Lessons in Evidence, Sexism Edition

Hayley Stevens recently posted at SheThought on the kinds of crap many young, female skeptics get to deal with. You know the sort of thing:

When you share your critical thoughts with others, when you voice your opinion and speak your mind do not be under the assumption that it is okay to do this because this is attention seeking behavior and others will see through your wicked attempt at gaining an ego boost for yourself. By even contemplating writing your thoughts on your blog you are clearly attempting to make a name for yourself and make subjects all about you. Any negative reaction you receive as a result of sharing your thoughts is only deserved and you only have yourself to blame for being young, female and daring to be vocal.

It took all of four comments for her to get this in response:


Hayley replied that everything she listed had happened to her, repeatedly, and to others. Apparently, her personal experience didn’t count as evidence. She had to prove that it happened to her and had happened because of age and/or gender.

Come on Hayley, this is Skepticism 101. Claims require evidence, what is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence, burden of proof etc. If you’ve got evidence of yourself being dismissed because of your age/gender, then obviously that’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. However, you haven’t presented any thus far. Perhaps you should consider the possibility that you, just like everyone else, are sometimes wrong?

So Hayley linked the commenter to a Reddit thread on which he (what, you thought this person was female?) had commented.

Hayley, as has already been pointed out to you, that post from Reddit was from a troll, looking to get a reaction from you. You fed them. They won. As we speak, they are most probably rubbing their hands with glee as they look for their next target.

Yes, what they did was horrible, but they weren’t looking for debate. They are not interested in rational discussion. It’s completely separate from the issues here.

I’ll say again, if there is evidence that young (and I’m younger than 30 BTW) female skeptics are being dismissed for ageist and sexist reasons, then I’d be the first to say that there is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But until that evidence is presented, I can’t help but treat this like I’d treat any other baseless claims. I’m not trying to wind anyone up, I’m not trying to be a contrarian, I’m simply asking for evidence.

That wasn’t evidence. That was a troll. A troll isn’t a real person who is tolerated and supported within a community. Oh, no, no, no. And our correspondent repeated the sloppy thinking about feeding trolls.

What this commenter is doing is far worse than being wrong about trolls, however. This commenter is getting the idea of evidence all messed up–and lecturing about skepticism while he does it. Even if we didn’t care about reaching as many people with skepticism as possible, even if we considered basic fairness to be of no concern whatsoever, this is why we shouldn’t tolerate this pseudoskepticism about sexism within skeptic circles.

So, how does evidence actually work? Well, it’s important to remember that systematically gathering evidence is a tool for reducing the role of bias in assessing a phenomenon. For this reason, it is important to decide ahead of time what constitutes evidence. If we just collect data then lay it all out in front of us to try to determine what it means, we give our biases far too wide a field in which to play. This process can be useful for generating hypotheses, but it can’t distinguish between competing hypotheses based on that same set of data.

Movement skeptics really should already understand this about evidence. After all, the big, high-profile event in movement skepticism, the JREF’s million-dollar challenge, operates on exactly these principles. The first two applicant rules are:

  1. This is the primary and most important of these rules: The Applicant must state clearly, in advance, and the Applicant and the JREF must agree upon, what powers or abilities will be demonstrated, the limits of the proposed demonstration so far as time, location and other variables are concerned, and what will constitute both a positive and a negative result.
  2. Only an actual performance of the stated nature and scope, within the agreed-upon limits, will be accepted. Anecdotal accounts or records of previous events are not acceptable.

That is how evidence works in skepticism.

So now a similar challenge needs to be put to those who just show up and say, “Where’s your evidence of bias?”, particularly when they say it to people like Hayley who had already given some. It’s time we stop saying, “Well, here’s more, if the first batch wasn’t good enough for you.” It’s time to say, instead, as I did to this commenter, “What do you consider to constitute evidence? What will satisfy you?”

The plain fact of the matter is that most of the people asking for evidence like this haven’t thought about bias deeply enough to have any idea what evidence they would accept. They’ve just gotten in the habit of asking for it when their preconceived notions are being challenged. As though there were some objective evidence for those.

After all, it isn’t as though the existence of biases were some kind of new and radical notion within the skeptical community. It’s one of the foundational findings of the field.

If these people want correlational evidence, fine. That’s sadly easy to do, as long as they understand (as a skeptic should) that one example of something happening to a man doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen far more frequently to women. If someone is numerate enough to agree to a reasonable test, providing correlational evidence isn’t hard.

Do they want some other sort of evidence? Well, then it’s up to them to decide what that should be–and up to me or to whomever else they’re asking for evidence to determine whether they’re being reasonable in their request. They may be. They may not be. Either way, if they specify publicly, then others can judge the fairness of their demands.

Do they not know what they want, at least in terms of evidence? That wouldn’t surprise me, actually. That’s probably the case for most people asking like this. All they know is that they’re not satisfied with what they’ve seen so far. They don’t know why. Even here, though, asking will do a lot of good. They claim to be skeptics. Let them unpack what exactly it is that they’re skeptical of when the topic is bias. There isn’t a better way for them to do this than to consider what it would take to change their minds.

So, for the sake of good skepticism, it’s time to stop answering calls for evidence of bias with anything other than, “What sort of evidence will satisfy you? No, I mean specifics.”

Lessons in Evidence, Sexism Edition
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27 thoughts on “Lessons in Evidence, Sexism Edition

  1. 1

    I’m not familiar with the background, but I’d like to suggest that we also be mindful as to how we present evidence and that we should make an effort to answer the evidence question before it’s asked. Anecodotal evidence is not evidence without some way to verify it. In your first block quote you end it with “Any negative reaction you receive as a result of sharing your thoughts is only deserved and you only have yourself to blame for being young, female and daring to be vocal.” To which I as, what if the poster was incorrect about the facts presented? Being wrong is independent of age, gender, or the desire to express one’s opinion.

    I don’t think presenting a little outside evidence should be that hard. In episode 11 of Extra Credits ( http://penny-arcade.com/patv/show/extra-credits ) they talk about harassment in which they show harassing messages sent to female gamers as well as reference an earlier episode where a particular incident is discussed in more detail. I think that is plenty of evidence because they are going outside their own experiences.

    Also evidence can be verified. In a blog a link to an example of your subject would support the blogger’s claim.

    “Apparently, her personal experience didn’t count as evidence.”
    This may be harsh, but no it shouldn’t. Personal evidence alone is not evidence. Anyone can say anything and claim it was a personal experience. If I say I caught a 2 foot catfish, why should anyone believe me without a picture or witness? In skeptecism we discount people’s personal experiences with religious figures all the time. If someone says they felt the power of Jesus inside of them, does that count as evidence?

    Like I said, I don’t know the whole story here. Maybe she did have a link to an example. Or maybe she was telling a story no one but her could verify as true. I’m not disagreing with your conclusion, but we shoud still be critical about evidence provided.

  2. 2

    I’ve done that before, a few times. Not as often as I should, I admit, since usually it’s prompted by frustration with people who make a habit of moving their goalposts. Perhaps because I’m a bit naieve, I generally assume that others are operating on the same rules as me. When I say, “If you can show me an example of X, I’m wrong” I mean just that: Show me an example of X and I will consider my point invalidated. And I assume that’s what others mean when they challenge me to show them an example of X, but it’s not so: A lot of these people then try to argue that my example isn’t really an example of X because it doesn’t also satisfy Y – a condition that they just raised then. And when you find another that sastifies Y, they move the goalpost to Z, and so on.

    Anyway, when you say, “Fine, I’m game to your challenge. But first, let’s agree ahead of time where the goalposts lie,” it’s funny how quickly most of them disappear. Usually, they flounce out with a few ad hominem attacks claiming that because I am obviously unable to reason appropriately (read: am female and disagree with them), they won’t waste their time on evidence they’re certain is going to be insufficient — totally ignoring the fact that I had just offered to only provide links to evidence that would fit their agreed-upon standards, so long as they articulate and ennumerate their standards ahead of time.

    In other words, “I have my mind made up! Don’t confuse me with the facts!”

    In all, it works quite well: It gets the sexist asses (who, in my experience, constitute the vast majority of those who start spouting variations on “evidence or it doesn’t happen!” in these cases) to go away, and in theory, the oblivious-but-mostly-well-intentioned stay, engage, and (hopefully) learn something. Granted, I’ve never had the latter happen online, but I have had it happen in person a few times.

  3. 3


    Also evidence can be verified. In a blog a link to an example of your subject would support the blogger’s claim.

    Maybe she did have a link to an example. Or maybe she was telling a story no one but her could verify as true.

    Apparently, you didn’t read the post.

    So Hayley linked the commenter to an Reddit thread on which he (what, you thought this person was female?) had commented.

    Also, apparently you can’t (or didn’t bother to) follow the links Zvan provided in the post to the place where this all went down.

  4. 4

    I am the commentator in question. As a skeptic, are we not supposed to ask for evidence when none is presented? I asked for it and eventually I received it. I don’t think any group should get a free pass from backing up their claims, no matter how obvious the claims are to the claimant.

  5. 6

    Alverant, it is not true that reported personal experience is not evidence. As a trained ethnographer, who’s work in ethnography consists of reported personal experience, I take exception to the idea.

    Most, possibly all, evidence is potentially subject to revision and most arguments are based on a nexus of evidence. One must always be prepared to re-evaluate based on shifting information. Part of that process is understanding that some evidence is not incontrovertible as it comes to us. Reported personal experience that is similar and shared among many individuals who have been thoughtful about how they make and describe observations is not something you are free to ignore a priori, though it is also true that reported personal experience can be problematic.

    I think you’ll find that much of the evidence that is a priori acceptable because it comes along with some sort of verification is bullshit while certain personal observation is quite solid. For instance, I can cite personal observations that have been backed up by numerous pieces of physical evidence for bigfoot and alien abductions, yet everything I know about how a Pygmy kills an elephant is based on pygmies telling me how they killed elephants.

    I’m pretty sure bigfoot does not exist and alien abductions don’t happen, and I’m pretty sure I know how a Pygmy kills an elephant.

  6. 7

    @Alverant: Greg already has made similar points, but I want to pile on your massive failure in rational thought. In fact, personal experience IS evidence. It’s a specific kind of evidence (anecdotal), which bounds its applicability/generalizability, but it is most certainly evidence. In fact, ALL empirical evidence is personal/anecdotal, as it’s predicated on the observations of individual persons (and one’s observations of those persons reporting their observations – even if you’re using technological mediation for the observation, making it more ‘objective’, the meaning is only generated upon observation by a human of what the tech meters). Assembling a large collection of personal anecdotes that are similar or the same (I measure the acceleration of an object falling in a vacuum as 9.8 m/s^2, which is a personal anecdote; you measure the acceleration of an object falling in a vacuum as 9.8 m/s^2; Greg measures the acceleration of an object falling in a vacuum as 9.8 m/s^2) is evidence of a pattern, from which one can draw broader claims (in this case, acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s^2, though that conclusion is certainly due to more than the correlated observations alone), but it’s all predicated on anecdotal evidence.

  7. 8

    No I only had time to skim the post due to time (and got carried away when responding). So yes, I missed something and made a mistake. My point remains that when recounting events, we need something more than that person’s word.

    One personal experience is not evidence. But it looks like from your post you had several. In other words, you had a claim verified by others. When you study a culture, do you only take information from one source, assume everything they said was true, then go home and report on it? Or do you seek other sources and verify what you were told?

    Also a personal account of how to do something is different from personal experience. Just because a Pygmy knows how to kill an elephant, it doesn’t mean they’ve done it. I know how to fire a machine gun even though I haven’t done so before. I think of it more like an eye witness to a crime and we all know how (un)reliable eye witness testimony can be.

  8. 9

    It is the old “I doubt your ideas are written off because you are a female. It is more likely you are just overreacting because you are a silly girl; therefore, I will write you off” gambit.

    Even if, say, you don’t accept one or a handful of people’s personal experiences, it is certainly not hard to use Google to find a hell of a lot more, and even surveys and widespread interviews. Hell I just found one after 10 seconds. It’s not just one person claiming this treatment, it’s women all over the globe.

    There is evidence of similar treatment in other areas of life: for instance, misdiagnosis of diseases in women is much higher. Partly because they may display different symptoms, but partly it’s also because doctors (and husbands) like to say “it’s all in your head, i can find nothing wrong”

    To demand “evidence” when it is already out there and easily available, and would be faster to find than the time it takes to troll blogs contradicting people, I think is proof that they don’t really mean what they say they mean, or want what they claim. I think it more likely they just want to say “no I don’t believe you” and harass others.

  9. 10

    @John I said Personal evidence ALONE is not evidence. Anyone can say anything and claim it was a personal experience.” (emphasis added) In your example you have multiple experiences and you are also saying that if Danny sees an object falling at 10.34 m/s^2 in a vacuum then it’s just as valid as everyone else on an individual level.

  10. 11

    Wow. Awesome tool you have provided. By forcing our opposition to state clearly their definition of what constitutes as evidence, they will be unable to shift the goal posts (without it becoming transparently obvious) when we present said evidence.

    I will have to keep this in mind. Thanks.

  11. 12

    Another thing to consider is that the skepticism applied to a claim should have something to do with what we already know about the situation. If somebody tells me he just saw a car run a red light at a busy intersection, that claim a priori is not terribly divergent with my expectations, so it might warrant provisional acceptance until corroboration can be sought. On the other hand, even a normally trustworthy individual claiming to have witnessed an alien spaceship landing will have to provide some evidence before I take him seriously, because that’s not something I’d expect to see.

    So personally, if a woman claims she’s experienced discrimination in the skeptical community, in light of many other similar claims from many different women, I would consider that credible unless there is a reason not to. I would be less willing to accept such a claim of systematic discrimination from a man unless there was some supporting evidence.

  12. 13

    Rory @12 has got it exactly. That we’ve seen any number of women giving anecdotes about things that have happened to them is not novel. And every time one of them gives evidence, it’s either a no-true-scotsman (like Tom the original commenter that Stephanie pointed out — who refused the same evidence twice before accepting it), or it’s not worth countenancing because it comes from a flighty woman. And you realize, of course, how the latter is just another sort of entrenched sexism.

  13. 14

    @12+13 ditto…

    Observing one sunset is not evidence that it is a regular occurrence.

    Repeated reports of discrimination from multiple, reliable sources is.

    The fact that this happens every single time the subject comes up strongly indicates that this is a persistent phenomenon.

  14. 15

    I’m just going to leave these here.

    Stereotype threat, gender edition:

    Ambivalent Sexism 1:

    Ambivalent Sexism and Justifying Gender Inequalities:

    Nepotism and Sexism in Loss Rates of Women Academics:

    Ambivalent Sexism and Gender Stereotypes:

    Intellectual Sexism:

    Women in Engineering and the Effect of Dealing With Sexist Men:

    Overt, Covert and Subtle Sexism:

    /social scientist, feminist and academic

  15. 16

    To add a comment, though I am a little depressed that there’s so often someone on threads like this denying anything of the sort exists, 30 minutes on google scholar, not even the specialized databases I have access to, with any of the following terms ‘sexism’ ‘benevolent’ ‘intellectual’ or ‘discrimination’ will fetch dissenters roughly 60 years of rigorous research on these subjects. Thinking sexism doesn’t exist/isn’t a problem/women have an extra heavy burden of proof is just fucking lazy.

    Seriously. If you’re moved to comment on the need for evidence, get your ass on google scholar and spend just a little time reading abstracts.

  16. 17


    Oi. This kind of thing frustrates me because it’s holding people to a level of “evidence” that is incredibly difficult to achieve in real life.

    I mean, let’s say you’re at a skeptics convention*. A young woman rushes in. She says that she was taking a walk in the park during lunch with one of the male attendees, and he groped her. There were people around (in cars, joggers at the other end of the park, that kind of thing), but none that she knew, and so far as she knows, none that were attending the conference. Should everyone respond with, “Evidence?” “Why should anyone believe you?” “Anyone can say anything and claim it was a personal experience.” “That’s just a personal anecdote!”

    Not all things are going to have the kind of evidence that would meet the stringent definition of scientific evidence. Dismissing oppressed groups because of that simple fact is incredibly harmful.

    Because any kind of group that’s going to perpetrate that kind of shit isn’t one I can be a part of.

    *this hypothetical situation is inspired by a personal experience that I had, although key elements have been changed to make it less complicated and more clear cut.

  17. 18

    If Hayley Stevens were the only one complaining about this, the skeptic would have a point. This type of post is pretty much universal with every woman blogger I have ever read. Especially, young women bloggers. I have also observed discrimination against women in person many times.

    There is more than enough evidence to say that the things she points out happen on a regular basis. Saying that every man is overtly prejudice against women is foolish but saying whenever women post about a certain topic there is bound to be some people who react a certain way is just noticing a recurring pattern.

    I just don’t get some of the criticism that young women bloggers face. She is looking for attention. So what? If she is making a valid point who cares if her motives aren’t somehow absolutely pure. Pure what? Nobody does things for just one reason. The idea that the only reason that a man would defend her point of view is that he wanted to have sex with her makes no sense at all. Not all men are that shallow. Sometimes that may be part of the reason but once again so what? How does the motivation of a third party invalidate someones ideas? Many of the criticism of young female bloggers that you see in the comment section all the time makes absolutely no sense.

  18. 19

    One must be wearing some industrial-grade blinkers not to see the discrimination of women in general. Evidence is a good thing but if someone is demanding evidence for what happens right in front of them they are either a troll or a grand-master in selective observation.

  19. 20

    Amusingly enough, I just got around to watching the “Burden of Proof” video from QualiaSoup that Friendly Atheist posted a few days ago:

    And, fascinatingly, the phrase “I was having a discussion online” was the EXACT wording of a claim so banal that demanding proof for it is ludicrous and “would make interaction impossible.” It’s at about 9:23 in the video.

    I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but the person recounting an online discussion was female-identified, and the person disbelieving her was male-identified. It rather made me smile!

  20. 21

    Yes, I think that strategy might help.
    Sadly, so far the treshold for “evidence of sexism/misogyny” for many people, mostly guys seems to be “he clearly states that he hates all women, even his mother”.
    It started with “Elevatorgate”. Still many people actually refuse to accept that gender had anything to do with the way it played out. And we’ve seen it with many occurences since: No matter how extreme the event (remember “the Amazing Atheists” rape bullshit?), somebody will come along and tell you why that isn’t evidence.

  21. 22

    Thanks for admitting that personal anecdotes can never be taken as evidence for overarching biases. I.e.: “A man talked to women in an elevator therefore the skeptic community has a problem with sexism” is not a valid conclusion.

  22. 24

    anon atheist 78:

    I.e.: “A man talked to women made a thinly-veiled proposition to a woman he knew wanted to be alone in an elevator at four o’clock in the morning, and when the woman made the simple request of “Guys, don’t do that” she was the recipient of multiple rape threats and was harassed FOR WEEKS by hundreds of members of the atheist community, otherwise intelligent people tried to conflate a request to be treated with minimal respect with banning “flirting” and acted incensed when called out on their bullshit, and atheists/skeptics on the Internet openly declared that as a man he had the right to make her feel uncomfortable because otherwise how would he get laid (and of course that’s a more important priority than her concern for her physical safety), and one of the most famous leaders in the atheist community publicly declared that as long as she wasn’t raped or stoned she had no right to even bring up the fact that she was mistreated and any “minor” mistreatment of women apparently isn’t even worth talking about, therefore the skeptic community has a problem with sexism”

    There–fixed that for you…

  23. 25

    @Alverant: My irritation is that in your rush to dismiss the claim, you ignored the evidence that that been offered in the post you were replying to. And then you have the nerve to talk about burdens of proof and evidentiary standards.

    Further, if one were to apply your standard, we would have to say, “Well, what proof do you have that element #240, if/when discovered, will have 240 protons and electrons in a neutral state?”

    Because that’s the trend that holds for all other elements – all nearly 120 of them that have been discovered and/or made artificially to date?

    “Insufficient! We can’t rely on your word alone!”

    My point is thus: It’s not just a woman’s word. It’s supported by the fact that women face discrimination in hiring, in firing, in promotion, and in raises (see pretty much every link from Comment #15). It’s supported by the fact that misogyny exists (it’s so common that I would argue if you haven’t observed it yourself, you’re hopelessly oblivious). It’s supported by all of the many examples we can point out from the Net where people say sexist things to women to discount their opinions and to ignore any points they have (search “#mencallmethings” on this site for a few examples), it’s supported by the fact that a culture of victim blaming and dismissal of the problem exists (search #ididnotreport on Twitter), and so on, and so forth.

    A woman crying, “Sexism!” about something and a creationist crying, “God did it in 7 days 6,000 years ago!” are not even in the same continent of plausibility. A woman crying “sexism” is more like a bi person crying “homophobia” or a person of color crying “racism”. This shit happens. A lot. And we have to deal with it. A lot. And by trying to pretend that every single claim of sexism should be treated as every bit as improbable as homeopathy working or acupuncture aligning nonexistant chi is not helping.

    Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The corrollary of that is that ordinary claims only require ordinary evidence. Your example of a catching a 2 foot catfish is something that could be safely considered an extraordinary claim (if you’re not a more-than-sometimes fisher), and so we might require pictures or measurements of said catfish. In my region, we don’t have catfish, so you might be asked for proof that you went somewhere that has catfish.

    By contrast, a woman getting catcalled is not at all extraordinary. I am certain that if I were to log catcalls I get walking around the city, it would be a several-times-a-day thing for me, ranging from as relatively-harmless frat boys screaming “WOOOOOO!” out the window of their car at me (which happens on a daily basis), to as alarming as guys in vans yelling some variation on, “Get in the back, bitch!” as I walk to the grocery store with my partner at night and slowing down until they see me adopt a trained stance and realize my long-haired partner is a man (which is more like a once-every-couple-months thing). In such a situation, I would argue that personal experience is sufficient evidence to consider an account of it plausible.

    Why? For the same reason it’s sufficient to say, “Hey, I made this new base and reacted it with hydrochloric acid and found that it deprotonates HCl in a stoichiometric manner by using an indicator and a titration!” – which is formally written-up personal experience of the experimentor. Why is it sufficient in chemistry? Because strong acids typically react with bases in a stoichiometric manner. It’s ordinary. And so the evidence we ask for is also ordinary.

  24. 27

    […] started right away, so I explained what a witch hunt really is and is not. I talked about how to deal with the constant requests for evidence of sexism that don’t seem to stop when evidence is presented. I noted how that evidence is continually […]

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