The Plank in the Skeptic’s Eye

I haven’t had much to say about the Atheist Community of Austin voting out a significant chunk of their board and losing multiple volunteers over work with a skeptic YouTuber who decided he needed to weigh in on trans women in sports. By and large, that’s because I haven’t had time to follow it all, and I can’t see how I could be any help by talking about the situation in ignorance.

(If you’re in the same position, you can watch these two interviews with former board members and volunteers. I’m not aware of similar summary explanations from the remaining organization, but I’d be happy to link to those as well. Still, I don’t think any of these are necessary for this post.)

I’ve also been thinking about the situation mostly from an organizational standpoint. One of the boards I’m on is in the middle of revising its bylaws, and the other has that on our to do list, so I’m thinking processes. Plus, last year, I had people say they were going to show up to vote against my election to the board because of my “intolerance” of their position on trans issues. We had to consult the bylaws to figure out how to let them do that, since I was running unopposed. Then they never showed. But I digress.

More recently, I’ve been going through my older posts for a couple of projects. As I did, I realized just how much of load of nonsense “mission creep” really was. Don’t get me wrong. I knew it was nonsense. I argued it was nonsense. I simply missed something important because I let others frame the argument.

We cannot keep politics out of our skepticism and still be skeptics. We cannot teach people how to counteract their biases or pretend people should listen to us because we’re better at fighting our own if we don’t account for our political biases. In order to do that, we have to address them as openly as we do any other kind of bias.

In practice, we skeptics tend to reduce our political biases to confirmation bias. We see and accept and remember that which agrees with us. But even a quick look at skeptics talking about the human rights issues trans people face shows that isn’t a robust enough framework for these biases.

All too many skeptics use these issues to wave their biases around as though they were arguments or even informed questions. When they dither about allowing trans women to share locker rooms with cis women as though it introduces sex into a non-sexual environment, they demonstrate heteronormativity and the equation of sexual drive with maleness. When they ask about the “fairness” of trans women competing in sports, they lay out a slew of biases, from male physical supremacy (sorry, guys) to the purposes of competitive sports. Most of all, their concerns for people being pressured to change their behavior to stop marginalizing trans people demonstrate biases against change, for social comfort for the majority or in-group, and toward prioritizing the individual over a broader supportive society.

Unsurprisingly, these last are some of the most common political biases in the U.S. These, and their converses, are at the heart of our ongoing culture wars.

I hear people arguing that preferring stability to change or supporting the majority over the minority are questions of values. They are. My own values in these regards are pretty firmly set, and I’ll argue for them in other contexts. But that’s not my concern here.

By relegating these questions to values, the skeptical movement has tried to take them off the board of skepticism. However, these values bias our analyses. They bias the questions we ask. They bias the sources we accept. They bias the answers we consider satisfying.

As skeptics, we have to address this. We have to take our political values out and lay them on the table with everything else we examine. We have to declare them and account for them. If we can’t, if that makes us uncomfortable or makes our work unpalatable, we have to stop pretending that what we’re doing is skeptics’ work.

Or I suppose we could just keep pretending we don’t have these biases and be happy being bad at skepticism. I know which I’m choosing.

The Plank in the Skeptic’s Eye