Category Error

Let’s look at some skeptical topics. Of course, every topic can be a skeptical topic because every topic can be critically examined, but I’ve got some specifics I need to address. I don’t believe in sacred cows, but there are certainly some beliefs that are better grounded in evidence. Vaccine supporters have a mountain of evidence behind them while vaccine denialists have built their cases on fraudulent studies, confusing correlation and causation, ignoring science over a lot of “parental instincts,” and placing “Google University” over actual universities.

Another group of people skeptics often argue with are alternative medicine proponents, even just a light perusal of Science Based Medicine reflects a lot of bad evidence propping up so-called “alternative” medicine. Sometimes even in the same vein are anti-government conspiracy theorists, who frequently fall short in shouldering the burden of evidence. Popular in certain political ideologies are global warming dissidents, who also have a mountain of evidence against them. Free market zealots (specifically zealots) and communists both make claims about reality and how economic systems work, and many claims on the extreme ends turn out to be factually incorrect. Then, there are deists, who, like theists, are making a claim about reality. Unlike theists however, deistic claims tend to be even less testable. At best, it is an unfalsifiable premise based purely on faith.

(None of those aforementioned beliefs are an expert subject of mine, so I am purely informing my own beliefs based on actual experts, and specifically the ones who don’t fill their rhetoric with logical fallacies. Steven Novella, for example, is someone I would trust when it comes to identifying whether the evidence is strong or weak for a particular alt-med modality.)

However, I would like to compare those aforementioned beliefs to another group, feminists. In my post Explaining Feminism, I discussed a dictionary-based layperson’s definition of feminism: Feminism is based on two major premises. First, fairness (treating people in a way that does not favor some over others) is a good thing. Second, women are not treated fairly by society. Therefore (as a conclusion), women should be treated more fairly than they are now and feminism is the word we use to describe this idea.

As a definition, I think this is accurate. In addition, both premises are very difficult to argue with. The first deals with a value, that fairness is a good thing. Following a dictionary definition of fairness, I think that listing “fairness” alongside “good” fits with almost every basic system of ethics I have seen. It’s not the absolute most good thing, nor is it good to the exclusion of all other things, but fairness is, broadly speaking, good.

The second premise is entirely fact-based, dealing not with a value of what is good, but with the reality of how women are treated. The idea that women are treated in society in a way that favors them equally to men is constantly being disproven. The evidence of this unfairness is utterly overwhelming.

Combined, these premises led me to think that feminism is basically right. The arguments made by feminists do in fact reflect reality and are deeply fact based. When values come in (such as fairness) they are as close to universal values as one can get, and even the strongest opponents of feminism seem to hold those values, though they apply them poorly.

If I were to put “feminists” in the same category as those other believers I listed above, that would be a category error. Feminism is not making bizarre claims about reality or even values, but really ordinary and evidential ones. As a topic to be skeptical about, it seems inaccurate to put it in the same grouping as global warming dissidents and alternative medicine proponents. And yet:

“However – everyone also has to recognize that your own beliefs are fair game for the criticism that is at the core of skeptical philosophy. That means that global warming dissidents, feminists, alternative medicine proponents, deists, free market zealots, anti-government conspiracy theorists, and communists all get to have their beliefs challenged, and have no reasonable expectations that their beliefs or their feelings will be spared.”

(from Neurologica, re-posted Feb. 12, 2016)

It’s not that I think feminists should get a free pass. As I said, I don’t believe in sacred cows. My problem is with the grouping. Specifically mentioning feminists next to zealots, communists, and woo-peddlers is a mis-categorization of feminism.

And mis-categorizations lead to miseducation.

Let’s recap.

In my post on Justifying Social Justice in the Classroom I made the following argument: When we present information, we are also presenting values (whether we want to or not, this is inescapable). We therefore have a responsibility to pay attention to whose values those are when we are presenting that information in an educational context. (Though the comments were lengthly, I have yet to see an adequate rebuttal to the aforementioned argument.)

In my post on The Hidden Curriculum, I pointed out: In education, there is a hidden curriculum of things we do not explicitly say. These things tend to relate to values. We should be aware of what our lessons are secretly teaching and include the hidden curriculum in our curriculum planning.

In my post on Categorization, I explained: The way in which information is categorized, such as in a list of examples, shapes the way that information is understood. Even when factually correct, grouping certain things together can be misleading. This is actually very important.

As I keep arguing, one does not have to directly state a thing to imbue a statement with a particular value. Puting feminists in the same category as a whole lot of BS frames feminism as just another belief systems skeptics should try to debunk, but it isn’t. When it comes to claims about reality, feminists are making accurate ones.

Overall, I agree with Steven Novella’s post, he made a lot of excellent points. Also, a soon following episode (#555) of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe addressed these points. To be honest, I think that episode had the best discussion of the free speech vs. social justice debate I’ve heard thus far.

But in the end, I am an educator. I think very carefully about the way I present information, and I look very critically at the way others do. There is a place for feminism, and it’s not on that list.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. April 24, 2016 at 11:48 pm —

    I think it’s interesting that communism is on the list and that you are happy to leave it in its company, considering you can make a broadly similar argument for it as you have for feminism: i.e. fairness is broadly considered to be a virtue and there is plentiful  demonstrable evidence of severe economic inequality in the world, and this is probably not fair. I suspect that here, as with feminist arguments that propose policy solutions rather than merely demonstrating a problem, we are still obliged to treat such arguments critically and evaluate their success based on further evidence. Or aren’t we?

    • September 18, 2016 at 12:50 am —

      Not at all happy to leave it there, just unqualified. I read feminist blogs, listen to feminist podcasts, talk about feminism with everyone who will listen (and those who won’t), and try to read articles about feminism to expand my understanding often. I do not do this with communism, and therefore do not feel qualified to even really address it. I can’t make arguments about it, because I’m just not knowledgable in that specific subject. I think someone could make broadly similar arguments as I did for feminism, but that someone is not me.

      As I said in my post, my problem is not with being skeptical, it is entirely with categorization. Novella did not state any feminist policy solutions, he just said “feminism.” I think that generalization and placement into that category frames things in a misleading way. If the discussion was about a specific policy, I probably wouldn’t have written the post at all.

      (I apologize for not replying sooner. I back-burnered replying to SoD comments because of my schedule, then remained busy for months.)

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