Constructive criticism backed by strong arguments will go a long way in changing hearts and minds
Back in September there was a lot of backlash against atheist author Sam Harris because of some comments he made about why there seems to be more men than women in Movement Atheism. His comments are a prime illustration of the kinds of mistaken views many men, and even some women, have about gender differences. But how do we go about correcting these views and changing minds? Among the many invectives against Harris that have been offered, blogger Amanda Marcotte’s article is a good example of how not to do it.
Harris’s argument as to why there seems to be more men than women in Movement Atheism boils down to an appeal to the differences between men’s and women’s brains as shaped by evolution. He believes that men’s brains have evolved to be inclined toward conflict and competition, whereas women’s brains have evolved to be more inclined toward “nurturing and coherence-building.”
Marcotte and many others not only object to this characterization of gender differences, but seek to use Harris as a means for combating bigotry and discrimination towards women, period. Harris’s comments, regardless of their veracity, have effects on others’ beliefs about gender differences because of his popularity and influence, so these beliefs have the potential to strengthen the bias against women in society.
There’s something that needs to be pointed out about Marcotte’s approach, too, because she is also popular and influential. If we’re all genuinely interested in fighting discrimination against women (and others), and if there is a fact regarding gender differences, then it’s important that we get this right.
The problem with Marcotte’s article is its approach. If we really want to change hearts and minds and not just indulge in some satisfying takedowns, however justified, then we need to change that. What’s missing from Marcotte’s piece is a strong argument that seeks to educate and edify and not just reprimand.
Most of Marcotte’s article is a quote-by-quote critique of what Harris believes are innate gender differences between men and women. She first suggests that the reason why there may be more men than women in Movement Atheism is its
“widespread acceptance of sexism that makes women feel unwelcome.” Then she speculates that maybe “the swift hurt of male feelings suggests that women’s ‘nurturing’ stance is a socialized reaction to men’s inability to take criticism of their ideas, particularly from women.”
Marcotte may be right about these two things—and I’m inclined to agree with her—but these are hypotheses in need of testing, or that need to be coupled with studies that support them, if there are any. Assertions aren’t going to change the beliefs of someone like Harris who is known for, as Marcotte herself says, applying a rational lens to things.
She also doesn’t take the opportunity to offer the evidence I think she needs when she says the kind of gender differences Harris believes in is
“something you’d think that he would have learned is completely false in the days after this quote.”
To me, this is the perfect place to cite whatever social psychological research shows that these types of differences don’t exist—and then to explain why it might appear that they do.
If Marcotte believes that Harris (and by extension his followers) is as rational as she says, then meet him on that common ground. Explain in detail why social and cultural forces continue to reinforce mistaken interpretations of research into gender differences. But she doesn’t do this; she continues with more hypotheses like
“maybe the acerbic tone that offends him so greatly that he goes into italics-bonanza mode should suggest perhaps that he is not as masculine and tough and women are not as soft and receding as he thinks.”
Again, I would agree with her here, but only because I happen to already believe it. What about someone who isn’t already convinced? Can they even hear what she’s saying (in the sense of being open to the message)?
Marcotte goes on for quite awhile offering speculation and hypotheses intended to show her readers why Harris is wrong. She does finally offer some concrete evidence against Harris, but only for one specific claim and not for his overall claim relating to gender differences.
In response to Harris’s claim that gendered violence is an inborn trait, she cites studies that show domestic violence has declined dramatically in the United States since the Violence Against Women Act was passed. If Harris is as rational and science-oriented as he claims, then he can’t dismiss this fact. He can try to refute it, but if his refutation fails, then he would have to admit that he’s wrong on that point. And if he’s as concerned with morality as he claims he is, he will be compelled to incorporate that fact into his own fight against discrimination against women—which is a value he claims to hold.
What about the evidence relevant to Harris’s central claim that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, as it were? Marcotte doesn’t cite it. I admit that there’s a ton of it, and that there has been much debate on how to interpret the data.
Consider a 2005 debate between two Harvard psychologists—Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker—the impetus for which came from a comment by then-president of Harvard Lawrence Summers that was in a similar vein to that of Harris. He speculated at the time that maybe the shortage of women in certain disciplines could be explained by innate differences in mathematical ability.
Both Pinker and Spelke cited the same studies and yet both came to largely different conclusions. Pinker cited a study that indicated that
“men, on average, are more likely to chase status at the expense of their families; women give a more balanced weighting.”
This would appear to give credence to Harris’s claim about why there are more men in movement atheism—being a highly vocal and visible atheist could be seen as a concern for status.
Spelke brought up a vital point when she said that, because sex differences
“emerge later in childhood, it’s hard to tease apart their biological and social sources.”
Since it’s difficult to determine the parts played by nature and nurture, maybe it’s true that people with Harris’s view on gender are part of the problem and not the solution.
Unfortunately, studies since 2005 haven’t done much to clear the waters. A 2014 study by Researchers at Aalto University that investigated the physiological responses to competitive and cooperative play concluded,
”males did enjoy competition more than cooperation, females enjoyed both competition and cooperation equally.”
Harris could use this in an attempt to refute Marcotte’s claims that there are fewer women in movement atheism because of culturally aversive factors—he could argue that the study does seem to indicate that men do in fact adopt a “critical posture” more often than women. But that’s just one study.
One published less than a year before that, in December of 2013 by the University of Pennsylvania, showed that men’s and women’s brains are “wired” differently. This prompted Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California to conclude that the research
“showed that men are more adapted to gleaning a quick understanding from a scenario and developing a plan on how to respond to it. Women, on the other hand, combine the knowledge they perceive with other emotional knowledge to figure out their next move.”
Seems to me that this study could be cited by either Harris or Marcotte’s. Or neither—it’s a little ambiguous, isn’t it?
My point is that what’s needed are stronger arguments and less rhetoric—otherwise we’re just going in circles, and no hearts and minds ever get changed.
If gender stereotypes are prevalent due to confirmation bias, which in turn is reinforced by cultural forces as Marcotte believes, then what’s the best way to combat that? Do you simply tear every misogynist a new one, make them sit in the corner with a dunce cap and hope they realize the error of their ways? It’s certainly satisfying for the writer and entertaining for the reader, but only for those readers who already share the writer’s views.
So as not to appear that I’m just saying “do as I say and not as I do,” I’d like to offer some evidence to back up my argument.
Tom Stafford, a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield, studies learning and decision-making. He had a post up back in June at the Lifehacker site called “Can Rational Arguments Actually Change People’s Minds?” The short answer to this question is: Yes, but.
The “but” is because, as Stafford says,
“unless you’ve got people who already like you or trust you (ideally both) you’re going to have a hard time, but amidst the storm and shouting of psychological factors, reason has a quiet power.”
Stafford cites a study about the Wason Selection Task, which was designed to test our power of reasoning. The interesting thing about the study wasn’t the conclusion about how reasonable or unreasonable human beings are, but what happened when a group was asked to perform the task.
The study found,
“the success rate jumps massively so that most groups solve the task correctly (75% or more, compared to a success rate of less than 10% for individuals).” So Stafford concludes: “This encouraging story about the power of reason needs to be put in the context of the research on persuasion. The groups in these experiments have a common goal and, we must assume, trust each other and are committed to the task. Furthermore the solutions can be demonstrated to be correct.”
Presumably, Marcotte and Harris are on the same side in the culture wars. So merely telling Harris he’s wrong, especially with a good slathering of snark, isn’t going to convince him—or people who look to him as a leader in the culture wars—to change his beliefs about gender differences. In other words: show, don’t tell.
People generally don’t like snark, unless it’s directed toward someone they perceive to be on the other side. So I think that offering up more constructive criticism backed by strong arguments will go a long way in not only changing the hearts and minds of those on our side, but others as well.
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