As a skeptic I’m used to asking for evidence behind claims, though sometimes—especially in areas surrounding social issues—criticizing arguments can raise thorny issues for skeptics.
I was recently reminded of this when I came across an interesting article by Jaymie Strecker on a Web site called The Floating Point Divide. It’s about the issue of the gender gap in pay and a book titled Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, published in 2003. The premise is that women don’t make as much as men because they don’t negotiate their salaries.
Strecker writes that “Reviewers drooled over the book’s potential to help women. The Ms. blog included it in their top 100 feminist nonfiction. In my field, computer science, Women Don’t Ask is recommended left and right — Geek Feminism, Grace Hopper Celebration, Anita Borg Institute. Valerie Aurora of LinuxChix even became so enraptured by the book that she ran a scholarship to help women buy it…. Parts of Women Don’t Ask wax very feminist. The authors genuinely want to help women get the money and power they deserve. They want women to be free.”
So what’s the problem?
According to Strecker, “They go about it the wrong way — with shoddy science and sexist assumptions.” The excellent analysis that follows is an exercise in skepticism: “It’s time to end the myth that women get paid less because they don’t ask — by exposing the pseudo-science and pseudo-feminism that started it.”
Not only does Strecker decry the book’s sloppy science, but she also says the book actually harms women: “The saddest thing about the title of Women Don’t Ask is that it undermines the authors’ goal to help women fare better in negotiations. When a woman ‘knows’ that women negotiate poorly, that can cause her to negotiate poorly.”
I have not read the book, though Strecker’s in-depth analysis is well worth the read, and is quite convincing. What I find especially interesting is that Strecker, who seems to be a pretty hardcore feminist through and through, is calling bullshit on what is ostensibly a very pro-feminist topic and book.
Exposing pseudoscience in feminism—like any politically and emotionally charged issue— can be a thankless and dangerous task. It’s easy to paint anyone criticizing a feminist author, book, article, or blog as sexist, if not misogynist. Yet, of course, such a knee-jerk reaction is not necessarily true. One can criticize a claim without having any pre-existing bias or agenda; it happens all the time in journalism. Believing otherwise gets into conspiracy theory territory and ad hominem attacks—suggesting, for example, that skeptic criticize alternative medicine not because it doesn’t work, but instead because they have an agenda: promoting Big Pharma.
I’ve always believed that a movement progresses when it is self-critical, and when critics are encouraged to speak up in civil, respectful debate and discussion. In any social movement or activist agenda, there are inevitably myths that crop up. As skeptics I believe it’s important to try to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the myths. There will always be certain arguments, examples, facts, and symbols that a movement uses to make their points, and everyone benefits when those facts and arguments are valid.
One example that comes to mind is the long-discredited claim that pornography leads to rape. For decades, especially from the 1950s through the 1980s, social conservatives and some feminists (such as Susan Faludi, Andrea Dworkin, and others) found common ground in their opposition to pornography. There were many arguments offered for the detrimental effects of porn, but one of the most common was that it encouraged sexual assault. Research since then has conclusively disproven this claim; in fact if anything there is an inverse correlation between rates of rape and other sexual assaults and the availability of pornography—including hardcore porn. Today, faced with mountains of objective proof that porn does not cause or encourage rape, most (though not all) feminists have abandoned that claim. (Interestingly, most of them have not gone out of their way to publicly repudiate the earlier assumptions, but instead have let it die a quiet death by not repeating it.)
Some movements are incredibly careful about not endorsing or promoting myths and misinformation. Jewish Holocaust organizations and the Anti-Defamation League, for example, are among the harshest critics of Holocaust claims and memoirs. In fact, there are many examples of faked Holocaust stories that were investigated and exposed by such organizations. They know that endorsing myths and fictions about the Holocaust will only serve to give their enemies (such as Holocaust deniers) ammunition to discredit them. They are well aware of the damage that misinformation can do to their cause.
When we find myths and fallacies in arguments we want to succeed, nothing is gained by glossing them over or sweeping them under the rug (or, worse yet, ignoring them because they “serve a larger truth”). Science, ideally, is a self-correcting mechanism; bad studies and research are criticized, better studies are designed, and in this fashion we make progress in understanding our world. We don’t have to fight the same battles over and over again, rehashing the same discredited theories; scientists have agreed to reject failed hypotheses (the theory of humors, the aether, and so on).
Social movements, for the most part, don’t have that kind of self-correcting mechanism to help assure that myths are discarded and truths are supported. If they did, creationism would be unheard of; who in 2012 could seriously dispute that evolution by natural selection is a fact? (Answer: Up to half of Americans, depending on the poll.)
Challenging and attacking facts and assumptions in positions we oppose comes second nature. But people aren’t used to examining the evidence and arguments that support their assumptions—and this confirmation bias is all the more reason to be vigilant.
I think that bad arguments and myths, especially when they are not acknowledged and therefore uncorrected, hobble progress. This is one reason that creationist arguments are so easy to debunk: they keep bringing up the same discredited fallacies over and over again. With rare exceptions, creationists stubbornly refuse to purge debunked facts and assertions from their arsenal of arguments. They keep insisting that no transitional fossils have been found; that Earth is a closed energy system; that a rudimentary eye is no better than no eye at all, and so on.
What do you think? Should skeptics expose fallacies in social movements they endorse, or should they stay silent and not rock the boat for the greater good?