Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Shermer on women in atheism

Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptic Society apparently said the following in an interview:
Viewer: Why isn’t the gender split [among atheist speakers] closer to 50/50 as it should be?

Michael Shermer: I think it probably really is 50/50.  [...] It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.
This comment set off another bloggy drama, with Ophelia Benson criticizing this comment (link unavailable), and Shermer responding. I'm already several weeks late to this drama, so instead I will make more general comments about how people were talking past each other.

My first thought is that if there are in fact fewer atheist speakers, calling atheist speakers "more of a guy thing" is strictly speaking, correct.  Then the real question is why is it a "guy thing"?  Is it because women in those positions are less popular?  Or they get harassed more?  Is it because most women are socialized not to pursue such speaking positions?  Is it because some major religions especially discourage women from disidentifying with religions?  Or maybe it's self-perpetuating--there have been fewer women attending atheist conferences in the past, and conference-goers might be more likely to become speakers.  I am agnostic about the precise mixture of causes, and so is Michael Shermer.

Ophelia Benson does not agree with this defense, because "it treats the current situation as something that just happened, randomly, somehow, probably because guys do guy things and women do women things."  In other words, saying "it's a guy thing" treats the issue as opaque to all explanation, and devalues any speculation.  Harassment of women in atheist groups happens a lot, and that's certainly one place to start speculation.  (Additionally, harassment is intrinsically bad, and is worth reducing even if it is not a cause of fewer women in atheism.)

Skipping ahead, Shermer says:
I do not believe that the fact that the secular community does not contain the precise percentage of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans as in the general population, means that all of us in the secular community are racists, explicitly or implicitly.
As I recall, implicit association tests show that the majority of people are implicitly racist (70% of white Americans).  But I'll interpret Shermer charitably, and assume that he means that disproportionate ethnic participation does not necessarily imply that people are implicitly or explicitly racist.  This is true.  For instance, some of it could be due to the fact that black and Latino people are on average poorer, and because conferences cost a lot of money.  Or perhaps a lot of active atheism is spread through word of mouth, mostly to people of similar ethnicity.  There's also a lot of regional variation in ethnicity demographics.

That said, implicit racism is certainly worth considering as part of the cause, especially since we have independent evidence of its existence.  Shermer mentions implicit association tests, and says:
[Implicit Association Tests are] a fascinating and revealing line of inquiry, but what concerns me is how this research can become the perfect tool of the inquisitor, a chapter in a secular Malleus Maleficarum: Witches (alleged bigots, racists, and misogynists today) don’t even know that they’re witches (bigots, racists, misogynists) because it is subconscious. You may deny you’re a witch (bigot, racist, misogynist) because you don’t even know you are one.
I think- I think this completely fails to rebut the substantive point about implicit sexism or racism.  Also, if it's a problem with 70% of white Americans, "hunting" specific individuals is clearly the wrong way to go.  (Or perhaps this is the very point Shermer wishes to make?  It's unclear.)

In summary, Shermer says technically correct things, but only with the "technically" qualifier.  There's lots of other stuff in there, but for another time.