Archive for the ‘ Labels ’ Category

Celebrity skeptics

I wrote this ages ago, and just got prompted into thinking about it by a recent news story. I meant to read it and edit it, but haven’t bothered. I can’t even remember if it was finished.

First up, I would like to get my little nerdgasm out of the way. This week I met a some geeky heroes of mine, and had a great couple of nights out. I saw the night of 200 billion stars, or Uncaged Monkeys, at Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, and hosted Simon Perry at Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub. A wonderfully geeky couple of days, and as nice a set of people as you could hope to meet. However, it did get me thinking a little about the role of ‘celebrity’, and especially in skepticism.

It seems that the common usage of celebrity now refers to anyone who appears or has appeared on TV, for whatever reason. I have no interest in the vast majority of this – I don’t care whether you qualified from tool academy, vajjazzled a princess, or slept with more than one footballer at once. For this discussion I am talking about people in and around science and skepticism who have become known by either doing science well, communicating science well, or debunking pseudoscience. All of these things should be celebrated, and with the advent of The Skeptic Awards, hopefully will be.

I have not been around very long, but it seems to me like the skeptical movement is making some real headway – there have been big wins in the advertising of alternative healthcare, live popular science shows are selling out large venues, and more and more blogs that give good scientific analysis of complex issues are springing up. Science TV shows and radio programmes are consistently among the highest consumed. It’s rarely, if at all, that science and critical thinking have had a bigger presence.

However, I am a little concerned that skepticism is developing a celebrity culture, in which people who are of note are not given the challenge the sometimes deserve. People are often led by the people they most respect, and there is a strong reason for this. If a particular source has shown over time to be reliable, honest and correct, it makes sense that you should tend to guardedly agree with them when talking about a topic you don’t understand or know enough about. However, this does not mean they are correct, just that the caveated assumption that they are correct is a reasonable working position until more information is known.

The reason I am mentioning any of this is because I have, over the last couple of weeks, noticed myself changing my mind without the evidence or arguments that I would expect myself to require. Recently, the Conservative government announced the plans to make public data available to pharmaceutical companies. My immediate reaction is to be distrustful of most things this government does, and especially around bringing private enterprise into public services. I was aware that I was being biased, but I disliked the proposal on instinct.

Then Ben Goldacre said something in praise of the move on Twitter. Immediately my perception of the situation changed. Admittedly this just shows that I have a bias toward believing Ben in addition to my bias toward disbelieving the Conservatives, but it is the bias at I am a little more concerned with. Tending to disbelieve until given adequate evidence is a safer position logically than tending to believe unquestioned, and it is this approach that is at the heart of skepticism.

I doubt very much that I am alone in this, but I think there is a potentially dangerous tendency to treat the most noteable skeptics as reverentially as religious groups do. Of course, our celebrities tend to have earned the right to have their positions respected by being involved somehow in science or science communication, but no more so than anyone else who has the equivalent expertise in the relevant area.

One of my main concerns is the unbalance that we see in the representation of science in the mainstream. There is a tendency to use a limited number of sources that you see approached in the media – if there is a hard physics breakthrough talk to Brian Cox, if there is interesting biology ask Attenborough, for medicine talk to Ben Goldacre, and so on. What I would like to see more of, and this is a point I have heard Neill DeGrass Tyson make, is the original researcher. Name and promote the people who do the work. This helps to make sure that the work is properly represented, as well as ensuring that too much credibility isn’t placed into one source.

Overall I am happy with the level of attention our best skeptics get, and think they do a good job, but I fear that we all get defined by a small number, and that we risk building our beliefs on them too much. I’m not sure this is a massive problem, and have tended to find that the skeptical community is quite happy to challenge itself, but it’s something I am aware of affecting my own views, and I’m sure subconsciously affects others too.

Equal parenting and feminist fatherhood

I’m a feminist and a soon-to-be father. I’m ridiculously angry by comments that Farage is making about his inability to change the gender discrimination in the City as if it were based solely on necessary biological differences. I am also angry about articles like the one in the Telegraph saying that fathers are worse at important parenting skills. I think it is true that women and men, or birthing and non birthing partners, face different challenges, and that women are often better equipped to parent. But this is in large part because of entrenched social norms, where women are expected to sacrifice personal fulfillment to manage the family, and men playing with children are something to be suspicious of. I am very much opposed to the unnecessary continuation of these traditions, and the damage that it does to families who are forced into roles that they don’t want.

I’m also in a really rather traditional family set-up, with myself as the bigger earner and the original house purchaser, and my wife almost always doing the cooking and managing the housework. I drive the car, and she makes sure it has everything in it. This has come about largely as an accident of our circumstances, rather than any view either of us hold about the gender roles in a relationship.

So what should I do about fatherhood? What role can and should I play in the upbringing of my child? How does this fit with my feminist principles?

My guiding principle must be that the division of both labour and reward is fair, or at least as fair as it can be given that the whole process is wildly messy and unbalanced. What is ‘fair’ can be really tricky to evaluate, as different ‘work’ is evaluated differently, both by society at large, and by individuals. So, for example, while both my wife and I work hard in our jobs, I get paid more. My wife enjoys cooking, while I like to set up gadgets. Rewards are also impossible to measure when it is mostly about interaction with a hazy eyed food processing tube that will at times hate you.

I feel like there should be some theoretical way of evaluating and therefore calculating how to share the workload of a household, but the problem is that every single relevant factor in doing this calculation varies wildly. At this point I have to say I have no idea what all of these factors are and how they vary, but there are a few things that I can immediately identify as key areas to work out. These are:

  • Physical and mental fitness
  • Personal preference
  • Time at home
  • Financial security
  • Long term opportunities
  • A good example

Physical and mental fitness

There is massive variation in people’s ability to do things in everyday life, and this is exacerbated in the early stages of parenthood. Due to a happenstance of biology, women go through 9 months of parasitism, massive physical trauma, and then are often woken every hour to be parasitised again. My wife has had added complications of pelvic girdle pain, which has made everything painful, and walking any further than between bed and couch really difficult. New dads will be tired too, but I don’t think that can compare to what new and expectant mums go through.

So, obviously, doing anything at all will be harder for women in the time around birth. That doesn’t mean that the man has to do everything, but he should be getting pretty close to it.

I don’t really know what the changing paternity laws give people in terms of time off, as I am sadly not eligible for it due to changing job too recently. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this balance will change somewhat if one partner is returning to work while the other doesn’t. I think this can cut both ways – the person not at work is not not working, and the person working out of the house is presumably not trying to neglect their household responsibilities. Of course, it can be difficult to see this when you’re involved on side or the other.

Personal preference

People enjoy different things, and it seems mad to discount this when deciding who does what. For example, my wife enjoys cooking more than I do, and so it makes sense that she should therefore cook. But, that should only really be about prioritising who does which particular tasks, rather than how much they end up doing. So while my wife will do the majority cooking, I should ensure that I am doing the equivalent value of work in some other way. This matters all the more when there is more to do – and I think I have heard mention of an increase in required work when you have a child.

In deciding parenting roles, however, this needs to be put to one side a bit. I am sure that I would prefer not to be the one to tell off my child and stop it doing things – I’m more relaxed about Health and Safety than my wife, and would trust the child to learn, while she would want it not to injure or kill itself. But I think it’s important that a balance is found, and that messages are consistent at least until the child is able to start to distinguish and decide more independently. So for example we might agree that we say ‘don’t use prostitutes’ and ‘no smoking crack’ and even if I don’t hold an *in principle* stand against either of those activities, I will need to support and enforce those rules. Of course, in exchange for that, I might be able to convince my wife to allow him to try alcohol in a controlled environment and have consensual relations at a younger age than she would have liked, and she would have to support that too.

There is also a question of identity. Many of the women who are identified primarily as mothers are happy to be so, because they view the nurturing of a new person as the most important thing they could do. I think this is widely under-rated, and that people who choose to live like this should be proud of the job that they do. However, many woulds prefer to have more than one life, where they can be recognised in their own right. My wife will make an excellent and proud mother, but would also like to achieve things in the workplace, the community and perhaps in the political and public world.

Time at home

I’ve mentioned the importance of trying to balance the workload for all parties (except the baby, who can get away with minimal domestic input), but the main thing about being at home is spending time with the child. Traditionally, the mother looks after the child and does all of the housework during the day, and so does all the boring stuff like checking homework, making them tidy up. Because the dad is only around for a short period before bedtime, he wants to make an impact, and so doesn’t ‘waste’ his time by doing chores. This is a bad deal for the mother who never gets a break to relax and have fun with the child, as well as the father who only gets a small amount of time, even if that can often be more fun.

My wife will likely be working after maternity leave, and it looks like the easiest nursery to come to is by my work, so I will likely be doing quite a bit of that after the first year. It makes sense that I would do that as I will be responsible for him getting there on time, clean, fed and ready to play and learn. In the first year, my wife will be on maternity, so she will be doing a lot more of that.

Financial security

This is the boring bit, and the bit where it can get very cruel. Although money doesn’t make you happy, not having any money can make you very miserable indeed, and it is harder to bring up a child in a poor house than a well-off one. So financial stability really should come into how you allocate responsibilities. We are lucky enough that we could get by with very little, and that it would be feasible to survive on either one of our wages alone. But for many, this fundamental point of needing to make enough money to survive would make the decision for them without any real room for discussion about who does what – the family has to follow the money.

In realistic terms, me going part-time would have a bigger economic impact than my wife doing so would. It is this simple fact that makes it most difficult for me to realistically consider a major drop in working hours, but as I said before, we are in the lucky position of being able to cope with a reduction in one or both of our incomes. Of course, as my wife progresses career-wise this is likely to become easier to balance.

Long term opportunities

The problem with making decisions to make the present bearable, like only having the higher earner working, is the constrictions that puts on long term opportunities. So, if my wife significantly reduces or gives up work, she risks damaging her career and missing out on opportunities. Sadly, we live in a gendered world, so the response to me doing the same thing would be very different. I am not sure whether it is more likely that I would suffer negative consequences if I were to do that, as I would be seen as unusual and not committed to my work, or whether I would be treated as a hero for sacrificing myself to care for my child.

There is also the fact that, independently of this, women are seen as a greater risk by employers, as they are more prone to having to take time off for childbirth. Hopefully this will change in time, and I would like to think that if we decided to have another child, we would be in a position to share the leave entitlement. However, this is currently hypothetical, where the risk to a woman’s advancement is certain. This suggests that, given the pre-existing disadvantage to women, male partners should take the greater hit when there is optional long-term impacts, again in the name of fairness.

A good example

One of the things I am very keen to give my child is a good example, and to teach him how to be a good person. This includes making sure that any decisions we take in our family are to do with our circumstances, and not our genders. So *if* my wife and I end up in a relatively traditional set-up, and there is still a reasonable chance that we won’t, it should be clear that that is not a better set-up than any other. When he gets to start thinking about setting up a family of his own, however that looks, he should make sure that he is open to considering the things I talk about here, with the express aim of making the burden of responsibilities and the spread of opportunities as fair as it can be.

The worst outcome would be for us to end up in a traditional situation and carry on as if it is and should be normal. It is currently normal, although that has changed significantly over the past few decades, but it should change more. People who think that this is as it should be, beyond the relatively minor biological imperatives of childbirth etc, perpetuate an unjust society in which women don’t get to succeed as individuals in their own right, and men don’t get to succeed in their families.

Whatever happens, we are going to raise a man that recognises and respects women. We want him to be sensitive to the differences between people as well as aware of the extent to which these are needlessly and damagingly built by a variety of social pressures.

So it’s probably clear that I haven’t thought through every eventuality, and am as unprepared for fatherhood as anyone can be. I’m also starting from a position of power that may somewhat be a result of entrenched patriarchy, and I’m aware that my middle class white son stands to get a good start in life, better than most.

I am committed to doing my part to raise my child, and part of that is making sure that his mother is empowered. I do not want her to risk losing her identity into our son – being identified as a mother is a wonderful and vastly under-rated thing, and I’m sure many people are proud to be so, but I suspect my wife would like to do something else too. This requires me making sacrifices to support her – both as a mother, and as an individual. I don’t know what form this will take yet – it may be time off work, a reduction in hours, a different share of the housework or anything else – but I will be doing whatever I can to make sure the labour and rewards of our having a child will be shared.

And that not having a clue what will happen, but being committed to making it work for everyone involved is what I think any feminist good parent should be doing.

Rationalism and Feminism, labels part 3

Ooops, I meant to keep writing some of the random things I think about down. Sorry for the delay, real life has been in the way a bit. I had a bit of a series going about the labels we do and should use, which I’d like to continue. In this instalment, I will talk a bit about how skepticism, the application of rigorous doubt and the desire for logic and evidence to support positions, fits with some forms of feminism. This is prompted in no small part by the fact that Ada Lovelace day is upon us.

Feminism is a very weighted term, one with a lot of history. Much of the history has been positive, with great steps, in the west particularly, toward the legal recognition that women should be treated as equals to men. Sadly, as with any movement I guess, there is also a set of negative connotations. Some feminists have made ludicrous claims and statements, and some have been openly hostile to men. Here I will explain why I think there is still a need for feminism, why I think that is the rational position, and what I hope a modern feminist to look like.
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Skeptical activism and atheist militancy. Labels part 2

I argued last time that atheism is the natural conclusion of rational consideration of the evidence available. Today I am going to think about how we use these terms in activism. I am, or try to be, a skeptical activist. Here I am thinking about the relationship between that position and the term militant atheist. It’s my position that ‘militant’ atheism, in the non-violent sense, is just one instance of skeptical activism.

First, there needs to be some clear and defined goals of skeptical activism. You may want all people to be rational all the time, you may want the complete abolition of all religion, or you may want legal restrictions on beliefs people have. Of course, basically nobody does want this, and these are straw men. I will try to articulate what I want skeptical activism to achieve.   Continue reading