Announcing My Next Point of Inquiry Guest: Rebecca Watson

By Chris Mooney | July 12, 2011 8:31 am

Today, for the show airing next Monday, I’m interviewing Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson. She’s a fast rising star in the skeptic movement, and one who–as many already know–has recently been at the center of a huge controversy involving how some in the skeptic/atheist movement treat the concerns of women.

You can read about it here, and Phil Plait has the full back story: Suffice it to say that it involves not only what one skeptic man (now infamously) said to Watson in an elevator at 4 in the morning, but how Richard Dawkins then dove in and minimized the incident.

We’ll be discussing this and the lessons to be taken from it–as well as Watson’s important work to spread skepticism and, especially, to make the skeptic movement a more welcoming place for women. Comments here will be considered as possible questions and jumping-off points for the show.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

Comments (37)

  1. Dalek

    As always, a pathetic and transparent move, Chris. Only you could find a way to make a ridiculous internet argument into a topic for a podcast show with the sole intention of slandering Richard Dawkins and the atheist movement proper.

    I hope that templeton prize was worth it.

  2. Johnny

    Allow me to summarize the incident:

    A man and a woman got on an elevator. The man asked the woman to go to his room for coffee. She refused. They both exited the elevator. The end.


    In Chris and Rebecca’s mind, this incident was a near-rape. Hawkins mocked Rebecca for thinking she was in a near-rape situation. Rebecca and Chris are making the case that the man’s actions were hostile and outrageous.

    Do Chris and Rebecca fear male sexuality? Do men still have a right to free speech, or is it void whenever a woman “feels” in danger from his words.

  3. The enemy of my enemy is my friend? Just sayin’. I don’t honestly think Rebecca Watson gets to carry the banner of feminism, because when she told the elevator story, it was precisely in order to dismiss the voices of other women, not just to highlight an instance of sexism. She started the video by labeling Paula Kirby “ignorant” and “privileged”–as if only positive evidence of sexism is relevant to how women are treated in the atheist community, not negative evidence. This is not only contrary to the sisterhood that is powerful, but bad reasoning. Her subsequent extreme attacks on Richard Dawkins have also been an embarrassment to feminism. Her accusations are disproportionate to his misdeeds. Chris, I’d think you of all people would be sensitive to the problem of disproportion. I hope you’ll bring up both of these issues with Watson.

  4. Chris —

    Excellent choice, timely guest.

    Ask her about what some are calling her “boycott” of Dawkins. She’s stated that she won’t patronize his works, talks, etc. (it’s all written out on her site). Some have characterized this as a call by her for a boycott. Presumably, all/most of the Skepchicks on her site will join in (it’s hardly that much of a stretch to think that they will join her in the shunning of Dawkins, since they have justifiably rallied behind her re the initial creepy encounter).

    However, there is a definite schism out there about whether or not this IS a call for a boycott. Is that what she’s calling for? Will she be gratified if others follow her in her decision? Let’s not be coy, let’s just call a ball or strike, so to speak, and have an answer.

    Next question, regarding dissent: Watching people discuss this on Twitter with the Skepchicks has been depressing. A guy made an insensitive joke about RW being groped, and they collectively tried to have him banned from TAM in advance, claiming it to be an actual threat. Then people made threats BACK to the guy, and they did nothing, since of course THOSE must have just been jokes. It’s just pure intellectual dishonesty and inconsistent logic, and attempted chilling of speech. Even if someone is going to be ludicrous/insensitive enough to joke, you don’t chill their ability to express themselves. That’s out of line. If you think it’s a REAL threat, report it. If you think it’s an insensitive joke, you call them on it, and even demand an apology if you like. But you don’t shut out people who don’t think like you, or who are at least not as sensitive to issues are you are. I bet there will be some at TAM who value deodorant a lot. Others don’t. While I’d LIKE to see the latter shut out, I can’t do that. So I’d just sit far from them.

    So, overall, I guess I mean this more generally: Suppose one AGREES with RW that what she experienced in the first encounter was creepy, and ALSO agrees that Dawkins was out of line with his vitriol. But I’d like to believe that people can say, “Hey, I think this other part is over the top” without having them just declare any dissent to be anti-feminist, or that you’re coming from a place where you must hate women.

    This whole episode has been eye-opening for me. Now that I know about women’s discomfort (such as a late night elevator ride with a stranger), I can work to minimize it. I had no idea, and I’m happy to do things that will make me less threatening, even if I don’t mean to be. But I haven’t seen a lot of discussions that don’t turn into a declaration that, “You aren’t with me 100%, therefore you are a misogynist.” It’s sickening, and has turned me off of the Skeptic movement (but not the way of thinking).

    Whew. If it’s tl;dr I wouldn’t blame you. Good luck with the interview.

  5. TTT

    Standby for 900+ comments.

    I would love for anybody to find and interview Elevator Guy. Is it so hard? It was a major hotel and the dates of the conference are known. There must have been a camera in the elevator, which would have captured a face that can be compared with the camera recording the reception desk; the time code on the video would correlate to a check-in and thus a name.

  6. Stephen

    Looking forward to this! Thanks for your good work.

  7. Chris Mooney

    Thanks for the comments…The show has already recorded and I didn’t see some of these, but thank you for chiming in. Contrary to speculation, I’m not sure we mentioned Dawkins more than once…maybe.

  8. Chris Mooney

    Also, #1 I suppose I should be flattered, but I did not win a templeton prize (!)

  9. Andy

    Uh? I thought the whole debacle started after two women, Rose and Stef, publicly took issue with Watson’s comments about Elevator Guy. Would things be better if Dawkins had told those two women to pull their heads in instead? I’m lost as to how any 0f us is supposed to work out which women are the ones defending the rights of women and which are trying to impose regulations on how women should behave toward other women.

  10. Chris, I look forward to the episode. Before then if anyone cares to hear what RW actually says (instead of what you think you’ve heard) about the entire situation give a listen to the most recent SGU podcast; nothing “feminazi” about it. Actually, some of the more radical responses to the incident seem to have been written by male skeptics who sound like they’re trying to earn their “Enlightened” merit badge. Of course, some of the female responses read like an entries in a Phyllis Schlafly essay contest. This entire situation is fascinating and troubling. Is it men in general or just Richard Dawkins’ fan-boys who are circling the wagons around their atheist hero and telling women they’re “too sensitive?” Is it women in general or only the Skepchicks who are complaining that sexism is a barrier to female participation in the skeptical-atheist-humanist-rationalist movement? This is playing out like the cognitive schism between conservative AGW denialists and liberal AGW “realists” (sorry, is there a better term?). Hard core atheists side with Dawkins. Skeptics seem inclined to side with Watson. Haven’t heard much from the humanists. There isn’t so much rationalism in evidence as there is rationalizing, motivated reasoning, and attempts to soothe a boiling pot of cognitive dissonance. Keep up the good work, Chris; if you’re pissing off both extremes you’re doing something right.

  11. Somite

    Phil Plait does not have the correct sequence of events. Herman Metha does:

    Richard Dawkins never responded to Rebecca Watson. He responded to the kerfuffle that ensued when Watson publicly bullied a fellow blogger that dared to disagree. This is one case were supposedly skeptical people have taken very dogmatic views and labels like “privilege” have been used to curtail discussion. Not the brightest moment in skepticism.

  12. Victor

    I wonder if RW or CM knows of the actual sexual abuse suffered by Dawkins at the hands of a Latin master who ‘fondled’ him in the squash court, which he has written of publicly in the past. It certainly casts his comments in a different light, and may explain some of the reactionary rhetoric (“No bad, etc.”) that we have seen in his responses.

  13. Marta

    “Her subsequent extreme attacks on Richard Dawkins have also been an embarrassment to feminism. ”

    Yeah, sez you. Did we have a feminist election where you were elected to the board of directors? Because I don’t remember voting to make you the voice of feminism. So that’s in the first place. In the second, Dawkins, of whom I am a tremendous fan, did not distinguish himself when he weighed in to the controversy at Pharyngula. What in the hell was he thinking?

  14. J. J. Ramsey

    Jean Kazez:

    I don’t honestly think Rebecca Watson gets to carry the banner of feminism, because when she told the elevator story, it was precisely in order to dismiss the voices of other women, not just to highlight an instance of sexism. She started the video by labeling Paula Kirby “ignorant” and “privileged”–as if only positive evidence of sexism is relevant to how women are treated in the atheist community, not negative evidence.

    I think you’re confusing two different YouTube videos. There was one video where Watson had mentioned Paula Kirby as saying that she didn’t think there was a problem with sexism in the atheist movement because she hadn’t experienced it herself, and referred to Kirby as having used an “argument from ignorance” and an “argument from privilege.” The video where Watson had discussed the “Elevator Guy” mentioned Kirby briefly but didn’t label her as “ignorant” or “privileged,” and there were a couple minutes of (what Watson herself described as) rambling between that and the Elevator Guy account. In that latter video, she started by talking about travel, Mythbusters, and a robot exhibit, not by talking about Kirby.

  15. Too late now, but in her ‘Privilege Delusion’ post, Watson claimed of suggestions to increase the number of women, that “[…] the responses from my fellow skeptics and atheists ranged from “No, they’re not logical like us,” to “Yes, so we can f*ck them!” […]”.

    Now, I’m a guy and have been involved with skepticism and atheism for around ten years and I’ve never heard one guy, nor have I heard /of/ a guy, either first-hand, or second-hand through my female friends, saying anything so crass as what Watson appears to be claiming is normal. Neither do I like her direct implication that I am likely to have such appallingly sexist views myself, and I find it desperately sexist of her to pigeon-hole 50% of the population in this way.

    I’d like to hear her produce undeniable evidence — names + places, or some adequate substitute please — which indicate that comments such as what she has placed between quotation marks (a) happened and (b) is the overwhelming norm amongst the skeptical and atheist communities.

    Because I’m afraid that I simply don’t believe her when she says that.

  16. JJ Ramsey,

    You’re right. I ran the two videos together in my mind. The point still holds though. On the Dublin panel, she starts by telling the audience Paula Kirby has made an argument from privilege, and from ignorance. She then presents a bunch of anecdotes about how she’s been mistreated by atheist men (and others). On the elevator guy video she starts by just mentioning Kirby, without calling her ignorant and privileged again. But I do think the elevator guy video continues her argument against Kirby. She’s giving more data to show that there’s sexism in the atheist community. It’s certainly fine to do that, but not fine to dismiss Kirby’s different experience. If you want an accurate picture of how women are treated, you have to collect both the negative data (no experience of sexism) and the positive data (experience of sexism). You can’t dismiss the women offering negative data as ignorant and privileged.

  17. J. J. Ramsey

    “You can’t dismiss the women offering negative data as ignorant and privileged.”

    But that’s not what has been happening. It’s one thing for a woman to say that she hasn’t herself experienced sexism in a given environment, movement, etc. It’s another thing to generalize from that lack of experience to conclude that sexism isn’t much of a problem in said environment, movement, etc. It’s the generalization that’s called an argument from ignorance, not the negative data in and of itself.

    Now it’s possible that Watson misread Kirby as having delivered an argument from ignorance, but that’s a separate issue.

  18. JJ, You can listen to Kirby’s speech–it’s in a video that’s on You Tube (which Jerry Coyne posted on July 8). She is speaking as a person with extensive experience and says something like “I [with stress on that word] haven’t seen it”–“it” being exclusion of women from atheist meetings. She then offers an opinion that this isn’t going on.

    If she hadn’t seen it because she didn’t go the meetings, or she wore a blindfold, or she’d been part of this community for a very short time, then her not having seen exclusion would be sheer ignorance. But it’s not. It’s the kind of ignorance you have when you search the room for a pencil, you don’t find one, and so you say there’s no pencil in the room. This is inductive reasoning, and you have to be open to new evidence–maybe you didn’t look in a particular drawer. But it’s not fallacious to look around carefully, say you have not seen X, and then conclude X is not there (at least tentatively and open-mindedly).

    So I think for Watson to use words like “ignorance” and “privilege” here is clearly dismissive, and not an accurate representation of Kirby’s reasoning. That being said, Watson is essentially opening more drawers, or rather, elevators! So just as I think Watson should listen to Kirby, I also think Kirby should listen to Watson.

  19. moonkitty

    @Somite #11

    “Herman Metha”

    His name is Hemant Mehta.

    “Richard Dawkins never responded to Rebecca Watson. He responded to the kerfuffle that ensued when Watson publicly bullied a fellow blogger that dared to disagree.”

    Wrong again. Read Dawkin’s posts on Pharyngula. He said absolutely nothing about any disagreements between RW and Stef McGraw or Paula Kirby. He addressed the elevator incident.

    “This is one case were supposedly skeptical people have taken very dogmatic views and labels like “privilege” have been used to curtail discussion.”

    So says a supposedly skeptical person who obviously hasn’t bothered to learn what any of the principals have actually said. Skeptical people don’t offer half-baked opinions on controversies they’ve heard of only at second- or third- hand.

  20. TB

    Here’s the mistaken thing about women’s concerns for their own safety. When they talk about a situation where they feel uncomfortable but then nothing happens, they can’t just say “well, I don’t have to worry about this situation anymore.”
    They can’t say that because it might not be true the next time, or the next time after that, or…
    That’s situational awareness, and women have to practice it more than men.

  21. TB

    If you’re not sure what I mean by situational awareness, this 2007 post by Stratfor, a global security agency, does a good job of talking about it in a number of contexts. Skip the first part, which is an old analysis. I take women’s concerns seriously when they feel threatened, and based on the number of incidents you can find by googling elevator rape, it was and is a mistake to dismiss those concerns.

  22. Bob

    Well the publicity seeking RW has done well out of this none event, even if it is to the detriment of the atheist movement in general and the individual, who had the audacity to proposition her, in particular.

    As someone who has used her sexuality to propel herself into the public spotlight its crigneworthty to see her do so well out of this. Apparently a man can’t proposition a woman any more without being accused of misogamy and objectification. Way to go SkepCHICK!

  23. AC

    I just want to know *why* she’s a rising star in skepticism. She’s not particularly good at anything besides generating publicity (and grinding SGU to a halt).

  24. Kat K

    People! People! As someone who is not involved in any of these ‘movements’ and would never have heard of this miniscule radar blip were it not for a fb friend who ill-advisedly drew attention to it, I invite you all to step outside your circumscribed, inbred little social circles and look at this from a larger perspective.

    Just get on with your lives and let the hyenas have their carcass. surely you all have something better to do with your time? I admit, even the short time I have foolishly spent ‘researching’ this story has left me feeling like I, too, have suffered a form of emotional trauma: that of realizing the depths of delusion humans regularly sink to without realizing what they are doing, all the while pretending they are attempting to be ‘rational.’ You’re joking, right?

    I’m going to enjoy the sun now and try to forget I ever heard of these useless Rebecca and Richard and whoever else-people. Just be good to each other, for pete’s sake.

  25. ‘She’s not particularly good at anything besides generating publicity (and grinding SGU to a halt)’

    I’m afraid I have to agree.

  26. Nat Bro

    I think she totally over-reacted. I mean, it’s not like if she HAD gone to his room for coffee at 4am and he raped her that she’d be blamed for it or anything. I mean, the stranger-in-the-elevator scenario doesn’t at all mimic the cultural standard boogeyman of the stranger-in-the-alley rape scenario where people feel obligated to tell women to not dress in short skirts in the same breath as telling them not to walk down dark alleys. Nope. No reason for her to be cautious in this scenario. Just a nice guy in an enclosed space offering a beverage with no possibility for ill intent.

    I mean, as a society, no one ever blames rape victims, amirite? No one ever tells them after-the-fact what they should have done differently. No one ever tells them all the “common sense” ways they should have protected themselves. No one ever questions why they wouldn’t be more cautious when they’re on their own. No one ever asks what they were expecting when they were, say for example, asked in to a stranger’s hotel room at 4am for “coffee”. No one would ever use air quotes around “coffee” under the assumption that only an idiot would assume coffee wasn’t code for some sort of sexual activity. Right?

  27. TB

    Bob: “Apparently a man can’t proposition a woman any more without being accused of misogamy and objectification.”

    Sometimes it just isn’t about you. Unless, of course, it is.

  28. And thus the whole sorry affair lumbers on. Makes me want to weep for those who are trying to really make a difference in gender equality.

  29. 1.) a fabricated controversy that follows from a few feminists falsely accusing others of sexism and/or misogyny. These false accusations are often accompanied by the claim that if you do not agree with their accusations then you are not a real feminist. Rational arguments by male feminists are often silenced using an appeal to vagina; an argumentative strategy whereby women point out that they know best, no matter what, on all things relating to feminism simply in virtue of having a vagina, even when people with vaginas may agree with what happens to be a male’s perspective on the elevatorgate.

    2.) a fabricated controversy that follows from a few feminists falsely accusing others of sexism and/or misogyny in an instance where the offence was unintentional and marginal.
    Following the Atheist Community’s Elevatorgate Scandal of 2011, many responded by saying, “Asking a girl if she’d like to get some coffee does not constitute objectification, sexism, or misogyny, and it certainly doesn’t warrant the elevatorgate that has erupted.”

  30. Hugo Schmidt

    Had enough of this long and very tedious argument over this non-event. I will limit myself to the following observation: given RW’s inspiration for a blacklist – or a boycott, if you prefer – and given the hysteria that is running rampant, calling for Dawkins to be ousted from the “skeptic” and “humanist” scene, let me remind you that Dawkins has a list of achievements that would make anyone envious, while I hadn’t even heard of Watson until this fiasco. So if they’re going to make it a question of who has to go, the answer seems straightforward.


    I could not agree more. While this goes on, I suggest that those serious try to spend some time showing a little bit of support for people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan etc. Those who really are in a fight for women’s emancipation.

  31. Nat Bro

    And this, ladies and gentlemen, is rape culture. Not only are women responsible for not getting raped, their feet will be held to the fire if they happen to offend anyone by taking the message of “don’t get raped” to heart and following the “safety advice” of protecting their boundaries. Nothing to see here, ladies. Stop being so darned bitchy and just go for coffee with strangers you meet in elevators at 4am and hang out in dark alleys in “bad ends of town” and make friends with the nice people who approach you. But don’t get raped, you dumb sluts.

  32. Seema

    I’m late to this party and probably a dollar short. But I have a question: Since all bars in Ireland must close at 11:30pm by law, what was this Rebecca Watson person doing from then until 4am before she got in the lift? Partying elsewhere?

  33. Nat Bro

    Seema – ah, now we also have the “attack her character because clearly she was participating in unsavoury behaviour herself and thusly has no expectation of safety or respect”-response. My rape culture bingo card is complete. BINGO!

  34. Ihaveaspergerspleaseexplainsimplethingstomelol

    Okay, Rebecca is complaining that guys are hitting on her all the time at conferences.

    Well, okay but what does she mean by that?

    Does that mean guys are flirting with her and that annoys her because flirting is sexualizing? Or does she mean that men are straight out constantly propositioning her for sex?

    If it’s the first case then I think she’s a hypocrite because she does that to men. (as has been noted by previous bloggers) If it’s the second case then maybe she’s just interpreting men as propositioning her? I mean based on her knee jerk assessment of a guy asking her out for coffee, it sounds like she kind of projects sexual intentions on to men. Am I naive for thinking that way?

  35. InvincibleIronyMan

    Chris, may I suggest you and Rebecca discuss the argument I have read over and over in blogs and YouTube comments regarding the suggestion that Rebecca is somehow hypocritical and should put up and shut up because she appeared in revealing photos in the Skepchick calendar. I think it deserves a response if for no other reason than it is rather prevalent.

    If anyone cares I think it is a truly appalling argument! Shades of “she was asking for it” or spurious justifications for the wearing of the burka.

  36. DanGBH

    One of the things RW does do for SGU etc. is introduce a prominent voice that is conscious of gender and other equality issues. This furore and some of the frankly unbelievable reactions just show how badly needed that is. All the voices saying ‘shutup shutup shutup’ don’t do anything to demonstrate otherwise. I have rarely been made so directly aware of the truism that people often don’t realise just how much some men hate women.
    So I’ll be giving this a listen for the first time in ages! Good timing indeed.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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