Monday, July 25, 2011

Diversity vs itself

Something exciting happened at TAM (The Amazing! Meeting, annual skeptical conference).  No, I didn't go this year, but I've read Jen's liveblogging.  There was heated disagreement during the "diversity" panel.

On the one hand, to increase diversity in a movement, you must make sure that the focus isn't only on the concerns of middle class white men.
Jamila adds that if we care about the state of everyone, we need to be outspoken about police brutality, the drug war, and crime. [...] We need to offer some social programs. We love hard facts and evidence, but we also need to understand that the people who need us may not be drawn in just by meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson (as crazy as that sounds to us).
--Jen McCreight
On the other hand, broadening the focus constitutes mission creep, and may reduce the diversity of views allowed under the same tent.
This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes.
--Daniel Loxton, in his recap of the panel
I'm not sure what to think of this; I agree with both sides, but it's clear they contradict.

First things first.  My blog, though it is about a variety of topics, is not an attempt to widen the scope of skepticism.  I consider my blog to be a skeptical blog that very frequently goes outside the scope of skepticism.  Practically all the time, in fact.  This is okay because I'm an individual, not a skeptical organization.

But come to think of it, there is no single "scope of skepticism."  There is the scope of large skeptical organizations.  The scope of small student organizations.  The scope of skeptical blogs.  The scope of things we agree on, and the scope of things we disagree on (but like to talk about).  Perhaps a call for a broader focus should be taken as a call for widening the scope of skeptical chatter, but not of skeptical organizations.

An alternative path to reconciling the two sides is to note that even non-skeptical topics have skeptical questions embedded within them.
As [Greta Christina] argued, there are testable, empirical, pseudoscientific claims embedded within the arenas of social values, political discourse, and yes, religion as well. The forest may be out of scope, but some of the trees are not. (D.J. offered the example of harmful pseudoscience within gay rights debates.)
--Daniel Loxton
This would, of course, rule out Jamila's suggestion of social programs.  Actually, if I wanted to volunteer with social programs, I would simply do that and not bother with "skeptical" social programs.  But I would be perfectly happy with skeptical assessments of police brutality, the drug war, and crime issues, if there are any skeptics qualified to give such assessments.

However, I think there are some topics that skeptical organizations must tackle even if there are no embedded empirical claims.  If, for instance, the skeptical community gets overrun with people who think same-sex sex is morally wrong (this is in no danger of happening), that would be a problem regardless of whether they made any empirical claims.  If skeptical men are hitting on skeptical women in elevators, that is a problem regardless of any statistics on elevator rape.  If skeptical conferences indirectly push away women by failing to provide child care, that is a problem.

Skeptical organizations must talk about these things not because they are skeptical but because they are organizations.  Organizations must deal with people in all their variety.  It's one thing to be pushed away from a group because it's outside your realm of interest, or because you disagree with its positions.  It's another to be pushed away because the environment is totally unfriendly.  Sometimes this means weighing one kind of diversity vs another (eg would we rather be inclusive of queers or homophobes?).  Luckily I think skeptical organizations like JREF already understand this point, perhaps better than I do.


The Vicar said...

I think you are missing at least a couple of things.

First off: it is perfectly legitimate for skeptics to discuss what led them to skepticism. This process is totally different for different ethnic/economic groups, and between religious backgrounds for the majority of skeptics who were not raised skeptic. There is a huge difference between even the "conversion" of a white american male protestant and a white american male catholic; there are even larger differences between, say, a black american male protestant and an arabic egyptian female sunni muslim.

If we are going to accept that skepticism is a good thing*, then we should definitely be considering the journeys to skepticism of groups other than white anglo-saxon males, with an eye towards finding ways to make it easier for other groups to make that same journey.

*The only person I've ever heard who was a skeptic and who defended religion was that miserable idiot mathematician Leopold Kroenecker, who basically said "religion keeps the poor and the stupid in line so they won't get in the way of clever rich people like me, so I guess it should keep going." Not exactly an admirable stance.

Second: you seem to be implying that we should apply a different standard to social woes than we do to religion. The skeptic position on religion is approximately summed up using the trite phrase "extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence". The more outlandish your religion is, the more evidence is needed outside the claims of your holy books and priests.

Now, consider the following claim: "the skeptic movement is already diverse enough for its purposes".

I am going to assume, as above, that it is a good thing for there to be more skeptics -- that it is better to be a skeptic than to take any relgious position. Again: this is a debatable point, but I have yet to hear of any skeptic still living who argues against it.

Further, I am going to assert that people are more likely to become skeptics if they have some reason to identify with the movement. Being a skeptic is an intellectual change, but it's much harder to begin that change without any outside assistance.

Now, if we already had enough diversity, it would mean that new skeptics would be incoming from any and all religious positions in numbers approximately proportional to the size of each demographic. In America, for example, roughly 1 in every 8 new skeptics would be black; overall, roughly 50% of new skeptics would be women.

This is not happening. In America, as far as the numbers are available, white skeptics vastly outnumber black ones, and overall worldwide male skeptics vastly outnumber female ones. The numbers for the groups which have no high-profile representation within the movement is much lower than for the groups which have it; this is consistent, at least, with the idea that far fewer people are capable of skepticism without some outside spark.

In other words: there is at least a good argument to be made that increasing diversity within the skeptic movement would be a good thing for the skeptic movement.

miller said...

One small clarification: in this post I have said and implied nothing about the relationship between skepticism and religion.

The Vicar said...

One small clarification: in this post I have said and implied nothing about the relationship between skepticism and religion.

All well and good, but trying to avoid religion while discussing skepticism is like trying to write a recipe for lasagna without mentioning pasta. A skeptic who is not at least an agnostic isn't paying attention, and it's somewhat dishonest to try to pretend otherwise.

miller said...

Vicar, I'm not trying to avoid religion, I'm trying to stop you from putting words in my mouth. You said:

"You seem to be implying that we should apply a different standard to social woes than we do to religion."

This is an odd thing to say when I did not even mention religion. How can you know that's what I think?

The Vicar said...

The explanation of that sentence is the sentences and paragraphs following it. Skeptics, when speaking of religion, say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". But your post takes the stance that skepticism should not be concerned with diversity -- which is an extraordinary claim.

miller said...

Whoa, when did I ever "take the stance that skepticism should not be concerned with diversity"? You're putting even more words in my mouth. You're welcome to rant at imagined opponents, but don't get them confused with me.

miller said...

Okay, I see. You are assuming that because this is a skeptical blog, my stance on religion can be summarized in trite phrases. And then you assumed that I was taking the stance that the skeptical movement is sufficiently diverse. And then you thought that comparing one imagined stance to another imagined stance, you found an imagined contradiction with imagined persuasive power. It sounded like a complete non sequitur before, but now I see that it is simply wrong assumptions built upon wrong assumptions. It is really hard for me to respond to that in any positive way.