The further hyper-skepticism stalling our conversation

Last year, when the bugs crawling out from under the rock that had been overturned several months prior by Rebecca Watson continued unabated, and pretty much everyone was shocked that that many creepie-crawlies resided in our vaunted skeptical community, I wrote a series of posts on the whole ordeal called The Problem with Privilege. One of those posts dealt with the rampant and repeated demands for evidence regarding the incident that Rebecca had called creepy — as though recounting a story and saying “guys, don’t do that, it’s creepy” was some kind of misandrist clarion call, which must be rebuffed lest it result in fewer pick-up artists getting their dicks wet.

So these trolls, being part of the skeptical community (apparently), used our strengths against us by attacking the claim on its merits, since the claim “I was tipsy in an elevator at 4am and a guy followed me in and asked me to his room” doesn’t meet the high standards of evidence we use in the skeptical community when it comes to extraordinary claims. Never mind that it was a perfectly ordinary claim about someone’s experience with a slightly-offputting person that did not result in any physical harm. Specifically, I characterized this compulsion as hyper-skepticism, along the same lines as 9/11 truthers, birthers, and other conspiracy theorists.

We’re now seeing the exact same tactic being used again in the wake of a conflagration that Jen McCreight accidentally set off when she casually mentioned at the Women In Secularism CFI conference that female speakers occasionally warn one another of potentially creepy male speakers.

Since Stephanie called for real harassment policies to be implemented, and over half a dozen conventions started putting a very good template policy into place in response, real progress has been made on the issue. Progress involving building infrastructure that ameliorates the problem and provides harassment victims with real support. People have come forward with their specific complaints about harassment that had not been reported immediately, supporting the need for these infrastructures — and the hyper-skeptics replied in droves, “but where’s your evidence!?”

In the middle of all this, DJ Grothe, president of JREF, wondered aloud whither all the women were going, and why female TAM registration — while they had made such great inroads at TAM9, after implementing a harassment policy of their own — was way down. He wondered further whether all those women reporting harassment and working to try to get conventions to implement real support structures were, in actuality, driving people away from his vaunted convention.

When the conversation was not going his way, DJ made some very pointed remarks about specific women who’ve worked on the problem of harassment before; including some women who had taken him personally to task for attacking feminists as contra the skeptical movement, and defending some rather indefensible folks (including the Epstein/Krauss flap) in the past. The hyper-skeptics repeated their cries of “where’s the evidence!?”, aiming those cries at the women targeted.

They meant of course to ask where the evidence was that there was even any harassment that needed addressing, naturally. That was, after all, the point that DJ was trying to make — that point became especially obvious when he claimed that the complaints sounded like “locker room talk”, “rumors”, or discussion of “sexual exploits” that women thereafter regretted. But there’s a really good question that is raised when these folks ask that one in this context: where is the evidence that DJ Grothe used to make the leap that the problem this whole time has been those damned uppity feminists scaring everyone away?

Consider that Melody Hensley put together the apparently awesome Women In Secularism conference, and that those of us in the skeptical community who are not independently wealthy have to consider travel, expenses and vacation time. Single parents, predominantly but not always women, often also have to consider parenting issues — who to get to babysit the kids for the conference while they go get their skeptic on. This means there are large financial and personal hurdles to going to every conference if you’re not making money on the public speaking circuit or a member of an organization yourself, which limits the number or frequency of conventions you can attend. That has the knock-on effect that, when a new conference springs up with a high draw value for the demographic you’re looking to improve, you might see your own numbers erode. I am shocked that DJ did not consider this as a possibility before he decided to throw several women bloggers under that bus.

To the point the trolls are making, about where the evidence is that there’s even a harassment problem at all considering DJ’s “exit survey” from TAM showing no such thing, is a pretty good one. At least, if you only consider the data he’s providing, and do not question the data collection methods and the greater societal problem of harassment and underreporting. See, there’s a serious problem with that, which we can demonstrate (with scientific evidence, no less!), showing women simply putting up with harassment because it’s easier. We have some numbers specifically from the secular community, though there may be those same reporting biases at work there too. Regardless, the numbers show a significantly larger proportion of women than men experiencing harassment, and a very large amount of that being very serious and actionable harassment. So why isn’t it being reported?

Well, because we haven’t made this space safe yet, partly. Not “unsafe” as in you’ll almost certainly get assaulted, but “not safe” as in it is no better than background levels of harassment. The victims of harassment are not reporting it mostly for the same reasons that harassment in society as a whole is drastically underreported. And the reasons in just about every case are the same: power imbalance, fear of retaliation, belief that nothing will come of the report, embarassment.

Pteryxx proves that underreporting is a major issue in a comment xe left at Ophelia’s (with a minor correction in-line at hir request):

All righty… I did some research into the problems with using surveys to determine the prevalence of sexual harassment. Much of what I found was paywalled research. It’s not something that can be done with a general survey not designed for the purpose.

Basically, surveying sexual harassment is difficult *at all* because of pervasive underreporting. As with sexual assault and rape, only a small percentage of incidents are ever reported, for many reasons: the victims are too embarrassed or ashamed, they assume (often rightly) that nothing will be done to address the problem, or they’ve normalized the harm. Fear of retaliation or escalation, while also major factors, probably don’t have much effect on a truly anonymous survey.

This is from page 32 of a 2005, 72-page report on sexual harassment among US college students (it’s big but quite readable):

Given the strong reactions to sexual harassment,
we would expect students to report incidents, yet
most do not. More than one-third (35 percent)
tell no one. Almost half (49 percent) confide in
a friend, but only about 7 percent report the
incident to a college employee.

Female students are more likely than male
students to tell someone about sexual harassment,
although they, too, have reservations about
discussing their experiences (see Figure 10).
A common theme among female students is a
feeling of nervousness or discomfort at reporting
something that might not be “a big enough deal.”
One young woman describes an incident that
made her feel “horrible” and “helpless,” but
she didn’t report it because “it didn’t seem to
be that important.”

Also, for a victim to report sexual harassment (or sexual assault, or rape), the person has to first admit that what happened to them WAS harassment, assault, or rape.

From a 2004 U of Iowa report:

Because research has shown that many people are reluctant or unwilling to label even serious unwelcomed behavior (e.g., physical assault of a sexual nature) as sexual harassment, this survey separated questions about respondents’ experiences with unwelcomed sexual behaviors from the question of whether or not they felt they had experienced sexual harassment. The intent was to capture more accurately the occurrence of behaviors without the stigma of the label.

This survey asked about eight types of unwelcomed behavior which may constitute sexual harassment. A majority–52%–of respondents indicated that they had experienced one or more of the eight categories of unwelcomed behavior. Yet, when these responders were asked explicitly about whether they had experienced sexual harassment in the past 10 years at UI, most responders (62%) indicated that they had not been sexually harassed, whereas 24% (805 individuals)) indicated that they considered the unwelcome behavior to be sexual harassment. This represented 26% of female and 19% of male responders.

It’s not just that DJ Grothe’s survey fails to capture the incidence of sexual harassment. ANY form of self-reporting will fail to do so, as long as sexual aggression combined with victim-blaming is culturally normal, particularly when internalized so that the victims blame themselves. Sexual harassment and violence can only be addressed in a supportive environment – otherwise, the vast majority of harassed persons will simply remain silent.

If a culture exists at DJ Grothe’s organization that is not supportive of victims, as may be indicated by his recent remarks, then that culture could have DIRECTLY contributed to the observed low reporting rate. One instance of a witnessed, publicly reported incident has already been shown to have gone unrecorded within TAM’s harassment reporting system.

Thus, the low reporting rate at TAM may be largely a RESULT, not a cause, of DJ’s (publicly articulated) perception that sexual harassment is not a problem under his purview.

*note: I decided (with reservations) to stay with the term “victim” throughout to keep focus on the concept of victim-blaming. Not all recipients of sexual harassment consider themselves victimized by it.

Underreporting is a problem because spaces aren’t safe. Declaring a space safe by fiat won’t work, even if you’ve attempted to enforce the policy really well during certain incidents, and if the data you’ve collected says nobody “felt unwelcome” because you never aggregated in those incidents in the first place — because you’re going to have a major problem with that data when someone comes forward to contradict it. Especially if you thereafter try to gaslight that person and convince them that there was never any such event. The data collection methodology was simply insufficient here, and incidents apparently happened and were dealt with in realtime that were never documented thereafter and thus never showed up in DJ’s numbers.

We have a manifold problem with harassment in the skeptical community, one that won’t be solved by ignoring the fact that they’re plugging their ears every time someone actually proffers evidence to meet the trolls’ demands. The only path forward, as far as I can see, is to steamroll the trolls by moving forward with implementing strong anti-harassment policies at conventions, leaving these trolls to deal with the consequences despite their cries that we’re implementing some sort of Taliban-like puritanism (heh), and doing so in such a way that everyone’s well aware that there will be consequences for violating those policies, and that victims will be protected.

THAT is how you make a space safe. Certainly not by answering every disingenuous call for evidence, despite that being our natural compulsion as a community — we’re skeptics after all — and especially not when you can legitimately say “Objection! Asked and answered!” Preferably with a link back to this post, if you could be so kind.

Of course, you could also take the tactic favoured by Stephanie Zvan — ask the trolls exactly what sort of evidence it would take to convince them that the person they’re trolling experienced what they say they experienced. When they inevitably clam up, THEN point them here.

The further hyper-skepticism stalling our conversation

129 thoughts on “The further hyper-skepticism stalling our conversation

  1. 101

    I would think that courtesy and respect would also entail not demanding that people immediately educate you on things you could Google easily for yourself, and not making accusations or claims that you can’t or won’t back up with evidence. I would think that courtesy and respect would entail arguing with someone in good faith, not tossing out red herrings and non sequiturs when pressed to support your positions.

  2. 102

    Tom Foss and A. Noyd: didn’t you get the memo? When someone, anyone, airdrops into a forum of any sort, especially one where all the conversants are mostly up to speed about a great number of things, it is their job to rehash everything that’s happened up til that point — not just in the community, but in the greater societal struggle at large.

    I swear, these people are spoiled by those “last time, on Stargate” recaps at the beginning of the episode.

  3. 103

    And as a point if fact, I have taken steps to help the community with this issue.

    Now that could actually be valuable. Whom have you helped? Are there policies out there that you’ve influenced that have a track record that others considering such policies would be able to look at?

  4. 104

    [email protected], thank you for your response. So, first you tell me I’m tone trolling and then you tell me what I do and don’t understand. Yes, I did not in my view find that the conversation was courteous or respectful, and interestingly now your are telling me how to act or how I should react. So how is your behavior to my reaction different.? Now, you noting that I only have a superficial understanding of courtesy and respect when you don’t know me is almost psychic. Maybe you can get that million dollars from Randi. Oh, and calling me a weasel, nice touch.
    Tom [email protected], thank you for your feedback. Tom, I was requesting feedback based on experience that I don’t think Google would supply, I was asking for feedback from her quote which I based on her experience with organizations. I wasn’t looking to be educated on harrassment per se or those processes. Please see below. By the way, I did cite examples.
    [email protected]…I worked with an organization about 2 weeks ago giving ideas on developing a policy and have put a note on Greta’s blog today. I think it’s #2. As for a track record, about 30 years of sexual harrassment experience in conceiving, developing, training and executing harrassment programs for major orgaizations as well as investiging sexual harrassment, hostile work environment and assault cases. I wasn’t looking for education from you when I asked for feedback, just information to try and help. I probably failed at asking as well as I should have. The comment about rocket science got my back up because it can be as complex as rocket science: ie: under reporting or no reporting. I should have asked for that better.

  5. 105

    Eliott (#103)

    Yes, I did not in my view find that the conversation was courteous or respectful, and interestingly now your are telling me how to act or how I should react.

    No, telling people how to act and react is what you’re doing to us. (“Please, stop this drum beat of beating up DJ.” “Jason, please, you can turn this conversation into a more positive statement about protecting women and advance this throughout the community. Stop being pissed off and help get answers.” Etc.) Bizarrely, you seem to identify this is discourteous and disrespectful when you imagine I’m doing it to you. But I’m not. Go ahead, show me I’m wrong by quoting where I did so. I’ll hold off on addressing the rest of your reply—such as it is—till you either show I said anything of the sort or apologize for your false accusation.

  6. 106

    I’ve got to wonder–IS there anything to Eliott’s insistence that he’s useful, or is he just using that to tone troll? We saw a bit of this with the “well, it doesn’t rise to the level of harassment”…which basically indicates he’s looking at this from a myopic corporate understanding that has everything to do with liability issues and *nothing* to with making a space that’s actually enjoyable for women to want to spend time voluntarily.

    And when he says “helping victims and knowing the difference…” am I the only one who sees this HUGE red flag waving?! I mean really? This “knowing the difference” shouts of doubt, judging, and insisting someone’s concerns be “real enough”…not something I can respect, frankly–fine for legal standards for the working world, but nothing like actually enlightened thinking!

    Oh, but I do love that he’s upset that we’re “judgmental”–seriously, Eliott, how much proof do we NEED before we can adequately describe you as a pompous ass? You know that presumption you have that you won’t be called out on your bullshit? That’s called privilege, and that currency’s no good around here.

  7. 110

    Reading the responses here to Elliot I have to say some have definitely proven his point about being shouted down.

    He is trying to engage in dialogue, but some are apparently more interested in insults and attacks, which has pretty much been par for the course throughout this whole dogfight.

  8. 113

    Because LeftSidePositive was upset that none of his points were being engaged on? Is it possible for just one person to shout down something? Is it possible that Eliott was not, in fact, helping the situation but was engaging in “Just Asking Questions”?

    I’m going to assume “no, yes, and no”. So the further question here is: what could change your mind?

  9. 114

    I think “hyper-skepticism” is a misnomer, like “pro-life” or “men’s rights advocate.” They’re not being “skeptical,” they’re being denialist. At best, they’re exercising skepticism extremely selectively, and that’s a more substantive charge to lay against them than “too skeptical.” How about “selepticism?”

  10. 116

    Apparently we are to call those with ‘pretty good’ ‘points’ to make trolls. Can you guys ever respond to a good point with calm rationality as opposed to paranoid schizophrenia?

    The irony of someone using a mental illness/disability as a slur while attempting to make people feel ashamed for supposedly being insufficiency accommodating to those with disabilities is painful.


    I sincerely hope that your “masters degree in psychology” hasn’t lead you to dealing with individuals who are actually mentally ill/disabled. Because your cruel use of mental illness/disability as a weapon against neurotically is blindingly inappropriate and an indicator of an inability to view people with mental illness/disabilities as full humans who deserve respect, kindness, and support.

    I didn’t choose to have a mental illness/disability. I don’t like having it. I want it to go away. I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t like suffering side effects from the medication I take to treat it. But I don’t have that choice, and I do not appreciate being minimized because I have it. I don’t like it when people treat mental disability/illness like it’s some kind of character flaw.

    So, please, take the plank out of your own eye before going after the mote in your brothers eye. Control your own negative treatment of those with disabilities before you rag on other people for supposedly doing what you are doing.

  11. 119

    OK, so I’m wandering off topic.

    I wonder why hyper denialists can’t see that propositioning people out of the blue in non-sexy situations & conversations is rude and that persisting in that behavior with the same or other people is harassing? That it deserves a warning and, if continued, further action to remove them from the people they’re bothering?

    People-whisperer version: Misbehaving once gets your metaphorical wrist slapped. Misbehaving continually gets you gone.

  12. 123

    While reading this I had an idea to counter the MRAs with a similar acronym for men who know they’re overprivileged idiots: MAWR, Male Activist for Women’s Rights. (Currently Google suggests Bryn Mawr College is what I’m thinking.)

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