So, the whole mess that started over three years ago with Elevatorgate and that led to discussions of harassment policies, and to Atheism+, and to not Atheism+ and all sorts of other things … hasn’t died yet. The latest big issue is over something that Sam Harris said that people had a problem with, as it might have implied that women weren’t as good at critical thinking as men. Sam Harris tried to clarify it, and a number of people, including P.Z. Myers have taken it on.
I want to focus on Myers’ discussion of Harris’ comment and response, because I think it highlights a number of problems with the critical thinking skills of these people who claim to value critical thinking above all. For anyone curious, I’m going to give Harris a bit of a free pass on that because despite the fact that I think he’s not all that great at reasoning, in this case it was an off-the-cuff response and his reply, while a bit huffy, didn’t seem to be overreaching that much.
So, Myers’ first shot is about the title of Harris post, which was “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for”. Myers’ reply:
Wrong. Right from the title, he gets it all wrong. Here’s how he could easily defuse the whole situation: acknowledge that what he said was wrong, and move on. “I spoke off the cuff, and I said things that were invalid and perpetuate the problem of sexism in atheism. I apologize, and will try to do better.” Over. No problem. We’d all be able to move on, and would appreciate that he’s trying.
This is a depressingly common statement. Essentially, it boils down to this: in a situation where people think that something you said is wrong, and are angrily denouncing you as a terrible person or as having some kind of deep personal flaw for saying it, the right thing for you to do is simply say “You’re right, I’m wrong, and I’m sorry” … even if you don’t think what you said was wrong. No, the right way to respond to people who you think are saying things that are wrong or that are interpreting you wrong and unfairly is to simply agree that they’re right, apologize, and leave your own opinions buried deep inside your mind where no one will ever have to see those ugly, ugly things again … even if you’re convinced that they’re true.
Okay, okay, this is definitely a bit of hyperbole … but only to the extent that I’d be ascribing a conscious intent to them. Arguments like this only work when a) you’re right and b) you’ve demonstrated to that person that you’re right. Once you’ve both agreed that, yes, you were right and they were wrong, then the right response is for the person to admit that they’re wrong and apologize. But before that, there is no reason for them to so meekly accept your position. This goes doubly is they think you’ve misrepresented their position, as their first duty is to say “Okay, that’s not how I meant it” and correct it. They might, if they are being excessively polite, apologize for being unclear, but that’s as far as it goes.
And no, simply angrily asserting that you’re right and posting some links isn’t demonstrating that they’re wrong.
The current fad of unconsciously building “Because I’m right” into your suggestions of what people should and shouldn’t do is a source of great annoyance to me …
Anyway, moving on. In a response to part of Harris’ post saying that he wasn’t talking about all atheists, just the active ones, Myers replies:
Yes, we know. We’re not idiots. We understood exactly what you said, which is that actively engaged atheists are men, because reasons. That’s actually the question…why do you think that is so?
Um, Dr. Myers? Greta Christina — you know her right? She blogs at your network? — accused him of doing just that:
Sam Harris is just factually wrong. Globally, there is no gender split in atheism. Globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. In fact, globally, women are slightly more likely to be atheists than men (although that difference is small, probably too small to be significant).
It’s a really bad move to so dismissively argue that he didn’t need to clarify a point because everyone knew what he was talking about when it was a point that people had claimed he was just factually wrong about and called him out angrily over. Just an FYI.
Now, I don’t like to break up paragraphs too much when quoting, because context is actually pretty important to understanding what people are saying, but this next part just screams for doing that to really get the full impact of the issue:
Why? Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? It often is …
Translation: Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? You’re right that it is, but why would you argue that?
If nurturing is indeed generally associated with femininity, which it often is, and if you accept that it often is, then what’s the problem here? You look like you’re demanding proof of a point that both of you accept, for the most part.
Now, being completely fair, Myers does have another objection:
…because of early culturization and because of widespread assumptions about the nature of women, but you yourself asserted that these differences were intrinsic — “that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” — rather than perhaps some phenomenon of social conditioning that might be corrected by men being perhaps a little less belittling.
So, the underlying complaint is not about saying that women tend towards nurturing as opposed to more aggressive postures, but instead assuming that it is innate. Okay, but there are two problems with this as a criticism of Harris:
1) He concedes that in his reply (in one of the earlier points:
3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture.
So, sure, it might be cultural, according to Harris, and/or partly biological, according to Harris. Who can say?
2) Whether biological or cultural, that doesn’t invalidate it as an explanation for why you don’t see as many active female atheists as active male atheists. As long as women are drawn to a less aggressive approach and atheist conferences have that more aggressive approach, less of them are going to find it appealing. Thus, the question for Myers et al is “Is this true? And if it is, how can we change it without losing the aggressive approach that we all personally — male and female — love so much?”
Myers goes on:
What you did was clearly place the blame for the situation on the essential natures of women, rather than recognizing that it’s a consequence of the social environment…in which, perhaps, the existence of male leaders who are dismissive of the capability of most women to contribute leads to more women feeling less interested in contributing. Perhaps the fault lies in people like you, rather than in the women who are reduced by your attitude?
Now, above Myers was talking about enculturation from childhood … which is obviously not something that Harris himself is going to have or have had a major influence on. Here, it looks like he’s talking about the culture or social environment of the conferences, and not in the “We’re not nurturing” way and more the “Women can’t contribute” way … which Harris never asserted and, in fact, again, denied:
Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.
If Myers had simply repeated the ideas of ways to make conferences more welcoming to women, that would have been a far better approach than this seeming criticism that missed the mark entirely. The only way this can be even a reasonable criticism is if it is based on an argument that the more aggressive style is the only way to contribute, which Harris never says and Myers ought not believe.
I could continue on through the comments about “My best friend is X”, but they again aren’t much of an argument, so I won’t bother. Suffice it to say that if you want to actually address and refute what Harris said … you really ought to deal with what he actually said, with arguments and evidence … especially if you want to claim to respect “critical thinking”.