, you see me writing about pseudoeconomics all the time, but I know better than to dismiss Keynesian economics with that label. While I don't find the Keynesian world view compelling, I'm the first to admit that is deserves to be taken seriously as a legitimate viewpoint with a lot of good scholarship. I know how to separate facts from opinions.

The pro-choice movement deserves some scrutiny. Watson repeats the talking point that the right is on the cusp of making abortion illegal. Michael Moore, of all people, wrote an editorial on this "urban myth" in 2000, calling it "fearmongering" that has been used against the right over and over again to win votes for the Democratic party.

One of the central ideas to Adam Smith's book "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" is that people take pleasure in having others share their world view. I think what Watson is doing is trying to convince other secular people to adopt her political views using the language of science. This is what Friedrich Hayek called "scientism," where the trappings of science are used to make a point that is not scientific.

The irony of it all is that Watson is simultaneously leading a crusade for more diversity in skepticism and secularism. She said we need to have more viewpoints present while she attempts to push people out who disagree with her politics. You can't have it both ways.

Skepticism is about combating misinformation, especially supernatural claims. There is already way too much woo for skeptics to fight, and she wants to spread the movement even thinner by going after non-scientific issues. I have absolutely no doubt that this push will fall flat. There's already plenty of liberal politics in the secular world, but it simply too far removed from science to make it in the skeptical community.


  1. Two issues come with the Internet feminists such as Watson. First, it has become a given that any disagreement on an issue on which feminists widely agree will get one labeled a hater of first wave feminists. It doesn't matter how one frames the disagreement, nor does it matter how much one distances the issue from being one about gender (see Novella), any disagreement will be seen as misogynistic. It's like these Internet feminists want to be caricatures.

    Second, feminism and atheism have no association. Without a doubt, atheism is not a philosophy, and while it is perfectly compatible with virtually any point of view that doesn't require a god, it does not itself make value claims. So it can go hand-in-hand with feminism, but only insofar as it isn't in active conflict. It doesn't actually support a single thing feminists have to say. (Incidentally, I also don't consider feminism a philosophy since it is generally just a series of claims, albeit a number of accurate claims.)

  2. I find the whole controversy embarrassing. I didn't realize the "movement" was this big until I ran into "Elevatorgate." After visiting a few blogs and watching some TAM videos I was left astonished. I thought skeptics could question things; I didn't know I had to adopt absolute view points or be verboten.

    We can call ourselves skeptical atheists: but we still have all the human frailties as woo believers.

  3. You could repent. Moreover, you could ask God for eternal forgiveness through applying the death and resurrection of Jesus to your life of sin within the quietness of your bedroom tonight. As an unrepentant sinner myself, I made this decision around 15 years ago. This is the most important decision that you
    could ever make.
    - Romans 10:9-10

  4. I don't think I'll be doing that - ever - Paul, but thanks the suggestion. I never made a decision to be secular, like how I didn't decide to stop believing in Santa.

  5. Are you going to tell your kids about Santa?