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Is that a fallacy in your pocket or can you cite some sources? A response to Women and Feminism at TAM8

In my mini-review of The Amazing Meeting 8 I mentioned that there were two very dark spots in an otherwise amazing (sometimes the word just fits) weekend.

I was not ready to discuss these in detail, but when I stumbled over this blog post by Blag Hag Jen McCreight, I felt that at least one should be discussed and I would like to do so through the filter of one of the best talks of the weekend, given by Massimo Pigliucci.

McCreight addresses the question of sexism, saying:

The one annoying thing I saw was the perpetuation of the Sexy vs. Smart binary in talks.

I saw none of this in talks. She gives two examples: Michael Shermer’s talk included a Los Angeles County Fair commercial from a series which has been shown for several years now.

This series is meant to portray a stereotype of geography, not the attractiveness (or the gender; they could have easily used the dumb surfer boy image) of the actors. I can understand this getting past much of the audience. Those of us who live in southern California and have seen the entire series likely take it for granted.

That said, the video seemed to have little to do with the rest of his talk and seemed a bit too “look at these dumb people”; I cringed myself when I saw it. So this is probably worthy of discussion, but I do not think it is a strong example of associating appearance with intelligence.

McCreight also accuses SkepDoc Harriet Hall of sexism:

Whenever she mentioned Jenny McCarthy in her talk as an example of someone saying something stupid (which Jenny McCarthy certainly does often), she would include a picture of her bending over in a bikini or some other scantily clad outfit. Why was this effective? Why not use a photo of Jenny McCarthy in a suit?

Why is it sexist for Harriet Hall to show Jenny McCarthy, a former model and Playboy bunny, in a swimsuit rather than something more modest? If McCarthy were, say, a cashier by trade, the image of her in a cashier’s smock would have been just as appropriate, no?

The purpose of the images was to show that frightened parents will favor the message of someone entirely unqualified to give medical advice over their MD. McCarthy is qualified to have her picture taken and did so “scantily clad” for years.

McCreight also repeated something central to her own talk (which I am not ready to review in its entirety):

The stereotype goes that women can sexy/attractive/beautiful and stupid/ditsy/unscientific, or they can be smart/witty/scientific and frumpy/plain/ugly. This myth annoys the hell out of me, especially because it’s so common.

This is where I put on my “Massimo” glasses and discuss expertise.

Media stereotypes are not “myths”. In fact, they do not necessarily reflect what individuals in society actually believe. These definitions are important, especially when one’s argument relies on them. When you make statements about one thing (media portrayals), but you are really talking about something else (behaviors and attitudes), you need to prepared to cite sources which clearly show that these are interchangeable; the distinction matters.

The truth is that attractive persons are more likely to be associated with an occupation that is held in high regard, including scientist, than less attractive persons. That’s the halo effect. It is very well-established in the psychological literature and not limited to men or even human beings.

Some of the points Jen made are valid criticisms, but the valid criticisms are overshadowed by vague, uninformed statements. Many of the points rely on whether her general claims of “this is what people think” are accurate. She does not cite sources which show that she knows “what people think”, nor is her background in psychology or a related field, which might provide some evidence of expertise in this area.

“I’ve seen it” is not evidence, something a young scientist in training (and many older, experienced ones) must constantly remind themselves in order to overcome our brain’s desire to think that it is.

McCreight defended TAM organizers by repeating a statement made many times by Jeff Wagg about speakers at TAM7:

Last year, 8 women were invited to speak at TAM. 2 said yes. 1 of those women had to cancel.

I have never heard Jeff compare this with the number of men who were invited and how many of those accepted or canceled. Without that comparison, this information tells us nothing.

Frankly, however, I care much more about the quality of the speakers than their gender, but given the number of high-quality speakers available who are women and the ratio seen at other events, the lopsidedness at TAM in past years was a bit disturbing. I thought they did a great job all around this year and didn’t need to be defended.

I thought the sex workshop was on Sunday…

Regarding the “Feminism & Skepticism Workshop”, although I am not the person she quoted, I was sitting directly behind McCreight and walked out when “Angry Vagina Craft Time” was announced.

My take? There are three criteria which should have been met for a topic or activity to be included in this workshop:

  1. It is a feminism issue.
  2. It is a skepticism issue.
  3. The discussion is well-researched and well reasoned.

Although there were definitely some good points, much of what was discussed prior to “Angry Vagina Craft Time” failed to meet one or more of these criteria, especially #3.

Asking people to make vaginas (term used loosely) out of felt and googlie eyes did not make me uncomfortable, but infantilizing women’s genitalia and calling it “light humor” made me a bit angry – yes, I had an angry vagina. And an angry jaw. It could have made many women very uncomfortable, yet it served no purpose that I could see short of a “fuck you” to those who have criticized the workshop’s organizers in the past for such things.

I left because I had seen enough.

Overall, in regard to sexism at TAM8, I thought this year was a huge improvement over last. I attribute this largely to a different mix of attendees. I really wish that friends who were turned off by the culture last year could have experienced it. Perhaps they would see the community differently.

To sum up my experiences and in answer to McCreight’s questions: There were exactly two times during the weekend when I was offended. That workshop was one of them. Ironic, isn’t it?


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26 Comments

  1. noblecaboose says:

    Great post! I like the changes you made to your original draft. I think you’re very brave to challenge her post, but you’ve done it well, respectfully and with grace.

  2. rag says:

    “I care much more about the quality of the speakers than their gender…”
    Exactly!
    Quality means honesty of purpose, among other things.
    Barbara, you said what needed saying. THANK YOU!

  3. That is the best title ever! (Of course I love your post too, but I’m super attached to clever titles)

  4. Seantheblogonaut says:

    I was wondering what part of the “culture” turned off your friends last year? Male dominated? aggressive to outsiders?

    1. admin says:

      Homophobic and sexist, actually. At least that was their point of view. I didn’t experience this, but these are people a bit younger who socialized much more than I.

      They were uncomfortable with the locker room humor of many attendees and they didn’t think it was due to simply awkward geekiness.

      There was certainly an odd culture last year. I talked about it in a post, but the discussion went WAY off track.

      But this year the crowd was very different. There were pockets of sophomoric behavior, but most people were interested in the content of the conference. It was pretty much my perfect TAM.

  5. Seantheblogonaut says:

    The sexist behavior I could perhaps understand, but homophobic’s a new one.

    1. podblack says:

      I’ve experienced homophobia being displayed. Snide jokes. I ended up snapping at one point amongst a conversation and saying ‘You’re just _jealous_ because you don’t get as much of that kind of action as you’d like’.

      I meant it as a ‘funny comeback’, but later I reflected that ‘No. I don’t like people using “Ooooh, You’re A Gay Boy!!” as a freaking joke’. I don’t tolerate it amongst students and I don’t see why I should be listening to it being used to put down someone ‘amongst friends’. :/

    2. admin says:

      I was surprised to hear it myself, but when I thought about the kind of culture that was present at the time, I realized that is one of the products.

  6. podblack says:

    You know, I have attempted to write something five times now. I think I’ll just send it to you privately and to some other friends. Bzzz.

    The fact is – that I don’t feel I can write openly about this issue reflects that there is a tremendous, unaddressed problem out there with bullying and marginalisation, where one does not feel comfortable or welcome to give any constructive criticism or anything that could be less than an ‘A+ review!’ for some. The monoculture has been fostered and it has ramifications.

    I’m just very glad that the growth of population in general (NOT just women) – represented a turn in the tide for certain views that are unquestioned in skepticism. That’s all.

    1. admin says:

      It’s a shame, Kylie. I’m not sure what else to say about that because “a shame” really fits.

      My criticism here is fairly straight forward. When it’s more complicated and more easily challenged, I find it more difficult to stick my neck out.

      And that’s a shame, too.

  7. Seantheblogonaut says:

    Is this an American thing or have you perceived this here in Aus, I play a bit camp sometimes – well actually Phillip Adam’ voice does do something…ehem!

    Anyway I was not aware that certain skeptics hadn’t got over their uncomfortableness about homosexuality -sad really.

  8. Seantheblogonaut says:

    The fact is – that I don’t feel I can write openly about this issue reflects that there is a tremendous, unaddressed problem out there with bullying and marginalisation, where one does not feel comfortable or welcome to give any constructive criticism or anything that could be less than an ‘A+ review!’ for some. The monoculture has been fostered and it has ramifications.

    This is indeed sad Podblack, if you fear not being able to write openly.

    1. admin says:

      We all do, Sean. We’ve seen some pretty vicious attacks and some of us have been victims of them.

  9. Seantheblogonaut says:

    I have seen yourself attacked Barb & Heidi and Podblack on at least one occasion. When coming under sustained well argued and polite criticism you have all done well – only ever increased my respect of you.

    Those that resort to rude attacks – well I kind of view them as idiots, much the same as the emotional idiots I get on my blog sometimes.

    I guess I sort of felt that you’d take the blows and roll with them – this is not to say I think this is a easy process. There will always be rude idiots, and putting up anything for public comment is an act of courage.

    Do you think we expect more from our fellow skeptics and when we are attacked rather than politely challenged we are taken unawares – hence its more hurtful?

  10. admin says:

    I don’t think it’s the vicious attacks that some of us fear; it’s the loss of valued friendships and alliances.

    I think that there are segments of our community which people simply don’t like to see criticized and they will resort to dismissing that criticism as sour grapes, jealousy, cattiness, bossiness, or any other ad hominem they can conjure. That is a sign to me that there are valid criticisms to be made, but that’s a a discussion for another time.

    The personal attacks are not the worst part of it. The worst part is the fear of losing friends who don’t want to discuss the sacred cow. When people attack my friends, it bothers me, so I can understand it. But that makes it hard to step out on a limb without a safety net and voice an unpopular opinion.

  11. rag says:

    “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” ~John Maynard Keynes

    1. admin says:

      My blog needs “like” buttons on the commments… :)

  12. shelleymountjoy says:

    Excellent post! This is the first time I’ve read your blog and I’ll make a point to check it out in the future.

    As a female who received a single-sex education, I have my own thoughts on sexism that differ significantly from blag hag’s post. I was struggling to compose them and happy to see this well-written, through piece by someone with the qualifications to back up statements.

    Thanks.

    1. admin says:

      Shelley (if I may call you that),

      You did not mention if you were at TAM8. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it, whether they are well-formed (this stuff is fuzzy sometimes!) or just feelings. Please feel free to email (or find me on Facebook if we aren’t friends already).

      To be brutally honest, and this is nothing more than a guess made from biased obvservations, is that Jen felt that she needed to examine sexism at TAM8 because it has been discussed in regard to previous TAMs.

      As I stated in a FB comment and should have included in my post, I would be MUCH more interested in hearing what she had to say about the talks, but she is apparently not going to discuss them. Something about a lost pen, it seems.

      Yes, that was snarky, but she says she likes snark, so I’ll leave it.

      1. shelleymountjoy says:

        I did attend TAM 8 – but not the workshops. I’ve sent you an e-mail. ;)

  13. Seantheblogonaut says:

    The personal attacks are not the worst part of it. The worst part is the fear of losing friends who don’t want to discuss the sacred cow. When people attack my friends, it bothers me, so I can understand it. But that makes it hard to step out on a limb without a safety net and voice an unpopular opinion.

    Ok gotcha. Though please feel free if at anytime that you think I am barking up the wrong tree to criticize me. :)

  14. Why were those things being made exactly? Those things that were not vaginas?

    I bet a Pedantic Penis workshop where we just put balls into sacks would go over HUGE next year.

  15. TonyaK says:

    The fact is – that I don’t feel I can write openly about this issue reflects that there is a tremendous, unaddressed problem out there with bullying and marginalisation, where one does not feel comfortable or welcome to give any constructive criticism or anything that could be less than an ‘A+ review!’ for some.

    Podblack, I completely understand this statement. There was minimal constructive criticism of many of the talks and events, with a lot of things slipping by without question. At first, I thought it was essentially due to a lack of critical thinking from others. Then, I saw very quickly that when I questioned something in a Twitter post, I was immediately met with comments defending the speaker. I don’t usually hesitate to speak my mind in those situations. Likewise, if I am wrong, I like to be given the correct information. In my little fantasy world a conference advocating critical thinking would be the ideal place for constructive criticism and debate.

    1. admin says:

      I actually had very little criticism for most of the TAM speakers and I saw a lot of very bizarre criticism on Twitter that I thought was FAR off-track. I don’t recall any of that coming from you. If I disagreed with you at all, it was a “something to think about” issue or a matter of clarifying due to the 140 character nature of tweeting. Maybe we’re focused on different talks?

      But, in general, there are just some topics that seem to have been off-limits in this community for some time. My experience yesterday is a great example of why people fear speaking out. My department has gone through periods in which it has seemed taboo to critique, too, and that’s a shame because that kind of open exchange is exactly what a university is designed to encourage.

      I think that’s changing for the better (in the Skeptic community). Those being criticized might not take it well and some may join them, but I think we are getting to the point that there is no need to worry about losing friends over criticism which is not personal, lazy, malicious, or irrelevant. If so, perhaps a closer look at who one’s friends are is in order.

      But it is sometimes difficult to word things well when you’re angry, and I think that Kylie is feeling the pressure to “get it right” so that she is not misunderstood or trapped by something she wishes she’d have said differently. I struggle with this this myself.

      I hope you don’t stop just because some people get defensive, Tonya. On many of the issues that make us all a little nervous, there are many in agreement who would like to be able to speak freely without fear. If some of us do, more will.

  16. TonyaK says:

    I had little criticism to offer as well, but it seemed as if some of the most blatant issues were largely ignored, at least publicly. I agree–My real friends are not going to be “lost” because of a mere difference in opinion, so that is of no concern to me (and I don’t recall any comments from you disagreeing substantially with things I said, actually) :)

    I understand the fear of wording things in a manner in which they are subsequently misunderstood. When in the heat of the moment, it is easy to be unclear. I know that I’ve been guilty of that on more than one occasion. However, I won’t let a little bit of defensiveness from a few people stop me from speaking up if and when I see something significant that I feel should be addressed.

    1. admin says:

      …it seemed as if some of the most blatant issues were largely ignored, at least publicly.

      You would not be referring to “Angry Vagina Craft Time” by chance, would you? ;)

      Or perhaps the other elephant in the room I have yet to fully address?

      I’m glad you have no fear. It’s important for many of us to know that don’t need to restrain ourselves when we have a rational argument because we know that we’ll have support from friends. :)