Hi! Shermer's shouldercat here, the little voice of rationality that sits on Michael Shermer's shoulder. I have been yowling at him for a little while now about this latest blow-up, but he hasn't been listening.
Note that the entire piece below is satire, if you can satirise by actually saying the right thing. Michael Shermer did not write this. If he had, there would be no problem. In fact, if he had just said "I don't think that and didn't mean it. I am sorry", it wouldn't be a problem.
But a shouldercat rationalist looks for any opportunity to become more rational. Here is what he should have said...
“Intellectually active about (atheism), it’s more of a guy thing.”
Ever had a moment where you think “did I just say that?”
I was talking about atheism on the online TV show “The Point” with Sean Carroll, Edward Falzon and Cara Santa Maria as host. We had a wide-ranging discussion which at one point turned to the question of gender equality in the atheism movement. In particular Cara asked “Why isn’t the gender split closer to 50/50”.
Now, I have to admit I had not thought much about this before the show. I started by saying “I think it probably is 50/50” even though a quick look at a link from wikipedia would have told me otherwise. So I wasn’t off to a great start with my evidence-base.
But ignoring that underlying bad assumption, I thought I was on solid ground - there is just a difference in who wants to be active in the movement, not a problem with atheism itself. So I said “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”
Now I have to make a shameful admission. Even after I said this I didn’t see a problem. Our host immediately asked me ‘why’, but I still didn’t see my error. I had ignored the ‘why’. In doing so, I had dismissed the question, and it is an important question.
It is only when I went back and watched it after the show that I really heard it.
“Intellectually active about it, it’s more of a guy thing.”
Did I just say that?
Did I just say that and not even realise it?
I have been long aware of the biases we internalise related to gender. Skeptic magazine has reviewed the work of Cordelia Fine, and my friend Massimo Pigliucci has interviewed both Cordelia and Victoria Pitts-Taylor at the Rationally Speaking podcast.
I just never thought I could express something so irrational, and not even notice as I said it.
So I want to say clearly and firmly – I do not believe what I said. Being intellectually active about atheism is not a ‘guy thing’. I am sorry for saying that.
Furthermore, after having actually thought about it, I don't think “women being less interested in speaking about atheism” is even a defense against the claim of inequality. It is evidence for inequality.
And finally, having read Cordelia Fine’s wonderful book The Delusions of Gender, I know that my statement “it’s a guy thing” was actually a “stereotype threat”. If someone is told that they are not suited to a task, they actually perform worse, and the gap reduces if the threat disappears. By saying this I was not only accepting the inequality, but actually perpetuating it.
As a rationalist this is a really important learning point. I thought myself not only rational but strongly on the side of equality. The fact these harmful words can come out of my mouth can only show I have some unexamined biases still knocking around, and I need to address them.
So in the interests of purging these biases, I have to make a second admission. This piece was not my initial response. My intial response was denial.
"I never said that!" "I am not sexist!"
I even thought about the people I upset as McCarthy-istic Nazis!
But then I remembered all my work in rationality. Biases are hard to see from inside the machine. Biases can be painful to accept. It is only through brutal self-honesty that we can correct our own biases.
So, brutal self-honesty time. Saying atheism of any kind, of any form, is “more a guy thing” is sexist. I was sexist. So again, I am sorry. Especially to anyone I have hurt. Especially to Cara Santa Maria, who was "talking about atheism" at the very time I made the statement.
I will not say those words again, and I will do my best to become more rational than I was. This piece is the start of that process. I will fight my gut-reaction, because everyone assumes they are right. I will not stick my head in the sand.
Because the only thing more irrational than saying it in the first place would be not learning from it.