Including Social Justice in Skepticism

Jamy Ian Swiss, a prominent member of the skeptical community and magician, was interviewed recently for premium content for The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. The conversation moved to several topics in its fifty minutes. Much of it was focused on the skeptical movement as a whole and its past, present, and especially future. Some great, high-minded ideas on what the movement lacks and where it needs to focus its efforts were brought up and played with, like the need to form permanent resources, and organizations that are respected and known enough to be called upon by government or outside of skepticism.

One subject that bubbled underneath the conversation was whether the meaning of “skepticism” should be broadened or kept narrow. For example, should the definition of a “good skeptic” include the requirement of atheism? Swiss says no, in order to broaden the tent of people allied against the real enemies: pseudoscience, mysticism, conspiracy theory, misinformation, and all manner of bad thinking. To require nonbelief would exclude otherwise helpful individuals.

I’ll acknowledge that Swiss has been in this movement for quite some time, and so he likely has a long-term perspective on this that I don’t. It doesn’t make sense to me to embrace skeptics who don’t exercise their skepticism on all areas of their life, since that’s one of the core aspects of the promotion of critical thinking, but I won’t pursue that point right now. It’s not only not the point of this post, but it’s also me deferring to a person who might know a thing or two about what works and doesn’t in capital-S Skepticism.

Still, like me, he is someone who does not have mastery of all perspectives. And this is where I think he’s truly mistaken.

Later on in the interview, while still discussing the appropriate tent size to include skeptics under, Swiss also dismisses desires to include social justice advocacy within skepticism, saying it belongs in “humanism”. This to me includes feminism, racial justice, LGBT equality, disability advocacy, and more.

On the surface, it might not seem like those topics apply to skepticism, sure. But so much bigotry or inequality is based around false information. Isn’t skepticism about advocating for the truth? For example, misinformation or ignorance about the severity of racial inequality in the United States, and where it comes from, contributes to its perpetuation.

Irrational fears or biases that influence our behavior transform into microaggressions against marginalized groups of people. Treating someone with a mental illness as if they were necessarily dangerous is harmful and not based in fact. If addressing errors in thinking is easily within our wheelhouse, like with confirmation bias, why not others?

Arbitrary religiosity controls women’s reproductive health, bolstered by bogus claims or manipulative campaigns. Consider how powerful a statement it would have been if more of the skeptical community would have rebutted the claims of “The Center for Medical Progress” and their misleading video editing, for example. Captain Disillusion does this regularly for video trickery; this community is well-versed in calling out deceptive practices or “cherry-picking” in all forms of media.

It’s not as if skeptics won’t get political when one side of the left/right spectrum denies some form of science (and one does it much more). Evolution denial, young Earth creationism, and climate change denial frequent the Right, while vaccine and genetically modified food fears frequent the Left.

But you know what, let’s not even go to all of that. Let’s instead focus just on the skeptical community and the benefits that adopting social justice to the skeptical platform has for just the people within it.

Swiss expresses concern about creating too many hoops to jump through to be a “true” skeptic. And I understand that. We want the barriers to entry to be as low as possible while remaining true to our mission of skeptical advocacy. But I don’t believe Swiss sees all the hoops that already exist.

What about the barriers to entry that exist when the vast majority of prominent skeptics are white?

And men?

And cisgender?

What about the signals it sends when the biggest gathering of skeptics in the US, if not the world, (The Amazing Meeting, or TAM) is in Vegas and significantly expensive to attend?

What about the difficulty in making harassment policies standard across conferences?

What about the high-frequency, high-powered signal it sends when a serial sexual harasser is continually invited to skeptic events while many women have made claims against him?

Combating those trends is in part accepting the importance of diverse voices and creating a safe environment for women, people of color, LGBT* individuals, and more. It’s these issues that I think about when I consider the necessity for Skepticism to adopt principles of social justice.

The statistics on who’s in skepticism (be it conferences, organizations, or local groups) should speak volumes on whether there are any hoops to jump through to be a part. Those hoops might not be the ones we knowingly put in place, but they exist because of our unconscious biases, attitudes, and collective ignorance. As good skeptics, we should long to rid ourselves of these hindrances in thought to advance ourselves and our movement.

Swiss’ inclination to keep the skeptical requirements for entry minimal, in an effort to broaden appeal, in fact limits the extent of skeptical advocacy possible. Rules of decency and cultural/societal awareness are not “optional features” anymore. Without them, harassers stay in, and many others stay out.

Looking at the speaker list for the most recent TAM, it’s evident that the conference organizers have come to value reaching parity among genders in more recent years. While tangentially-related to skepticism, the Secular Student Alliance Conference knocks it out of the park with a panel in prime time discussing the LGBT* movement after marriage equality. Valuing women and queer people in a movement and ensuring they are recognized and visible are, in my opinion, feminist and progressive qualities.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, the podcast I support and heard Jamy Ian Swiss’ interview that started this whole post, for years had Rebecca Watson as a fellow rogue who regularly discussed more progressive issues or those relating to women. Since her departure, Bob Novella has taken over the “forgotten superheroes of science” segment and regularly (though not exclusively) highlights the achievements and challenges of women and people of color in the sciences. I feel this acknowledgement and treatment of the historical selectivity of science’s past does significant good and is exactly what you’d expect to see in an increasingly progressive skeptical movement.

The balance of inclusivity versus retaining purpose is a real one, and I don’t mean to say I have the answers or even the path forward. I also don’t believe the problems I listed above are damning ones to Skepticism, though they should raise concern. I do think that in some areas, the right tone is being struck, and further that some progress is already being made whether it is labeled as valuing progressive values or not.

Social justice advocacy, in my opinion, isn’t only joining a protest for Black Lives Matter or marching in a pride parade. It’s smaller actions within the community that send signals outward that we are welcoming, respectful, and safe. That we want diverse people in our midst because with that comes diverse experience, expertise, knowledge, and frankly, because it’s the right thing to do.

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