Science: A Safe Space to be wrong

by Richard Acton

On the interaction of Skepticism, feminism and other causes

Richard Acton, outgoing President of Nottingham ASH, has written a little on his considerations of scientific, sceptic and feminist cultures and the obstacles these groups may face in their interactions


In my admittedly limited experience of these two groups interacting, the skeptical community seems to have a slightly tense relationship with feminist groups. This is a little odd as humanists are natural allies of feminists as both want to see equality of opportunity irrespective of gender. It then occurred to me that this is not an issue limited to the interaction of skeptics with feminists but of skeptics with many different organisations, I have a hypothesis about what may be at least partly to blame for such slightly uncomfortable relationships.

The Skeptical community is dominated by people who ask tricky questions, challenge assumptions and demand substantiation of the answers. The skeptical community takes on board and seeks to live by the values of scientific culture; always asking, what do you think you know and how do you think you know it? This means that people in this community are desensitised to people, sometimes aggressively challenging their ideas. This is a very counterintuitive thing for people to get used to, to always be dissecting you own ideas, pushing at any weakness and resisting the urge to rationalise by for example rehearsing old arguments or double counting evidence.

Science has learned that the first few plausible sounding explanations you come up with for something usually turn out to be wrong; so its culture creates a safe space in which to be wrong about your first guesses of the causal narrative for whatever it is you are trying to explain. It takes practice to expose yourself to a public attempt to rip your case to shreds and not get upset and defensive about people challenging your ideas. This not something humans are naturally very good at, most scientists still seem to have a hard time with it.

Taking the scientific approach to answering questions is important because it allows the identification of the real nature and scope of the problem as well as the real causes. This understanding is the first step towards devising effective solutions, otherwise we may well devise solutions which fail to address the root causes and turn out to be ineffective and wasteful.

The skeptical community has its problems and could sometimes do with turning the lens of scientific evaluation on its self. However when a well-meaning skeptic wonders how representative an individual experience is and to what extent it can be generalised, or points out there are a lot of confounding variables that could influence some set of statistics; they are not necessarily challenging your overall conclusion. They are often just getting a feel for the problem trying to assess, how hard a question is it to answer and the size of the subjective error bars they should be assigning to the conclusions, it’s almost reflexive. I suspect a lot of skeptics and scientists are not really taught explicitly about these aspects of scientific culture that I have described, rather they just sort of absorb it from the behaviour of the people around them. Skeptics can forget that they are not among people who have effectively been acclimatised to the rigmarole of scientific critique and have at the back of their minds the injunction that critique is almost a necessary good.

This clash of cultures; the scientific embrace of critique and uncertainty, and those to whom this is foreign; is I think an important factor in the friction that arises between skeptics and groups less dominated by members immersed in the culture of science. Some of the feminist groups and other groups like humanitarian charities that I have encountered would but for this friction would be natural allies of Humanism. This clash of cultures in not the sole cause of friction, groups that are not explicitly non-religious are often concerned about losing religious supporters. This concern is often unwarranted as most religious people will not cease supporting a cause they identify with just because they will be working with ATHEISTS.

Skeptics are by no means immune to emotional responses to critique of their ideas, they too can feel uncomfortable when a question rubs up against a strongly held belief, but a good skeptic pushes hardest where it hurts the most to try and make sure they are not avoiding their belief’s real weak points. Gaining a more accurate impression of a phenomenon be it the precise nature of the disparity in the treatment of the genders and its causes or something else does not undermine the validity of individual experiences. We are all dissonant to some extent, compartmentalising some areas of our belief and failing to subject them to scientific scrutiny, how else could there be religious scientists? This means that even the same individual, active in two different communities; for example Skepticism and feminism can perceive a tension between them. The same individual can fail to see the way in which scientific thinking lies at the bottom of all reasonable claims to understanding and not apply the lessons of rigor learned in one realm to their thinking about another.

We all come to our opinions on complex questions at the end of long chains of reasoning, expecting others to instantly understand and agree with positions at the end of long inferential chains is unreasonable. This for me is a lesson in empathy and withholding judgement, in being patient in the appreciation of another’s position and attempting to understand where they are coming from before dismissing them as idiots or ideologues hopelessly out of the reach of reason. This lesson is for people on both sides of the scientific culture gap. We are faced with the challenge of bridging a gap between perspectives in the course of ordinary conversation, this is a virtually insurmountable hurdle. It takes time to internalise something as profoundly counterintuitive as always making an honest attempt to systematically destroy your own arguments, and feel good about it. So I say first talk about the culture of science, about what it really means to think skeptically and do it in the context of something without strong emotional affect before moving on to the emotive issues.

The parable of the mask:

Two people looked at a mask of a face. The one says: “the mask faced away from the window”, the other says: “the mask was facing towards the window”. The one says to the other: “what nonsense is this? The mask clearly faces away from the window”. “Pah”, the other scoffs dismissing the one as an idiot. The two argue call one another names and begin to march off intending to form opposing sects who will feud for generations over the direction of the mask. “Hold!” Cries the voice of the Skeptic. The two pause. The Skeptic asks the one “where did you stand with respect to the mask?”, the one replies “why I stood as though to look out of the window with the mask directly before me”. The other’s eyes widen in realisation: “come with me” speaketh the other, they return to the room together and stand to the side of the mask perpendicular to the window. The one says: “oh I see” the mask faces the window it’s rear face is concave.

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