Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Skeptical Women

This is for Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating women in science and technology.

When I started going to Skeptics in the Pub (SitP) in 2003, it was a small affair in a room over a pub near Borough, in London. I was sometimes the only woman there and even on a good night, we were really in the minority in a room full of men, some of whom were seriously lacking in social skills. I wanted to get more involved and, quite early on, I helped test a woman who wanted to claim James Randi's million dollars because she could find missing people with a pendulum and an A-Z. She couldn't.

Slowly, SitP changed. Sid Rodrigues took over from Nick Pullar; it grew and grew, its profile became much higher. Now there are SitPs all over the country and abroad. The London one moved to a much bigger pub in Holborn and is often so full we have to turn people away (or I do as I'm door bitch). There are still a few ubernerds but a lot of women now come every month. We're getting more female speakers now, too.

Women don't just turn up to the meetings, they take an active part in the skeptic movement. The hugely successful TAM London is run by Tracy King. The London 1023 event protesting against homeopathy was organised by Carmen D'Cruz. We now also have Rebecca Watson, the founder of Skepchick, in London (conveniently married to Sid in a brilliant skeptical double-act). And there are the very many women who help out behind the scenes. Skeptical women hold their own on science forums, in blogs, in debates and at meetings.

Some of the women who come to SitP work in science and technology but many don't. It's important for women to know that you don't have to be a scientist to promote scientific rationalism, that it's not 'thinking like a man' to want evidence, be logical and think critically. Science is not 'cold, rational and masculine'.

Women are the main purchasers of alternative medicine for themselves and their families, the biggest consumers of horoscopes and more prone to believe in some aspects of the supernatural but a growing number of us prefer facts to faith. We're well-versed in the need for evidence, for randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trials. We know about confirmation bias, anecdotal 'evidence', dodgy statistics and the whole gamut of skeptical weapons against bad thinking.

Celebrating these women is just as important as celebrating women on the front line of science. You can read, write, discuss, think and get the message out whether you're demolishing alt med claims, investigating MMR, knickers that claim to detox you, paranormal daftness, faith healing, witchcraft allegations, Intelligent Design - you name it, we can hold our own in challenging it.

We use this way of thinking in other areas too - law, policy, the media, healthcare and of course in every day life. It's the appliance of science. And we have a laugh while we're doing it.

Skeptics are not a bunch of beardie wierdies drinking real ale, wearing sci-fi T shirts and mumbling about conspiracy theories. Some of us have really nice shoes.


  1. Mumbling conspiracy theories? Surely that's the very antithesis of being a skeptic? Oh, and don't knock real ale :)

    Joking aside, an excellent piece.

  2. Awesome!
    Step by step, females are realising that it is cool be smart.
    Our local atheist group has a creditable number of females involved at the highest levels, and long may it be so.

  3. Post Scriptum:
    Being a professional computer programmer, especially in the safety critical arena, ADA is the language of choice for fail-safe code.

  4. Seriously lacking in social skills? Hey! Some of us resemble that remark!

    Glad to see the lady sceptics of this universe are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

  5. Came here via comment on Grauniad that mentioned the overwhelming whiteness of TAM London 2010.

    Just wanted to mention that the thing that struck me wasn't the lack of ethnic minority attendees, but that I'd expected the ratio of men to women to be something like 95:5, and it was probably much more balanced, like 60:40, and all the better for it. It was a very pleasant surprise.

    Was anything done to positively include women, or did it just happen of its own accord ? If things were being done to encourage women to join in, then perhaps similar things could be done to attract ethnic minority skeptic.

  6. Hi Bob

    Skeptic meetings generally are much more gender balanced now. I think it's something that has gained its own momentum, the more women who come and spread the word, the more women feel comfortable coming.

    Hope to see you at the meetings at the Monarch in Chalk Farm if you're a Londoner.