Note: The previous post is my usual weekly contribution to SBM. I am taking the liberty of posting this additional entry today on an issue that is peripheral to Science Based Medicine. If you are not interested in the recent squabbles within the skeptical movement, you will probably want to skip it. But it does respond to a detailed critique of an article I posted here two weeks ago, and some might find that of interest. We have seen the same kind of behavior on this blog, where commenters have responded not to what we said, but to what they wanted to believe we said.

I have been falsely identified as an enemy of feminism (not in so many words, but the intent is clear). My words have been misrepresented as sexist and misinterpreted beyond recognition. I find this particularly disturbing and hard to understand, because I’m convinced that my harshest critics and I are basically arguing for exactly the same things. I wish my critics could set aside their resentments and realize that I am not the enemy.

Two weeks ago I published an article on gender differences and the recent divisions in the skeptical community.  Ophelia Benson showed up in the comments. Not unsurprisingly, she disagreed with me about the Shermer incident, but then she said “I like the rest of this article a lot. I particularly like the point about averages and individuals, which is one I make all the time.”

I took that as a hopeful sign that friendly communication might be achieved, but my bubble was quickly burst by a hostile takedown of my article on Skepchick by “Will.”  His critique is demonstrably unfair. He attacks me for things I never said and tries to make it look like I believe the exact opposite of what I believe.

First he accuses me of not knowing the difference between sex and gender. I understand his definition — that sex is biological and gender is cultural — but I was trying to make the point that we often don’t know for sure whether a trait is biologically or culturally determined. And whether or not he thinks it’s acceptable, some people do use the words gender and sex interchangeably.

He wants to dictate how I use language, yet he uses the word queer, a term most people in the LGBT community consider offensive. He insults me by saying I am ignorant of what gender means. He condescendingly explains androgen insensitivity syndrome to me, as if I hadn’t learned about it in medical school 45 years ago.

He says:

having breasts, menstruating, getting pregnant, lactating, and having two X chromosomes are not inherently “womanly” things. Those are things that are more common to female-bodied individuals, but a person who identifies as a woman may go through her life not having or doing any of those things. Because “woman” is a cultural category, not a biological category.

Female is a biological category. A mammal who is anatomically and physiologically capable of bearing children and lactating (or will be, if prepubertal) is surely in the biological category “female” even if she has not had those experiences. I said “Women menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate.” What would he have had me say? “Female-bodied individuals are more likely to menstruate, get pregnant and lactate than male-bodied individuals”? That strikes me as an inelegant and unreasonable concession to feminist political correctness.

There are plenty of examples that further demonstrate how Hall’s idea of the clear-cut division between male bodies and female bodies is not so simple.

I didn’t say I thought there was a simple clear-cut division. I didn’t even address that issue in my article. It was already too long, and it was not the appropriate place to cover all the subtleties like intersex that I delved into in today’s post, “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: It’s Complicated.” I covered the subject exhaustively there and made it abundantly clear that I don’t think there is a simple clear-cut division. I didn’t address equal pay or same sex marriage, either. That doesn’t mean I don’t support them.

a blind acceptance of research on sex/gender differences in brains, various developmental and health issues, and standardized tests

Not “blind acceptance” at all. I listed a number of such findings but then went on to explain that:

Studies disagree with other studies, every scientist’s methodologies are criticized by other scientists, researchers’ choice of what to study influences results, and brain imaging studies may not mean what we think they mean. There is very little in current science to hang a hat on; the field is in flux. I frankly don’t know what to believe at this point.

And that uncertainty was reflected in my conclusion.

Then he goes off on a bizarre tangent about breastfeeding:

Hall’s focus on breastfeeding as the penultimate form of bonding also does not jive with the scientific literature.

What focus? I said nothing about bonding. All I said was “breast is best” and he agrees with me that there are health benefits. He talks about positive relationships from breastfeeding, maternal-infant bonding, and stigmatizing parents who can’t breastfeed.  Ironically, he echoes exactly what I myself said in an article on breastfeeding in 2010.

He takes issue with my comments about men choosing the occupation of primary caregiver to infants. I didn’t say I “dismissed” the possibility that there would someday be a 50/50 split. I said I didn’t foresee that happening (i.e., I thought the probability was low), and I think most reasonable people would agree with me. His argument that the number of stay-at-home dads has recently doubled is not very persuasive, since it is still only 3.4%. Then he cites ethnographic evidence of male breastfeeding (actually only one tribe, the Aka, where men allow infants to suck their nipples but do not produce milk), and he links to an anecdote about a transgender man who stopped his testosterone, became pregnant, and subsequently was able to produce milk from his remaining normal female breast tissue. He seems to be grasping at the flimsiest straws to refute things I never said. Why couldn’t he just have said a 50/50 split might seem improbable to me, but in his opinion it was not impossible? We could have agreed on that.

She’s wrong that gender doesn’t matter.

That’s not what I said. Of course gender matters.  What I said was that average gender differences in aptitudes and preferences don’t matter very much when it comes to deciding what an individual can and can’t do. I thought that was pretty clear.

Would she begrudge queer people or people of color joining together in solidarity in the same way that she poopoos on people identifying as “women skeptics?”

I never “poopooed” on anyone.  I have never criticized others for identifying as women skeptics; I only said I personally prefer to be identified as a skeptic rather than as a woman skeptic.

He quotes me out of context and then makes unwarranted assumptions. What I said about separate meetings was in the context of whether we need separate conferences for women in skepticism. I personally feel that it is preferable to embrace everyone in a unified conference. That is an opinion, and I’m open to changing my mind if it can be demonstrated that separate conferences yield better results. I’m not concerned that separate conferences will “erase straight white men’s voices from the movement”, but rather that they may reduce the contributions of women to the mainstream community discussion. If it is true that the only voices heard at general skeptical conferences are those “privileged by default” (which I don’t accept for a minute), it seems to me the answer would be to have the “unprivileged” voices heard in the general conference, not to create a separate conference where those other voices can preach to their own choirs.

He says:

The idea that minorities joining together in solidarity to speak about issues important to them is somehow divisive is horseshit.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but for the record, I have no objection to minorities joining together in solidarity in any way they choose. I have a personal preference to participate as an integral member of the general body of skeptics, rather than meet with a subset of women skeptics. I would be distressed if the skeptical movement were balkanized into ineffectiveness by creating separate meetings for every conceivable minority group. Do we need a conference devoted to elderly transsexual black Hispanic scientists? OK, so that’s ridiculous; but at what point does it become ridiculous? Think about it for a moment. Be fair. Are you biased against small minorities and willing to treat them differently because of their size? In my opinion it’s more productive to address everyone’s special concerns within the skeptical community as a whole. But that’s only my personal opinion. If any minority group, no matter how small, wants to have their own separate meeting, I certainly wouldn’t try to stop them.

 Is Hall advocating for a diversity-blind society where we pretend that differences don’t exist?

Of course I am not! Where did that come from? Nothing I said even remotely suggests that. That interpretation is offensive.

What Hall deems “mutual goals” aren’t actually mutual — they are the goals of a certain segment of the population, and for her to pretend that the goals she sees as important are the goals of the skeptical/atheist/humanist movements is not only arrogant, it’s evidence of  a patriarchal bargain.

The mutual goals I spoke of are the goals of skepticism, which presumably everyone in a skeptical organization must be invested in or they wouldn’t have joined. Within the skeptical movement, some individuals are more interested than others in issues like atheism, racial equality, and gay rights, but everyone can agree on the importance of critical thinking and the skeptical approach to all aspects of life. I am only echoing Jamy Ian Swiss’ eloquent plea in his speech at TAM 2012 for us to unite rather than divide, not to privilege other issues over skepticism within the skeptical movement.

Will failed to address the main points of my article. Notably, he didn’t comment on the unfortunate infighting within the skeptical movement.  Did he approve of how PZ Myers twisted what I said to accuse me of thinking “that women have less capacity for critical thinking, or that they are intrinsically more gullible and therefore more likely to be religious, or that they are less rational and so less suited to careers in science.” Apparently he did approve, since he resorts to the same tactics, distorting my words to make it look like I meant the exact opposite of what I did.

Most of the commenters follow his lead.

One of the commenters says:

[Hall] seems to assume that erasing our identities from view will solve the problems of racism, sexism, and heteronormativity by, I don’t know, raising a generation that has never heard of a homosexual?

How utterly ridiculous!  I said nothing about erasing identities from view. Just the opposite: I was advocating keeping them in view of everyone by including them in a unified conference.

Another commenter says

Hall saying that men have larger brains is simply wrong. Taller people have larger brains. Men are on average larger than women, so they have, on average, larger brains.

The same words are wrong when I say them but right when he says them?! Instead of saying I am wrong, why not simply offer a possible explanation for a fact that we both agree on? (Actually, the evidence is mixed. Some studies found that men’s brains are still larger after correction for body size; some didn’t.)

And if you want a really surreal excursion into the thought processes of my critics, take a gander at this exchange  [the names of two participants were redacted].

Ophelia first says she can’t produce an e-mail and then says she can and will produce it if the other party OKs it. She quibbles about the definitions of “produce”, “copy”, “show” and then offers the irrelevant comment that an e-mail can be faked.

She says “I didn’t accuse her of lying; I just said she didn’t tell the truth.” (!?) She had questioned a woman’s perception of what happened at a secular women’s meeting because it didn’t match the “truth” of her own experience. What if a woman said women were sexually harassed at TAM and I said she “didn’t tell the truth” just because my own experience there was very different? Ophelia certainly wouldn’t have let me get away with that, but she didn’t seem to recognize the same offensive behavior in herself. She never answered my question. Instead, she accused the redacted people of derailing the discussion and blamed them for preventing her from responding to me.

In the comments one person used my famous t-shirt as an example of how

women get told not to complain or talk about the bad things that happen.

Another person with better reading comprehension wrote “Please explain how Harriet Hall’s t-shirt was “telling” women to do *anything at all*.” (It wasn’t. It was only a description of my personal thoughts, not a prescription for anyone else’s behavior). Then another commenter said

Harriet Hall’s T-shirt was brilliant! It encompassed free speech and equality. (just think we are all equal…we are all skeptics, not female skeptics and male skeptics but simply skeptics)

Hard to believe they were talking about the same message!

Another blogger has deconstructed a list Ophelia made of antifeminist tropes. He claims she sets up a series of straw men and tries to create problems where none exist. You can judge for yourself.

In a recent article on Neurologica, Steven Novella wrote about his similar experiences with divisions in the skeptical community, focused more on atheism than on feminism. There is a common pattern of distorting people’s words to create straw men, of seeking out things to argue about, and of disrespecting one’s opponents. He said (emphasis added):

When I made this point in a previous post PZ and others misinterpreted this as me saying that atheists come to their atheism by assuming a-priori philosophical naturalism, but I never said this.

It is common wisdom that those who are closest make the most bitter enemies, and this has depressingly seemed to be the case here.

Let’s dispense with dismissive and derogatory terms, focus on our common ground, and be tolerant of our diverse approaches to trying to achieve our common goals.

A plea to my critics in the feminist movement

Please read what I say, not what you choose to imagine I meant to say.

Please don’t try to argue about statements I never made.

Please try to understand that “I like to do it my way” does not equate to  “I’m accusing you of being wrong for doing it your way.”

Please try to be civil and respectful and avoid insults.

I am a feminist too, even though my brand of feminism may not meet your expectations of how a feminist should act. There are different roads to the same destination. Don’t disparage mine.

I don’t think I deserve your contempt and hostility.

I am not your enemy

From reading what my critics in the feminist community have written, it seems to me we all agree on the most important things:

  • That women should not just stay home and take care of kids
  • That we have come a long way, and the feminist movement has done much to improve the lot of women
  • That there are still obstacles to women in our society. (We can congratulate ourselves that many of the “hard” obstacles such as legal restrictions have been eliminated. Unfortunately, the ones that remain are “softer”, harder to identify precisely and harder to deal with effectively),
  • That we should endeavor to identify and remove the remaining obstacles
  • That it is unreasonable to enforce a requirement that equal numbers of men and women be present in any sphere of human endeavor
  • That society has much to gain from letting everyone, male and female, develop their individual talents in a field of endeavor that they have freely chosen.
  • That whatever average differences exist between men and women, whether innate or a result of cultural influences, averages are irrelevant when it comes to deciding whether an individual is qualified for a job.

In their quest for equal treatment, feminists have sometimes denied that there are any innate differences between men and women. And scientists have over-interpreted questionable and conflicting data to argue that there are many established biological differences. In the scientific search for truth, we can hypothesize that some innate differences probably exist and we can search for them. We must not be afraid to examine differences due to sex, gender, or race just because of political correctness or out of fear that our discoveries might be appropriated and misused for nefarious purposes by a group with a political agenda. It is just as foolish to deny the possibility of innate differences as to attribute everything to them.

Will’s critique of my article and some of the other recent incidents have left a bad taste in my mouth and have not served feminism well. Am I correct that we basically agree on the bulleted points? If I have somehow misread you and misinterpreted your position, please explain. If I am right and we are in essential agreement, I propose we concentrate on those points of agreement and try to move forward together.



  • Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.

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Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.