I recently posted an appeal to support the upcoming skeptical track at the Minneapolis CONvergence organized by The Skepchicks, a group of hip female skeptical activists and some guys. The first comment on that post was a stern admonition that one might not want to support “understanding of science and scepticism” by donating to this effort, because when you check on the intertubes to see what the skepchicks are REALLY up to, they are actually drinking Tang and Vodka drinks (known as Buzzed Aldrins) from the underwear of scantily dressed male attendees.
UPDATE: What is Skepchicon? Please see a note I’ve added to the END of this post which, if you have not ever been to Skepchicon, you are required to read before commenting on this blog post.
There are many different perspectives presented in the comments and several comments link out to both older and newer blog posts or other resources (including this podcast from Skeptically Speaking).
Here, I want to make one simple point that I’m sure about half the people reading this will agree with, the other half will disagree with. But first I want to note a very important bit of context to this discussion…
Being a skeptic does not automatically make you a progressive liberal or a feminist. This is exemplified in the aforelinkedto podcast. Host Desiree Schell starts out the discussion by contacting TAM’s Jeff Wag of the James Randi Educational Foundation in which Jeff discusses the usual concern that an effort to balance gender among TAM speakers could affect their efforts to get “the best speakers.” Something similar was also discussed recently in relation to Richard Dawkins’ edited volume of science writings. If one is seeking pure quality, then the gender ratio you get is the gender ratio you get. A true, pure search for pure truth will not in and of itself bias the gender ratio of those selected (to speak at TAM, to be represented in an anthology, etc.) because everything is all true and pure and shit.
This is of course totally wrong. Although a bias in gender among TAM speakers resulting in very few women as speakers or audience is not the most extreme form of sexism one sees out there, within an intellectually “enlightened” community is is more than a little disturbing, and is almost certainly self fulfilling. It is widely understood, and a result of “old fashioned feminist critique,” that existing biases are self sustaining, and indeed self nurturing. If you have mostly male speakers at TAM, that is what you will always have. If there is a dearth of “qualified” female speakers in the skeptical world from whom to pick next year’s speakers, that is in no small part because there are so few females up there on the podium to begin with. This is feminism 101. It is life 101. You don’t even have to be a feminist to get this.
Yet one of the key leader-guys in JREF had no clue (at first). That is important to note.
Now, getting on to my main point….
It has been implied that the skepchicks are the “Caligula” (as in: Caligula (The Unrated Edition)) of the skeptical world. Well, I spent a few days mainly surrounded by and working with Skepchicks at The Con and I have regular interactions with our local Skepchicks, and the only foray I had into the world of polyamorous orgies required that I leave the Skepchicks behind and go somewhere else. Which is a whole ‘nuther story. For me, it was only after being aware of and reading the Skepchicks blog for a while that I realized they were playing with sexuality at all. It was some time after that that I discovered they had this nude calendar. That was when my friend Ben was setting up a shoot to photograph my friend Lou for the calendar. What I perceived as I became more and more aware of the Skepchicks and what they actually do is something quite different than what is implied or suggested by many of the comments. I have now had numerous multi-hour conversations one on one or in small groups with several skepchicks, including Rebecca, Bug-Girl, Car2D2, Masala Skeptic, Elyse, and one individual who shall remain nameless. They have all been challenging and productive conversations that were quite serious, punctuated with gut wrenching laughter and spine chilling suspense.
So the Hawt Sexie Skepchick thing is PART of the picture, but it is only one part, is not even their leading punch (just go read heir blog to verify that) and as such, it is at most a marketing tool they use fairly often.
But is it an appropriate marketing tool? Probably not. Ideas should be marketed for what they are worth. A good idea will sink or swim on it’s own. All a skeptical blogger really needs to do is to write a blog post that simply and clearly explains that vaccination is not a bad thing that will cause autism, and that failure to vaccinate one’s children will lead to misery, pain, and death in many children, and so on. Then, all the vaccine denialist people will read that, understand the science behind vaccination, understand the logic behind the argument, and have their children vaccinated. A good idea will sink or swim on it’s own.
But I understand the the Skepchicks are … skeptical that such an approach will work, and they have taken to using two strategies that they feel are effective. 1) Go to the people you are trying to talk to. Go to the conventions, bring the conversation to, for example, the generally progressive but often New Age and thus maybe not quite so into good science audience that attends the conventions; and 2) Attract their attention. Which requires being somewhat more interesting than this:
…. perhaps by being this …
… which is to say almost stupidly silly. That is a photograph of Elyse and Rebecca licking beaver, in case you could not tell. This is not sexy hawt babes. This is two very intelligent women who happen to be excellent communicators (I’ve never been on a panel with someone as sharp as Rebecca) causing positive change in the world mostly at their own monetary expense. (Which is why you should click the first link in this post and give them money!) This is Skepchicks using popular culture to capture an audience that would otherwise not be flocking to the well reasoned blog post written by some obscure blogger.
So when I personally came on the scene to help with and attend some panels and carry gallons of vodka and science toys from Car2D2’s car up to the party room and so on and so forth, everything was in place and the New Age but Interested in Science and Science Education audience was ready to “advance their understanding of science and skepticism, and brainstorm about how to spread such heretical thinking more broadly.”
Here’s the thing. Here’s the point. In an ideal world Popular Culture might look different than it does now, and certainly over time it has changed. Please remember who Jim Crow was. He was not a racist commentator like Rush Limbaugh or a racist politician like Strom Thurman. He was an entertainer. He was a whopping big piece of the popular culture of the day. Today, there are still Jim Crow like acts and the equivalent misogynist acts, but such things represent a tiny minority of our popular culture. Popular culture has changed for the better. It is less sexist and less racist.
The Skepchicks and other pro-science and pro-rationality activists have chosen to capture a bit of extant popular culture (in the case of the Con’s, the whole SciFi and Fantasy thing) and use it as bait to engage an audience otherwise difficult to obtain. In the process they may even sully themselves with some aspects of popular culture that are a bit unsavory. I’m sure that some of the drunken Klingons that wandered into the Skepchick party room did not quite get that they were being “accidentally” exposed to science and skepticism even though it was all around them in the trappings set up in that room. They were there for the Buzzed Aldrin shot, preferably delivered via someone’s cleavage. But most of the people who engaged with the Skepchicks last July totally got the point.
But we need to consider this: How does one change popular culture? Not from the consumer end, usually. There are no great masses of participants in popular culture arriving at the doorstep of the purveyors and producers of said popular culture asking them for less skin, less sex, less flatulence, fewer racist ethnic jokes, fewer acts that glorify bacon and do-nuts, and so on. Popular culture changes in a different way. It changes because culture itself changes. An increasingly liberally educated populous produces less stupid shit over generational time. Getting people involved in science and skepticism is an IMPROVEMENT in the overall culture. Capturing and exploiting the energies of existing popular culture (within reason) to do this is a noble act, even if sometimes unsavory.
I, for one, thank the Skepchicks for every cleavage-delivered shot they’ve given out, every hangover suffered, every snappily answered-to remark borne and converted into a teachable moment. It is difficult, dirty, under appreciated work, and someone has to do it.
And next July, when they are doing it, I’ll be there watching.
_ _ _ _ _
NOTE: What is Skepchicon? Since this all started with an appeal to help support Skepchicon, and some of the initial, inevitable whinging arose in the context of people misunderstanding what Skepchicon is, I realized I should explain what it is, insofar as I know. I am not a Skepchick but I participated in one Skepchicon (and I’m looking forward to the next) but I can give you my observations as a trained anthropologist.
Skepchicon is a track of discussion sessions, each with three or four people that include Skepchicks and various experts on some topic. Last year the experts were mix of local (like me and Stephanie Zvan) semi local (like PZ Myers ironically piped in from Germany) or imported (like Pamela Gay). This adds up to several hours of programming, and several more hours of hallway discussions, lunch and dinner with people, and all the other conference-context stuff that happens. Much of the equipment to hook up via skype to other discussants, the food that is consumed for the breaks, the travel expenses, etc. seem to be paid for by the Skepchicks, and although I am not qualified to say where the money comes and what it is spent on, I do know that I was heavily nourished and well taken cafe of last July and did not spend a dime. Which, as an invited participant is appropriate.
In addition to this conference-like effort, which is the main focus of Skepchicon, there is a reception room (also called a party room) much like the reception suite that an academic department may maintain at an academic conference, or a business at a business convention. Except instead of leaving the room alone and setting up a combo comp/cash bar (as is normal for conferences) for receiving guests in the evening, the Skepchick’s reception room is first coated in plastic (as are all the rooms at the Con, it seems to be a rule) and then decked-out with science related stuff. Rather than having a cash bar, donations are requested which last year seemed to end up equaling the cost of the booze (by chance I was in the room helping with cleanup when the cash was counted).
This practice … of setting up the room … is normative behavior. All the various participants on The Con seem to do something like this.
There are two sets of regulations governing the behavior and activity of the skepchicks, who are volunteers, when they are hanging around in the party room. One is the hotel rules, which they follow carefully, and the other is the set of Blogospheric Roolz about what a lady should do or not do, or what a certain kind of feminist should do or not do. They seem to ignore this latter set of rules.
I have observed that they also have their own set of rules. These include: Always wear a lab coat; don’t get drunk so you can keep in control of the situation; help make the guests feel welcome; make sure the guests don’t get out of control or hurt in any way; watch each other’s backs. The local skepchicks are usually there with their families though the children are taken away by the dads before the scary Klingons show up. Dr Who is running on the TV. There is a bible.
So, to summarize, Skepchicon is a conference-like track of panels organized by volunteer Skepchicks and attended by a range of panelists, which attract a lot of CON attendees and clearly serve an important pro-skeptical, pro-science purpose, accompanied as are all the other events at the CON by a suitably prepared reception room.
Several individuals have made specific complaints about the skepchicks on this blog. I can’t personally answer to most of those complaints because I am not a member of that organization. I find it absolutely fascinating that around the world, every day, people at conventions and conferences are doing the same thing over and over and over, but when a group of chicks decide to do it to make various points about rational thinking, science, and so on, they are accused of inappropriate behavior and even financial malfeasance. What the fuck, people? What. The. Fuck? Do you have not even one iota of a clue of what the larger goals here are? Do you care? Are you some kind of infiltrator from Dick Cheney’s secret organization? Jeesh..
I have noticed that none of these complaints have been raised on the Skepchicks blogs, which leads me to believe that many of these issues have been raised before and dealt with there, or that the complainers are chicken. I suspect a combination of both.