One of the reasons I restarted blogging recently is that I partook in a rather depressing debate on Skepchick.org over sexual harassment in the sceptical community. I faced a torrent of aggressive insults and misrepresentations until I eventually lost the rag and was banned. So I did what any good disgruntled Internet user does, I stormed off and started a blog to vent
One point I raised was that anecdotal evidence of individual experience is not sufficient to get a wider picture of trends in any social group and that I did not know if the individual reports of sexual harassment were representative of a wider trend in the skeptical community, even though many were saying it was. If anyone wants to know what the online equivalent of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel feels like I suggest you go onto a Skepchick.org comment section and make that point. You might want to prepare yourself first, maybe be sitting down…
Suffice to say it didn’t go down well. From the responses there seems to be a history on the site of people attempting to dismiss individual accounts of harassment by demanding to see evidence of wider trends of harassment. Personally I can’t phantom how that logic is even supposed to even work. For example how would someone attempt to nullify my experience of a car accident by demanding I produce the road safety statistics for Ireland? So if anyone is actually trying to do this, trying to dispute individual accounts by demanding the production of wider statistics, they are acting very stupidly and I would join the Skepchick community is rejecting this faulty logic.
That wasn’t what I was doing, I was actually asking for evidence of wide spread sexual harassment in order to clarify if sexual harassment is wide spread in the sceptical community, not to dispute any individual account of sexual harassment. Despite this I was lumped into the category of harassment deniers because I was asking for this data (I learnt a new term, a JAQ-er).
One of the people who was, lets say, aggressively critical of me in that exchange was the Skepchick blogger Will. His bad experience with the type of posts I mention above, and presumably my posts as well, lead him to write a blog post on Skepchick discussing the need and value of anecdotal evidence in the right context. His primary point seems to be that anecdotal evidence is fine when you are looking at the individual experiences of people, and that people should not dismiss these experiences because the evidence for them is anecdotal. Anecdotal does not automatically equal bad or invalid, it depends on the context of the question. This point seems so obvious it is some what surprising that it even has to be made, it is essentially saying that when attempting to learn of the personal experience of someone don’t discount their personal experience. As I said, if anyone is actually doing this they are acting very stupidly and I would join Will in denouncing that methodology.
But again that wasn’t what I was doing. I was asking for evidence of wider trends, trends I will point out I was assured by other posters exist. So Will is correct that the type of evidence used can depend on the question being asked, but he seems to be ignoring that this type of question is being asked and it requires more than anecdotal evidence to support it.
A point he made in our exchange on the thread I was banned from was that really it shouldn’t matter that much, that he is sick of people not doing anything because they are demanding data rather than tacking the problem individuals are experiencing. This idea was echoed by others as well. Why do you care, why does anyone care, this is happening to people is that not enough. The problem is that it does matter, it matters a great deal. Not in terms of helping individuals who have suffered harassment, everyone who has should receive help. But it matters because of the atmosphere of fear and suspicion such accusations create in the community. It matters a great deal if such fear is rational or not, if it is justified by the reality of the situation.
Fear is a powerful thing, and it often overrides rationality and our ability accurate assess levels of threat and safety. You can see this in all areas of life. People refuse to fly in versions of planes just after that version has a crash, even if the statistics show it is still a far safe plane than alternatives. If there is a train crash on the nightly news people avoid the train and take their cars, despite the odds of them being killed in a car accident are still much higher than in a train. Fear manipulates people into doing things they rationally wouldn’t do. If we hear about something bad we don’t take the risk, even if we actually don’t know what that risk is. At the same time the reverse is often true. When people are lackadaisical about treat because they are not informed properly, when they don’t realise something is more dangerous than they think, they often end up in trouble. A classic example of this is people on holiday being robbed or assaulted because they wandered into areas of town they were unfamiliar with where they have a much higher risk of suffering crime.
None of this negates the experiences of people who are unfortunately enough to have faced the actual source of the fear. It is not disrespectful to the victims of a 747 disaster to point out that the 747 is actually a very safe plane. It is not a suggestion that nothing need be done to help those victims, or to improve the safety of the plane, or ridiculous as it sounds that they are actually making their experience up. But imagine if the only information anyone received about the 747 was anecdotes about crash disasters devoid of the wider context of how likely it is to actually be in one of these crashes. Panic and fear would grip and no one would fly a 747 again.
Equally just because someone went into a bad neighbourhood and nothing happened to them does not mean that neighbourhood suddenly become much safer and tourists no longer need worry about it. Or imagine a car manufacturer is suppressing safety information about their new car. All the consumer sees is glowing recommendations that the car is the safest in its class, and sure those ads got on TV so they must have passed advertising standards. Must be a safe car right?
Data matters. It is a sceptics job to require data in order to attempt to accurate gauge risk and the appropriate response to risk. By asking for this a sceptic is not presuming any position or calling anyone a liar or saying they are faking it.
Is the sceptical community generally safe for women (nothing is 100% safe, but is it safe to a reasonable degree), or is it not generally safe for women. Or some where in between? Do women have the same risk of harassment or assault at TAM as they do in any wider public space, or are they particularly at risk at TAM?
Those questions are actually really important because what ever the actual answer is people are already starting to make up their minds. If we do not answer these questions properly we are simply opening up to a free for all of fear or complacency. Do we want women not going to TAM because they think there is a greater chance they will be raped there? Well yes if there actually is a greater chance of them being raped there. No if there isn’t. If there is we need something a bit more than an anti-harassment document. Do we want women believing that they can’t start a blog or contribute online because they are fearful that if they do that in the sceptical community they are at a much greater risk of receiving abusive harassment? I only want women believing that if it is actually true, and if it is true then we need to be providing safer blogging environments than the ones currently on offer.
Merely pointing out this happens to some people some of the time is not good enough. When I’m worried about my A380 flight from London to New York my fear is not translated into rational action simply by hearing about all the A380 accidents that have happened. What I want to know to make an informed decision is if statistically I’m safe or not on that plane or if I should be taking another one.
Data matters. It matters a great deal. The question how wide spread is this problem matters, it matters a great deal. The answers inform the perceptions of everyone in the community. Without it people drift into ideological camps, where they are either deeply fearful of the odds of being abused, harassed or assaulted or deeply dismissive about the odds of being abused, harassed or assaulted.