Carrier Discusses Women’s Sports and Ends Up in a Glass House

So, Richard Carrier decided to talk about how the Right and the Left have killed Atheism Plus by making a link between Noel Plum’s youtube videos — or, at least, some of them — and, overall, a way of arguing that is invalid and incorrect. He puts the problem thusly:

Plenty of folk who voice bizarre or implausible or outdated beliefs, when they do “cite” evidence in support of their arguments, it’s typically cherry picked, or made-up, or massaged, or there is some fallacious disconnect between what they claim as evidence and the conclusion they want to reach. These are fraudulent reasoners. And fraudulent reasoners are immune to evidence. I believe each side of any political or values debate in atheism—both conservative and liberal—mistakenly assumes everyone on the other side is a fraudulent reasoner. Because they encounter so many who are, and too often when they encounter those who aren’t, those who aren’t still fail to correctly attend to evidence, the one thing that would correct them if they were a good reasoner, because everyone is fallible, and unconsciously subject to prejudice and bias…while fraudulent reasoners will never be corrected in this, because they have no intention of actually formulating sound arguments; they will simply invent endless excuses to ignore the evidence. Which looks very similar. So uncharitably, everyone assumes they are the same. This makes it difficult for either side to listen to and learn from the other. And that creates tribalism and division.

He then moves on to point out a specific video of Plum’s on Women in Sport and criticize it:

A good example in Plum’s case is his video Want Sports Gender Equality? Stop Whining and Do Something. Eyerollingly ridiculous, and in result, inadvertently sexist. Notably, he never cites any examples of anyone ever saying the thing he is criticizing. So what happens? Immediately he goes off the rails of reality. He instead attacks some sort of fictional feminist he invented in his head. Had he actually done research on this, and committed to the first rule of good reasoning—never criticize fictional people; always give a real example of the real person whose arguments or claims you are challenging—he would have produced a much more useful and correct piece of criticism.

But even that would only be half good. It would have been really good, if he committed to the second rule of good reasoning—don’t just pick the idiot in the room; make sure you steel man the opposition, by finding its best representative, not its worst. It can be fun, and useful, to pick on the idiot. Quality entertainment. And educational. But if you don’t mention the better opposition (at least to acknowledge it, if you aren’t going to voice any criticism of it), you will come across as someone who thinks the idiot is the best opponent you could have taken on. Which doesn’t make you look great. People will read your having done that as disingenuous. They will categorize you as a fraudulent reasoner. When really, you just screwed up. You let your biases run that episode. Rather than applying your own avowed principles to every show you do.

So we can presume that Carrier will be very careful to cite examples, steel man the opposition, and attend to and present all the appropriate evidence, right?

Now, this specific issue is one that I pay more attention to because I’ve already gone into it in detail, so I’m going to be sensitive to errors or misrepresentations that Carrier makes here. Also, since it’s about the only thing that I care about in the post I’m going to ignore the rest of it. That being said, Carrier receives and replies to some comments later that I’m going to refer to at the time to show both that he isn’t entirely consistent and to highlight that his purported good standards of argumentation fly out the window in the comments much of the time. As usual, Carrier says a lot and it can be hard to organize a reply so as not to be confusing, since a lot of the time his arguments contradict each other and leave me with too many wrong things to address in an organized manner.

With that, let me start by summarizing Plum’s video. I originally didn’t want to watch it because I thought it was a long video from Carrier’s presentation, but it turns out that it’s incredibly short. Essentially the argument he makes is that the main reason that women athletes don’t make as much as men’s athlete’s is that men would rather watch men’s sports and women would rather watch women’s sports, and so if women want female athletes to make more money they need to spend as much money on women’s sports as men spend on men’s sports. He actually gives absolutely no evidence that this is actually the case, and he cuts himself off from making the argument that men prefer the higher standard of play in men’s leagues, so all he has is this assertion that men for some reason just want to watch men’s sports more than women’s sports, and not for reasons of quality or expectations about how the game would be played. Men just want to watch men play sports more than they want to watch women play sports. As someone who, in fact, would rather watch women curl than men and, in general, would rather watch women do, well, almost anything than watch men do the same things, I really, really think he needs to provide evidence of that assertion [grin].

Now, Plum and Carrier had a Twitter conversation later to hash some things out, but I don’t like following Twitter conversations and, really, Carrier has to get this stuff right the first time to be consistent with his own demands earlier in the post, so you’d expect that Carrier’s main point would be about men not really preferring to watch women’s sports or that being for a specific reason. Except, it actually isn’t. Instead, he challenges Plum’s notion that the debate is about actual pay rather than a percentage of revenue — which I’ll get into a little later — and then says this:

Plum’s argument is thus just as illogical. Women are accomplishing quite a lot. They are exceptional athletes, putting on amazing performances, and filling seats. So they aren’t filling fewer seats because they suck. They are filling fewer seats, because we suck. We aren’t paying them the kudos and fandom they are due. We should get over our biases, and realize it’s as much fun watching women play, as men. So then women can finally have as many opportunities to excel at sport as men do. But you can’t legislate that. It’s just a matter of asking people to think about it; until enough generations absorb the message.

Except Plum explicitly stated that it wasn’t because of the difference in quality of play that women got paid less, and from that we have to draw the conclusion that the lack of viewership isn’t because of quality of play. So, no, he never asserted that it was because women suck. And, in fact, pretty much everyone who uses the quality of play argument isn’t using it to claim that women just suck (yes, there are some that do, but seeking out the worst examples to refute is, again, what Carrier explicitly says one ought not do above). They tend to use in the way I used it in my post:

Which is reasonable right up until the point you recall that the level of competition is, at best, the same between men’s and women’s sports. It’s not the case that the level of competition, or stories or how hard the players are playing is greater in women’s sports than in men’s sports. But the quality of play is greater in men’s sports than in women’s sports. And all things being equal, if I can get the same level of competition but if one of two options has a higher quality of play, then I’m going to choose the one with the higher quality of play. This applies to junior leagues, academic leagues … and women’s leagues.

I’ll come back to that, but let me first point out that Carrier finally tries to address the main point of Plum’s video in a comment summarizing their Twitter exchange:

4. Gender-limited enthusiasm (men only watching men; women only watching women) has no plausible biological or evolutionary explanation, as evidenced by the rapid change in it over the last century (decade by decade, more men watching women play; more women playing), and by sports where gender-limited enthusiasm now doesn’t even exist or is shrinking (it’s also rendered implausible by sports enthusiasm not having existed when we evolved);

Which is a rather complicated way to say “Where’s your evidence for that assertion?” … which is what he should have done in the first post. Plum should not have had to remind him of his main point.

He adds in another comment reply to someone else:

On just that one issue—the gendering of aesthetics in our social programming, limiting people’s opportunities (both players and enjoyers)—it works like this:

We’ve all been damaged by sexist social programming. Some of us can escape that (owing to sneak circuits left in); many of us can’t (owing to the programming being too wired in to change; and one can’t be morally judged for not doing the impossible).

The only way to get to those of us out who can escape, is to trigger the escape cascade by injecting the meme into them. We have to put the meme in everyone (thus, communicate the idea as widely as possible), because we can’t know in advance who it will help and who it won’t.

Progress generation over generation requires continuing to do this, generation after generation.

Which actually then suggests that he thinks Plum’s point is actually right, despite his actually providing no evidence for it. In his summary of the Twitter debate, he goes on from there to suggest that since it can’t be biological it must be cultural … but he still has provided no evidence that it actually happens. And I find that highly implausible, given that every two years we see women’s sports performed on the largest stage with few men saying that they refuse to watch the women’s sporting events because they only want to watch men’s sports. In fact, the popularity of women’s soccer in Canada vis a vis men’s soccer in Canada comes from the fact that the women go to the Olympics and win medals and generally do well, and the men’s team, well, doesn’t. The men haven’t been in the Olympics since 1984 in Los Angeles and the only other time they played was 1976 when Canada hosted the Summer Olympics. To put it in perspective, the women have won medals as often as the men have participated. And while Olympic hockey with NHL players was more anticipated than the women, since in general in women’s hockey at the Olympics either Canada or the U.S. win gold they did get a lot of attention, and I don’t know of anyone who said that they weren’t going to watch it just because it was women playing. Sure, there are probably some people who did, but most people who tune out for women’s sports do it because they don’t care for the quality of play. So, Carrier himself needs to provide evidence for this phenomena that men prefer to watch men’s sports just because men are playing the sport and won’t watch women playing sports because women aren’t men.

(I’m not even going to get into the fact that just because we didn’t have a specific condition when we evolved it doesn’t mean that something couldn’t be biological or evolved, since it could be a side effect of an evolved tendency that is trigger in a condition that it wasn’t designed to trigger in).

So, on that, Carrier actually talks about women’s hockey, and women’s sport in general:

It makes no logical sense, for example, to say women aren’t as strong as men, ergo they should be paid less, because that actually isn’t how sports enthusiasm is measured. When women are competing with women, the only game on is strength-equal. And trust me, women’s hockey is just as exciting as men’s. You wouldn’t even notice a difference, if no one told you which you were watching.

Except that for hockey, and for sports in general, that’s actually completely false. Anyone who follows hockey beyond a simply shallow “turn it on and watch for a bit” will be able to tell the difference because the men’s and women’s games have different rules. Specifically, there’s no body checking in women’s hockey, at any level (it was tried at one tournament in 1990 and hasn’t been back). Since body checking is prevalent in the men’s game, if you know anything about the men’s game and watch a women’s game you are going to notice the difference. You’ll notice that the women don’t go for a body check in places where they should and get penalized for things that wouldn’t be a penalty in the men’s game. In fact, when I first watched women’s hockey at the Nagano Olympics, I was impressed by it, because the inability to bump players off the puck allowed for and forced more skilled play, along with the fact that the main power play strategy — get it back to the point and unleash a heavy slapshot — didn’t work in the women’s game because the women didn’t have very effective slapshots. In Salt Lake, when I watched it again, I was disappointed by it because while body checking was still illegal the rules about incidental contact seemed to be loosened up and so players were getting bumped off the puck most of the time, and the women developed better slapshots and so devolved to the normal, rather boring strategy of getting it back to the point and unleashing one. It was this disappointment that pretty much killed any interest I had in women’s hockey.

And so the point about it being “strength-equal” is also false. As another example, the whole reason I watch women’s curling and not men’s curling is because they aren’t “strength-equal”. Women aren’t as strong as men, and so don’t have the weight — insert your own joke here — of the men, and so can’t “blast” like men can, where they unlock and remove a number of stones just by throwing really hard at them. In fact, that was exactly the point when I lost interest in the men’s game: I saw too much blasting and started to find the game boring. Now, full disclosure, the men’s game seems to be blasting less than it used to, moving to the skins/mixed doubles model of loading up the rings with stones and hoping to get a good shot to score a bundle at the end of it, but since this is very risky and often ends up resulting in giving up a lot of points it’ll be interesting to see how long that lasts.

But this is going to be true of any sport where the women’s game is the same as the men’s game: while some things will be relative to the opposing players, there will be some absolutes, and so some things the women can’t do as well as or at all that the men can do. Carrier seems to acknowledge this in a reply to JohnReese’s comment outlining the differences in tennis, but Carrier’s reply is a terse:

That’s all true but not relevant to anything I actually said.

Which leaves JohnReese to have to figure it out for himself, which he tries to do:

Indeed, having read again, I clearly realize your point was that one couldn’t tell the difference between a men’s game and a women’s game in hockey, and you didn’t generalize this to other sports.

I acknowledge my mistake and apologize.

Except that Carrier’s point doesn’t make any sense if it doesn’t apply to men’s and women’s sports in general. Even if it was true that you couldn’t tell the difference in hockey, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true in most sports and so doesn’t explain the discrepancy in pay. And Carrier, in an earlier comment does extend it:

That’s not true though.

Like I said, if I didn’t tell you and could prevent any indications tipping you off, you would never notice the difference between a men’s game and a woman’s.

Which is why indeed so many people watch high school and college basketball! And minor league sports. And so on.

You can try to weasel out of it by saying that Carrier didn’t make the direct comparison in basketball, but that would be ignoring the implication here and the fact that the original statement started from the general — “strength-equal” — and moved to a specific example, and that Carrier later commented that it isn’t about quality of play and that the sports were equally exciting. So, yeah, Carrier at least by implication generalized it and sticks to that in other comments, so JohnReese has nothing to apologize for and Carrier’s reply is vague and overly hostile, which goes against the whole point of the post.

Look, the point that Carrier is grasping for here is the same argument that I addressed in my take on the issue: we watch sports for other reasons than strict quality of play, and there’s no reason to think that the sport is less competitive in the sense that the athletes aren’t all putting in their maximum effort to try to win the game, series or tournament. It’s true that that is indeed one of the main things that draws people to competitive sport. There are other reasons as well, like loyalty to your city if they might win a championship or patriotism at the Olympics. But as I pointed out, barring a specific reason to watch the women’s game and all things being equal, the men’s game is always going to be at least as competitive as the women’s game and will always have the higher quality of play. It is not likely, then, that if I just want to watch hockey and have to choose between the NHL and the CWHL that the women’s game will be as “good”. The quality of play difference will be dramatic.

Carrier will, of course, reiterate that high school and college sports get great attendance even though the quality of play is lower, even dramatically so. Sure, but they’ve never tried to get people into the seats advertising the same quality of play or experience. They’ve always appealed to things like being able to see the future stars before they became stars, or lower prices, or even that they are the only game in town (a number of high schools can recruit on the fact that there are no professional sports to watch in that town). I don’t know of any case where you have high school, college or junior leagues that get the same attendance as a professional league in their city for the same price, where both teams are equally competitive in their respective leagues, at least not on a regular basis. Even college basketball, as far as I can tell, gets less play and less TV revenue than the NBA except during March Madness, which is a special event with a special format that allows them to draw in viewers. Unless there is something to differentiate these sports from the professional versions, they don’t draw as much as the professional versions.

Yes, the competition does exist and can be entertaining and, if you are shallowly paying attention, can be the same or similar to the men’s game in women’s sports. But the women’s sports that do the best, it seems to me, are those that are different enough from the men’s sports to draw on their own merits and quality of play without having to rely on “competition”. Women’s gymnastics is the ur-example of this. Men’s and women’s gymnastics are completely different. Suggesting that a woman could participate in men’s gymnastics or a man could dominate women’s gymnastics is an utterly ludicrous suggestion, despite the fact that it makes sense for almost any other sport you can name. And yet it is the women’s gymnasts that are the cultural icons, not the men. It gets more attention than men’s gymnastics. All because it is its own sport that can garner its own quality of play without having to compete with the men.

So, to me, having them be the same and relying on competitiveness to get people to watch women’s sports is the wrong approach. Carrier seems to contradict himself on that note in a comment:

An analogy is drinking wine or scotch: plenty of people think those things are gross; until they work to develop an appreciation for them, then they love them. Not everyone though. Just a lot of folks; far more than would be the case, if no one experimented with or bothered to cultivate the appreciation. (If, for example, people put up moral or superstitious barriers and rejected any such efforts in themselves; then no one, or hardly any one, would appreciate a fine scotch, and the industry would probably evaporate.)

But if they are the same and just as exciting as each other, what kind of appreciation needs to be developed? It’s only if they bring different things to the table that you need to develop an appreciation for their unique strengths. But that’s what Carrier spent most of his posts and comments trying to deny.

The only thing I can come up with here is that he’s referring to the cultural conditioning to not watch women’s sports, that we have to overcome by, presumably, watching them. But as noted above, this seems false, as women’s sports are shown at the highest level every two years and people seem to have few issues watching them. So this doesn’t seem accurate.

Given that, will his approach even work? He gives no example of any sort of conversion that occurred because of this, even his own. Meanwhile, I can not only provide examples of how my approach — have women’s sports be different from men’s sports and highlight that — has worked for me wrt curling, hockey (before it changed) and tennis (where watching men try to ace each other out of the game actually got me to say that I’d watch women’s tennis if nothing else was one but wouldn’t touch men’s tennis), but I can also point to the fact that the more different the men’s and women’s games seem to be the more popular the women’s sport is relative to the men’s sport, with gymnastics being the ur-example of that. So, when it comes to actual evidence — one of Carrier’s main points in his post — it seems like I have the clear advantage. So Carrier — and possibly Plum — have to provide evidence that there is any kind of strong preference — cultural or otherwise — for men to watch men’s sports and not watch women’s sports, and that simple “appreciation” will change anything.

This post is getting a bit long, and so far we’ve seen that Carrier attacks Plum for something he explicitly said wasn’t the issue and barely touched the main point of Plum’s post … and was wrong about both of those anyway. Did he at least manage to get his point about salaries and revenue right? Well, no, and I’ll show why next time.

4 Responses to “Carrier Discusses Women’s Sports and Ends Up in a Glass House”

  1. Noel Plum (@noelplum) Says:

    Just fyi a couple of comments.

    As i acknowledged, the original video was very much a spur of the moment “hot take”. It wasn’t evidenced which is a shortcoming but it was really just me venting my thoughts at the time.

    The main thrust of that video, whether I achieved it or not, was not to make the point that men just are not as interested in women’s sport as they are in men’s sport but that it seems unreasonable to expect men to do the heavy lifting as consumers of women’s sport when women do not do the heavy lifting, as consumers, of men’s sport.
    I suppose if you drew a 2×2 grid of men’s and women’s sport on one axis and men’s and women’s interest on the other, the point would be that the reason men earn huge sporting revenues and women do not is not because the “women consuming men’s sport” square is so much better catered for than the “men consuming women’s sport” (although it IS better catered for) it is because the “men consuming men’s sport” is vastly vastly better catered for than the “women consuming women’s sport”
    Hence my summarising point that if women want to see women’s sport take off they need to get off their arses and start doing for women’s sport what men do for men’s sport. To ask men to stick their hands in their pockets instead is to ask for something that women have never shown much inclination to do for men’s sport to any great degree, despite the massive saturation of men’s sport on the television.

    Lastly, if you check out my channel you will see I have revisited that video. I acknowledge the lack of sources in the original and try and both redress those issues from the original and address the comments Richard Carrier made

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Thanks for the reply. I may check out that video later.

      It’s a pretty reasonable argument to say that, given how strongly in the past sports and sports viewing has been associated with men that if women’s sports are going to get any reasonable audience in any reasonable amount of time it’s going to have to be the case that men start watching them more. The question — that I address in the post of mine that I’ve linked and will address in the second part of my discussion of Carrier’s post — is what women’s sports can use to get men who might not normally watch at least the women’s version of a sport to do so.

      The argument that you make here is typically used to respond to a claim that women’s sports need to be watched to promote gender equality and so men have to do it. It’s reasonable to say that if you’re going to ask men to watch something they don’t really want to watch to promote gender equality that really the group that would benefit from that — women — ought to do it first, and that if they are able to and aren’t willing to then it’s not reasonable to demand that men do it. But this has no relation to what women do for men’s sport or why they might want to do that other than to show that women might not care much about sports in general, and the argument doesn’t work as a generic one since, right now, the biggest audience for sports in general seems to be men.

  2. Carrier on Pay Equity in Men’s and Women’s Sports | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I talked about part of Carrier’s discussion of women’s sport in a previous post. That one focused on whether men prefer to watch men’s sports and on the quality of play and […]

  3. Watching Women’s and Men’s Sports | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the differences in play between the two.  After all, I’ve talked about that before and even chided Richard Carrier for insisting that there would be no noticeable difference in play.  So here I had an informal way to test my theory that there would be. I started with soccer […]

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