October 18: Rebecca Watson (1980)

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

It was on this date, October 18, 1980, that American blogger and podcast host Rebecca Watson was born. Sometimes known as “The Skepchick,” Watson is the founder of the “Skepchick” blog and, from 2006, co-hosts “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcast. Watson grew up in New Jersey and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in communications from Boston University in 2002. Her interest in science grew after becoming a part-time magician in college and, after college, meeting magician and skeptical debunker James Randi. Watson currently travels around the world delivering popular talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism.

Watson describes why she founded the “Skepchick” blog in a YouTube interview (7/7/2008): “I started out as a reader of James Randi’s website. … So I started interacting with people on his website and, it was a funny thing, there just weren’t very many women involved. It seemed to be primarily older, white men. … There were just a few women who were active on James Randi’s website and we decided to just have fun and sell calendars, like pin-up calendars, and take the proceeds from those sales and send women to James Randi’s conference that he has every year on skepticism and science. We did that and the response was huge. … With that, I started “Skepchick.” It started out as a monthly newsletter, just online. Then that transitioned into a daily blog. I’ve since added a dozen other writers and we’re growing every day.”

In the same interview, Watson points out why it is so important to be skeptical: “I think that when you rely upon faith, when you rely upon blind faith, that makes it very easy for someone to take advantage of you. It makes it very easy for someone to, for instance, take your money in a scam. Or it makes it very easy for someone to take a medicine that might not be beneficial to you. … We need to encourage people to take a rational look, to question, to know that nothing is off-limits. You can always question.”

Although describing herself as an atheist and skeptic, the focus of Watson’s talks is invariably feminism—or the intersection of feminism and science. For example, she gave a talk at Skepticon 5 (11/9-11/2012) which was critical of Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a field which relies on many unfalsifiable hypotheses, from a feminist point of view, about which some scientists with credentials in the field of EP took issue. In a “Point of Inquiry” interview (podcast 7/18/2011), host Chris Mooney encouraged Watson to explain her idea of the intersection of science, skepticism and feminism:

I go to a lot of atheist conferences, and skeptic conferences, and separation of church and state is discussed quite a bit. But it’s usually in terms of keeping prayer out of [public] school or stopping creationism from entering the science classroom. These are really important issues and I’m very glad that ‘our side’ is fighting for them. But there’s this other huge issue of religion getting into schools in the way of, for instance, promoting abstinence-only [sex] education or religion attempting to block access to contraception. These are extremely serious issues based on nothing, based on pseudo-science and theology, which [are] generally things that skeptics and atheists like to fight against. But they’ve mostly been ignoring these issues and I think it’s because they think that they’re not important. But they really are. When the religious right, for instance, succeeds in defunding Planned Parenthood, or shutting down the government in the hopes of defunding Planned Parenthood, that’s a huge problem. That’s a problem that feminist organizations are fighting and I think secular organizations should join that fight and make a stand. And some do.

The Elevator Incident

Watson became a controversial figure in the skeptical community when she criticized men generally for behaving like a man who hit on her at a conference in 2011. Consequently, it has become impossible to talk about Rebecca Watson without mentioning what has come to be know as “Elevatorgate.” At the “World Atheist Convention” in Dublin, Ireland, held June 3-5, 2011, she described in a subsequent video how, after the talk and extended discussion with a group of attendees, a man from the group followed her into an elevator and asked her back to his hotel room. “Guys, don’t do that,” said Watson. “I was a single woman in a foreign country at 4 am in a hotel elevator with you. Just you. Don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”

In a Radio New Zealand interview (12/8/2012), Watson explained further: “It would be helpful if people would not see the conferences as a ‘meet market’ so much as a place to meet friends and interesting people and have intellectual conversations, because that’s what a lot of women are there for. I had heard from a lot of women who were being driven away from these events because of constantly having men hit on them or even groping them or treating them in a disrespectful manner.” But Watson was castigated and vilified by many, some to the point (Watson says) of threatening rape and death—somewhat proving her point about sexism in the atheist/skeptical community—and defended by others.

It is a fact that Rebecca Watson has no academic standing in either science or feminism, but she is nevertheless quite good at attracting attention to herself and thus to her issues. It is not helpful to atheism/skepticism to attempt to silence her or to demean her critiques of the anti-feminist boors who attack her. She may not be a scientist, but even a fan of science can make good points if she does her homework. While it is a fact that simply having a vagina does not make one an expert on feminism,* if you have a following of supporters (and detractors), you have the right to make comments and criticisms. By the same token, others have the right to make civil comments and criticisms about your statements—just not about you personally. That is how free speech works in a marketplace of ideas. Watson is correct that more women of substance are needed in the freethought/skeptic/humanist community. Watson herself may not be the best representative—one can agree with her feminist points of view without necessarily agreeing that she is the most articulate spokesperson for them—but at least she shows up.

Rebecca Watson is controversial, but if stirring the pot advances the cause, she is doing a service to the atheist/skeptical community. Demonstrating who the real enemy is, Watson says (”Skepchick,” May 2011), “Right now, the well-funded Religious Right lobby is working hard to convince our politicians to take away women’s rights based on nothing more than Biblical doctrine.” And in her 2008 YouTube interview, she explains her view that life is more meaningful without God—

Once I got rid of the idea that maybe I should be here serving a god, once that was gone, I think that I allowed myself to feel more meaning in what we have here. I think that that’s what is particularly beautiful about living a life free of God. It’s that I have the ability to look around and know that this is all I get, that I have to find joy in my family and in my friends. I think that there’s some strength to that. It makes life sweeter, it makes life more worth living, to me. When you ask about meaning, I think that the important revelation’s that we only get this one life and we have to help other people enjoy their time on earth here, too. I think that one of the tenets of humanism is that the important thing is … helping out your fellow man and making the world a better place, a heaven on earth, so to speak.

* Ronald A. Lindsay of CFI says, in “Watson’s World and Two Models of Communication” (5/18/2013): “I do not share that assumption [shut up and listen when women speak on feminism], and I doubt its wisdom. Indeed, I think it is a horribly misguided, logically infirm understanding of communication. This model of communication asks us to put our critical thinking on hold merely because the person speaking comes from a marginalized group.”

Posted in Education, Famous Freethinkers, Journalism/Media, Writer
John Mill

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