By Amanda Marcotte, RH Reality Check
Posted on March 27, 2008, Printed on March 28, 2008
Article on RH Reality Check
If you've never really delved into it, I highly recommend that you take some time to discover the skeptical community. People who consider themselves bona fide skeptics are generally delightful people, if a little nerdy, and if you are not someone who gets highly attached to what skeptics like to call "woo" -- a catchall term for beliefs that have little to no grounding in reality, from conspiracy theories to belief in the paranormal. Skeptics are big fans of science (most of the contributers to one of my favorite podcasts, "The Skeptic's Guide To The Universe," are scientists of some sort), and a handful of honest magicians like James Randi and Penn and Teller also throw in, angry at less ethical magicians who present their tricks as something more than entertaining diversions. They have books, podcasts, websites, and even TV shows, like "Mythbusters" and "Bullsh*t."
Skeptics enjoy debunking people's delusions. They poke holes in the claims made by "alternative medicines" like homeopathy, acupuncture, or chiropractic therapy. They like to expose psychics as frauds. They show up ghost hunters, and question people who believe they were abducted by aliens. What they don't take on, and has always puzzled me, are the woo-based claims made by the anti-choice movement.
I can't think of a better example of organized woo than anti-choicers. UFO aficionados and conspiracy theorists have the numbers, but rarely do they exhibit the same kind political pull that the anti-choice community has. But other than their extraordinary political effectiveness, the anti-choice movement resembles any other group of woo believers. They organize around some really wild claims that filter out to the rest of society in a milder form that makes them seem more sane. For instance, UFO believers and homeopathy followers internally believe, respectively, that people live entire alternate lives on board alien ships and that almost any disease can be cured by drinking lots of water with microscopic traces of herbs in it. What filters out to the rest of us is just the erroneous belief that we have aliens that visit occasionally and taking herbs can be a substitute for real medicine. Similarly, anti-choicers internally believe that sex education and birth control is unilaterally an offense against god and nature, but the outside world that picks up on this mostly walks away with the message that abortion is bad.
Seriously, it should only take one look at the folks marching around the Hollywood premiere of "Horton Hears A Who" with red stickers that say "Life" over their faces, half willing themselves to believe that this movie is secretly all about them and their issues. It's a cult, and a strange one at that.
But what should really put the anti-choice community on the radar of the skeptical community is their hostility to science and their affection for anti-scientific claims. Anti-choicers make outlandish claims about the brain activity and feelings of embryos and fetuses, claims that could potentially affect a woman who obtained an abortion and believed lies about what happened later. They make deeply unscientific claims about how hormonal contraception causes abortion in order to give cover to a larger anti-contraception agenda. They make claims about how condoms don't work in an effort to dissuade people from using this potentially life-saving prevention device. And let's not get into the unscientific, woo-esque claims made about how Terri Schiavo could have a miraculous recovery.
Penn and Teller did in fact take on the anti-choice community's claims in an episode of "Bullsh*t," when they did an episode on abstinence-only education. So there's some indication on the horizon that the skeptical community senses all the woo coming from the anti-choice community and leaking into the regular political discourse, sometimes into alarming bills like the Human Life Amendment that attempts to enshrine the woo about "life" beginning at conception into law. But even though there's ample unscientific material to work with in the anti-choice literature, there's not a whole lot of correction coming from the usual skeptical sources. Why not?
Probably because politics ruins a good party. Skeptics come from all over the political spectrum, so digging into this angle might cause strife in the community. Many skeptics, while still being pro-science, might be amenable to the idea that women should be held as second class citizens by laws against reproductive justice, and starting internal battles on this issue might be seen as too much trouble. There's also the fear that getting political leads to ideological claims, which color the ability to practice skeptical inquiry properly. Penn and Teller often get called out on the carpet because their libertarian ideology often leads them to abandon their commitment to scientific evidence, most notably in their episode about second hand smoke, an episode that ignored evidence against their claims that it is basically harmless.
Unfortunately, the struggle between science-based thinking and woo-based thinking is getting increasingly politicized in this country. Even the most reluctantly political science supporters have had to face up to the political power of woo in the aftermath of increasingly vehement attempts from creationists trying to replace genuine science in the biology classroom with myths that sit better with their more magical understanding of the world. Maybe the scope of skepticism could widen to include skepticism about outrageous claims made by anti-choicers? God knows a lot of us fighting the woo-based anti-choice activists come from a background of social justice, not science, and we could use all the help we can get.
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon.