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Diversity Doesn’t Just Happen: A Response to Michael Shermer

We’re talking about diversity in the skeptical community again, this time occasioned by some unfortunate and ignorant comments from Michael Shermer about atheism and skepticism being “a guy thing”, which drew a predictably sharp response.

As Jacques Rousseau said, it’s just barely possible that Shermer might have meant this statement descriptively, rather than normatively. But he then proceeded to dig the hole much deeper with this comment on Twitter which leaves absolutely no room for misinterpretation:

PZ: women & blacks don’t want prostrate pity of white males; they just want to be thought of as people. Period. Drop the race/sex obsession.— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) December 12, 2012

With this tweet, Shermer has placed himself firmly in the camp of white, male pundits who implausibly claim that they don't see race or gender, that they're dispassionate reasoners who are above that whole fray. Even worse, he took it upon himself to pronounce on what women and people of color really want, and then urged others to "drop the race/sex obsession" - a Limbaughesque canard which holds that talking about sexism perpetuates sexism, and that the problem will only go away if we ignore it.

We have evidence that bears on the accuracy of these claims. Since Michael Shermer is a pro-science skeptic, I'm sure he'll be interested to hear about it:

  • The Implicit Association Test: One of my first posts on Daylight Atheism concerned the studies which find that most people have an easier time connecting positive words with white faces and negative words with black faces, or men with business-related words and women with housework-related words.
  • A psychology experiment which hired male and female actors to give the exact same scientific lecture, on a topic they themselves knew nothing about, found that students consistently rated the male "teachers" as more competent and knowledgeable.
  • Surely music is gender-blind, right? But when orchestras decided to start holding auditions with the candidates behind a curtain, so the judges could only hear them play and not see them, the rate of acceptance of female musicians shot up. "[B]lind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent."
  • A famous social-science experiment found that otherwise identical resumes get a higher response rate when sent out with stereotypically "white" names than when they bore stereotypically "black" names. The authors found that "a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience".
  • Also, another identical-resume experiment found that male candidates for scientific positions are rated higher for competency and hireability than female candidates, and are offered an average starting salary that's almost $4000 higher.
  • The fact that people have these prejudiced tendencies doesn't mean that they're evil racists and sexists doing evil racist and sexist things. It means that we live in a society which privileges white male voices above others, and we've all absorbed that unconscious bias, along with all the other ideas and attitudes we're bathed in that we pick up without realizing it. And there's no reason to believe the skeptical community is an exception.

    I'm not going to argue that everyone exhibits these prejudiced thought patterns. Maybe there are some rare people who've remained miraculously free of the taint of bias. But here's the key point that Shermer tramples on: you can't just assert that and expect everyone to believe you! All good research shows that unconscious bias is the norm, not the exception - even among women, people of color, and other groups that are often the targets of that bias.

    Saying that we don't need to take any special measures to improve diversity is like a nearsighted person saying they don't need glasses, they can just squint in the right way to compensate for their vision defect. Or, an even better analogy, it's like a scientist saying, "I don't need to make my experiment double-blind, because I'm a rational person and I know how not to fool myself."

    The only rational conclusion is that if we want the skeptical community to be more diverse, we need to think about it, talk about it, and debate it. We need to point out language that has racist or sexist implications built in. We need to remind conference organizers to invite speakers who aren't white men. We need to discuss topics that appeal to people in demographics we've historically overlooked. Looking out for diversity is like the scientific method: it's a way to correct for unconscious biases that would otherwise skew our conclusions.

    And the converse conclusion is that, if we stop thinking or talking about diversity, that doesn't mean that these implicit biases will disappear: it means that they'll have free rein. And that's a big problem, because diversity isn't an optional extra (as Shermer implied when he said it's possible that women and minorities just aren't interested in skepticism, and we shouldn't worry about that). If we do nothing, then the skeptical movement will end up like the Republican party: a shrinking remnant of white men in an increasingly diverse, majority-minority society. And since an absence of skepticism allows all kinds of ignorant and dangerous superstitions to proliferate in society, that would be a disaster.

    Image credit: Baynham Goredema, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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