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Moving Forward

by Steven Novella, Feb 25 2013

As movements grow, internal conflict becomes inevitable. A movement dedicated to reason, thoughtful introspection, and putting logic above emotion, one would think, should be able to deal with such conflict in a constructive way. If the events of the last couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that we are all still biased and flawed humans, despite our striving for reason.

There is, perhaps, some sign of a light at the end of the tunnel, if you bear with me for a bit more preamble.

I have not been a direct participant in the recent drama over sexism in the movement, but I have had a front row seat. It has struck me throughout that many of the people involved, steeped in critical thinking, firmly believe they are correct and are being reasonable and yet are in such heated conflict with other critical thinkers who also believe they are correct and being reasonable.

There are, it seems to me, three general sources of this conflict. One is sincere and real ideological differences. If you read the recent exchange between Harriet Hall on SBM and Will on Skepchick, and a sample of the comments to each, these differences become apparent. Where exactly to draw the line between free speech and the avoidance of offense is one recurrent theme. Still, this by itself should not be enough to cause such a rift, for our common ground dwarfs these differences.

A second source of conflict are those who have chosen cyberstalking and daily harassment as their chosen mechanism of activism. Rape threats, threats of violence, sexually charged and grossly offensive language have no place in this discussion, but have infiltrated our community. The result has been to raise the level of emotion and defensiveness and pushing all sides toward the more radical extreme. This is, unfortunately, part of the new social media world we have created. We have to find ways to marginalize and ignore these elements, and not confuse them for those who have reasonable and friendly disagreements.

The third source of conflict seems to be avoidable misunderstandings on all sides. This is something we can fix, with a few helpful rules of conduct and more open communication.

Ray Hyman wrote an excellent article for CSI in 2001 called Proper Criticism, containing 8 rules that skeptics would do well to consider when criticizing pseudoscience. We should at least grant each other the same courtesy.

One particularly relevant rule is the principle of charity – one that I have advocated many times myself. Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.

Hyman added to this the principle of understanding – make every effort to truly understand your opponent’s position before attacking it.

It seems to me that in our current conflicts these principles have not been adequately appreciated, leading to unnecessary misunderstandings, and fueling further conflict. One such series of unfortunate events emerged out of TAM 2012, when Harriet Hall wore a T-shirt expressing her support for the JREF and her personal approach to her own feminism. This was interpreted as an attack against the Skepchicks, and ugliness ensued.

Both Harriet Hall and Amy Davis Roth (who was at TAM and became embroiled in the T-shirt hubbub) had spoken to me about their feelings on the matter, and so I was able to assure both of them that a direct communication would likely resolve the misunderstanding. They both enthusiastically agreed, wanting nothing more than to see the beginning of the end of this feud. Below are the e-mail exchanges that resulted, which they both wished to be reproduced here.

Dear Amy,

I am so happy you have reached out! I hope we can become friends and put all the unpleasantness behind us.

First, I’d like to say that I admire you and value the work you have done. I bought one of your necklaces years ago (“Quackery is for the birds”) and have worn it frequently and gotten a lot of compliments on it. I particularly appreciate your artistic talents, since I have none of my own – can’t even draw a decent stick figure. I applaud your raising money for scholarships to bring more women to TAM. I appreciate the hard work you have done promoting the participation of women in skepticism.

I also value the Skepchick organization and appreciate what it has accomplished. It has done a lot to raise consciousness and promote women in skepticism. I don’t agree with everything it has done, and I don’t personally choose to join, but I certainly support those who do, and I would not want to do anything to discourage them.

I apologize for putting the word skepchick on my shirt. I honestly did not intend to target the organization, but rather the concept of “chick” in general. I did not foresee the reaction, and I should have. My social skills have never been very good. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have just said “I’m a skeptic. Not a woman skeptic. Just a skeptic.” I sincerely regret that I inadvertently contributed to inflaming the harassment that was directed at you. I was truly appalled by some of the venomous over-reactions and egregious abuse that you were subjected to online. I felt very sorry for you and what you were forced to endure. There is no excuse for the behavior of your persecutors.

And I have always admired Rebecca. She adds spice to the mix of personalities on SGU and has her own unique style. She is smart, hip, and eloquent. Rebecca had always been a big part of TAM; she had been good to it, and it had been good to her. That’s why I was so distressed by her announcement that she would not be attending TAM. I was also very distressed to hear that her former “immense amount of respect” for me could be totally destroyed from one week to the next by one action of mine that she disapproved of.

Dr. Novella has laid out a list of the things he thinks we agree on:

• gender equality
• judging people by the content of their character, and not by physical or gender attributes
• creating a safe and open environment regardless of sex or gender
• the concept of sex and gender are complex and multifarious, and it’s all within the spectrum of what it is to be human.
• condemnation of sexism in all its forms
• respect and recognition of the dignity of all people regardless of their sex/gender

Do you agree with these? If so, we have a starting point and can build from there.

No two skeptics are exact clones, and there will always be areas of disagreement. We should be able to respect each other even when our opinions differ. We may be able to get our opinions closer together through courteous discussions, or in some cases we may have to agree to disagree.

Even when we pursue different strategies, we can respect each other and tolerate our differences for the good of the whole. Next time we meet, I hope we can shake hands and maybe even share a hug.

Yours in skepticism,

And then the reply from Amy:


First of all, thank you for taking the time to open a dialog with me and thank you for the apology. It is very kind of you and I appreciate it.

I too would like to apologize. I am sorry for raising my voice to you at TAM in the speakers lounge. I never really gave you a chance to speak. I was, as you could probably tell, very upset at the time. At that point in time things had gotten so bad for me that I went to the speakers lounge to hide and the undercover harassment specialists had to be called in to take a report. When you happened to walk into the room I had already dealt with, among other things, all the stress leading up to the event and at least one full day of being belittled and targeted with nasty comments online via the TAM event hashtag. Various blogs were posting misinformation about me and Rebecca during my time at the event. Some of the people that were saying rude or inaccurate things also included photos from the event so I knew that these people were in attendance. I still, to this day do not know the real identities of many of the people posting. I had witnessed people showing off fake necklaces that they had created, that were made to mock and belittle me. That the necklaces were meant to upset me was not an assumption. The people who created them were open about their intent to make fun of me. Some of these people were posing for photos with you and complimenting your shirt. I assumed at that point, you were aware of the harassment that I and the blog I write for was dealing with prior to TAM, and the nastiness at the event, and that your shirt was also intended to insult me and our blog specifically. I realize now, that was not your intention. I still disagree with your decision to wear the shirt, especially after I told you how upsetting it was, but I certainly respect your right to express your opinion. None of this excuses the fact that I yelled at you. And for that I am sincerely sorry.

Things we agree on.

*gender equality

*judging people by the content of their character, and not by physical or gender attributes

*creating a safe and open environment regardless of sex or gender

*the concept of sex and gender are complex and multifarious, and it’s all within the spectrum of what it is to be human.

*condemnation of sexism in all its forms

*respect and recognition of the dignity of all people regardless of their sex/gender

Yes, we agree on everything on your list. The only thing that we seem to squabble over is the wider definitions of gender and how it can feed into heterosexism and cissexism but this is definitely not my area of expertise and so I am not going to delve any further into the conversation for fear of not getting it right myself. I am still learning about these issues. You have to forgive my partial ignorance, as I only started to identify as a feminist about a year ago, when the harassment became focused on me. It was when the MRAs and certain people from within organized skepticism and atheism started calling me a feminist did I even realize that I might indeed be one. I was a skeptic first, and only recently have I taken on the feminist moniker. I am still educating myself on some of the history and current status of the movement itself.

Speaking of harassment, this is where I think we may be able to find some common ground and work together to make things better in the broader skeptical community.

To give you an idea of the harassment we deal with, every single day we get hate messages via social networks or email. We get rape and death threats on a regular basis. In certain instances law enforcement has been contacted but unless an actual physical crime is committed they are not much help to us beyond taking reports. They contact my customers online and say things like my jewelry is toxic. They photoshop our faces onto pornography or make images of me crying and post them online.  There are multiple blogs that write about us daily and try to ruin our reputation so that when you search for our names now, hatred and lies pop up.

And let me emphasize here that disagreeing with me or Rebecca doesn’t mean that you are part of a hate group. That is not what I want to convey here at all and I don’t want to silence legitimate criticism. I am completely aware that many of the people who have sided with you on this issue are genuine, good people and sometimes the criticism is valid and taken to heart. My reaching out to you with the help of Steve should be testament to that fact. My hope here, is to make you aware of the fact that you are also being used unfairly by some as a reason or an excuse to attack us further. I am hoping we can work together to shut down some of these avenues that are taking advantage of both of us by putting the T-shirt issue and any animosity between us, behind us.

We are both feminists and skeptics after-all and while our approach may differ many of our goals can be in harmony. Let’s work together to promote the things we agree on instead of focusing on the negative.

I look forward to hearing back from you and I hope we can work together to makes things better.

A hug would be welcome. :)

This sounds like a good first step in moving forward toward a movement where we celebrate our common goals, while politely debating, yet tolerating, our differences. I thank Harriet and Amy for having the courage to publicly apologize and admit their role in the misunderstanding.

I also have no delusions that this one exchange will magically dissolve all conflict. Relationships are a never-ending process, but perhaps this may help us correct course to a more productive direction.

36 Responses to “Moving Forward”

  1. JeffWagg says:

    This is very encouraging.

  2. Laura says:

    Thanks, it’s VERY important that men actively oppose misogyny in other men. Don’t leave the women all alone out there – when women attempt to stop misogyny it results in a virulent reaction from men. It seems they react to this as an attempt at control by the woman and become aggressive. Males can oppose misogyny without receiving (nearly as much) vicious spew in return.

  3. Eshto says:

    “The only thing that we seem to squabble over is the wider definitions of gender and how it can feed into heterosexism and cissexism…”

    I very much appreciate the efforts on both sides to move forward, but I still do think it’s important to mention that, as a gay man, I find many of the sorts of ‘feminist’ arguments promoted by Skepchick and certain FTB bloggers to be remarkably heterosexist. And generally, in the history of feminist thought, there have been prominent feminist writers and ideologies that were openly hostile to trans people and issues. I think a lot of the infighting has been a result of some bloggers erroneously presenting ‘feminism’ as monolithic and synonymous with ‘equality’ (it is neither); and then characterizing people as ‘mysoginists’ when they dare to question a particular dubious claim or idea. Even when the ideas aren’t bad, they are often presented in a tone that is sarcastic, condescending and seems intended to shame and insult rather than educate.

  4. Susan Gerbic says:

    Thank you Steve for this article.

    I would like to say that in the world of Wikipedia editing we are forced to always assume good faith. When someone removes an edit, or changes the context of a article, we need to think that they did this with the belief that they would be improving the article, or possibly it was a accident. ONLY in obvious circumstances with documented examples we might find people maliciously harming Wikipedia.

    When we have a disagreement with edits, we move the discussion to the “talk” page. (you will find this behind every normal Wikipedia page, tab at the upper left side) We know we have to be civil and everything we write is public (not just editors but everyone who looks, try it). This forces us to really watch our words and try to find common ground.

    In almost all situations we are able to resolve our problems. We are not only dealing with skeptics vs skeptics, but believers and practicing psychics, homeopaths and others that are working on creating the best possible Wikipedia page. This isn’t perfect, but it works. Possibly it is because the page isn’t going to be written unless we all agree.

    Assume Good Faith.

  5. Adriana says:

    Thanks, Steven for being a positive force for change. And many thanks above all to Harriet Hall and Amy Davis Roth, for showing great courage in issuing true apologies and in extending a hand to “the other side”. The principles on which we agree are certainly much more powerful than any animosity between reasonable people. Reading this blog post has been a great way to start the week.

  6. Trimegistus says:

    Maybe now skeptics should try being polite to political conservatives or believing Christians.

    I know, that’s just crazy talk. I’ve been drinking.

    • kraut says:

      Why should I be polite to the enemy?

      Christians and any one with a religious viewpoint – especially those with a fundamentalist bend – are self appointed enemies of non believers – and as such I treat them.
      If believers treat me with respect – I gladly reciprocate.

      Different factions within the skeptic or atheist community should not be considered enemies, but brothers in arms with differing opinions about specific issues. That extends to skeptics and atheists of differing political opinions.

      I consider myself a-political in the sense of not belonging to any party, I seek to elect those who want to solve societal and economic problems away from ideology, practically and efficiently. I have been a technical troubleshooter most of my life, and that is how I view politics. Any ideology clouds the problem at hand and narrows the range of options.
      I have no hangups discussing issues with any representatives as long as their proposals are problem oriented.

      Those in the skeptical and atheist community who treat their opponents disrespectful and in a harassing manner should be the enemy of any reasonable person.
      This is especially true for those with a misogynistic attitude.

      • Laura says:

        Religious people are just people too, being religious doesn’t change people fundamentally.
        And a lot of skeptics aren’t truly thinking people. I have seen sooo many “skeptics” effectively assuming that the current state of knowledge is complete, dismissing people who go outside the orthodoxy as fools or nuts.
        I do see a lot of the dark side of religion on an atheist social site, though. One guy who’s an atheist in an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect, who’s convinced that if he’s honest about his lack of belief, he’ll never see his family or his friends again … an atheist living in Islamist Egypt where, he says, they have islamic fundamentalist hoods who beat up people they disapprove of (gays, atheists …) – people living in the Bible Belt who have to keep their atheism secret. Dangerous and life-destroying evil – from religious people.

      • Wscott says:

        “Why should I be polite to the enemy?”

        I guess you didn’t read the CSI article on Proper Criticism that Steve linked to, or your question would’ve been answered thus. I have substituted [religious] for [paranormal] in the original.

        “Use the principle of charity. I know that many of my fellow critics will find this principle to be unpalatable. To some, the [religious] are the “enemy,” and it seems inconsistent to lean over backward to give them the benefit of the doubt. But being charitable to [religious]claims is simply the other side of being honest and fair. The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a [religious] claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest.”

      • DC says:

        “Why should I be polite to the enemy?”

        Did you read the CSI article linked above? I think the best answer is, “Because others are listening.”

      • kraut says:

        Did you read my post? I clearly stated that as long as the opponent is respectful towards me I will reciprocate.
        For those however that see me as the enemy and treat me accordingly – no prisoners taken here.

      • tmac57 says:

        Sort of like the Hatfields and Mccoys eh?

    • RCAF says:

      I’m sorry, but I’ve read several of your posts, and none of them seem either polite, reasonable, or even on-topic. They all seem to be attacks against the author who you think has slighted your conservative view of the world.
      Why do you demand higher of those you attack?

      • tmac57 says:

        Confirmation bias is my guess.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Because we should be better. If skeptics are going to claim the mantle of being champions of rationalism and objectivity, we can’t let the movement get co-opted by unthinking political partisanship and plain bigotry.

        This post goes on for hundreds of words about some obscure point of hypersensitive correctness, but meanwhile jerks like “kraut” above are happy to spout insults and obscenity toward people they perceive as “the enemy.”

        I don’t want skepticism to become just another sockpuppet for blind adherence to liberal dogma, so I point out instances of hypocrisy and unexamined assumptions.

      • tmac57 says:

        You would probably get more traction with that if your comments weren’t almost universally negative,filled with ad hominems,and knee-jerk conservatism,rather than thoughtful analysis of what you see as hypocrisy.
        Just sayin’

      • RCAF says:

        This is a post that I was hoping to see. It’s well reasoned, and provides good detail on what you are concerened about. Do you not feel it would be better to respond to articles in this fashion?

  7. Brandon K. Thorp says:

    This makes me so, so happy.

    – BKT

  8. Jim says:

    Love it, thanks. Now could you please get Amy and Sarah Mayhew to make nice? I love both of these wonderful, smart, skeptical artists but during all of this they somehow got snippy with each other and I think that’s a shame. I know they have different styles and all, but they’re two of the best skeptical artists out there! They should be on the same side!

    Thanks again.

  9. SkeptiGal says:

    Thank you for writing this. Yesterday I was at a low point with all in-fighting I was reading about in the various blogs I frequent. Some of my skeptical “heroes” have been embroiled in vilification beyond mere disagreement, and I am saddened. Try as I might, I cannot find myself on anyone’s side because I can see all sides.

    Was I shocked at TAM when I saw Dr. Hall’s shirt while we were in the ladies’ room? Absolutely! Did I presume that she was deliberately mocking Surly Amy or Rebecca Watson? No, I cannot presume anyone’s intention. I am glad the women are working out the misunderstandings as rational adults should.

    Am I upset that PZ Myers is calling out Ben Radford on some issues (and vice versa)? Sure, but I can see both their points.

    I appreciate and honor all the skeptical leaders in our “movement,” such that it is. I would prefer that they not get into “tiffs” with one another, but as humans are bound to do, disagreements are inevitable. But I hope as rationalists, they would seek common ground to avoid the in-fighting.

    As true philosophical skeptics, we all must begin with questioning ourselves and our motives. We must all begin with the principles of charity and understanding if we are ever to be taken seriously.

    Thank you! I look forward to seeing you and the gang at NECSS in April!

    • Vagrarian says:

      SkeptiGal, you’re speaking for me as well. I’ve seen so many pointless arguments and vilifications going on that I sometimes cringe. I’ve seen friends I know and love carrying on in ways that make me worry about them. I’ve seen people I regard as friends turn on each other like wolves over something that was said, or not said, and I want to scream. And I can’t take a side because, like you, I see valid points being made on both ends of the spectrum. Reading your comments made me feel a little less alone in all this.

      As the saying goes, charity begins at home, in this case in our own minds. We need to be charitable toward others and resolve conflicts like adults. I truly, truly hope that this is a harbinger of more tolerance and respect inside the movement, so that we can present more of a united front in the face of an irrational world.

      • tmac57 says:

        Two really thoughtful comments here. I hope this reflects the greater feeling in the community.
        The whole idea behind skepticism and critical thinking,is to employ rationality to understand our world as it is,and the enemies of reason,are probably enjoying the spectacle of the fracturing of a movement that represents the only viable opposition to them.
        “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”

  10. Carl says:

    Steve, just to add my voice to the chorus: you did exactly what was needed, namely to be the voice of calm and reason, and to open lines of communication.

    Surely, if we have to pick sides, Harriet, Rebecca, Amy, and all the rest of us can be on the same side against the people who are being so vile–the ones threatening violence, harassing others online, lying and defaming.

    Thank you.

  11. Luther says:

    Good start. Now if only Rebecca Watson will come out and apologize for her childish comments to Hall. Bonus if she can get her buddy Amanda Marcotte to do the same. Wont hold my breath though. Her and the FTB crew never admit there wrong about anything.

  12. RCAF says:

    I’ve stopped visiting the FTB because of this uproar. I don’t care who started what, or why, but it’s like a bunch of squabling children.
    Honestly, as someone who came late to the fray, and was reading what had happened from several of the blogs, I just kept shaking my head, and thinking that if William Golding had read this he would have updated his “Lord Of The Flies” and made the characters to be skeptic/athiest bloggers. Although I sincerly applaud Dr. Novella’s efforts here, I really think nothing will change until people stop being so think-skinned about every perceived slight, and deal with things in a rational way.

  13. Kevin Solway says:

    This isn’t going to change anything at all.

    That people believe in “gender equality” is empty and meaningless. It’s like saying “we believe in world peace” (and we’re going to kill everyone till we get it).

    The word “skeptic” is also meaningless, since even the most extreme fundamentalist is skeptical and rational about some things, and can be even more skeptical and rational than an atheist.

    The fact is that there are fundamental and vast differences between the two camps that cannot be bridged and should never be bridged, and we should focus more on those, since that is where all the interest lies.

  14. Max says:

    Next TAM, her shirt will say, “Nobody expects the Skepchick Inquisition.”

  15. Emil says:

    A big blow up over a t-shirt? From the skeptical science people? Sounds very emotional. Not at all logical, rational and grounded in reason. It’s a reaction I would expect from a superstitious, emotional, evolution denying religionist.

    • Max says:

      I didn’t follow the drama, but I’m guessing it goes back further than the t-shirt.
      I wouldn’t expect atheist skeptics to have better social skills than superstitious religionists. The latter might value social harmony more than being right, at least when the subject isn’t religion.

    • Vagrarian says:

      We are emotional, because we are human.

      The important thing is to recognize it and see past it, which we all have trouble with from time to time.

    • Martin says:

      It’s all fallout from “Elevatorgate”, which seems to have driven a deep rift into certain parts of the community.

      Personally I found the entire escapade tedious and boring; but then again I don’t self-identify as a “skeptic”, don’t go to skeptical meetings nor have any truck with any person or organisation promoting an agenda, so maybe I missed something.

  16. DelSolar says:

    I wonder how well the intrusion of real trolls in all this kerfuffle has been assessed. I mean, is not that the skeptic movement doesn’t have real, active and appallingly dishonest foes. They have been around lurking the blogs and forums all these years, trying everything to disrupt the threads, to hack the sites, to make threats of violence, etc. I´m talking about the likes of Eric Hovind, David Mabus and the guys who attacked TalkOrigins. I´m talking about the myriad of creationist trolls with a divine mission who have been pestering the skeptic sites, but have been suspiciously silent since Elevatorgate. Have they had an epiphany of honesty and decided to retreat and respect the skeptic/atheist community letting us deal with our own internal problems? Suddenly they decided not to troll anymore! Let me be skeptic of that implicit claim.
    Lucky stroke for the Mabuses of the web. They don’t need to be geniuses to discover that shooting threats and hate mail to one side in the name of the other side is going to find big traction and amplification on the trolled recipient. As skeptics we have left much to be desired in the face of this kind of trolling.
    I know some are going to dismiss this possibility as a conspiracy theory. But you don’t need a conspiracy for this. You don’t need secret societies embarking on a series of impossible cover-ups in order to harass a skeptic blogger. I’m not claiming the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis is behind all this. All you need is ONE devoted guy (and it’s easy to find a dozen) with a computer or phone and a sensitive target with a blog. E voilá, a thriving community is suddenly divided by the actions of the most successful and happy trolls in the history of the web.
    Once the parts have swallowed the bait, everything walks by itself. Now real skeptics have done and said horrible things to other real skeptics. The hate now exists and the sides are so heated, that in some sites the slightest disagreement with the local point of view is going to grant you the “misogynist” label, a vicious dogpile attack, a ban from commenting and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) accusation that you are in the same bag with the guys (the trolls) who make the rape threats.
    And then something interesting happens. Now you have new heroes and warlords in both sides. Now they have a recurrent topic skyrocketing the ratings and the traffic. Now a blog post about science gets 4 comments, but one about the last “misogynist” tweet can harvest thousands and thousands of hits and comments.
    Recognizing that we could have been trolled (and fooled) would be a healthy thing to do, though perhaps too late to be sufficient. But you are spot-on, Steve. The right direction forward is the one Harriet and Amy are showing us. A path so simple and so hard at the same time. Simple because all you need is to convince one or two of the major players on every side to reconcile, and the minions are going to be dragged along sooner or later; but hard because those two or three major players seem for now so enamored with their new role as heroes, martyrs and “condottieri”, that I doubt they can be lured to reconciliation. But I hope they prove me wrong.

  17. Catzilla says:

    There are point of each side of this debate I agree with. Perhaps a major player from each side should write a small piece taking the other side, just to get perspective.

    Before you criticize a person you should always walk a mile in their shoes. It gives you a mile head start and leaves them barefoot.