About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Podcast Teaser: Women in skepticism & When fluff works

by Massimo Pigliucci
The next two episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast will be devoted to the topics of women in skepticism and of what happens when fluffy thinking actually works.
The first issue has, of course, been in the news in the skeptic and atheist communities because of the (in)famous Watson-Dawkins debacle. Our point will not be to revisit — and far less adjudicate! — that particular controversy, but to use it as a springboard for a broader discussion on women in skepticism and science. I will also make a point of asking Julia about her own experience as a young woman skeptic, so it will be a mix of broad issues and personal thoughts on this always delicate topic.
The second episode will tackle the curious case of pseudoscience or mysticism that works, or seems to, at least some of the times. From acupuncture to chiropractic, from yoga to meditation, what do we make of instances where something seems to have the desired effect for the wrong reasons (e.g., acupuncture), or might otherwise be a perfectly acceptable technique which happens to come intricately bundled with mysticism (e.g., yoga).
As usual, your comments are welcome and will provide some additional food for thought for Julia and me during the show.


  1. I wish people wouldn't call it the Watson-Dawkins debacle, Dawkins wasn't addressing Watson, he was addressing the hordes on Pharyngula and he didn't add any particular new insight or authority, he isn't a moral philosophy and he doesn't make the social rules for conferences. He didn't start the argument he just chimed in with his opinion in a snarky way.

    You have frantic misandrists, frantic misogynists and then people either side of centre and no one willing to compromise or discuss it maturely

  2. downquark, I would first of all like to know where these 'frantic misandrists' are, and second what 'discuss[ing] it maturely' entails. I can partly see where you're coming from -- the comments at ERV are filled with 'frantic' (I prefer the word 'toxic', honestly) misogyny and no one there appears willing to discuss the issue maturely considering that all of them have had their go on Pharyngula and either flounced or been banned -- but so far I've seen many claims of 'misandry' that have not been substantiated, well, at all.

    That being said, I have no idea why the word 'compromise' is being used in the case of treating people like people; if this were the 1960s would you be asking Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders to try and 'compromise' with the makers of Jim Crow laws?

  3. I wouldn't put yoga and meditation at the same level as the other alternative medicine you mentioned. There are scientific studies that show that yoga and mediatation can help in reducing stress. It's true that some go much further than that and mix it with non-scientific claims, but at least we know that some things related to it work. In addition, most people will not practice yoga in order to cure from cancer or some serious ilness, so for the most part is not harmful in the way acupuncture claims are. Also, chiropractic does have some benefits if it's done right. The problem here is that most of the practitioners have far more extreme claims about its benefits, and they can cause a lot of damage too.

  4. @lordsetar, you seem to be inferring an awful lot from my post, there are many questions in play and each side seems unwilling to comprise on any of them. Most are not as clear cut or anywhere near as significant as the Jim Crow laws - we're not even discussion legislation most of this has been within the realm of social etiquette, international social etiquette at that!

    It seems Massimo does not wish to visit the issue and I'm sorry if this turns into a massive derail. I will try and avoid discussing this.

  5. Regarding women in skeptisim, my question is (and maybe Julia can answer) do women have different experiences in the skeptic movement that they don't have otherwise? For example, Rebecca Watson reported getting harassing emails from readers or that men always try to hit on her in skeptic meetings. This sounds like something most women experience elsewhere regardless. Does being involved in skeptisim confer some unique experiences (they can also be good ones)?

    Also, what subjects unique to women do you think are currently under represented among sketpics that we should talk or do something about?

  6. I think bringing up the first ever Women in Secularism Conference on May 18-20, 2012 in Washington, DC would be highly relevant (and appreciated!): http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/women_in_secularism/

  7. I have an article for you guys to tackle regarding meditation. In this article Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, claims this piece of research shows meditation can be as effective in managing chronic pain as morphine.

  8. "fluffing thinking actually works."

    You probably mean 'fluffy' there. I am reasonably sure you didn't want to initiate a discussion of fluffing. It is my understanding that fluffing is quite successful, but I have no firsthand knowledge of it (so to speak).

  9. With regard to your second episode of getting the desired effects for the wrong reasons, it is an instance of a larger epistemic question: What should a rational thinker do with any conclusion that seems absolutely right, when the argument that got you there comes from a wrong process? Two examples:

    (1) In a lecture series I'm listening to "The Meaning of Life: Perspectives From the World's Great Intellectual Tradition" when the Professor is talking about Aristotle's text "Nicomachean Ethics" there are sound arguments and convincing conclusions -- no problems. But when he's talking about the text "Job" he says the lesson of the text is that maybe the universe is not organized to reward and punish us, our lives are ephemeral, and while our lives are not meaningless, we may live our lives without ever knowing its meaning. So I guess Job tells us to just cope as best you can. I think this conclusion is wise and probably true, but the text is just a story invented by an ancient unknown author to make that point.

    (2) A novel such as Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," aims, at least in part, to convince us of the evils of racism in the South of its times. The story is likely still relevant today. Okay, I'm convinced, but it's just a fictional story. Some authors and film makers think the best way to convince a sometimes hostile audience is to tell them a good story.

    I find myself walking away from these sometimes thinking, yeah that's a good point -- I agree with it, but if you asked me to rationally reconstruct the argument using valid premisses, I'd probably be stuck. Not sure I could prove the "Job" point for instance. Probably I'm just doing something bad to accept the conclusions...they do seem right though!

  10. Thameron,

    indeed, thanks for the correction.

  11. Massimo -

    You are welcome. I hadn't actually intended for that comment to be published, but there you go.

    As far as the topic at hand I really don't see how skeptical women have it much different than women in general in the culture as far as the problematic behavior of men is concerned. I guess the only real difference would be that we skeptics tend to think of ourselves as more rational than the scrambling masses, but perhaps such thoughts are premature. Hearing about some of the e-mail Rebecca Watson was receiving (and who is paying attention to her other than skeptics?) was eye-opening, and not in a good way.

    I think all reasonable people would agree that rape is bad, threatening rape is bad, and insulting people's physique just to make them feel worse about themselves is also bad.

    There was quite a lot of rancor revolving around some of the things which are not quite so clear cut though. Do men have an obligation to not make women uncomfortable? Do men have an obligation to know what makes a woman uncomfortable? Do they have an obligation to abide by some agreed upon terms of engagement with women? All very fractious topics with most people desiring above all to be right rather than informed.

    Still some things are unlikely to change in the near future. Most men will continue to be stronger than most women and (from what I can observe) continue to suffer a sexual satisfaction deficit*. Which in the eyes of some at least makes them potential rapists (potential as in not breaking the laws of physics not as in 'likely').

    *The unsatisfied men may indeed not be over 51%, but I am willing to bet the percentage is still pretty high.

  12. A nice example for something that works but initially had no good theory to explain why, is hand-washing. When Ignaz Semmelweis (i.a.) advocated the practice in the mid 19th century, germ theory had not been fully accepted, and so he was not able to offer an explanation for hand-washing's efficacy apart from some vague ideas about "cadaverous material" entering wounds.

    I guess the most interesting question as far as women in skepticism goes, is why women do seem to be underrepresented as skeptics (not so much in the "movement" as generally). After all, it's not as if Bayes' theorem is masculine!

    I suppose I would speculate that people are accustomed to see a false dichotomy between reason and emotion, and girls are often socialized to "take the side of" emotion in this cosmic battle.

    There is also the related hypothesis that skepticism is (necessarily?) more affectively "disagreeable" than other interests/philosophies, and that women tend to prefer agreeableness more than men do (of course, these preferences would be arational, not irrational).

    Anecdote: as someone who gets a very high score for the "agreeableness" trait in the OCEAN test, I can confirm that skepticism runs against the grain of my personality. Especially in face-to-face situations, I have to fight myself in order not to just smile and nod when somebody says something blatantly irrational - even though I love to argue when it's friendly.

  13. Hi,

    I have a quite ordinary question about women in skepticism, but it really bites me: How can we make the skeptic movement more welcoming to women?

    It doesn't have to be measures specially for this community, though, I'm sure we share a lot of characteristics with other "men's clubs" (meaning groups where men are usually the majority, like heavy metal, golf, ufology).

    I also wanted to share some of my experience as a member of a Brazilian skeptical/humanist community, not necessarily for the podcast. This situation with Watson, together with a TV show making fun of male castration, were sparks that practically caused a disrupture between feminists and non-feminists inside the group, easily translatable to women and men in our case :(.

    The feminist movement is great in gathering women and making them welcome, as it shows, and it seems to be a great door to activism. Humanists here in Brazil attracted a great deal of feminist skeptics, but a lot of young males got really unconfortable with gender equality issues, specially when they're presented as unintentionally (or cluelessly) priviledged.

    Also, there is this obcession in pointing a flaw in a feminist activist's logic as misandry, as to make it relative to misogyny. What it really ends up doing is is dodging the point, as gender equality worldwide still means rights for women. It's just hard for people that are not accostumed to see it that way.

    The 'no inequality' logic also makes people mad at each other, since feminists(as human beings,) aren't really into responding to what they see as hostility with rationality. So people just keep losing their heads, or avoiding these subjects.

    I wonder, aren't these groups meant to be buddies, as their ideas are so close? Well, that's my rant :)

    My regards - I love your work - bye bye.

  14. On whether yoga or meditation "work":
    I would suggest that there is actually no compelling evidence at all that yogic or meditative practices work in one of the most important senses in which Indian philosophical traditions claim they work - viz., as methodologies for producing true beliefs about reality. It is claimed that by observing yogic or meditative discipline, one can, in fact, come to know reality better than by conventional routes. But other than the testimony of adherents, where is the evidence? What arguments for the truth of their metaphysical claims do we have other than a challenge to try those methodologies out and see for ourselves that they are true?


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