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The Skeptic Next Door: Sadie Crabtree

We haven’t had a good old-fashioned Skeptic Next Door feature in a while and I just happened to make a new friend who lives just down the road from me that I thought my Skepchick pals might like to meet! She is a skeptic and she is passionate about making a difference in the world.

Allow me to introduce to you the fabulous, Sadie Crabtree!

Oh and Sadie doesn’t just have a cool name, she has a cool job too! sadie 1She is the brand-spankin’ new director of communications at the JREF. For those of you unfamiliar, the JREF is the James Randi Educational Foundation. The JREF is known for its work investigating paranormal claims (the Million Dollar Challenge) and for promoting logic, critical thinking and skepticism in education and in the media. The organization is loved and respected in the skeptical community, not only because it was formed by the amazing, James Randi himself but also because of The Amazing Meetings or what you hear us refer to lovingly as, TAM. TAM is organized by the JREF and began in Las Vegas but has recently expanded to include yearly events in London and Australia as well. TAM is the quintessential conference on skepticism and critical thinking that has proven itself not only a megaphone for blasting out the latest hot-topics in skepticism and for educating the public in the classical skeptical topics but it has helped fill a gap in this ever-growing society of critical thinkers by becoming a very important social gathering for self-identified skeptics and those in search of intellectual enlightenment. Many skeptics, freethinkers and atheists consider it one of the only times each year when they can rub elbows with their favorite scientists, authors, bloggers, podcasters and leaders of this movement and where they feel they can truly speak their mind in an environment of like-minded individuals.

On that note, let’s all welcome a new addition into the skeptosphere, Sadie Crabtree!

How do you define the term skeptic? / Do you consider yourself a skeptic?

When I say I’m a skeptic, I mean I’m someone who investigates ideas before I’m willing to accept them, even if they’re widely believed by others. sadie 3Sometimes what’s considered common knowledge is probably right, like the scientific consensus on global warming. Sometimes it’s probably wrong, like the vast majority of Americans who believe in a supernatural power. You have to consider the evidence for yourself. Of course most people don’t have the resources and time to dig through volumes of original research on something like evolution or homeopathy, but what we can all do is consider some basic questions about any claim, like: is the source of this claim profiting from people believing in this? What previously proven scientific facts would have to be false for this claim to be true?

I’m really excited about the work we’re doing at the JREF right now, because we’re building on the work James Randi and the Foundation have done to bring this kind of thinking to a mass audience. The Million Dollar Challenge is one of those questions that helps ordinary people sort out the nonsense—if what this person says is true, why haven’t they applied for the prize? And it’s really stuck in the public consciousness. We’re expanding on that by working with educators to promote critical thinking in schools, in ways that engage young people when they’re learning the pattens of thinking they’ll rely on for the rest of their lives. And we’re looking strategically at how to communicate the value of skepticism to more people more effectively.

What first got you interested in organized skepticism?

I got interested in skepticism because I was interested in science. The really amazing stuff that you can hardly believe is possible. I mean, black holes and special relativity are totally ridiculous. And, seriously, the double-slit experiment? This sense of wonder about how strange and amazing the world is, and wanting to understand and connect with it, I think, is the same feeling that leads other people to want to learn about ghosts and fringe pseudoscience. For a while when I was younger, I was interested in those things too, but as I learned more I understood why those were two very different approaches to the world. One way of thinking fetishizes the unexplained, and stops right there to wallow in the mystery of it all. Science finds things that are awesome and unexplained, rejects the bad explanations, and keeps exploring, until what was unexplained is understood, and there is a whole new frontier of things we don’t understand that we never would have seen if we hadn’t kept going. Black holes are a million times cooler than astrology, and we wouldn’t even know they were there if we didn’t have a way to reject the bad explanations of what’s up in the sky.

That’s part of why I think skeptics should talk more about what we’re for rather than just what we’re against. People want a way to understand the world, because it’s unpredictable and scary, and we want to feel like we have some control over it. We want a story with good guys and bad guys, and to know where we fit in. If skeptics don’t offer people a positive, alternative way to understand the world, whether it’s science, or humanism, or something else, we’re in a position of trying to take away things that make people feel secure, while offering nothing to satisfy those needs.

Skepticism as a movement is known to be predominately made up of middle-aged white males. Do you have any thoughts on how to encourage more women and other ethnicities to get involved in skepticism or how we as a group can reach a broader audience? Have you run into any problems being a woman in this male dominated arena?

There are two separate issues here, recruitment and retention.

First, there are a lot of things wrong with the world besides people believing in things that aren’t real, and people have to choose their battles. Plus, the worse things are for you, the less disposable time and income you have to spare. If you’re inclined to change the world, sadie 7and your life has been shaped by discrimination that threatens your economic survival, you’re going to be more likely to spend your limited energy on ending racism, sexism, and poverty than on skepticism.

The other issue is, what kind of experience do women and people of color have when they are attracted to skepticism and they visit our conferences, blogs, and local groups?

For example, a lot of lectures I’ve seen by men on skeptical topics are peppered with sexist references to women’s physical appearance—not just about enemies like Sylvia Browne, but in one case a disgusting insult about a great hero of space exploration.

I suspect men make comments like that because they want to connect with the audience. But what it says to women in the audience is that they don’t care about relating to us as human beings and scientific thinkers but judge us mainly on our ornamental value. It’s ironic that these comments are usually made by men who look like they couldn’t get a date if they paid for it. (Did that offend anyone? Yeah, ladies don’t like it either.)

That’s not difficult to change. People should stop saying and writing things that unfairly alienate half their potential audience and have nothing to do with skepticism.

The thing that takes more work to change is the first point—that people don’t consider what we’re doing to be relevant to their lives. We could start changing that by choosing issues that overlap with other important concerns, and not just issues that mostly interest people who already consider themselves skeptics. Are there issue campaigns being waged by organizations of people of color that skeptics could join in to support from a skeptical or humanist point of view? Are there industries we could target that are using supernatural or pseudoscientific beliefs to make money at the expense of low-income people? We should think beyond our desire to have a more diverse movement and think about what skepticism has to offer the people we want to get involved.

Do you think it is possible to win the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge?

Definitely. If someone has a psychic ability that works better than pure chance, and they can demonstrate it consistently, they should be able to meet the standards of the challenge.sadie 12 It’s possible, but incredibly unlikely, that someone has an ability like that. It’s probably more likely that someone would win the challenge by pure chance—the odds are astronomical, but it’s not impossible. Someone wins the lottery.

Okay, ALL the Skepchicks read your introduction on the JREF blog and we were all, “SQUEEE! ZOMG! Did you see the new girl!?” In that interview you were asked to tell something about yourself that no one would ever guess. You said this:

Folks in the labor movement seem to love starting big meetings with icebreakers. The best one is called “two truths and a lie,” where you have to guess which one isn’t true. Here are mine:
1. An anarchist once declared a hunger strike against me.
2. My father was a trade-show magician.
3. My wife and I own more guns than cats, but just barely.

We have a bet over here at Skepchick headquarters as to which question is the lie. I got $50 riding on this. Tell us, which one is not true?

I won’t give all my secrets away, but I can tell you the lie is only technically false.

You have worked doing campaigns for a number of progressive causes, such as LGBT, feminist and labor nonprofits. Do you think the aims of the skeptical movement overlap with progressive or leftist causes

There are common issues, like consumer advocacy. We have powerful common enemies, like religious fundamentalism. At the same time, there are folks in the skeptical world who follow a form of economic fundamentalism that is just as harmful, sadie crabtreeand isn’t compatible with the kind of movement that makes things better for ordinary people. So, is there enough overlap for our movements to work together? Not automatically, but I think skeptics are at our best and most persuasive when we’re speaking out in the public interest—because bad beliefs and fraudulent claims hurt people—and not just in the interest of a fetishized rationality. I support reason and the scientific method because I think they’re the best methods we have of understanding the world, and I want to understand the world so we can improve it.

Do you think coming out skeptic or atheist is similar to coming out gay? Can our movement learn from the past successes and failures of the LGBT movements.

I don’t think it’s similar. I can imagine circumstances in which it might feel similar in some ways, but the experiences and issues aren’t transferable.

What do you think of the whole accomodationist/confrontationalist/‘Don’t Be A Dick’ argument in skepticism?

I think it’s a false dichotomy. You don’t win people to your side by being “a dick,” and you don’t win anything when you’re a pushover. But we don’t need to pick a spot on the dick-pushover continuum—those are just two bad things we shouldn’t be.

The question for me isn’t whether we fight, it’s how we can be more effective, and what words and approaches will help us win, and get more people to join with us. Sometimes words that sadie crabtreesound pleasant can be the most devastating, and I think describing language as accommodationist vs. confrontationalist doesn’t take that into account.

What we should be is strategic, and follow some common principles for movement-building.

1. Be welcoming to people who may want to get involved. Make it easy to join. People should be able to test the waters without signing up for the whole package. It’s okay to disagree with people, but don’t try to banish them from the community for not being skeptical enough.

2. Bring people together with campaigns that are fun, demonstrate your values, win concrete change, and give people a sense of accomplishment. Get new people involved by inviting them to join in specific campaigns and actions that they’re likely to agree with, instead of only recruiting them to a community with a set of ideas they need to subscribe to in order to belong.

3. Don’t be divisive when it isn’t necessary. Make sure that you’re spending more time uniting skeptical people around what they agree on than you’re spending debating what you don’t agree on. If a group of people has come together to work on a campaign to inform the public about about homeopathy, and they’re excited and ready to do the work, they don’t have to all agree on religion, or anything else. Those debates should be optional and come after the work is done, rather than becoming something that pushes people out.

A group can have a well-defined point of view without taking positions on tangential issues that are needlessly divisive. Likewise, there are ways to be constructively provocative without being “a dick,” and we need to distinguish between the two. Around any contested issue, there are some people who are simply hostile and anti-social by nature and use the idea of being “provocative” as an excuse. But provocation as a tactic shouldn’t be defined by those people.

What is one skeptical topic that you wish there was legitimate evidence for?

Free energy, because it could alleviate a lot of the world’s problems. Also, finding proof that aliens had visited Earth would be great because it would demonstrate technology capable of traveling those kind of distances. Above all, I wish karma was real, because some people really have it coming.

Special thanks to Sadie for taking the time to talk to us and for letting me chase her around Hollywood with a camera! Feel free to leave her comments below and until next time, this has been Surly Amy with, The Skeptic Next Door! :)

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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39 Comments

  1. Squee! Zomg!

    I was thrilled when the person best suited to the position of communications director turned out to be a woman. Communications is the area that can most use a more universal approach. There shouldn’t be any sort of exclusive club vibe to skeptism, but an old boys network version is the worst.

    I kept hoping for an interview or a more in-depth introduction and voila! here it is. Many thanks to both of you.

  2. “Fetishized rationality.”

    Really? This could be my favorite description of you’re doing it wrong ever.

    We’re quite fortunate to have you fighting for flat-out, plain ol’ rationality. I look forward to meeting you, hopefully sometime soon!

  3. Love your answers so much, Sadie! Especially that you geeked out about the double-slit experiment, which is something that blew my mind when I first learned about it. Sounds like you’ll be a fantastic asset to JREF.

    Also, I want your haircut.

  4. As a grumpy old white guy (with beard), I feel I’m in a distinct minority. Actually, I think I must live in some kind of spacial-temporal inversion, because just about all the skeptics I know IRL are younger than me and about half are women. And I would have got away with it if it wasn’t for those damn kids!

    About the cat thing, I don’t think it is possible to own a cat*, so if you own any guns at all, that one has to be true. (Do ST:OS phasers count as guns?)

    Oh yeah, and Welcome!

    [*]”his cat he calls her, but she owns him not.”

  5. I love how Sadie specifically called out people who make comments about womens’ appearances in her interview, but then one of the first comments is (just) about how Sadie looks (and says she looks like a man no less!) Wow, what a worthless and disrespectful contribution!

    It makes me sad that a skilled and talented woman can’t take a job in a field where her physical appearance is totally irrelevant without people thinking it’s fair game for comment – positive or negative.

    Welcome Sadie! As you rightly point out, I hope we can all be part of making this a movement where that kind of thing isn’t ok.

  6. Welcome, Sadie!
    @Buzz Parsec: I don’t have a beard and I’m not considered too grumpy, but I am an ‘older than most’ fart here. Most of the people here are young enough to be my kids, I’m afraid. I don’t mind that the folks here are younger – I think it’s a hopeful sign for the future of science and critical thinking.

    We all know that cats don’t have owners…They have staff.

    And I personally think short hair on women is hot. So there. ;-)

  7. @QuestionAuthority: Totally agree. Except about the hair. Long hair is also hot, as is medium-length hair.

    Actually, all skeptical women are beautiful. And all skeptical men are handsome (except when it’s the other way around.) And all skeptical kids are way beyond average cute. But I don’t see any point in mentioning it unless someone is feeling particularly inadequate. (My hypothesis is this is a side effect of reduced levels of stress due to lack of cognitive dissonance.)

  8. @Bjornar

    Actually, I look forward to the day when a competent, intelligent, and skeptical woman being offered a job dealing with the public is so commonplace that “meh” is the appropriate response.

    Congratulations Sadie.

  9. I think it’s interesting that everytime I photograph a skeptic the debate as to whether it is ok or not ok to comment on a person’s appearance comes up. As the photographer my goal is to make my subject look good so I for one welcome the comments. But it would make an interesting discussion as to when (if ever) is it appropriate to objectify a person and at what point is photography voyeurism and at what point is it art.

  10. I think there’s a big difference between “Welcome Sadie, you have some great ideas (also great hair!)” or “Awesome pictures, Sadie looks great!” and “I’d hit it!” or “Wow, Sadie looks like this comedy man!”

    What I mean to say is that friendly compliments (although maybe better in person) are totally different from remarks on someone’s sexual appeal or conformity to mainstream beauty standards.

    When is it ok to objectify a person? I’d say when they consent to and welcome it, and when it’s not in a professional or working environment (because then even if that individual is fine with it it creates an unavoidable culture that might not be so great for someone else.) One of the reasons this is tricky here is because Sadie’s featured largely as a new staff member of the JREF, not just as a skeptic lady who plans on being on next year’s calendar.

  11. I went back and fourth on if to comment on this or not, that’s why I’m coming to the game a bit late. But there was one thing in the interview that rubbed me the wrong way.

    “For example, a lot of lectures I’ve seen by men on skeptical topics are peppered with sexist references to women’s physical appearance—not just about enemies like Sylvia Browne, but in one case a disgusting insult about a great hero of space exploration.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be a direct jab at Brian Dunning for his TAM7 paper presentation talk where he said:

    “By the way this is not Valerina Tereshkova, Tereshkova herself is a lot harder to look at so I didn’t want to put her picture up. [some laughs from the audience] Sorry it was rude but it’s true.”

    I have a few problems with this comment, none of them have anything to do with Brian’s comment directly and regardless of what you think of them.

    First is, if you’re going to call somebody out, call them out. If you don’t you leave stuff up to speculation. Myself and others thought that Sadie’s comment was in reference to Brian’s TAM7 talk. It might not be, if it isn’t, a lot of people think it is. If it is, then just say it.

    Second, I think it’s very bold for Sadie to make such a comment about a skeptic of some note. Despite what you think of Brian, he has done, and continues to do a lot of good for the skeptical community. Not to say that the issues she mentioned shouldn’t be brought up, but to bring them up in some side comment in an interview just put me off. Especially one of her first interviews.

    Finally, was Sadie even at TAM7 and did she see the talk? I watched the DVD of TAM7 again to get the quote, and you don’t get the full feel of what happened unless you where there. There was some talk on Twitter (including by Brian himself) when this happened, and a bunch of talking at TAM after his talk that is totally lost in the DVD.

    Anyway, the rest of the interview was good. But this little jab at somebody that has done a lot for the community really left a bad taste in my mouth. Again, not for bringing up the issue, I think it’s an important one, but for the way it was brought up and where.

  12. I appreciate your comment, Sc00ter, and I assume that you defended Tereshkova’s even greater contributions to the scientific community with the same vigor when she was so jabbed by a snide side-comment.

    To be clear, my response to the question I was asked was not intended as a jab at any individual, or intended to be misinterpreted as arguing against the value of any other contributions made by people who’ve made comments like this.

    My point was that talking about women in ways that reduce the value of our contributions to whether or not a particular man is aroused by looking at pictures of us, is 1. really creepy, 2. senselessly insulting, and 3. turns women off from engaging with the organized skeptical community.

    I hope that the example I used hasn’t detracted from that point.

  13. @Sc00ter:

    Even if there was an apology sent to Skepchick (which AFAIK, there wasn’t), I think you’re missing the point. Women are not going to feel welcome at conferences and events if men make comments about how we’re ugly, even when our contributions have been great. It doesn’t matter how many apologies you send after the fact. Most of the people hearing that comment won’t see the apology.

    Why don’t you step back and look at what Sadie’s trying to say instead of defending someone who made a terrible remark at the expense of an audience we’re trying to reach?

    Point – women hearing misogynistic remarks (Dunning’s comment, for example) are not made to feel comfortable or like they belong and are less likely to get involved.

    Your point – SHUT UP SHUT UP! DUNNING IS SO COOL! He apologized! He may have even meant it! Women now feel great at TAM!

  14. @Sc00ter: I was the recipient of that ‘apology’. It wasn’t posted because by the time he and I had gone back and forth on the topic, we had moved on from the subject on the blog (Skepchick didn’t actually post about his talk. Carrie wrote an article about Bill Prady’s talk and about some other comments that were made and Dunning’s comment came in as a side note.) We had posted on it a couple of times and it felt like the conversation had run its course.

    Brian was, and still is, welcome to post a comment in response to any of the posts we had, and he also does post on several highly-read blogs himself. He had lots of opportunity outside of Skepchick to post his viewpoint.

    This is all ancient history and really has nothing to do with Sadie. Any reason why we’re discussing it here?

  15. It wasn’t a conspiracy theory tone. From what I was told he was asked to write an apology, and he did, and it was never posted. I just find that odd. I thank Rebecca and Maria for their responses.

    As far as Elyse’s comment, I think I made it pretty clear that Brian’s comment is not immune to criticism. I just thought the placement and jab at Brian was odd in this interview, that is all.

    I know one specific woman that after reading this interview said to me “oh great, another woman telling women what to think”. Along with that tone, rather than focus on the strides at TAM8 and TAMOz where the male/female ratio got even more equalized and the great strides that have been made, you poke at a comment that was said over 2 years ago during a paper presentation.

  16. Okay, I was thinking about this and trying to find another example or to word this a different way or just come up with something else to help clarify my position.

    First, I think it’s important that if you’re going to bring up somebody’s mistake, it’s important to mention that they apologized for it. Otherwise, what you’re saying is that people aren’t allowed to make mistakes, because you’re just going to hold that mistake over their head until the end of time.

    But I tried to think of something else, where somebody mis-spoke. The best I could come up with was that at TAM8 Masimo made a comment that basically sounded like he said that only scientists can do science.. People with PhD’s. The twitter feed went slightly crazy about this, mostly from teachers. They thought it undermined what they do.

    Later that day I was in an environment where Masimo was around and I had a chance to talk to him about this and he apologized and said that wasn’t what he meant at all. I relayed this via twitter, the people were relieved and it went away.

  17. Travis: I could have imagined this excellent interview (call me biased) to stir up some controversy from both the non-atheists and the economic libertarians within the skeptics movement, since Sadie says things that each group might find objectionable. But her answer to a direct question as to how to attract more women and minorities was impressively obvious and uncontroversial. She merely said that at the very least, calling a woman ugly during a main skeptics conference might make the movement seem uninviting and unappealing to women. I think she used a good example to make her point.

    That you think it was somehow inappropriately “bold,” “especially one of her first interviews,” for Sadie to use the example of a speaker saying something insulting and uninviting because he has done “a lot of good for the skeptical community” is off the mark. Why is the fact that this is one of her first interviews at all relevant? How is being bold at all inappropriate (if she was bold)? Why is it at all inappropriate to cite as an example someone who put his foot in his mouth, alienating or offending people with a disparaging remark, even when he has inarguably done “a lot of good for the skeptical community”?

    It was a perfect example to illustrate her point: Publicly disparaging how a woman looks from stage is very obviously not a way to attract women to the movement. That Sadie didn’t spend more time listing more examples of where skepticism gets it wrong in this way only illustrates that calling out a speaker at a past event for putting his foot in his mouth wasn’t in any sense the main thrust of Sadie’s interview.

    I regret that it appears this is the main thing you took away from the piece.

  18. I’ll play devil’s advocate, since it’s fun. OK, for one thing I agree, if you are calling someone OUT be CLEAR and be HONEST and don’t be all “well you know…hint, wink, nudge…you all know who we are talking about here right? Right?” Nope just NAME NAMES! I’m all for “don’t be a dick” (heck I’m almost the poster girl after the terrific blog by Phil). But it’s not nice to play “well we all KNOW” when we don’t ALL know. I was in the audience going “oh he is SO going to regret this VERY soon” and cringing. I knew a TAM full of women (more women than any other skeptic function) were not going to let him get away with it more than a few miliseconds. Also, let me try to put on my preschool teachers hat. Everything you need to learn isn’t from kindergarten, preschool is good enough. If someone has said I’M SO FREAKING SORRY AND BOY WAS THAT DUMB AND DID I LEARN A LESSON AND WHAT A LAPSE…blah blah blah blah, you forgive them and when you bring up the “incident” you bring up the apology. Always bring up the apology. Because in this world too few people will issue an apology. Maybe not on skepchick, but I rather think the apology was to the skeptic world and women in general. Was I insulted, yes. Were women on skepchick insulted, yes. Were the women that post on shethought.com (lovely site, and there are skeptic women with a strong opinionated presence that while not allowed to call ourselves “chicks” we proudly call ourselves female skeptics) were insulted….and apologized to. APOLOGIZED TO. An apology is rare, a heartfelt apology is rarer. And one reason an apology is rare is that when tendered it is too often ignored. Why apologize when people do not value an apology? People would often rather you don’t apologize so they can keep beating someone over the head again and again and again without being made to feel a tad bit, well, mean. It’s like “oh poop, he said he’s sorry, and I certainly don’t want to forgive him as I’m not done being pissed”. An apology doesn’t mean you aren’t pissed or that you don’t bring it up(especially if it’s a good lesson to be learned), but you do mention the apology when you mention the really stupid thing done. (honestly, Hitchens never made me go “OH WOW” even when talking about Islam as much as that cosmonaut comment did…but he did apologize).

  19. oh and Sadie, welcome… and I WANT YOUR JACKET. Seriously…
    And I’m glad the JREF has such a good woman in a job that is so important and needs someone strong and frankly, the wonderful fashion sense it just a BIG plus!

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