The Skeptical Ninja

One of the things that I find most challenging about being a skeptic, is the inevitable confrontations that arise in regular social conversation with friends, family members and colleagues. Talking with colleagues about things like complementary & alternative medicine, psychics, astrology and the like is particularly difficult for me. The colleague relationship can be a difficult one, as often we spend more time with these people than with our own family without ever getting to know them very well. This makes broaching difficult or controversial topics with them all the more tricky. With friends and family, I feel we know each other well enough to know what level to pitch the discussion at, how far I can push it and which topics might be better to avoid. Whilst Mike Meraz and his most excellent Actually Speaking podcast have been wonderfully helpful in improving my communication skills in relation to skeptical issues, this is an area I still feel that I could improve upon a lot.

As with most corporate organisations, there is quite a culture at my work of forwarding on emails. You know the ones I mean, things like “coke will dissolve a tooth overnight”, toxic chemicals in consumer products and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Often people will print out these emails and pin them up on the board in the tearoom (as if spamming everyone wasn’t enough). What’s really frustrating about the circulation of these emails amongst my colleagues is that virtually everyone I work with is from some sort of science, engineering or technical background. That they blindly accept these claims, in particular those that can be so easily tested using the scientific principles that they should be very familiar with, is so disheartening. Of all the people in the world, scientists are the best equipped to critically, rationally and logically assess information but many have either lost these skills, or do not bother to put them into practice.

I do love my morning coffee, but I don’t tend to go to morning tea in the tearoom where credulous conversations about these emails undoubtedly take place. So in the meantime while I am still developing my conversational skills, I have created an alter-ego I am dubbing ‘The Skeptical Ninja’. The Skeptical Ninja pins up Snopes entries next to the emails, or other credible sources which debunk or contest the (mis)information.

I hope that this will encourage those who print and forward the emails to be a little more critical of their content. Sometimes forwarded emails are fun, or just plain silly, but there are many that perpetuate dangerous urban myths, erroneous health information and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Until I become more confident in my conversational skills, I hope that The Skeptical Ninja can do a little bit to chip away at the wall of ignorance and credulity that exists within so many people.


Banning the burqa

The media have gotten themselves into a tizz today concerning the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women in Australia. It all started with this article by Liberal senator Cory Bernadi, in which he says “For safety and for society, the burqa needs to be banned in Australia.”

Bernadi makes some excellent points about the burqa, in particular these two:

the burqa represents the repressive domination of men over women which has no place in our society and compromises some of the most important aspects of human communication.

Equality of women is one of the key values in our secular society and any culture that believes only women should be covered in such a repressive manner is not consistent with the Australian culture and values“.

Predictably, the media have overlooked this entirely rational and justifed feminist position, in favour of the more sensationalist ‘freedom of religion/racism/bigotry/’ line. And the comments on The Age article reflect views that I suspect fairly well reflect those of the general public.

Whilst I’d love to see Muslim women the world over liberated and freed from the burqa, I wonder what the psychological and mental health consequences of a burqa ban would be. Surely, a Muslim woman choses to don a burqa because she believes that God or Allah, wants her to do so. When a woman has seen her female role-models wear the burqa, been raised from birth to believe that she must obey what her holy text, religious leaders and most importantly, husband, tell her to do, surely a government law enforcing that she should not wear it must have a profound effect on her emotional well-being. Should she be forced to remove it, would this conflict with her idea of what is ‘right’ so severely as to impact upon her mental health? Is the suffering of one generation of Muslim women worth it to break the chain of oppression and free their daughters and grand-daughters? And might we see (or not see, as is so often with domestic violence), husbands of these women reacting adversly to the ban, and taking it out on their wives.

Whilst I’ve found numerous news articles, editorials and opinion pieces on the banning of the burqa, I have been unable to find anything addressing any possible repurcussions regarding the pyschological wellbeing and mental health of women who are forced to remove their burqas. Maybe I am completely off track here, I know very few Muslims, and certainly none well enough to have a conversation about this issue with. I do hope that this issue doesn’t go away though, as I feel it will serve to  open more people’s eyes and minds as to the crimes against women that are committed in the name of all religions, not just Islam.