ActivismFeminismSkepticism

Ask Surly Amy: Anti-Intellectualism and Spirit Animals

Dear Surly –
The community I have surrounded myself with in college are feminist, social justice activists, and all around awesome people. However…this amazing community came with a great deal of pseudoscience. When were are hanging out (and sometimes even in organizational meetings) there is talk about astrological signs, spirit animals, and quack alternative medicine. I try to challenge them with out being a dick about it, but I always seem to be shot down. Recently I was even told that my worldview of science of logic is too privileged and I should be ashamed because skepticism does not allow room for the oppressed and uneducated. How should I respond to this? Should I just keep my mouth shut?

– Conflicted Activist

Dear Conflicted Activist,

Is it just me or is everyone else completely annoyed with the latest STFU techniques being used to silence the educated or to shut down a discussion on women’s rights?

For one thing, you don’t get to label someone privileged simply because you disagree with them.*

Learning or understanding how a process works does not make you privileged if that information is readily available to everyone. And just because feminists and skeptics have been using the word a lot lately doesn’t mean that just anyone can lob that word into a conversation and consider it a slam dunk.

The recent tossing around of the term privilege is a lot like shouting out “Hitler” or “Oh, oh! Straw-man! That’s a Straw-man argument!” to a group of newly appointed skeptics. When used appropriately and in context the word has great meaning. When used to simply try to silence an opposing view it sounds like a cop-out from someone who heard a buzz word and is afraid or unwilling to actually investigate or consider what is being discussed.

And last I checked, skepticism and the scientific method are both just that, methods of looking at the world. Neither have a price-tag. Neither require a college degree in order to use or to understand. So the only privilege you are displaying by understanding these principles is some sort of rational-non-lazy-and-actually-giving-a-shit privilege.*

I’m pretty sure it takes just as much effort and a heck of a lot more money to buy homeopathy, astrological trinkets and books on spirit animals than it does to realize that “ancient wisdom” is actually unproven snake oil and mythology. The information is all out there, available for anyone who cares to take a critical look.

If anything the mystical worldview preys upon the uneducated and readily feeds off women. Your friends, if truly interested in feminism and empowerment of women and minorities should rise up and battle against the misinformation inherent in pseudoscience. We need the power of knowledge that comes with education in order to rise above oppression. What we don’t need is the apathy and shallow comfort of imaginary friends and high-priced placebo effects. Those things distract us, take our money and threaten our lives.

There is much effort by the GOP to take away the rights of women. There are spokesmen like Rush Limbaugh trying to shame women and call them overeducated as if to send the message that women should NOT be educated at all. Women and minorities alike need to be proud of education. If the knowledge that often accompanies education is indeed a privilege we should be demanding it be a basic human right, not shaming those hoping to share it.

Don’t let superstition and the stereotypical roles of women influence your ability to understand reality and to educate yourself. Rise up, continue to speak up and fight back against the flood of anti-intellectualism and ignorance.

* I realize there is a group of people who try to argue that privilege itself does not exist as another way of trying to shut down the conversation about equality. This style of argument shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of societal and economic structure and a denial of readily available facts. This post is not about those people.

* And I also realize that education is quite literally a privilege in certain countries and in very rural areas without access to internet or books. This is clearly not the case if we are discussing a group of women in college in what I assume is the USA.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

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 and cohost of Makers' Hustle Podcast Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+.

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59 Comments

  1. March 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm —

    This is a great message, and it reflects on all the work done in this community. I really do appreciate articles like this, as they’re what drew me into the site in the first place: the intersection of feminism and skepticism.

  2. March 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm —

    This really hits home for me. I can’t count the number of times I have met women who refer to themselves as “liberal”, and then go on and on about astrology, homeopathy, etc. When I try to explain how these things cannot be real I am called “closed-minded”. It makes me almost not want to call myself liberal anymore. That’s why I love this site. I feel less alone, that I am not the only feminist skeptic out there!

    I am surprised about the “privileged” comment. These women have mostly come from privileged backgrounds, where my parents were immigrants who really did struggle. I have thought of these woo-woo things only working for wealthier people because they don’t have real things to worry about. (That is definitely the case of the anti-vaccine nutjobs.)

    • March 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm —

      … well, the woo medical stuff also attracts poor people who have everything to worry about and/or have problems with no real solutions. People with bad eyesight go and get glasses, people with broken bones get casts. People with colds and cancer turn to woo. People who have no insurance turn to alt-med.

      • March 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm —

        hmm, I can only speak to my own experience (which is obviously anecdotal, so take it for what it is worth). I grew up in a working class, racially-diverse neighborhood, and I don’t remember anyone using alt-med or ever talking about astrology, and certainly everyone was vaccinated. It is only recently, since becoming a mom and meeting other mothers in my current neighborhood (which is middle- to upper-middle-class) that I am bombarded with this crap, almost exclusively from white women.

        • March 9, 2012 at 2:07 pm —

          I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where most people were not that well off. My family was “lower middle class” but we were probably better off than most. Anyway, like you, there just wasn’t much woo. Some people talked about astrology but it was never in a serious manner. Of course, that has a lot to do with the fact that there is no one pushing woo in the middle of nowhere Arizona.

          THAT SAID, I do know some not-so-well-off who get suckered into things kinds of things when they feel like they have no hope left. It’s not that rare.

          And it depends on the woo.

          A lot of people who aren’t so well off believe VERY MUCH in the supernatural.

          And I think we can include a lot of religion in that (notice I said religion, and not faith).

          How many poor people think that just singing and dancing in a church will heal them? That kind of thing.

          The woo might not be exactly the same, but it’s still there.

    • March 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm —

      Isn’t the ability to not just survive but to thrive while utterly ignoring reality a pretty good indication that the person in question is being protected by privilege?

      The people calling privilege on Conflicted should turn the mirror on themselves.

    • March 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm —

      Sadly, I sometimes think that we need a real third party, and not one of the “crazier than the mainstream” ones we sort of do have, precisely because both “liberal” and “conservative” have become pretty much synonymous with “nuts”, in far too many cases. All the “liberal” side seems to do is trade spirit animals and bizarre versions of ‘naturism’, for the other sides obsession with Jesus and, “god wouldn’t let us wreck things, only he does that, when he gets really pissed”. Though, I am sure there is, right now, some liberal group discussing what sort of spirit animal Jesus would be…

    • March 20, 2012 at 7:18 pm —

      Liberal is a constellation of political orientations. It's not an all-or-nothing thing. You can be a devout Christian or Hindu and be a liberal. You can be an atheist and be a literal. And yes, you can have irrational beliefs and be a liberal. The same is true of conservatives, apoliticals, monarchists and anarcho-syndicalists. The fact that humans are not always perfectly rational all the time should not deter you from associating with them based on the important things you have in common.
      Hell, we're lucky if we're rational about a few things some of the time. Asking for us to be that way about everything all the time is unrealistic.

  3. March 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm —

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that before with the whole “privilege” thing, and a lot of other atheist/skeptic/feminist jargon. Noob enthusiasm gets the better of people, especially when they think they’ve unlocked a “silver bullet” set of phrases that automatically win arguments, but is forgivable. Less so when experienced practitioners use those catch phrases to knowingly silence people, but what can you do? Buzz words come into use because they do apply in some and even many situations.

  4. March 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm —

    Recently I was even told that my worldview of science of logic is too privileged and I should be ashamed because skepticism does not allow room for the oppressed and uneducated.

    In a way they have a point, but not the point I think they wanted to make. Hear me out.

    If you’re day to day struggle is to find food and shelter you are probably not too concerned with everyday skepticism. In that way skepticism is a bit of a privileged position; so what? That doesn’t mean it is wrong or not worth doing.

    Sometimes the caring privileged are the ones that can further a cause. Without the backing of at least some people of privilege we would still be bowing to kings and wouldn’t have seen abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, and the list goes on.

    So, the people who tend to be active in skepticism are, in many was, privileged but they are, if they are good skeptics, open to the guidance of those they are trying to help. After all, there is nothing about being oppressed or uneducated that gives one special insight into the world, despite what some will tell you, and we all should be striving to shake off oppression and educate ourselves. To not do so is lazy and self-defeating.

    $.02

    • March 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm —

      I think what is lacking in their comments is self-awareness of their own privilege. And why is this skeptic being silenced for her privilege, while the silencers, who are also privileged, feel they are still allowed to speak about feminism, or anything else? It’s just a way for them to shut her up, because what she says makes them uncomfortable.

      • March 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm —

        It reminds me of how Terry Goodkind portrays Socialism in his “Sword of Truth” books – that thought and effort are looked down upon because not everyone can do them equally. Honestly, with the point of views these women are expressing, why are they in college at all?

  5. March 9, 2012 at 1:23 pm —

    Tell them it’s you’re your trying TO educate and… err… de-oppress people.

  6. March 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm —

    Carl Sagan is my Spirit Animal.

    • March 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm —

      I was thinking about how I often tell people otters are my spirit animal because OMG OTTERS (also: baby goats). But Carl Sagan is a MUCH cooler spirit animal.

  7. March 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm —

    Evidence is so bourgeois.

  8. March 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm —

    It is incredibly unfortunate that social justice movements climb on the “woo woo” bandwagon. My take is that this stems from postmodernist critiques of reductionist, objective knowledge and even of the scientific method. That such knowledge had foundations among “white, anglo-patriarchical philosophers” during the time of the Enlightment, then scientific knowledge is therefore tainted with oppression. But at 30,000 feet in a jumbo jet, those same postmodernists will eat crow, abandon their “woo woo science” and accept Newton’s laws of gravity.

    • March 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm —

      Yeah, reality is privileged.

      It also has a liberal bias.

    • March 9, 2012 at 11:35 pm —

      I think there’s also a little more to it than that, although I generally agree with you.

      For one thing, a lot of what was once accepted as science had TONS of racism, sexism, and classism inherent in it, so people from oppressed backgrounds have good historical reasons to be fearful of it (for example–psychiatry used to be used, and in some cases, still is, as a bludgeon against non-conforming or victimized women). Now, of course we would recognize this as BAD SCIENCE, and we work to fix it, but to others this frightens them off science entirely, which is a real shame.

      Also, a good deal of the accumulated scientific knowledge likely has a lot of hold-over from very biased research and we haven’t done all the necessary work of cleaning house and updating this with responsible, evidence-based knowledge. Again, that’s an argument for more science, not less, but these people have been scared off.

      Then, there’s the problems with things like EvoPsych which is basically a circle-jerk of reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes under the veneer of science. (For more of what I think on EvoPsych, click here. Of course, in our community we recognize this as bad science, but from the outside looking in it appears like the scientific community is still just as patriarchal as they feared. It also doesn’t help that the media in general prefers to report on these sort of stereotype-reinforcing “studies” as “science,” which is mostly what the layperson sees.

      So, it’s not just that science was viewed as oppressive because of who was doing it, but it has historically actually been oppressive in its methods and conclusions. This is yet another reason why we need more diversity in science because bullshit assumptions need to get questioned for good science to take place.

      It’s frustrating because real science is so essential for social justice, and it’s badly hamstringing to fall into a lot of self-congratulatory woo, that is basically just a differently-wrapped-up form of benign sexism.

      And, yeah, I FUCKING HATE postmodernism. Arrggh. Grrrr. Rage. Bleeaarrrgghh. Yes, SOME things can be looked at in different ways, but not necessarily EVERYTHING. Yes, some truths previously considered objective were the result of certain cultural biases, but rectifying that does not require throwing out the entire concept of truth!

  9. March 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm —

    This really hit home; I’m a woman and a minority (I’m Mexican). I once joined a club for Latinas when I was in college and to be quite honest, I felt like I didn’t belong there at all. There was a lot of mysticism and deference to traditional healing, and I was skeptical about it. Not to mention that my atheism didn’t seem to go over too well.

    I was once told that I should consider the political implications of my valuing “Western” scientific method over other traditions, and that’s when I knew the group wasn’t for me. I felt really bad, like I was a “coconut” or something. I kind of felt like others saw me as having been brain washed by the white folks, and I have been told as much throughout my life by various people. :P

    Not necessarily in that club, but within the greater community I come from, there is a lot of distrust of doctors and science, and this is very very very understandable. Just look up Madrigal v Quilligan.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1449330/

  10. March 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm —

    New age nonsense appeals to all types. That said, I am SO sick of people telling me about their rose water and quartz healing session or suggesting to me a vial of water with a molecule of junk to cure what ails me. They tell me this with googley eyes and a straight face as though I’m supposed to jump up and down with approval.

    God forbid I should have an opinion that I don’t think that stuff is medically useful. They become all morose and angry. I don’t begrudge people their rituals, I simply prefer to give my honest opinion when false statements are made.

    People calling themselves nutritionists have actual blogs recommending this crap. I don’t mind fun and slightly immature pajama talk about “what sign are you” and mediation with rocks, I do that stuff too. It’s relaxing. But don’t turn it into an alternative to something with evidence, okay?

    There is *some* preliminary suggestions (okay, yes I will have to track down the study or article) that time of year when someone is born can influence something to do with health or mood early in life, so Astrology may not be 100 percent bunk (maybe more like 90 percent), just to be open minded here.

  11. March 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm —

    Jeez, reading that letter nearly infuriated me. To hear that it’s wrong to be critical, that you should be ashamed to use your brain to challenge unwarranted claims. I would have been a TOTAL dick to your friends Conflicted Activist, you have much more patience than me. That being said by the end of this article I was so ecstatic and at the edge of my seat cheering on Surly Amy, great job on this one!

  12. March 9, 2012 at 6:34 pm —

    I’m guessing that if this is a college crowd two lines of thinking could be at play. Firstly some kind of PC over sensitivity resulting in a pathetic and frankly patronizing view of the poor and under-educated; or secondly some watered down post modernism that’s been gleaned off a tenured professors who is still teaching long after a reasonable retirement age. This type of silly thinking should not be tolerated among ones college peers who should have some critical thinking skills, but if this is a community organization I’d go with some slightly more nuanced and tolerant advice.

  13. March 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm —

    I’m more concerned with a cold attitude. Magical thinking can be a tool that helps some women survive unbearable conditions. By all means debunk your fancy college friends, but if you should ever have to deal with a disadvantaged woman you’ll find she relies on mysticism to cope. It’s less about being stubbornly alternative and anti-intellectual and more about “What are you trying to get?” Spirit guides help to feel less alone and rejected in the world; do something about that before finding something else to alienate us from “incomprehensible” women.

    • March 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm —

      The problem isn’t the spirit animal, its the bloody mysticism. I strongly associate with cats, but my strongest focus was foxes. So, I write stories for myself in my head, I have a character based on Japanese Kitsune in Second Life, and generally do, for myself, what is damned expensive, if I spent all my time buying books instead. But, there is a difference between telling yourself what you know are stories, and having it help you get through the day, and actually believing you are, or are followed around by, or being talked to by, or whatever, a bloody spirit animal.

      These people are convincing themselves that something which, for some of us is fairly normal internal dialog, is originating “outside” somehow, from real things, and not just themselves telling themselves stories. And, that is the problem. Its self induced schizophrenia.

  14. March 9, 2012 at 7:01 pm —

    There is actually a point or two to be made about Science and privilege, though I doubt that these people understand it.

    The main one is that a certain amount of what is called “science” is actually just various prejudices and preconceptions dressed up in a lab coat. Most evolutionary psychology and nearly all of the “science” of racial difference in intelligence fall into this category.

    But even leaving out deliberate injection of bias in to science, there’s the general problem of unthinkingly accepting things as “obvious” that later turn out to be wrong, which something that even the best and most consciencious scientists get burned by. So when science is mostly done by people from the same, rather homogeneous social group (white, male, European background), it’s easy for the unexamined prejudices of their class to seep into their work.

  15. March 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm —

    Last week, I got a new tattoo, with a new artist. (My regular one is a two hour plane ride away.) The conversation turned to the surgery I’d had the week before, and my disappointment that it solved nothing and actually put be back as square one with What Is Wrong With Becca. She stated that she mistrusted all Western medicine, and had I thought about homeopathy, naturopaths, etc. As she was tattooing me at the time, and was doing work so beautiful I’m still smiling when I get sight of it, I turned to conversation to pets. We can all talk about how awesome our pets are.

  16. March 9, 2012 at 8:29 pm —

    “Firstly some kind of PC over sensitivity resulting in a pathetic and frankly patronizing view of the poor and under-educated”

    Thank you for bringing that up Jacob V.

    I’ve had many problems with upper middle class folks (usually white, often other feminists) condescending to me. As in, X will gladly critique and disagree with someone who they think is their peer, usually another upper middle class white person. However, I don’t get the same consideration.

    What about respecting me as an individual enough to have a proper conversation with me? You know where I am treated like an equal in place of a poor unwashed brown person who would somehow be traumatized by having my beliefs challenged? In many cases, assumed beliefs I don’t even have. Seriously, I would never have become an out and open atheist if some one did not challenge me to come out. I would never have gone into skepticism nor have developed an interest in science if some one had tried to coddle me because they perceived me as pitiable, in place of challenging me to think critically.

    I’m not ashamed to say that I’m poor, I supplement my income by cleaning, I live in a shady gang ridden neighborhood, I flunked out of high school, I’ve never finished University (refer to comment about being poor) but I’m still equal to any white upper middle class person, and I don’t deserve condescension.

  17. March 9, 2012 at 8:34 pm —

    One more thing, magical thinking often hurts poor and disenfranchised groups the most. Why work for change if you think your reward for suffering is in the afterlife? After all, it’s the poor and meek who get into Heaven, not the rich! Why take insulin if all you need is herbs or to just pray to Virgin de Guadalupe? (I lost a relative this way).

  18. March 9, 2012 at 8:42 pm —

    Woo is equal opportunity. In my job as a front line veterinary clinician in a mixed, but mostly upper income area, as far as I can tell, it is not income or education that dictates belief systems. Maybe it is more disappointing that “educated” people believe this crap, but I think it is a wrong to think that a college education is a vaccination against woo, sadly.

  19. March 9, 2012 at 11:30 pm —

    It occurs to me that these people may not realize that privilege has a ton of different vectors/dimensions, and not all of them are static. Youth is a privileged position in many situations, but not one you retain forever!

    See, too many activists hear the word “privilege” like it’s a bad thing. Almost every instance of “privilege” is only bad because (1) it’s not broadly enough shared (or, (2), it allows you to treat other people as not worthy of respect — and that legitimately is a problem, but it’s a problem with the user, not the tool).

    Education absolutely confers substantial privilege. But for you as an activist, there’s nothing preventing you from — and everything encouraging you to — spread that privilege around by educating others in a respectful way.

    As for skepticism not having room for the uneducated — that’s hogwash. Skepticism’s foundations come from the child’s persistent questioning of the world, demanding answers that fit coherently together. It usually takes a lot of very special education to take that natural tendency away — but then educational privilege, like any other kind, can have its drawbacks too depending on context; and there are some kinds of education that reinforce oppressions and reduce empowerment…

  20. March 10, 2012 at 12:00 am —

    I had really turned my back on feminism by the time I left college. It was made pretty clear that I wasn’t welcome if I didn’t except any and all woo that came along. Believing that women are fully equal to men just wasn’t good enough.

    And of course as a male, I would never be capable of being anything but a male, could never understand the problems women faced, and never not suppress women.

    Being told I’d raped my mother in the act of being born was pretty much the last straw.

    Damm glad I found the skepchicks.

  21. March 10, 2012 at 7:14 am —

    The amount of freely available information is at an historical high. Its incumbent on all people to take advantage of that and educate themselves if necessary. That’s the message people need to hear in order to empower themselves.

    • March 10, 2012 at 9:57 am —

      Actually Ziggy that attitude is the epitome of privilege, in seeing yourself as the norm. “I educate myself, why don’t you?” IS a good question, if asked in sincerity and willingness to learn. What are the obstacles to assimilating all this free knowledge and how do we break through them?

    • March 10, 2012 at 11:01 am —

      Ziggy66:

      The amount of freely available information is at an historical high.

      As is the amount of freely available misinformation. There’s a lot more of it, and it’s easier to find and understand. What hasn’t increased is the availability of training to distinguish between truth and well-disguised nonsense.

      Its incumbent on all people to take advantage of that and educate themselves if necessary.

      Sure, they can try. And they will end up very well-informed about spirit animals, astrology, and homeopathy.

      If you think that science is simply a heap of information, of true facts whose truth is obvious to all, then you don’t have any more understanding of what science is than Conflicted Activist’s friends.

      Science is a _discipline_, a way of framing and asking questions and of judging the answers, arrived at over thousands of years of trial and error (_lots_ of error), to get usable and more or less reliable answers about the natural world. It’s not something you’re likely to learn from any number of Google searches, especially if you don’t already know what you are looking for.

      • March 10, 2012 at 11:05 am —

        (Uggh! Evidently the Skepchick software’s skepticism extends to quoting, and in fact all HTML formatting tags. And previewing, of course. Paragraphs #1 and #3 were intended to be quotes.)

        • March 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm —

          Yeah, needs to be fixed. It real annoying to not even be able to do something as basic as blockquote, or italics… Suppose one could try inserting a mess of them, including the codes for other boards, and see what, if any, is supported. (HTML, BBcode or wiki code are the three in the “button bar” I added to Firefox, but the only one I have tried is HTML, without success.)

          • March 10, 2012 at 4:19 pm

            Italics, bold, links, striking out and a few other HTML tags do work, as far as I can tell. Is there a list of working tags somewhere?

            Also, there have been changes to the web site today! The “Comments” links on the right now take you to the comment even if it isn’t on the current page. Yippee! (This used to work, but broke during the major revisions last year.) I just wish there were more of them; there used to be about 20 in the list, now there are only 5, which makes it much easier to miss things.

      • March 12, 2012 at 12:28 am —

        amm1-"Science is a _discipline_, a way of framing and asking questions and of judging the answers, arrived at over thousands of years of trial and error (_lots_ of error), to get usable and more or less reliable answers about the natural world. It’s not something you’re likely to learn from any number of Google searches, especially if you don’t already know what you are looking for."
         
        I totally agree, not only that but sometimes even people who understand the scientific method aren't able to apply critical thinking outside of their specialty. Even a lot of people who claim to be skeptics or critical thinkers aren't really, being able to deconstruct a scientific study is quite different than being able to deconstruct a cultural artifact or social structure (and then there are the contrarians that claim to be skeptics, of which there are many). You get people who promote science based medicine that can't think critically about culture because they don't have the tools (and aren't willing to examine their own biases). You get people who promote critical thinking about cutlure who can't think critically about science because they don't have the tools and knowledge. And then there's the people who think it's science vs art or science vs humanities, who are engaged in ideological battles (and we all know how blind ideology, particularly ideology that is very related to personal and social identity, can get in the way of critical thinking). As someone who grew up in a science household and has worked in art and culture most of my adult life, I end  translating and explaining to people a hell of a lot. The innocent who are ignorant, are generally open to understanding, particularly if they are curious people in the first place (lots of curious people get sucked into woo) – the willfully ignorant are, well, willfully ignorant so are going to be impervious to reason.

  22. March 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm —

    Maybe we should respect the poor and uneducated enough to speak to them the same way we would a wealthy man with a Ph.D. I have been in poverty before and what I really wanted was respect.

    Of course, if someone was in pain (lost a pet or family member) I would never question using stones or tea or whatever to heal their emotional pain.

    It’s when either A. they use it to cure illness or especially B. when my grad school friend goes on for the umpteenth time about consulting her rose quartz about what to wear for her date, or trying to get me to drink some horrid junk when I have the flu.

    • March 12, 2012 at 2:53 pm —

      Not to mention that many if not most people with a PhD experienced some degree of poverty while in grad school. This is also my current theory as to why professors tend to be more liberal.

  23. March 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm —

    There are parts of the world where education is a privilege, as you mention, but information isn’t. It’s only through fear and superstition that local forms of woo stick around there since when the locals do look critically at them, they can see the shams for what they are. (And then, when they find out, they’re quickly branded witches and killed. So.)

    Here, though, where we have colleges like the one the questioner mentioned, information is not a privilege. Self-education is not a privilege. Information is not a privilege. Science and skepticism are not privileges. Ignorance, however, is. Having the money, the time, the comfort to be able to deal with pseudoscience and woo are privileges in many places. Where they don’t have the capability to deal with ignorance and soldier on under it anyway we see the greatest social crimes against not only women but everyone perpetuated (though the crimes against women in those places are, objectively, the worst).

    Ignorance is the privilege, not education.

  24. March 10, 2012 at 11:40 pm —

    This letter hit close to home. I often find myself at odds with people in my social group because so many of them buy into homeopathy, acupuncture, and other “natural medicine” crap. I don’t know if I’m the only one who rejects this stuff or if I’m just the only one who speaks up about it.

    Just the other day a friend got really pissed off online because I identified Oscillococcinum as the scam that it is after she recommended it to a sick friend. She started saying you couldn’t trust Big Pharma because she always sees class-action lawsuits against medicines, and you never see any lawsuits against echinacea tea!

    When I pointed out that there was a class action lawsuit against the exact homeopathic treatment she recommended, she deleted the thread.
    http://www.topclassactions.com/lawsuit-settlements/lawsuit-news/1309–boiron-oscillococcinum-class-action-lawsuit

  25. March 12, 2012 at 12:06 am —

    Eh, so much for sisterhood-from both sides really in this situation. A ltittle bit of understanding could go a long way here. Putting aside the issue of using "privilege" inappropriately for a moment, there's a reason why there tends to be an association between woo and ideas about privilege in feminist and queer circles. It's a historical reason that has to do with the history of medicine and medical science, and the pathologization of both femaleness and gayness by medicine. Science didn't really start catching up until the 1980s and it was actually ideological activism that pushed medical science into getting a bit more equal (in some way, there's still qutie a bit of femmephobia in psychiatry…for instance, bisexuality is still seen as a symptom of psychopathology, perfuse ptsd is still considered having a "borderline personality disorder" in some circles, etc…we're not out of the woods yet). And let's remember that Elevatorgate happened not that long ago.
    Anyway, that creates fertile ground for goddess woo and women are particularly targeted by alt med woo (well, all kinds of commercial woo really). Add in that nobody enjoys being talked down too (which is probably what triggered using "privileged" as a retaliation) and you're bound to be greeted by hostility. Also, one should be careful about getting evangelical – at the end of the day, people really do have a right to believe whatever they want, even if it is idiotic or superstitious. Now, if it's simply innocent ignorance then there are plenty of ways to actually educate people in a way that respects their intelligence and doesn't give people the impression you're talking down to them. One is to talk about the real history of science and medicine, including recognizing that there's still work to be done there as there is in the rest of society. One way to do this is to educate about female doctors and scientists – this is a general social issue after all, isn't it? A lot of girls (and some who are now women) don't grow up with female role models who are scientists or doctors (ditto queer children and adults). We need to talk through the historical reality and issues, as well as talking about some of the anti-woman/religous beliefs promoted by alt med (breast cancer being caused by not being loving enough, etc) AND medicine – and remove the whole conversation away from the science vs woo dichotomy that is actually what woo propagandists/marketers use as one of their manipulations. I've found that even my flakiest friends are quite open to learning new things – most of them aren't going to ever become serious critical thinkers, it's just not the way their brains work (they do appreciate, however, that my brain works that way). 
    I'd add that I think part of the problem is also that a lot of people don't really understand post-modernism or how to deconstruct stuff for themselves – if they did understand how to deconstruct stuff they'd probably be quite adept at critical thinking. Add in the total hostility to feminism and postmodernism that the more conservative/corporate oriented skeptics tend to express, and the fact that a lot of people just never get taught how to think critically at home or at school, plus the hardcore push at women by the alt med industry, and it's not really that surprising that some feminists (like a large percentage of both the male and female population) believe in woo. Just remeber, if you really care about this out of sisterhood, then it's worth remembering that those of us who were taught how to think critically ARE privileged. We have a much more powerful tool to see and understand the world, and each other, that's something we should share in a way that respects others. Hell, we're more privileged than most guys in this regard! Or you can just, as all practical activists do, join together on the issues you agree with and don't on the ones you don't. 

    • March 12, 2012 at 12:11 am —

      Um, perhaps some editing and formatting would have been advisable. Sorry about that.

    • March 12, 2012 at 9:17 am —

      Yet this same argument is being made by religious fundamentalists ie. Rick Santorum's anti-elitist and anti-privilege message about college. Privilege is an unfair assault against those who are educated in science. Instead it is a scapegoat used by groups who say "think my way or the highway". Think about it. A church group works at a soup kitchen and provides cheap lodging for those who are poor. Suppose you wanted to help but scorned for being an atheist or viewed as a privileged scientific elitist. Indeed that very same church group would likely vote for Santorum whom in the end would create a world worse than Salem circa the 1600s.
      I will echo what others have said. Historically there have been scientists who were racist or sexist. Let's take a classic example. Paul Broca advanced the field of neurscience by discovering that the inferior frontal gyrus is a key player for speech expression ie. damage results in Broca's aphasia. No one today would dispute this fact. A stroke of the inferior branch of the middle cerebral artery will result in this devastating language impairment in the dominant hemisphere. But, Paul Broca was a supporter of craniometry which he used to justify that women were inferior to men. How do we solve this dilemma of relaying a fact of the real world to the diverse public if it was derived by an asshole. The solution is to having a lot of women and minority neurologists and neuroscientists who not only champion the reality of neuroscience but also vet Paul Broca for being a misogynist shithead.

  26. March 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm —

    I can't keep up on the latest trends in what words mean what coming from the social justice movement.  I can't even keep up with the terminology and critical analysis in the trans* community.
    I will often see "trigger warning" and "privilege" used in a socio-linguistic sophistry.  What could be an educational moment devolves into, "sit down and shut up" bullying because of perceived privileges.
    I'm not interested in the pedantic and constantly changing world of vocabulary olympics.  I spend my time researching science.  I have to use words that are common in understanding.  My use of scientific notation is not a reductionist attempt to silence people or erase their identities.
    And I will not be put upon for having an education.  I am mostly self-taught, and had I not struggled, I would probably still be stuck in rural Oklahoma or Texas.

  27. March 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm —

    Argh, YES. There are definitely certain stripes of feminism with which I clash, such as the postmodern camps that might be critical of (or misrepresent) the scientific method. I've heard a lot of different interpretations on what constitutes good evidence for health claims, for example. I have the same problem with the "goddess/matriarchy" types, who posit the existence of a long-lost matriarchy based on no reliable evidence. (Cynthia Eller's The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is a really awesome intersection of feminism and skepticism, by the way.)
    Not only am I feminist — I'm a vegan, which is another community in which magical thinking is not uncommon. Whether my fellow vegans are talking about "superfoods," the dangers of GMOs, or the magical curative powers of a vegan diet, I often find myself feeling a bit alienated from that community as well.
    Thank goddess for the Internet, eh? ;)

  28. March 13, 2012 at 8:11 am —

    Education and privilege aren't synonomous nor is there a necessary correlation. All of the people who believe in woo were educated in some way, either by someone teaching them or through observation. If everyone started out teaching children science and logic, would we call them privileged or would it be their culture? Ironically,   there is a picture of a very educated white man on this very website that has the title of "The Privileged Delusion". He had an opinion, it was different than someone elses belief system and that was by far the most emotional response I have ever seen on this website.  I rarely saw science and logic backing up most of the comments so when you challenge a belief system that is not entirely  based in reality, you can expect some trouble. Such is life, we may not all agree on the same things, but we can at least be civil about it. Kick the dust off your feet and move on.

  29. March 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm —

    Interestingly, as someone who was brought up as an atheist in a science oriented household (both my parents are doctors, my father was a researcher for most of my childhood), with a grandmother who was a educator, I actually consider myself privileged in these regards. My family also travelled a lot when I was young (another privilege or opportunity not everyone gets) so I had a very visceral understanding of the privileges that come with education, not being poor (my parents weren't wealthy when I was younger, research isn't exactly super lucrative, but we were obviously incredibly wealthy and privileged compared to children begging in India who'd had limbs cut off to make them more lucrative). Not everyone gets their curiosity encourged or gets taught how to think critically or how to conduct experiments. Not everyone gets exposed to neuroscience or anatomy or chemistry or told that there are just some things we don't know yet. Some people have to overcome repressive religious upbringings that punish any form of critical thinking, that's obviously a huge disadvantage when compared to being brought up understanding science and how to think for oneself. I'm actually quite impressed with people who overcome strict religious upbringings. 
     
    If you don't actually know how to learn or to think critically (which isn't at all the same as "common sense", despite how some people think the two are equivalent) – then it doesn't matter how much information there is on the internet or in libraries, you're going to have a hard time determining what is valid and what isn't. You'll always, essentially, be relying on authority. A lot of woo theories have an internal logic – granted, usually based upon an incorrect basic assumption – but they have a narrative or internal logic that often reflects "intuitive" understanding or even "common sense" if you buy into the basic premise. Of course, if you understand science then you realize that reality is often counter-intuitive and just plain (but delightfully) weird. And, if you understand the scientific method then you understand how bias works (or should hopefully, though I do see people who are trained in science who don't seem to be able to apply this understanding to themselves). 
     
    While I believe that a proper education is a right, the reality is that in our world it is still a privilege that is not enjoyed by everyone. Particularly if we're talking about a science education (or an art education, for that matter, which can also help one to think critically and to understand that seeing is not believing). My upbringing had other issues and was far from idyllic but, in this particular regard, I'm very aware of my privilege. That's why I don't just assume people are stupid because they don't think in the same way as me (apart from just having a basic acceptance and respect for neurodiversity), even though I do challenge ideas that are harmful to individuals or others. Of course, that got me into a lot of trouble at school too! Not all teachers like students that think critically.

  30. March 14, 2012 at 9:46 am —

    Privilege is social power derived from being in a social group where you have particular social power.
    Privilege is about social power, not any other kind of power. Any kind of power can be turned into social power and so can be used as a source of privilege. Wealth, food, gender, physical strength, social status, beauty can be used to wield social power and so can be sources of privilege.
    Ignorance can be used to derive privilege too. That is the excuse given in virtually all revolutions where the intelligentsia are killed first. That is what the GOP is trying to do right now. The Teapartiers are woefully ignorant, but they wear that ignorance as a badge of honor because the GOP “leaders” exploit that ignorance to maintain their own power.
    Woo is being used as a source of privilege if it is used to derive social power from and exclude/denigrate non-woo believers from the woo-believing group.
    It is exactly like religion being used as privilege when it is used to derive social power against the non-religious.

  31. March 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm —

    Great stuff! I'm always so shocked by the amount of woo-woo I see in Audrey's vegan magazines and how they always target women.

  32. March 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm —

    "skepticism does not allow room for the oppressed and uneducated."
    This is one of the worst things you could say regarding social justice!  Skepticism does nothing but benefit the oppressed and uneducated.  A lack of skepticism is what allows oppression to reign free. 
    Plus it sounds like what those feminists are doing is privileged in its own right.  It's really popular–but also really racist–for non-Native people to adopt stereotypical aspects of "Native" culture without being a part of it themselves, such as the spirit animal BS.  They have the privilege of taking parts of different cultures that they like, without facing the oppression that those cultures face. 

  33. March 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm —

    Something to share with your white feminist friends when they start going on about spirit animals (it's a native woman's eloquent and totally on-point take on the whole thing so you can point out that your friends need to drop their privilege and listen)…. http://www.manataka.org/page1113.html

    • March 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm —

      Good read.  I disagree with her bit about the First Amendment (at the very least she should word it better) but it really hit the nail on the head for a lot of issues.  My favorite part: "When white "feminists" see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to "become Indian." In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism."

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