Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Token Skeptic -an essay special

Unless you are a skeptic that lives in a Dodge van down by the river, you are likely aware of the skeptical/atheist/rationalist (SAR) community has been in a bit of turmoil over gender issues due to the recent “elevator gate” blogger debate that occured shortly before TAM 9.  However, as Kylie Sturgess shares on her Token Skeptic podcast and in an upcoming “Curiouser and Curiouser” CSICOP column (an essay on gender politics), such issues date back in the skeptical community since at least the late 1980’s. 
The episode begins with a bit of housekeeping: Sturgess explains why her podcast has been on hiatus for quite few months.  The explanation, while an appreciated gesture, I find unnecessary.  It is not like this is some money making operation, and we're all paying dues to hear the podcast.  With volunteer operations such as TS or the Conspiracy Skeptic or my blog, sometimes life gets in the way and it is basically understood by the listener. 

Sturgess then proceeds to give a history of gender issues and politics within the skeptical movement including an ugly riff that occurred between Karen Stolznow (who is awesome) and the Australian Skeptics (who I regularly follow as well.)  Stolznow was briefly the editor of "The Skeptic" magazine, published by the Australian Skeptics, but she left amid accusations against the Australian Skeptics of sexism and pay and work site problems.  A distressing event within the skeptical world to say the least.  The essay also discusses other times in the past when efforts were made to be more inclusive of women and reach out and make everyone feel more welcome including the current TAM 9’s code of conduct.  Although I must admit when I received the JREF tweet on the code of conduct, my heart sank a bit on even a code of conduct being found to be necessary.  The entire essay is bookended by a personal story of Sturgess making tight near instant friends at TAM 3 only to have most of the bonds fade away over the years, particularly with a number of women skeptics at the conference. She also relays a tale at TAM 3 of receiving a disconcerting hug from stranger whom she knew only from the internet.* 
My take away from the essay is that the recent interest in gender politics within SAR is nothing new, but is a continuation of the gender politics that come to light from time to time within the SAR community as well as in the general populous.  At various times over the past twenty-odd years, the question of gender participation within skepticism and a desired increase of female participation has been raised from time to time with various success.  The topic should be tackled and not ignored, and while not stated in the essay, but shown by the tenor and tone of the essay, ought to be conducted in a civil and calm manner.  The essay to its credit does not even reference the late elevator-gate discussion, and while this may be due to its content being authored prior to the event, it actually makes it a much more insightful read.  "Elevator-gate" now contains a fair amount of emotional and rhetorical baggage which is an albatross to some similarly themed essays.  

I know I do not have any answers to the questions raised in the history offered by Sturgess.  I suspect two people who thought they were in complete agreement on these gender issues would find, with prolonged discussion, areas where differences would come to light.  What I found most depressing about the recent exchanges was not so much how the principals involved came across for the most part, but how strident the debate was on the comment threads.  I really have no answer for it, but I have lost a tad of faith in the skeptical community to practice rationality as much as it preaches it.  I appreciated this essay which sheds some light on the backstory to some of the gender issues brought to light by elevator gate without being trapped or hemmed in by it.  I suspect it will stand the test of time better than many recent SAR writings on the issue. 

I can sympathize.  I am not much of a random hugger myself.  So if you ever run into me on the street, a hand shake will suffice.

**edit**Stolznow's picture has been changed since original posting of article. 

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