Can women be skeptics?

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It’s hardly news that the skeptic community is dominated by men. Part of the reason is pure, old fashioned gender discrimination and harassment. Apparently some male skeptics feel threatened by women and want to frighten and harm them.

Then there’s basic sexism.

For example, the aptly name Anonymous Coward has this to say on a message board:

Let’s face it. Women are more illogical than men. They have a higher rate of belief in the paranormal after all. Maybe women are just too damned sensitive to discuss theories or ideas rationally without implanting their personal emotions into the foray… It could be that women handle discussion (“confrontation”) quite differently than men and take verbal confrontation more personally then us men do… Skeptics are largely drawn from the “hard sciences” or philosophical areas which are dominated by men, I Know this, but I have also noticed very very few female athiests both in my personal life and over the internet.. why do you think this is?

Offensive, right? Women are not less logical than men. Rationalism is not the province of men alone. Women are perfectly capable of succeeding in the hard sciences and do so every day.

And yet …

I’m beginning to wonder if there is a germ of truth to the claim that there are not more women in skepticism, because women are so anxious to avoid confrontation.

Consider the case of the purportedly skeptic website, Grounded Parents,an offshoot of Skepchick.

I wrote recently about the hatchet job published by Grounded Parents that Jamie Bernstein did on my analysis of the statistics from a paper recently published by MANA (Midwives Alliance of North America, the organization that represents homebirth midwives) in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health. Her take-down was sloppy and intellectually lazy, including as it did at least 8 separate errors of fact, of numbers or of math. Frankly, I felt Bernstein and Grounded Parents owed me an apology and well as owing their readers a correction of the many egregious errors.

Instead, Bernstein and Grounded Parents doubled down on their intellectual sloth and published yet another piece filled with egregious errors.

This time I’m not the only one complaining. Both math/statistics professor Brooke Orosz, PhD and ios9 blogger Esther Inglis-Arkell, who wrote about the MANA statistics, charged Bernstein with making claims that, in the words of Inglis-Arkell, are “disingenuous, if not outright false.”

Moreover, it is crystal clear to anyone who knows anything about the homebirth safety debate that Bernstein has absolutely no idea what she is talking about. Both she and Grounded Parents seemed to be entirely unaware that there are two kinds of midwives in the US, and that the MANA paper is concerned, not with real midwives, but with lay people who have awarded themselves as midwifery “credential.” Bernstein appeared to have no clue that 3 of the 6 authors of the MANA paper are homebirth midwives, and 5 of the 6 are affiliated with MANA itself. Bernstein and Grounded Parents demonstrate no recognition of the fact that American homebirth midwives are nothing like real midwives (certified nurse midwives, CNMs) or midwives in Europe, Canada and Australia.

Jamie Bernstein and Grounded Parents have violated one of the fundamental tenets of skepticism, rigorous scientific analysis.

But that’s not the big problem. Plenty of people, men and women simply aren’t that rigorous and don’t know enough science to accurately assess what they are writing about.

The larger problem is that Grounded Parents violates two other tenets that I think are basic to skeptical argument and related to each other. Grounded Parents, and Skepchick itself discourage free-wheeling debate by moderating and censoring comments that they don’t like. And they appear to place a premium on women being “nice” to each other.

I, and others, have found that our comments are moderated out of existence if the author and editor don’t like them.

According to the Skepchick comment policy:

We may ban you without warning or apology for the following reasons [including]:

not positively advancing the discussion [or]


This site is our house, and we reserve the right to kick out anyone who is making it an unpleasant place to hang out. Further, if you are particularly awful, we reserve the right to warn all of our blogger friends about you and make your email and IP public. In extreme cases, we will turn over all your information to the police.

No, this is not a violation of your freedom of speech. We are not the US government.

No, it’s not a violation of freedom of speech, but it is a violation of the principles of skepticism.

You cannot be a skeptic and censor debate. Yes, you can remove racism and other evidence of hatred or discrimination. Yes, you can remove comments that are not on point. But you can’t censor comments that you don’t like and still call yourself a skeptic.

Why is there censorship on Grounded Parents and Skepchick? Apparently, because they want us all to behave like ladies and be “nice” to one another.

Indeed, the author of a front page post on Skepchick today seems to express this view:

… [E]ach of us has in their power in every single moment, an opportunity to lead by positive example to make the world a better place each and everyday. A place where we can peacefully co-exist and grow without religion and without superstition as a driving force.

The skeptic and atheist communities have been riddled with negativity lately. But it is in our power to change that, starting today. If even half of the people who self-identify as skeptics or atheists made a promise to actively do better, we would, as a whole, become the leaders that the world needs…

Positive examples? Riddled with negativity? These are the words that women have always been told. Be nice! Don’t make others look bad! Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings! Act like a lady!

These are the words of people who value being “nice” above being correct. It’s downright embarrassing. No website can lay claim to the adjective “skeptic” if their prioritize harmony above intellectual rigor.

So can women be skeptics? Of course they can. They have the same ability to succeed in science as men, the same ability for rational thought as men, and the same inherent ability to give as good as they get in free-wheeling debate.

But when a website designed by and for skeptical women censors comments so that authors’ feelings won’t be hurt, and to erase “negativity,” they send a terrible message to women. That message?

It’s more important for women to be “nice” to each other than to be intellectually rigorous and vigorous in promoting rational thought.

Is it really surprising then that there aren’t more women in skepticism?