Category Archives: Skepticism

No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.

Show and tell – why I’m entering a competition at the Beeb

The BBC are holding a competition for someone new to do six “Pause For Thought” items on the Radio Two.

Can you make us stop, think and reflect in just two minutes? Would you like to be the newest voice on matters of faith on Radio 2? Then here’s your chance…

I am entering this competition though I don’t expect to win it; I am a humanist and an atheist and these slots on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day or Radio 2’s Pause for Thought are reserved for faith groups.

However, I am encouraging humanists and skeptics to submit entries, and to do so thoughtfully and in good faith. (Pun unavoidable).  In other words, don’t be a troll, and don’t be a dick.

And here is why.

The most senior people at the BBC, the policy-makers, seem reluctant to accept that humanists, atheists and philosophers may have something to say on ethical and maybe even spiritual matters.  

In November 2009 the BBC Trust said:

it had found that Thought for the Day is “religious output….”

But I suspect that this faith in faith groups is eroding; people taking editorial decisions seem less convinced. The then Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer said:

it was a “finely balanced argument” whether non-religious speakers should become a part of the long-running Today programme feature.

The way to get these slots opened up so humanists, skeptics and atheists can discuss issues of ethics and morality in these mini-sermons is to undermine the argument that religion deserves special treatment in this way.  This competition gives us the opportunity to show the people who make editorial decisions that we can do it.

These are not the guys who make policy decisions, but one day they will be.

And — hey — I could be wrong, and one of us could win!

Reasons I’d like to be religious

This was written in January 2009 but not published for some reason. For what it’s worth, here it is now.

Reasons why I would like to be religious:

  • Instant social life with people who are obligated to be welcoming, whatever they actually think – (c of e, chapel)
  • Karmic justice – (buddhism)
  • The opportunity to see how it all pans out – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • The chance of being a musician or a dancer – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • Seeing dad again – (christianity)
  • Everything being for a reason – (all of them)
  • Choosing one’s parents rather than the whole thing being a lottery – (buddhism)
  • The ability to influence events just by praying – (abrahamic religions)
  • The comfortable idea of moral absolutism – (abrahamic religions)
  • The absolute duty of social and ethical responsibility – (wicca and buddhism)
  • Additional dimensions and emotional depth to the experience of Cathederals and the music of Tallis and Bach – (christianity in the western tradition)
  • A sense that we don’t stand on shifting sands of hapenstance and chance – (all of them)

Ultimately I guess it boils down to:

  • Greed: – ie more time alive


  • Comfort: – It may happen guys – but hey, it’s not actually shit

Oh well.

Feminism should be a dialogue not a dogma

This one has sat in draft since February 2008.  I tried editing it to say the same things more crisply, but wanted to say slightly different things instead, so I’ve left it as it is.  I had been lurking the trans-phobic rad-fem Michigan Womyn’s Festival stooshie when I wrote this.

The world is changing around us all the time: the world of 10 years ago was surprisingly different from the world today, and the world of the late 1980s even more so.  So far, so obvious.   But this means that political absolutism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  The world changes too much and too fast for any political or social dogma to last.   All political views are specific to the place and time in which they are held.  The ideas that last the longest either have a basis in scientific fact (racial equality) or else they are wishful thinking (the idea of human rights) . 

So what should feminism be like, if it’s a dialogue not a dogma?  Well undogmatic, for a start.  Sentences such as “all men are rapists” are meaningless.  So meaningless you’d think they would be impossible for an intelligent woman to utter, let alone for intelligent women, (sorry womyn) to listen to.  The idea that trans-women pollute spaces occupied by “womyn-born-womyn” is another spectacularly nasty piece of feminist dogma.  But the world is changing, including the space in the world that transssexuals can occupy and the way that children are raised, and unless one can demonstrate scientifically that all men are rapists, the statement is semantically void.  Unfortunately it’s got a snappy little ring to it, and appeals to a certain kind of self-righteous and vicious mind.

In fact, the example of science is an interesting one.  Science is just the sort of conversation that I would like feminism to be.  At the edges of science – where science is being done – are conversations.  Ideas are discussed with colleagues and turned into hypotheses, presented at conferences, tested experimentally, reformulated, restested, written up, peer-reviewed.    The world that science inhabits does not change physically (planets don’t start spinning backwards, the laws of physics don’t change in response to a new PM in Number 10), but the world that science inhabits moves onwards, as the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know changes.

Academic feminism goes through the  motions; I certainly get the impression that academic feminists like a good rant and love conferences.  But feminism lacks the rigour that science has, because it cannot test its ideas empirically.  But instead of recognising that the world it inhabits changes all the time, it seeks the reassuring solidity of fundamentalism.

Thinking and feeling

Updating this blog has been a tour down memory lane.

The thing that strikes me most is how badly I write when I am angry and the NHS junior doctor recruitment debacle of 2007 made me very angry indeed. Those posts irritate me  six years on because so many of them lack information; too many are articulate emotional rants.  They communicate badly because the reader has no room to respond. I am irritated and repelled by my former self.

It’s partly to do with speed. Writing coherently takes time and the conversation was moving quickly. I was part of a community of bloggers and activists, very much swept up in the fight. There was a lot being said and little time for reflection. It shows.  (This lack of time to reflect combined with a permanent medium is the reason why I don’t use twitter much.)

I heard Maryam Namazie speak a year or so ago and was impressed by the calmness of her anger. Her anger is powerful but not loud. It fuels a clear and contained rationalism which I struggle for, instead I become enraged. She is calm but driven and focused, and this is what I now hope for when I write on subjects I feel passionate about.

A couple of years ago I did one of those courses which elucidate your working style. This one looked at your style when calm (mine is “analytical” and “thinking”) and compared it with your style under stress.  It was illuminatingly accurate. When I am stressed I become more emotional and less rational; I lose the ability to think.  Discovering this has given me permission to step back from fraught situations and wait until I can think clearly again. I am a more reliable colleague and I hope I am a less emotional blogger.

Somewhere to escape to

I’m struck that we don’t have a folk-memory of women escaping from domestic captivity in the way that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped in Cleveland, and Elizabeth Fritzl and her siblings, and Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck and Natascha Kampusch escaped before them.

The stories of these escapes are new.

Women being captured is not new, it’s not even specific to our species. At a recent Skeptics in the Pub Talk, Dr Alison Craig told us about “coercive consortship” in dolphins.

Women running away isn’t new either. Allegedly, Wilkie Collins took the title for his book “The Woman in White” from his first meeting with Caroline Graves, the woman who became his mistress. Collins was walking through London one night past a suburban villa when

“the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman” ….  she had been imprisoned at the villa under the mesmeric influence of an unnamed suburbanite.

What appears to be new, is that the escapes are successful, they are reported, and the victims are reunited with their families.   Today Caroline Graves’ story would be international news. But in the 19th century it was not told by the men who witnessed her escape. (Of course, it may not be true).

There are so many possible reasons for this change.

It is finally clear that a man who prevents a woman leaving him is committing a crime not exercising a right.  A line has emerged between a consensual domestic relationship on one side, and imprisonment on the other.  This is new. In the 19th century and before, you would have happy love-matches on the one hand, pragmatic civil contracts and arranged marriages in the middle, and who knows what hells of captivity and servitude at the far end.  Then, as now, a good marriage could go bad. But how many young women were kidnapped in a world where the neighbours all assumed they were wives not prisoners?

Women are free to leave in a way they weren’t before. Divorce gave women the the legal freedom to leave. Before divorce was available, women were chattels in a very literal way. I was checking references for the Mayor of Casterbridge auctioning his wife and  I found a Wikipedia entry about Wife Selling, which  apparently took place as recently as 1913. Later, women gained the cultural freedom to leave. However, in living memory in the 1970s and 1980s what went on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and the police would not intervene.  Putting it bluntly, if a woman runs away now, whether she is a wife or a kidnap victim, she will be listened to.  There is somewhere to escape to now.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We see the victims as unambiguously innocent and wronged. When there is no religious fundamentalism or misogyny at work we do not see them as someone whose moral worth has been destroyed. However, Elizabeth Smart said:

… she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” …

I have tried to find out more about Smart’s upbringing in Salt Lake City to discover if it was particularly religious. She certainly expresses herself powerfully:

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.'”

Smart felt worthless as a result of her repeated rapes but we see her as a victim not as “damaged goods” and  we celebrate when a kidnap victim escapes.  And if we have not yet managed to stop blaming the victims of rape we have at least progressed  beyond flogging them, stoning them or forcing them to marry their rapists.

So I am encouraged by the fact  that when victims of kidnap and imprisonment escape they now do so into the relative safety of a supportive and rejoicing world.

Easier to be good without god

It’s not only possible to be good without god, it’s much easier to be good without god. All sorts of dilemmas just go away.

Want a tattoo? Have one. Poly-cotton shirts? Sure. Ham and cream cheese in your bagel? Coming up.

Prefer that animals should be humanely killed? Object to male and female genital mutilation? Think there are better responses than stoning someone who cheats? Believe your choice of spouse should not be restricted by gender?

Think that child abusers should be brought to justice?

Think women should have the same rights to study and teach as men?

These are all easy peasy things for atheists to decide on; but many seem to be sources of moral anguish for christians, jews and muslims. Or for some christians, jews and muslims, anyway.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should say there’s one ethical dilemma that atheism has made harder for me: My transition from vague-Buddhism to actual-Atheism has made it harder for me to accept abortion. I am 100% pro-choice, but belief in reincarnation let me off an ethical hook and atheism requires my position to be more nuanced.)

Back to women teaching in church.

The recent events at Bristol University Christian Union have highlighted how much harder it is to make their moral choices when you have to base them on the translated, reported, edited and often bat-shit crazy opinions of apostles and prophets. Put briefly, Bristol CU will only permit women to teach in certain specific circumstances, and then only with their husband present. This is based on two verses in Paul’s letter to Timothy: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” This is also the “theological” basis for the opposition to women bishops. The Guardian summarises the Bristol CU stooshie nicely.

The irony is that Bristol CU’s position, which has generated a predictable shit-storm in twitter, is in fact a softening of their previous position. They are aiming at exclusivity by trying to include the evangelical men who side with Paul. (I am unclear whether and how the women can object.)

There are pleas on twitter for us to be kind and patient with the young people who are out of their depth, and I have a certain sympathy for the well-meaning lad, probably in his early 20s, who is facing this unnecessary moral dilemma. He is trying to accommodate evangelicals who quote Paul at him (good, sincere and maybe even lovely people) while I assume he is struggling with the blatant injustice of this prohibition. Not to mention all the other biblical inconsistencies and culturally sanctioned brutalities. Looks like a recipe for cognitive dissonance to me, and no wonder so many believers seem to be saying “la la la, I can’t hear you” so much of the time.

Life is so much easier when you say “sod this for a game of angels” and decide for yourself that child abusers should be brought to justice, that women should be the ones who decide whether or not they can cope with a child, that we should inflict as little pain and stress as possible on any animals we slaughter, and that the only qualification for speaking should be having a voice and the only qualification for teaching should be – you know – an actual qualification. You don’t even need to be an atheist to do this: I come from a tradition which acknowledges the fallibility of scripture (life is much saner when you disregard Paul and Leviticus). Then of course you have to take responsibility for your moral decisions, you cannot just out-source them. But as Bristol CU are finding, you can’t out-source them anyway.

Here are a couple of other relevant links:
and – which is currently showing Bristol CU’s statement

This post was first published on the Twenty-First Floor

Not funny, not funny at all

Ooops.  This one got through the net without all its facts checked and links in place.  I know I should finish editing it, but life is short and events have moved on. May 2013

Orwell portrayed a world where people feared Big Brother’s ability to monitor their every move. Our reality is stranger: it seems we crave attention so much that we rush to open up our lives to the public gaze, authoritarian or otherwise. And not just the wannabes on X-Factor, but those of us who tweet and blog as well.

The online reactions to the twitter joke trial and the joke itself shine a light on how we think about private and public spaces online, and just how much we have handed over to those in power.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the twitter joke trial until the #iamspartacus hash tag splashed itself all over my twitter feed and @TwJokeTrialFund raised the £10,000 needed for his appeal in [nnn[ hours. Paul Chambers was found guilty of [charge] and [sentence]. The criminal record means that Chambers cannot qualify as an Accountant, so his career has gone up in smoke. All in 140 characters or less:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

Now there are a lot of different strands to this, and we need to disentangle them. It’ll help if I pin my colours to the mast. (Your colours may vary, and that’s ok).

Firstly of course the punishment indeed disproportionate: I’m prone to flippancy myself, and I’d hate to lose my job and my ability to qualify in my career and get a criminal record for nothing more than a throw away remark.

However, and this is important, what Chambers did was stupid.

Katherine Whitehorn used to sense-check her plans for children’s activities by asking herself “what would the coroner say?” and it’s a useful question to ask. If this goes completely tits up, what would the headlines be? What criminal prosecution would ensue? Could I end up with a Darwin?

Tweeting threats to blow up an airport is stupid, no matter how common that sort of joke is on Twitter. It’s been likened to shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre, which is [reference’s] famous example of the limit to freedom of speech. Let’s be clear; if the security guys at Robin Hood airport had seen the threat but not drawn it to the attention of the police, or if the police hadn’t then checked that Chambers isn’t a terrorist, then they would themselves have been criminially negligent as custodians of public safety. It would be lovely to live in a world where people aren’t killed and maimed by terrorists

I’ve read several counters to this argument, and to save you the time, I’ll post them here:

But you just don’t get Twitter

Hang on a moment here, who doesn’t get it? Who’s behaving as if the new world is the same as the old world? Twitter, Facebook and the Blogosphere aren’t the pub, but we behave as if they are. So I am not won over by this argument, or by the tweeters saying “but he didn’t me-e-e-e-ean it”.

But lots of people make jokes on Twitter

Yeah, and..? Lots of people smoke. Lots of people eat so much that their weight damages their health. The fact that “lots of people” do something does not make it either intelligent or morally right.

But we shouldn’t have to live in a world where we jump at shadows all the time

Yes. I agree. But we do.

So what do we have here? As I said, we have several strands:

  • Stupidity which can indeed be characterised as criminal stupidity – and I feel for the guy, I really do
  • Apparent opportunisim by whoever still has Chambers’ posessions – and that really isn’t ok
  • Disproportionate consequences – Chamber’s supporters are right, what has been done to him is not fair
  • Two groups staring at each other across a generational or cultural divide and saying “you just don’t get it”

The orginal draft of this post ended like this:

It is Chambers’ irresponsibility which stopped me claiming to be Spartacus. My position is logically identical to anyone whose sympathy for the McCanns is tempered by the thought that they should never have left the children unsupervised.

But now I think that conclusion is fair but harsh, because I’ve changed my mind slightly after reading the pages I’ve linked to.

What has been done to Chambers is unfair and disproportionate. Yes, the Robin Hood Airport were right to get him checked out, but he should have been slapped across the wrist and told not to do it again, like a kid caught scrumping apples.

Two stupids do not make good sense.

Treating the parts that real medicines cannot treat – a place for placebos

As a skeptic I have a shameful confession to make: I once had an imaginary condition miraculously cured by a placebo treatment.

Some conditions have symptons but not signs. Symptoms are felt and reported by patients, signs can be detected using some form of test. Headache and nausea are symptoms of migraine, vomiting and pallor are signs.

About 10 years ago I went through some high-stakes changes and made a career-move which required full-on keyboard use.  But I developed Repetitive Strain Injury which affected my hands to the extent that I experienced pain up to my shoulders.  Lawyers have a field day with RSI, because some repetitive strain injuries such as Carpel Tunnel Syndrome have signs, but others are just painful with no measurable physical changes. The long and the short of my story is that I bought a wrist magnet and strapped it on my right arm. Within half an hour my right arm was considerably less painful than my left and over the next few days the pains disappeared completely. I was able to take up my new job with no problem at all.  A miracle cure! For a condition my doctor had been powerless to treat! Woo hoo!

Doctors are often exasperated by patients who turn up with functional conditions (ie ones which have symptoms but not signs) because there is nothing concrete to treat and no objective way to measure outcomes. In the worst case, they consider the patient to be a malingerer and even in good cases trust between paient and doctor break down and create a space for kindly Alternative Medical practitioners to step into. Functional conditions are for Alt Med of course because the intervention needed isn’t medical. It’s in the realm that Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax calls “headology”. The wrist magnet really did cure my RSI.  It worked, not because it improved the flow of fluids in my body, but because I thought it improved the flow of fluids in my body.

Placebos are a side-effect free way to treat conditions which can’t be treated using evidence-based medicine. Let’s be clear here: these conditions are honestly experienced by people of integrity. Just because their minds and bodies are lying to them, doesn’t mean they are lying to the doctors. But there are no symptoms that can be measured and treated so the medical model and the patients’ experience simply don’t overlap. This creates a gap in the market which alt med happily and sometimes effectively fills. But not all alt med is innocent and all of it is expensive and based on false models and premises. We need medical science to admit there is something going on here that needs treating, rather than dismissing functional conditions as hysterical, imaginary or psychosomatic.

Unfortunately, medics who accept that placebos may indeed be appropriate for these conditions cannot bridge gap by prescribing them, even if they will work where “real” treatments fail. Doctors consider it unethical to lie to patients, and I think most patients would agree with them. So at the moment there is indeed a place for alt med in providing these interventions.  Alt Med has no place in treating pathological conditions of course (ie “real” ones): flower drops and sugar pills cannot treat cancer, and magnetic bracelets can’t cure Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.