Reflections on “The Skeptical Boys Club”

It has been a few weeks since I originally published “The Skeptical Boys Club” on the significant under-representation of women in Skepticism[1]. It generated some serious response, criticism, and discussion. At the time, I tried to focus the article on the information I gathered, but tried to restrict the injection of my personal motivations for being interested, my thoughts on possible causes, and my thoughts on possible solutions. In the first case, those motivations were not immediately relevant. In the latter cases, I have no reason to believe that my thoughts on these matters have any value, and to put it next to “impressive” looking graphs might give those ruminations an inappropriate appearance of authority.

There has been some more recent interest in “The Skeptical Boys Club” by some individuals for whose thinking I have tremendous respect (but not always agreement, which is healthy) and whose thoughts on feminism, skepticism, and women in skepticism is infinitely more developed and considered than mine. After all, I can really date my intense interest in these types of issues quite accurately to precisely 28 months ago (more on how I know the date so precisely below). That is not much time to form a fully coherent philosophy of life.

So, I thought I would take this time to share some of my reflections from the experience of conceiving, researching, writing, and getting responses to the article.
1. I know the methods used to generate the data in “The Skeptical Boys Club” are not as rigorous as they could possibly be. There are a lot of very serious issues with Facebook data. This is not my area of research, which means two things. First, I was doing this in my extremely limited free time. Second, I have no expertise with these issues. I would be perfectly happy to have my conclusions completely refuted.

2. I was motivated to look into this issue by two things. First, my first visits to the Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub showed a shocking under-representation of women. The male-female ratio was worse than 5-1. Second, there has been a great deal of debate about women in Skepticism. While major Skeptical organizations claim that this issue is very important, but it was difficult to find any concrete, publicly available efforts to really understand the issue. I found this both ridiculous and frustrating. I do recognize that some will disagree that this is not an important issue, but that does not mitigate against measuring the phenomenon. As a scientist, I collect data on things that I think might be important, not just things I “know” are important. So, I went after the kind of data that I could actually get to with zero resources: Skeptics in the Pub Facebook group membership.

3. Roughly twenty-eight months ago, I definitively became a feminist. I am not personally invested in the intense philosophical debate about the definition of “feminism”. Nor was I, prior to this time anti-feminist. I was for equality, I just was rather apathetic. Then, an anatomical ultrasound told us that we were having a daughter. Since then, we have had a second daughter[2]. So, for me, feminism is simply defined. I want my daughters to be able to do anything they want and become the people they want to be, dependent only on their capabilities, not on their sex.

4. I find it very easy to imagine that some individuals find the Skeptical community unwelcoming, because I’ve experienced unintentional, unwelcoming behavior myself. Skeptical culture overlaps significantly with Geek culture, which is not known for its positive attitude toward Jocks. I happen to be a Geek and a Jock, which has meant that I have spent a significant portion of my life having one group with which I identify being hostile toward another group with which I identify. Jock culture has its own issues, but we are talking about Skepticism here.

I’m not looking for pity. Society at large is excessively supportive of athletes[3], even if particular sub-cultures are not. My self-esteem is not in danger. It won’t make me “not come back”. It does illustrate how we do unintentional things that create negative emotions in others and make them feel unwelcome. Not everyone is going to feel “attacked” in an area where they have the rest of society supporting them. I’m going to back this one up with an anecdote.

On 23 June, Swoopy (of the phenomesome Skepticality) posted the following to Twitter:

Great Real Sports profile on openly gay rugby player Gareth Thomas. It still baffles me how homophobic the sports world still is. #pride

What follows is my effort to describe my immediate and lingering emotional response, not to hyper-analyze the post or critique Swoopy, as i do not think my response reflected her intent. I am also not going to argue that rugby is welcoming to homosexuals, but one of the highlights of the Gareth Thomas story has been how supportive his teammates and the sport has been. There is a difference between outward homophobia and failing to create a welcoming environment. At some point, my friends in rugby can no longer be exceptions to a general statement. They are the community. How am I supposed to respond to a statement implying that, on average, my closest friends and I are homophobes?

I am completely certain this was not the intent, but the emotional response is faster than the rational response. The result was to leave me feeling defensive and excluded.

5. There is also the general problem of having events that appeal to diverse people. As a family guy who works all day, Skeptics in the Pub is not a particularly attractive event. Because of the timing of these events, I have to decide if I want to see my daughters for more than twenty minutes that day, or if I want to sit and watch a lecture[4].

So, those are my not necessarily coherent thoughts. Enjoy.


1: I consistently adopt the convention using an upper case “S” in “Skepticism” to indicate the organized Skeptical movement (see I did it again) and the lower case “s” to indicate a personal philosophy of critical thinking. Think Catholic vs catholic in different versions of the Apostle’s Creed. Hopefully, through this convention, I can make it clear that I am concerning myself with under-representation of women in the organized Skeptical movement, as opposed to a supposed but unevidenced under-representation of a skeptical, critical thinking philosophy among women.
2: And, to put it in writing. No, I do not wish she was a boy, nor is there any regret. In fact, I am now glad they are both girls, simply because it guarantees that the rest of society will not be able to project onto me their belief that my existence would only be justified by having a male child. The Frogger and Bell are phenomenal human beings. Full stop.
3: It has been my experience that people frequently conflate the behavior of fans with the athletes. At some point, in the future, I may write on the very different perspective of the athletes performing the sport, relative to those cheering for them. Personally, my experience in athletics has severely curtailed my ability to be rabidly partisan sports fan. That being said, GO BUCKS! and GO DEVILS!
4: I can have a beer both places, and the amount of adult socialization at the Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub is currently not significantly greater.

Author: Josh Witten

2 thoughts on “Reflections on “The Skeptical Boys Club””

  1. I’m so glad you pinged my memory about the Tweet you mentioned above regarding Gareth Thomas. This is likely a topic that shouldn’t be discussed in 140 characters, because I couldn’t really expand on what I meant at the time and I can see where the statement on it’s own needs additional supporting information.

    In fact by COMPARISON – the sports world isn’t so much as homophobic, but in denial that statistically many of their players, across disciplines are homosexual and bisexual.

    Another Real Sports profile earlier in the year that was exceptional was about sports writers, all of whom were transgendered. Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus; Bobbie Dittmeier of; and the late Christine Daniels of the Los Angeles Times. All struggled after transitioning to keep their jobs in the face of discrimination and in one, committed suicide. These are of course extreme examples, and yet I think not terribly far removed from the overall situation for out GLBTs in sports. I highly recommend reading more about these brave women if the topic interests you.

    The amazing fact is, that in all of professional sports – there are no male gay athletes currently playing who are “out”, with exception to Gareth Thomas. If it’s safe, and there is no issue with being “out” in male dominated sports (as there are more out lesbians in sports, in fact that’s the stereotype of course if you are a women athlete you must be gay) why are there so few? It of course can’t be that there aren’t any other gay male athletes, we know statistically that is impossible. So what is the motivation to stay in the closet? The perception by the sports going community (male dominated community) at large, and those who create endorsement opportunities for sports figures. Even those who cheat on their wives, which is of course considered morally wrong, continue to get endorsements. I suspect this is because cheating on the wife points to a virile man who isn’t gay, so cheating is a forgivable sin.

    If it wasn’t for the support of some of team mates and his former coach, Gareth Thomas likely wouldn’t have come out, you’re right. But it is the culture of the sports world that kept him pretending he was married, and in the closet struggling with depression for so long. And that culture is lagging behind society at large in acceptance of homosexuality in public life.

    Comments by other sports professionals and coaches unfortunately illuminate why:

    “Perhaps they are okay in other sports but not in football.

    If a player came to me and said he was gay I would say to him: ‘You have shown courage’. But then I would tell him to find something else to do.

    That’s because those who out themselves always end up busted by it, ridiculed by their fellow players and by people in the stands. We should spare them these witch hunts.” – Rudi Assauer, former German football manager in May 2010.

    I really hadn’t considered the issue until I watched a good portion of the 2010 Olympic winter games. How many profiles of gay athletes were there? Zero. How many rude and inappropriate comments were made by figure skating commentators about Johny Weir who flaunts his ambiguous sexuality? Too many to count. Weir isn’t out for the reasons listed above, and really looking at the climate in sports for gay athletes I can’t say that I blame him.

    Thankfully, gay skeptics are in I think a completely opposite situation. I wonder, in fact I would love to see a study of a percentage of gay skeptics vs. gays in the general population, I suspect due to our rational thinking and understanding of biology and science that there is a slightly above average percentage.

    Again, thanks for jogging my memory and giving me a chance to expand a little on this topic. I enjoy your writing and the many ways you make me think about our community.

    1. Swoopy, I’m very glad to see your expanded thoughts on this important topic, and I hope (as I tried) that it was made clear that I was firmly convinced that such deep thoughts lay beneath the unfortunate constraints of Twitter. The Sexist had an interesting piece today ( about the conflict between male-dominated jock and geek culture. As a member of both, I can definitely point to many examples of feeling that I needed to hide an aspect of who I am or having that aspect ridiculed from both camps. In this case, I picked your tweet out because of the particular audience. Thank you for being a good sport.

      I have not had the opportunity to watch the entire Real Sports segment on Gareth Thomas, but am also sure that it was powerful and moving, as his story is a very emotional one. Just a few notes in response to your more detailed comments. It becomes difficult to know whether these issues are really sports culture issues or culture issues at large being reflected in our sports. For example, I imagine that trandgendered individuals in most professions would have faced similar challenges to those sports writers. Unfortunately, Real Sports seems to have some of our best journalism focused on one of our more trivial activities. It is also difficult in Thomas’s case to separate the pressure of his religious faith to deny his sexuality relative to that he felt from the sporting community.

      Rugby may also be a bit unique. It is considered rugged enough that it is difficult to tag a player with the “effeminate” stereotype (a topic that came up a lot with Thomas, as he was one tough, tough bastard, even for rugby). It may be easier to be an out, gay rugby player than figure skater. American rugby, at least, has a number of gay friendly men’s rugby clubs. I will not claim they do not get mocked some, but there is not the level of hatred or fear to which the soccer manage referred. At lower levels of rugby, there can be a lot of contact between the men’s and women’s games. In the US, the women’s clubs are known for being so heavily dominated by lesbian players that heterosexual women can feel like the uncomfortable minorities in some cases. Finally, one of the top rugby referees in world, Nigel Owens, came out a few years before Thomas, and has similarly reported no ill effects on his career and very limited negative reactions from fans. Rugby players also get far less in endorsements. So, you do not have to worry about selling individuals to the fans.

      But, you are absolutely right. There is no way that there can be this few LGBT athletes. Obviously, these individuals do not feel comfortable opening themselves up in the community. Those communities, however, may not be consciously creating an unwelcoming environment and may not be intentionally hostile. That does not excuse it, but it changes what needs to be done. You may not need to convince people to stop being homophobes, but instead learn how to show they are supportive. Along those lines, I suspect that fellow athletes and teammates will be far more supportive than the fans. From my personal experience, I cannot emphasize enough how different those two groups are (e.g., watch “rivalary” games, the fans scream for blood, players hug after the game, even if they fight during the game).

      Thank you, Swoopy, for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with you that this is a very important discussion for every “subculture” to have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: