Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Skeptically queer

An essay I've already written

I'm excited about what has happened in the skeptical blogosphere.  There was the appearance of Queereka, and then Sincerely, Natalie Reed.  These are skeptical and queer blogs, and I'm watching them combine these two topics in fantastic ways.  Since I am also blogging about skepticism and queerness, I want to be more like them!

For example, there was a post on Queereka about cognitive biases that keep us closeted.  And Natalie Reed had a coming out story in which skepticism plays an important role.  I felt inspired... I should retell my coming out story, and how skepticism played into the process.

But then I reread the coming out series I wrote as I was coming out, and it appears there is no need for retelling.  My writing was positively dripping with skepticism.  I talked about how scared I was of asexuality, and how I recognized this as a source of bias.  I talked referred to scientific studies, and to the experiences of other asexuals.  I discussed contrary evidence, and why I dismissed it.  I talked about tentative identification, and descriptive label use.  I changed my mind several times, because that's what you should do in light of new evidence.

I've been operating on the concept that queerness and skepticism are only really related in that they are both topics that I blog about.  And so it came as a shock to me to read my old writing.  I sort of have this vague idea that everything I wrote more than two years is terrible and embarrassing.  But I've been giving past!me too little credit.  And it turns out that I've been blogging about queerness skeptically all along.

I'm not sure why I thought otherwise.  As has been said countless times before, skepticism is not any particular conclusion, it is a method of thought.  Queerness is something that is important for me to think about, so I make a special effort to think about it critically.

Non-canonical skepticism

"Skepticism is not any particular conclusion, it is a method of thought."  Let's examine that statement, skeptically.  The fact of the matter is that there is a loosely defined skeptical community.  If someone identifies as a skeptic, I don't know that this is particularly good evidence to suggest that they are "better" at critical thinking, though it usually suggests they have some connection to the community.  And this community, while not uniform, shares quite a number of conclusions on a number of canonical topics.  Creationism, alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, urban legends, paranormalism, and so forth.

Superficially, it seems like there isn't much commonality between these topics.  Some people think there isn't really much in common, that these are the topics because that's what we've talked about before.  Some people, like Daniel Loxton, say that there is a logic to it.  They're the topics where skeptics, as lay-people, can legitimately claim some expertise.  This is all very controversial, and no one agrees on the proper scope of skepticism.

My boyfriend noted the other day that my blog doesn't really cover canonical skeptical topics most of the time.  Which is correct.  That's because I've realized that lots of other writers do it better than I can.  I only have expertise on a few topics like math and physics.

And I now have "expertise" in being queer.  I don't know if I believe queerness is properly within the scope of skepticism.  But I don't care.  I'm blogging about being queer, and I can't help but do it skeptically.  I don't know if other people can see it, but it's there, in the way I approach ideas and claims, and in my language

And yeah, every skeptic should know at least a little about queer people, just as every skeptic should know a little about Creationism and alternative medicine.  If for no other reason, skeptics need to know about various gender and sexual minorities so they have quick counterexamples to any generalizations about human nature.  Sensitivity to minorities within the skeptical community would be nice too.

Are skeptics better equipped to come out?

In Natalie Reed's coming out post, she speculated that if she had taken skepticism more to heart, her coming out would have been easier:
Maybe then I would have taken my skepticism seriously enough to have been able to spot the cognitive distortions, lies, excuses, rationalizations, selection biases and logical fallacies when I saw them in myself. Maybe I could have spared myself those additional years of self-inflicted torture.
I was into skepticism for years and years before I came out.  Instead of skepticism, I could have been into a whole lot of other things.  I could have been into heavy metal, or Doctor Who fandom.  And my coming out experience would be interpreted in light of the attitudes common to those communities.  But I was into skepticism and interpreted my experience in a skeptical light. Did that ultimately help me?

I'd like to say that it did, but skepticism compels me to say that there is no real evidence for this.  I have no idea how it would have played out otherwise.  And if I compare my own experience with that of other people's, I find that many other people dealt with it better than I did.  I hear stories where people were ecstatic or relieved about finding asexuality.  I, on the other hand, was depressed for months.

I'm inclined to say that if there's any interest that could have better equipped me for coming out, it would be LGBT allyship.  (I don't mean just being fine with gay guys and supporting gay marriage like I was, I mean actually making an effort to educate yourself about the many varieties of queer experiences.)  General critical thinking skills cannot compete with specific knowledge about a topic!

But even if I cannot say that skepticism improved my experience, I'm still convinced critical thinking is the right way to think about it.  What is it we know, and how do we know it?  Our largest body of evidence is the variety of anecdotes and experiences of queers.  Anecdotes are excellent to prove existence and non-universality, but are not so good at proving overarching theories about attraction or gender.  Knowing this gives me confidence to assert my own experience.  It doesn't matter if I defy categories, or if my experience is different from others.  I never had much evidence to suppose that these categories and experiences were universal in the first place.