RileyGate: Lessons Learned

January 11, 2012

A blog I recently wrote has caused a furor in some skeptic circles. I wrote a piece for Julia Lavarnway's "We Are SkeptiXX" site about a viral video about a little girl named Riley. Julia responded to some of my comments, and we were discussing the topic for several days. All was well until Skepchick's Rebecca Watson criticized my piece, followed quickly by a blog post by fellow firebrand PZ Myers. I responded to Watson's criticisms on the Center for Inquiry blogs, and in typical Internet flame war style the whole issue soon blew up. So it went for days, with talk of blog censorship about my "controversial" remarks. A few ostensible skeptics even brought up the specter of a conspiracy theory(!), suggesting that certain comments on the CFI blog had "mysteriously" disappeared or been deleted by nefarious, censorious persons unknown (cue evil cackling laughter!). Over the past week I've spent time trying to analyze the whole affair and figure out what, exactly, went wrong.

I recognize that my blog was flawed in several ways and deserved much of the criticism it got. Critics brought up questions that deserve an answer, and I hope this will suffice. By way of context, I write about 15 columns, blogs, and articles per month on a wide range of topics for many outlets ranging from Skeptical Inquirer to Discovery News. That's an average of about one piece every other day, totaling six books and over 1,000 items in the past decade. If you write enough material day after day and year after year, inevitably some material will be better written or clearer than others. And mistakes will slip through.

The Disputed Facts

1) I wrote, "The choice of blue for infants has its roots in superstition. In ancient times the color blue (long associated with the heavens) was thought to ward off evil spirits, and the color distinction between the two genders dates back millennia." (An earlier draft noted "Originally only boys were swaddled in blue, and girls were later assigned the color pink for reasons that aren't entirely clear.") These assertions were challenged for factual accuracy. My information for the association of blue for infants (and specifically male infants) came from three sources: "Blue Protects" in A Dictionary of Superstitions, Ed. Opie and Tatem (Oxford, 1989, p. 33); How Did They Do That?, by Caroline Sutton, (Morrow and Co., 1984), p. 54; and The Big Book of Amazing Facts, by Malvina Vogel, (Moby books, 1980), p. 349. If my sources are wrong I'm happy to admit that, but that's not my error. I did not offer an opinion about why (or at what point in time) pink was chosen for girls; the "millennia" and "color distinction" I refer to is that if blue has historically been for boys then other colors would by default be for girls. I cited research that, though accurate, does not apply to the question of current gender/color distinctions. In retrospect I should have made that clearer.

2) In my piece I spent about three sentences offering a reason why most toys for girls are pink: "since most girls play with dolls, and most dolls are pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-toned.... it makes perfect sense that most girls' toys are pink." It can be boiled down to this syllogism: 1) Most things girls play with are dolls; 
2) Most dolls are pink things; 
3) Therefore, most things girls play with are pink. Some insisted it was a tautology-valid and true but pointless; others that it was invalid because the conclusion didn't logically follow from the premises; still others said that dolls aren't really pinkish. (Interestingly, commenters couldn't agree on what color most dolls actually are; the most common response was "peach," followed by "ivory" and "beige.") I stand by my logic, but I admit this is in some ways a subjective argument. This discussion is within the context of a four-year-old's perceptions; if you ask most preteen girls what color most of their dolls are, I'm guessing they'll say pink, not beige or peach-but I could be wrong. Can the color most people describe as "peach" (once known as the Crayola color "flesh") be reasonably interpreted as a light "pink, or roughly Caucasian skin-toned"? Watson says that's "ridiculous," but I think reasonable people can disagree.

3) In my blog I accurately and correctly reported the results of a peer-reviewed study published in a reputable journal suggesting that girls may have a predisposition for the color pink. PZ Myers offered an incisive critique of it, which I fully accept, and a follow-up study finding no such gender-specific effect was helpfully presented to me by a poster on the CFI blogs, "infinitegames," and I accept its conclusions. In hindsight I should have looked for more research, and/or more clearly qualified the conclusions as tentative.

While hundreds of people put my claims and logic under a microscope, almost no one addressed Watson's logic, research, and scholarship in her response. While I'm criticized for not double-checking the scholarship of all my sources, for example, no one commented on Watson's research "proving" her point that dolls aren't pink by zooming in on colors in a screen capture of Riley taken with a cell phone.

Denying Gender Issues

One thing kept confusing me as I read through the responses. After I replied with some variation of "That's not what I wrote, I don't know why you think that..." for the thirtieth time, I realized that somehow people had gotten the impression that I dismissed the importance or relevance of gender issues. I didn't fully realize this until I had a discussion on the CFI blogs. Responding to commenter "Sally Strange," I wrote, "We are talking about Riley specifically-what she says and does in the video. I made no statements about the presence or lack of social pressure to conform to gender roles. I wrote nothing of the sort. I didn't even bring it up." Sally replied: "Yes, I know you didn't bring it up-which is rather startling, since that is exactly what Riley is talking about. It amounts to an attempt to deny that gender roles exist."

That's when a big piece of the puzzle fell into place. It had not occurred to me that anything I'd written had been interpreted as actually denying that gender roles exist or that girls feel social pressure to conform to beauty and gender-stereotyped expectations. I had missed that completely. I was being criticized not for something I wrote, but for something I didn't write-something that many readers obviously felt should have been included but conspicuously wasn't.

I do not accept the premise (which served as the basis for much of the criticism) that the fact that I didn't discuss gender roles in my piece amounts to an attempt to deny that gender roles exist. That is a non-sequitur; there are countless arguments and statements I didn't bring up in my short blog, and the fact that I didn't discuss them holds no implication for whether or not I endorse them. No single article or blog can reasonably be expected to comprehensively address all aspects of a topic.

It is self-evident to me that gender stereotypes exist, that women feel pressure to conform to those stereotypes, and so on. I do think that pop culture has less demonstrable effect on kids than popularly assumed (for example research shows that parents are far more influential in their children's lives than pop stars or TV commercials), but that's a separate issue. To suggest that you either accept that media marketing is an incredibly influential force in kids' lives-or that it has no effect at all-is a false-choice logical fallacy.

I assumed it was so obvious that it didn't need to be explicitly stated; I was wrong. So, just to clear up any lingering confusion and for the record: I believe, and have always believed, that gender stereotypes exist in society and are used by marketers to try to sell different colors and types of dolls and toys to boys and girls. It's also clear that kids receive both direct and indirect messages and pressure about their expected gender roles, from parents, friends, TV, and elsewhere. Those exact influences are often complex and difficult to quantify, but that does not mean that they don't exist.

Why didn't I include a discussion of gender issues? First, my piece is explicitly framed as a marketing discussion. Second, that aspect of the story had already been discussed elsewhere as the majority, orthodox discussion angle on the Riley video. I can see why there was legitimate confusion about my position. Still, one element to critical thinking is weighing alternative explanations: Is it likely that a professional journalist and author of three books on the media (the latest subtitled, "A History of Media-Driven Panics")- really believes that the media have no effect on people (or everyone but women)? Or maybe there's a misunderstanding somewhere?

Disputes in Interpretation & Taking Riley Literally

Some have suggested that most of my blog was taken up with debunking Riley's literal words; in fact I spend only about three sentences on that. Some of the discussion centered around Riley's statement that boys or girls "have to buy" certain colored items or types of toys. Watson and others acknowledged I was correct that girls are not forced or required to buy anything. The problem was not that I was technically wrong, but that I missed or ignored Riley's larger point.

She's four, they say. We can't take what she said literally, we have to extrapolate, generalize, and read into it. In my response to Watson I demonstrated that Riley's words could be (and indeed had been) interpreted in different ways by different people. If I read too little into Riley's comments, I think it's a fair question whether some people read too much into them. The problem with the argument, as Watson frames it, is that it is representing Riley's words (which appeared in a very specific context) as part of a discussion about gender issues in general, and they're not. Riley's comments are no more about girls who don't wear makeup being called dykes than they are about women's suffrage or the right to an abortion. That's why I didn't discuss gender issues-not because I deny them but because that wasn't what I was writing about. We framed the issues differently and thus are talking about two different things. The blurring of the two was subtle and unnoticed-the association (that I never made) between a literal quote and interpretation of gender issues had been made with nary a comment.

When I re-read it I understood how it could have been read differently than I intended (especially since I added, "It's bizarre... it's not like anyone cares," which I meant to refer to the idea that anyone should care if a girl plays with superheroes). That was poor and unclear writing on my part. Though I disagreed with Riley's literal words, I agreed with her overall intent, and I did not make that clear.

I got comments from people who said they appreciated my work and investigation skills but expressed disappointment that I didn't appear to apply those same skills when it came to gender issues. Julia Lavarnway and others helped me recognize that the same set of investigation skills I've employed for years don't necessarily translate well into other areas. I don't have the space to get into a full discussion here, but it's important to realize that examining people's exact words is a fundamental part of investigation; the exact words and specific details a person uses can be critically important to solving a mystery. When a lake monster eyewitness describes its skin as looking like "bark," that can crack a case. Or, for example, see Richard Wiseman's research into psychic séances where a person swears "the psychic knew my mother's name was Ann, and that she died of a heart attack," while a recording of the exact words reveals the psychic asking if her mother's name began with an "A" and died of a problem in the "chest area." I've solved many mysteries with what may appear to be pedantic attention to detail and insistence on verbatim quotes.

I recognize that a four-year-old is not the same as a Bigfoot eyewitness, but the basic analysis is the same, and I don't think a close analysis of what she literally said was unfair or inappropriate. My mistake, I believe, was not in abandoning the critical analysis that serves me so well in other areas, but instead adhering too closely to it. Julia helped me see that I also tend to be very literal-minded in my analyses, searching for clues that connect dots and real-world causes and effects. That approach, while very successful in some areas, runs into trouble in the social sciences where influences are often tentative, vague, and tenuous.

Bias Complaints

The issue has been framed by a few people as being about sexism on my part. There's nothing new about bias complaints. Before the complaint that something I wrote was anti-women (or anti-four-year-old girl), the complaint was that one or more of my columns showed "hatred for fat people." Before that, I was accused of homophobia; before that I was accused of hating short people. And so on. When I question claims about alternative medicine, it's because I'm biased and paid by Big Pharma. And when I write blogs like the one I did about Riley, to some it's obviously because I have sexist bias. I discussed this in my response to Watson's piece, so I won't repeat it here except to quote the words of CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman: "The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant...."

The implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that I or my writings are sexist is false and offensive. I've long supported women in general and especially within skepticism, including seeking out women (and minority) writers for special issues of Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Briefs newsletter. During a Dragon*Con panel on women last year I encouraged female skeptics to get involved in skepticism and contribute to Skeptical Inquirer magazine; at TAM last year on a panel on monsters I ended my Power Point presentation complimenting several prominent female skeptics including Karen Stollznow and Sharon Hill and encouraging more women to join. I concluded with a photo of an eight-year-old girl named Cassie who I'd met at a Bigfoot conference, and who I encouraged to go into science so she could grow up to look for monsters.

I've written many pieces for Web sites dedicated specifically to women in skepticism: SheThought, We Are SkeptiXX, and, yes, even for Rebecca Watson on Skepchick (most recently I wrote a glowing profile / interview on young feminist activist Shelby Knox which also appeared in Free Inquiry magazine). I don't need to defend my long record promoting women and feminism, but it's unfortunate that some have carelessly insinuated sexism in my writings. I made mistakes in the blog, but they were not borne of sexism.

Differing Skeptical Approaches

Many people who saw my original post (though not necessarily agreeing with it or even knowing what to make of it) were shocked by the vitriolic and abusive tones of the responses. I wasn't just mistaken in matters of fact or opinion; I was "idiotic" and "ridiculous" and so stupid that I clearly had "no idea that [I] live in a society with fairly well-defined gender roles." I was less intelligent than a four-year-old, and my errors were so outrageous that PZ Myers felt ashamed to be an old White male.

Perhaps the starkest contrast in all this is the difference between how Julia Lavarnway treated the exchange and how Rebecca Watson treated the exchange. In one case I was having a respectful dialogue; in another I was subjected to insults. Lavarnway was genuinely interested in trying to understand what my points were, while Watson was eager to mock and ridicule.

These represent larger issues in the skeptical community. Which of these approaches will change minds and engage people? If we wish to reach out to the public and get them to embrace skepticism and critical thinking, we can tell them how stupid they are and refuse to engage them. Or we can try to have a respectful discussion to see if we can understand what's going on: Is there a difference of opinion or interpretation? Are we using a different set of facts or premises? Is there a misunderstanding? Speaking from my experience, the only people I learned anything from were those willing to engage in a respectful dialogue.

Skepticism is a big tent, and there's room for all styles and personalities, from philosophers to investigators, from Penn & Teller to The Amazing Randi. Diversity (in race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, point of view, etc.) is a strength, and I'll continue to fight for it. The type of skepticism I want to be a part of-and that I have worked to promote for the past fifteen years-is respectful, inclusive, and tolerant. It is not afraid of nuance, dissenting points of view, or acknowledging errors. To each his (or her) own. For my own part, I'll try to do better in the future.




I'd like to thank Julia Lavarnway, Kate Hemenway, Gwyn MacRae, Joya Beebe, "SallyStrange," "infinitegames," Ron Lindsay, and others who may prefer to remain anonymous for their thoughts, comments, and support. I very much appreciate their invaluable insights and assistance in analyzing this issue.