Hyper-skepticism: The New Buzzword

Stephanie Zvan recently posted survey data from The American Secular Census related to the mistreatment of women at secular events. The highlights are as follows:

  • Women are 26% more likely to feel unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement.
  • Participants get the most blame from women for problematic behavior and unwanted advances. Still, unwanted advances by group leaders and employees are claimed by more than 15% of the women who indicate they’ve had negative experiences.
  • When asked about the disadvantages of participating in secular organizations, “problems within the group itself” are cited 157% more often by women than overall.

A commenter by the name of C. Folk responded that because participants self-select, the data may not be representative of the population, to which Zvan claimed that participation in surveys is always self-selecting to some extent.

Presumably addressing C. Folk’s criticism, the American Secular Census clarified that the census is “not necessarily the most scientific way to delve into the details of sexual harassment at secular events,” though the “data holds a great deal of potential for deeper investigation of a demographic or a viewpoint.”

In the discussion that followed between C. Folk and Zvan, I noticed the use of the term hyper-skepticism. Zvan, not accepting C. Folk’s criticisms wrote the following:

… would you like to show me where you lecture people with degrees in psychology who write about scientific methodology who have just told you about self-selection in survey data–about self-selection in survey data?

I ask because what you’re doing here is swerving into the realm of hyper-skepticism, and I suspect you want to give that some thought.

C. Folk noted that “pointing out the limitations of the ASC data is not hyper-skepticism” and then adopted a deferential attitude and removed himself from the discussion.

Before I discuss hyper-skepticism, was C. Folk correct to point out the limitations of the ASC data? External validity is always an issue when selecting and sampling, but that doesn’t mean that a random sample is just as compromised as a nonrandom sample. Suggesting otherwise, as Zvan did, is embarrassing.

Surveys have levels of bias, but they can produce generalizable results if care is taken to minimize error and adjust for potential bias. I am not suggesting that the data produced by nonprobabilistic sampling methods are useless, but  I urge extreme caution about making inferences from non-probabilistic samples.

I also urge caution with respect to the use of the term hyper-skepticism. Jason Thibeault writes that there is a “subset of skeptics that are skeptical well past reasonable levels.” These hyper-skeptics will “pore over every detail of a paper or news article hoping to find (or spin) some part of it into something supporting their overarching worldview that the paper doesn’t actually do by itself.”

Alonzo Fyfe argues that the hyper-skeptic’s goal is to “block progress – to be an obstructionist – and he uses skepticism as a tool for building obstructions.” This type of skepticism is not a virtue, but is instead a “form of manipulation, much like lying” and those who use this technique “seek to hijack the will of others and to take the products of their efforts for one’s own, by manipulating them into acting in ways that are not in their benefit.”

I accept these definitions and the problems associated with hyper-skepticism. I also accept that sexism and misogyny are enduring and common occurrences that permeate our culture. And, just so there’s no confusion, I support the adoption of human rights, anti-harassment, and non-discrimination policies.

Here’s the problem: I don’t think this ongoing controversy is just about sexism, misogyny, and the implementation of anti-harassment policies. Zvan’s response to C. Folk is a case-study in why some people in the atheist and skeptic communities are opposed to Rebecca Watson and her supporters’ framing of this “debate.”

C. Folk’s caution regarding the ASC data’s representativeness is an appropriate and reasonable response. Even if he was wrong, it would still be an appropriate and reasonable response because he has the right to be wrong without conjuring the specter of hyper-skepticism. One can be wrong without being a hyper-skeptic. It just so happens that he was right.

How do we distinguish between hyper-skepticism and more virtuous forms of skepticism? How do we avoid dismissing people like C. Folk as hyper-skeptics?

Whether Watson and her supporters agree with the perception or not, there is a perception that certain prominent members of the community, in their efforts to support the worthy goal of eliminating sexism, misogyny, and harassment from conferences and other gatherings, make exaggerated claims and have a bias against disconfirmatory evidence. Given my last few posts about this issue, it’s fair to say that I share this perception, while also being in favor of anti-harassment policies.

I can consider myself a pro-feminist without buying into every facet of feminist epistemology. I can recognize problems regarding the validity and accuracy of women’s subjective feelings of empowerment or loss of empowerment without dismissing the value of anecdotes. I can also think that sexism is a problem in the community without seeing it as ubiquitous. Most of you can do the same without experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Fyfe has a suggestion for how to deal with genuine hyper-skepticism:

This form of skeptic needs to be met with the claim that, ‘We have information enough on which to make a decision. Unless you can come up with positive reason to believe that we should not commit the act, then it is perfectly reasonable for us to act.’

We do have enough information that sexual harassment and sexism exist, even if we disagree about the particulars. I think it is reasonable for us to act, even if there isn’t much data about the prevalence of inappropriate gendered behavior within the atheist and skeptic communities themselves. However, that does not mean that we should stifle debate or help stir a moral panic.

7 thoughts on “Hyper-skepticism: The New Buzzword

  1. I think you mean “hyper-skepticism” rather than “hyper-sexism” at one spot.

    I believe the discussion between C. Folk and Stephanie Zvan is ongoing, and the point of contention between them is the idea that the *methodology* of the survey in question is problematic in that it creates self-selection. C. Folk has not as yet explained why xe thinks that, and the ASC has tried to clarify its methodology in that the specific questions aren’t known to the respondant until they start the survey.

    All that said, yes, there’s a real risk that people might abuse this concept. But it’s definitely a real phenomenon, as evidenced by the numerous other examples of people coopting the word “skeptic” to mean “I won’t believe any evidence you put forward on this claim no matter how good”.

  2. Hi Jason. Thanks for catching that hyper-sexism. Too many hypers!

    The reason C. Folk thinks the methodology is problematic even when topics and questions are unknown to the registrant is because the sample remains nonprobabilistic. The very act of going to a website like The American Secular Census, perhaps by accident, registering, and choosing to respond to a survey is self-selection. While this choice to fill out the survey can be considered spontaneous, it is not a probability sample.

    I agree that hyper-skepticism is a real phenomenon. Would you say that it’s synonymous with denialism?

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Pingback: Atheism and the Mind Body Duel « irritually

  4. Something just occurred to me about all of this. It seems that much of what is precipitating now is a continuation of “Elevatorgate.” Or at least Elevatorgate and the fallout is a sort of ever present phantasm hovering over discussions of sexism at secularist conferences, particularly if Rebecca Watson is involved. Anyway that’s not what occured to me. What occurred to me is this. Why has the male figure from elevatorgate never stepped forward? From the arguments I’ve read it’s pretty clear that many (if not most people) do not think he was harassing Rebecca based on her description of the incident. At worst he was being clueless about how the context of his advance might make some women feel. Either way, I’m very surprised that he has never come forward. If he had there would have been more than just speculation about his motivations and his perception of the situation. This could have been quite beneficial to those who were critical of Rebecca, and would have been supportive of him. To hear an actual human being say, “well this is what I was thinking…I didn’t realize it would cause that reaction, etc.” The silence has been to the advantage of Watson and her supporters and that’s what makes me wonder. Did it ever happen?

    I do not know Rebecca Watson and I do not mean to suggest that there is any proof that it didn’t happen, but isn’t it fair to consider as a possibility. And isn’t it fair also to wonder how often this possibility has crossed the minds in a community of people who consider themselves skeptics? In terms of making an evidence based assessment of elevatorgate we are no better off than trying to confirm that the virgin Mary appeared to Lúcia dos Santos, Jacinta Marto and Francisco Marto in Portugal in 1917 (Our Lady of Fátima). In fact since there were three of them we have even less evidence in this case. So where is the skepticism? Does it not exist because being skeptical about a woman’s accusation of sexual harassment is a very uncomfortable thing to be? What does that say about such accusations in terms of “rationalism,” “materialism,” and evidenced based views of the world? There are some types of claims that all people tend to take on faith, because not doing so is existentially difficult. Something for skeptics and rationalists to consider seriously, I think.

  5. I have seen this discussed on a number of occasions in reference to hyper-skepticism, the rebuttal being that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but since we know men do stupid things, women are propositioned, and sexual harassment is an ongoing problem, Watson’s claim does not require the same kind of support as, say, the appearance of the virgin Mary.

    If a friend says that they went to a movie over the weekend, should we request evidence? This form of skepticism, some people argue, leads to the same mistakes made by climate change skeptics, 911 truthers, and anti-vaxers. And no one in the skeptic community wants to be like them.

    It’s easy to be a skeptic when the consequences of questioning are merely met with anger and other forms of blunt resistance. But when your very identity is threatened it’s a different matter. In addition to guilt by association, there is, as you pointed out, the fear of being labeled a sexist or misogynist for questioning a woman’s accusation of sexual harassment.

    But Watson is a public figure, her claim wasn’t an isolated YouTube event, and she brings a particular worldview to the table that gives primacy to her subjectivity and imbues gender and social stratification with mystical properties: “The patriarchy is an energy field created by all living things, it surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”

    I’m of the opinion that skepticism is most necessary when something is on the line, when the questions are existentially difficult. Fear of being labeled should send off tiny alarm bells in every self-proclaimed skeptic’s brain. As you said, this is something for skeptics and rationalists to consider seriously.

    Inevitably, the final excuse is the cause. We need to stop arguing and deal with the problem. It’s all for the cause. Stop questioning. Listen. Listen. Now do what I say.

  6. “…the rebuttal being that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but since we know men do stupid things, women are propositioned, and sexual harassment is an ongoing problem, Watson’s claim does not require the same kind of support as, say, the appearance of the virgin Mary.”

    Now I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, so don’t take me too seriously (famous last words), but we also know that people twist the truth for a variety of reasons, particularly when they have something to gain from such twists. I would argue that for a skeptic confronting the “known” aspects of the natural world that problematize claims about Marian apparitions is easy, but confronting the “known” aspects of human nature may not always be. I would suggest though, that the former may be existentially difficult for someone else, like let’s say a devout Catholic in Portugal in 1917. I’m not trying to say that contemporary skeptics and early 20th century Portugese Catholics are exactly alike, but I think its an interesting idea to think with.

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