Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Lack of Skepticals

I got a chance to see Rebecca Watson, author of the blog Skepchick and co-host of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Podcast, speak this afternoon at a lecture sponsored by the NYC Skeptics Society.  She was speaking about the lack of women in the skeptical community and showed some interesting figures on how critical thinking and scientific reason break down the gender lines.  Basically, it doesn't look good ladies.  More women than men believe in things like creationism, big-foot, psychics and all sorts of other stupid crap.  And less women can be found in the skeptical community in general.  Now, I find it highly unlikely that there is any fundamental reason causing women to be more prone to woo.  I think that social tendencies have forced women away from science at a young age, and pushed them towards fields that do not emphasize critical thinking.  Plus, I have to admit that the skeptical community is full of male nerds and dweebs.  I wouldn't go anywhere near it if I were a self-respecting woman.  The skeptical movement needs to do two things to bridge this divide:

1. Promote science education to girls at a very young age.  Get them thinking critically about science and everything they learn, get teachers to change their preconceived notions about boys being good at math and science and girls being good at humanities.  I see no reason to think that sex would have bearing on this at all.

2.  Skeptics, please stop talking about Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and comic books (all science fiction and video games really).  It's lame, and it has nothing to do with the cause.  Think about it, if the skeptical community is full of people who look and act like the Comic Book Guy character from The Simpsons, why would anyone pay attention.  Let's stay keen to cultural interests, and try not to alienate people.

Sorry about that rant, but I was a little disappointed with the people who made up the bulk of the NYC Skeptics Society.  I mean, I am a total fucking nerd, but I try keep in tune with cultural trends, and not act with an air of superiority.  Not trying to pick on people, but it all ties together.  Skepticism will not have a major impact if it does not cater to the masses at least a little.  Still, the NYC Skeptics Society seems like a great organization trying to promote critical thinking and logic, so I guess I should not complain too much.

Man, I'm a jerk.


Anonymous said...

No, you're not a jerk. And the attack on hobbies of science fiction fans is unwarrented and ignores how many women are interested in that field. Many skeptical / science women are at Dragon*con this year and it negates such 'you must shape up for us' attitude.

Anonymous said...


I disagree with the point that Skeptics should NOT go to or talk about pop culture stuff. Games, Comics, Movies, etc. That EXACTLY what we all should be talking about, because... that is a core audience who is VERY interested and willing to help out and be involved.

Saying to NOT get involved in that stuff is about, the EXACT opposite of what any Skeptic should be doing. In all 'marketing' attempts, which is what Skeptics need to be doing all the time... go for where the ears and hearts are. MANY Skeptics are Role Playing Game players, comic book fans, Geeks, Computer nerds, etc...

What in anyones right mind would cause them to think it would be a GOOD idea to shun one of the largest sub sets of fans and audience?

Anyone who would say that... is just either attempting to be elite to make themselves look cool. Or is as daft as the commentary they spout.

DS said...

Fair enough you guys. My point was that skeptics seem to be unevenly targeting a subset of the population. Hey, I'm into all the stuff that I was railing against (except for the RPG stuff, but to each their own). What I should have said is that skeptics should focus a little less on that stuff, and branch out a little more. No, not even that... The people out there should keep doing what their doing, because they're good at it. Maybe a little more diversity like Rebecca, and even beyond that. You know, like a skeptical Justin TImberlake or something. Not me of course, I'm a total geek.


Anonymous said...

What 'sort' of diversity? Getting drunk with male skeptics? That's the only thing people seem to remember about skepchicks.

DS said...

That's my point, actually. A bunch of skeptical men getting drunk is a great time, but skeptics should always be shooting higher. The women who are already skeptics probably mainly fall into the category of women who enjoy getting drunk with a group of guys. Those people are great, but if the goal is to reach as many people as possible, we need more.

How can skeptics reach out to the great numbers of intelligent, clear thinking professional women/housewives/sorority girls/grandmothers etc? I don't have a good answer, but I know that they will not be reached through talk of sci-fi and comic books (again, I'm not denouncing this, just saying there needs to be more).

The point is that there are as many intelligent women as men, but less of them seem to be thinking critically. Maybe the answer is more outreach to colleges (freethinking alliances and the like). More skeptical women voices are needed. Maybe it's moving that way already. I was really ranting about something and did not have a clear point the other day. I'm allowed a mulligan now and again, right?


Robynn said...

As a woman, a skeptic, a huge nerd and a sci-fi geek (although I do bathe and I don't live in my parent's basement) I see your point. However, the majority of women I know who have recently been coaxed towards the skeptic movement are generally scientists or educators who appreciate the support for science that most free thought groups espouse. This is, I think the segment of society you're hoping to attract to free-thought groups.

The thing is, the place where I've been able to most easily commune with those women is shockingly at Science fiction conventions that also embrace science. There is no science fiction without the science (real or imagined), so it's not a bad place to start.

The other problem facing the skeptic movement, beyond just diversity of the sexes, is the aging demographic. Most subscribers to periodicals like "Skeptic Magazine" and "Free Inquiry" are not in the oh so sought after 18-35 age bracket. They're older, and more conservative. Folks that attend Sci-Fi and fantasy cons, are younger and generally open to new ideas. They're exactly the sort of people that the skeptic community needs to swell their ranks.

Thus far, to attract that age group, you have to subscribe to frat house humor like Penn and Teller, or if you're a chick - show your boobs (not that there's anything wrong with that). My favorite exception is of course The Mythbusters, but come on - they have Kari Byron. :)

To stereotype "comic book guy" nerds as being not the sort of people we want in our groups, isn't much different than the sort of thinking that makes atheists the most hated group (statistically) in America today.

The issue here really is that across most platforms, women are not statistically early adopters. As a podcaster. blogger and nerd herself, Rebecca knows that. Women are also generally over-worked multi-taskers who have a lot going on in their lives, and don't generally have time to devote to new groups and causes no matter what they are .

Short of turning Oprah (as if) into a Skeptic, driving women into our ranks will continue to be a difficult task. It has been recommended that if more skepchicks were working to get their sage advice into popular women's magazines (that generally are purveyors of dodgy science) at least more women might benefit, if not consider free thought groups.

However, I suspect if one were to look back at how many more women are involved in skeptic groups now, than even ten years ago I suspect the numbers will have grown exponentially. Some smart nerdy woman should do a study, or at the very least roll a D-20.

DS said...

"The issue here really is that across most platforms, women are not statistically early adopters..."

That's an interesting point. Women may join up when it has been around a little longer.

As far as real numbers, I think Rebecca showed last weekend that they have not changed much over the past few years. She didn't go back more than a few though.

I still think that, as many female sci-fi fans and RPGers there are out there, they are still a tiny fraction of the majority. These people are, as you say, eager to embrace logic and critical thinking. I just think that we should try harder to reach others. I have also come around to the notion that there are already some good, young people involved and that it may just take a little time before we see some results.

I'm fairly confident that the underlying message of free-thinking groups is sound and that they will grow in size over the next decade or so. Unless there's another fundamentalist uprising, then we're all doomed.

Thanks for the discussion, very interesting stuff