Category Archives: Skeptics

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!

Local Skeptics Groups – what should we be doing?

What are local skeptics groups for?

I’ve been pondering this on and off over the last 12 months as I’ve written emails and posted details about Skeptics on the Fringe on our website, gone to our monthly talks, failed to read the books for our book club, visited the city’s sites on our days out, hung out at our socials, tagged photos of friends and speakers in Facebook, written up meeting minutes, offered lifts, gone to hospitals, and drunk endless cups of tea, some of them laced with rum.

This question matters: if only four people turn up to that event is it a success or a failure? Well, if we are about mutual support and the people there deepened their friendships, then it was a success. If we are about outreach then it’s a failure. Is the Book Club a success? What about the Days Out? No way to decide, without a clear reason for doing them.

Here are some things a local Skeptics Society may be about, in my case Edinburgh Skeptics; it’s a personal list, some are better than others and I really hope your mileage varies because otherwise you are a creepy-stalker-person.

Support and personal growth

  • Friendship
  • Finding and hanging out with like-minded people
  • Deepening your knowledge on a geeky-nerdy subject that interests you
  • A safe environment for exploring alternatives to the mind-set of your family

Education, entertainment, public engagement

  • Informing people of issues they were not aware of
  • Challenging ideas that people don’t bother examining

Changing the world

  • Challenging dangerous or exploititive busienesses locally or nationally
  • Campaigning for public awareness – eg 10:23
  • Campaigning for policy change – eg the Humanists and Faith Schools

But can we do all these things equally well? And should we even try?

TAM London – How should Skeptics debate?

One of the strands at this year’s #TAMlondon was the question of how strident should skeptics be? Tim Minchin referred to this as the question of tone.

P Z Myers argued (calmly, kindly, almost sweetly) for anger, ridicule and truth. D J Grothe by contrast put it to us that we should be both rationalists and humanists, that we have to be good about being right, because being right by itself is not enough. Melinda Gebbie reminded us that one of the sources of failure in the feminist movement was that “didn’t have a maniesto of behaviour”, in other words because too many of them were self-indulgent and became whiny, strident and easily ignorable caricatures.

This disagreement is no surprise: Richard Wiseman (I think) reminded us that when cats get frustrated they talk about herding skeptics. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of people who think for themselves.

I’m with D J Grothe on this one, though. I think the key to how we interact with others (even the dull and ignorant) is respect.   As one of the TAMsters asked P Z Myers

Is it constructive to be so confrontational?

Why the different approaches? What do we want to achieve when we engage with the purveyors of woo? Randi told Robin Ince that he is fuelled in part by anger and wants to expose the liars and shut down the frauds. His motivation for exposing “faith” healers was rage; rage at the shamless way they turned grief and fear, and disability into cold hard cash. Dawkins is angry about the abuses of human rights embedded in Sharia law’s treatment of gays and of women. Evan Harris is disgusted that Boots’ excuse for duping the ill with homoeopathic remedies is that they are also available on the NHS.  There is indeed a lot of anger among skeptics.

However, I suspect that others who claim to be fuelled by anger are just fuelled by the need to be Right. That it’s egotism, pure and simple, and a bullying egotism at that.  One interesting quote from Myers was

“We have science and reason on our side”.

Well, surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t we be on the side of science and reason? One of the unexpected highlights for me was Susan Blackmore’s account of her double-blinded, randomised, statistially significant journey from woo to material atheism as she researched for decades but found no evidence for the psychic powers she absolutely believed in.

Back to the question of how should we debate? Too often, exasperated passion comes across as shrillness and underemines the message.  Debates between skeptics and believers frequently collapse in a morass of crossed purposes based on different ways of testing and arriving at the truth. Did Tim Minchin persuade Storm that she was narrow minded and wrong, or merely shout the poor woman down?  Both P Z Myers and Adam Rutherford reminded us: “Don’t be a Dick”.

The success or failure of these debates so often boils down to what kind of knowledge the debaters accept as true. Assertions that my logic is better than your intution are pointless.  Stupidly so. Our double blinded randomised controlled trial does NOT beat their personal experiences (in their minds at least), no matter how much it convinces intelligent, empirical, skeptical us.  Besides which, it is always so much more interesting to find out WHY people think what they think than to listen to yourself prating on about evidence to somone whose touchstone is their intuition.

So do you assume you are dealing with charlatans? Or with fools? Or with people of intelligence and integrity whose approach to uncertainty and evidence are different from yours? And this last one is, of course, much more threatening than the dismissive thought that “they’re all stupid”.

And how do your assumptions colour your debate?

(More on TAM London soon).