AI: Calling BS


A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the “life size” Barbie doll images that were floating around the interwebz. It’s a pretty old myth that if Barbie were a real woman, she’d be unable to support her giant boobs on her skinny little body and she probably wouldn’t be able to menstruate. It’s one that’s been repeated over and over and over. And it is one that drives me nuts.

The reason it drives me nuts is because it just isn’t true. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of Barbie dolls. I don’t think that a super skinny blonde whining about how “Math class is tough!” is a good standard for girls (or boys!) to try to live up to. Which is just what makes it so difficult for me to call BS on the myth. On the one hand, I value truth more than just about anything. But sometimes that leaves me in a position where I have to defend things I don’t like.

So when do you call BS? Do you let a myth slide if it’s about something you don’t like? Or do you call it out for being a myth, regardless of what the implications might be?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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  1. I say always call out myths, always stand for truth.

    If you let one thing slide, then there’s no reason not to let something else slide. This isn’t so much a slippery-slope in the sense that one lie leads to many, but rather the suggestion that if your only reason for not calling out a myth is that the myth makes you feel better, how is that different from people who claim their faith is true because they can “feel God”? How is it different from Rick Santorum’s homophobia, which makes him feel more comfortable? How is it different from creationists who don’t like the idea of life arising via natural processes and purposely misrepresent science in order to maintain that fiction?

    We can’t, honestly, criticize those who make decisions based on one myth while we make decisions based on another. That goes for theocrat and homophobe alike. They deny what is real in favor of what makes them feel good. Living in reality, on the other hand, requires that we occasionally feel uncomfortable or support principled truths against our personal desires for the privilege of doing so.

    • I always call out myths too, even if it means I find myself defending things I don’t like.

      I once had an argument with a friend about all the myths surrounding high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t really any less healthy than sugar. His argument was that if banning one ingredient gets people to eat better food (which may or may not be the case; food full of sucrose isn’t any healthier), then it’s worth it to let the lies continue. He claimed that most people, for the most part, don’t know or care about the nuances of good nutrition, and so saying “This is good, this is bad” is easier than trying to reach them with the truth. This is the kind of reasoning that drives me mad because it assumes that people can’t or don’t want to be educated.

      • Exactly. It’s far too easy to see things in terms of “winning” and “losing”, so our temptation is to say what we think supports “our side” whether it’s true or not.

        Of course, if we’re to have sides, we should be on the side of truth, no matter what that is. If there was a mountain of evidence for God, I’d be a believer. Since there is no evidence, I’m not. If a theory that explains life on Earth better than evolution arises and goes through years of peer review with success, I’ll personally write Jerry Coyne and request that he change the name of his blog.

        Being neck-deep in politics most of the time and a rabid liberal, I recently had to correct a friend who brought up the “Mitt Romney said he likes to fire people” line. On one hand, it’s a great soundbite that works well for my side in ads. On the other hand, it’s not what he was referring to. I then went on to explain why what he (Mitt) said was just as bad as far as I was concerned, but the guy wasn’t showing off his deep-seated love of throwing people on the bread line.

        In your example, I can’t stand Barbie or the image she creates for girls either, but if we’re to be honest, we should stick to arguments that are true, and be willing to say, “Well, that’s not really the case, though I appreciate you pointing it out. No, what’s *really* wrong with Barbie is…”

  2. If it’s BS, then call it out. It’s no use ignoring things that make us uncomfortable. The barbie expectation is bad enough, we don’t need to go around handing argumentative victory to the other side of that debate with bad hyperbolic arguments.

    Letting those sorts of things go shoots us in the foot.

  3. It depends on what the stakes are. I ran into a casual friend today, a sweet lesbian I’ve known for years who, in addition to being a talented & popular artist & writer here in Brooklyn, used to read palms at parties years ago, and, from what I gleaned from a Facebook status update c.2 years ago, had done a new age workshop with her girlfriend conducted by a very dubious Irish guy who is considered to be an “avatar” by some of his followers– in other words, she is seriously inclined towards New Age “woo”. She was carrying a large blue retro-looking telephone handset attached to her iPhone (found it on Amazon– it’s called a Native Union Moshi Moshi Retro POP Handset – Soft Touch), something I’d never seen before. I asked her about it and she said it was so she didn’t have to worry about harmful mobile phone radiation. From what I’ve read on skeptic websites, it sounds like the risk from mobile phones is non-existent to negligible, but apparently it’s something she was concerned about. I said nothing, because she’s just a casual friend, & I saw nothing to gain from opening up a can of worms with her; it’s also no weirder than lots of other things I see in my neighborhood. If she was a closer friend and inclined to “share” her beliefs with me, I would speak up or even intervene.

  4. Call it out and follow that up by presenting the objections that aren’t myths.

    Pointing out that there’s no evidence the Nazis made soap from human fat isn’t the same thing as denying that they attempted genocide.

  5. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s our responsibility as skeptics, isn’t it? I’m reminded of the recent kerfluffle at the NYT over journalists calling out political dissembling.

    Sometimes it’s hard, though, especially when you are sympathetic to the cause. I often find myself defending things/people/ideologies I abhor when my side is not being intellectually honest (or just credulous and lazy) in their arguments, and it can be taxing. Not to mention the reputation one can build up!

    I’ve been saying for a while that the most important thing any activist group can do is be skeptical of their own data and arguments, because few things are more damaging than having a bad or misleading argument deconstructed by the other side. Even the creationists have caught on to this, with AIG’s “arguments we don’t use” page.

    It’s a dirty job…

  6. When practical you should always call out bullshit. The dangers of letting the myth propagate are probably worse than any indirect benefit you may perceive.

    Two that annoy me: “Homophobes are just repressed homosexuals.” and “Everyone’s a little bit bi.”

    • Yes, those bug me too!

      Obviously some amount of expressed homophobia is meant as a cover (how else would we get Congressional scandals?) but it is vanishingly unlikely that it represents even a substantial minority of cases. People like it because it so obviously bothers the targets, but it does come uncomfortably close to using sexuality as an insult to denigrate people. It’s not okay when they do it and it shouldn’t be okay if we do.

  7. Yes, it is a pet peeve of mine, too.
    Take the recent news article about the makers of Mountain Dew winning a lawsuit against a man claiming to have found a mouse in one of their cans. the science tells us that the mild acids in the Dew would have turned the mouse into a jelly-like state, not a water-logged one (which the complainant was brandishing) by the time the man had purchased it.
    So of course my ‘health conscious’ (they panic about every bit of misinformation about food) friends are all ‘zomg! what does it do to your insides?!’

    I patiently try to point out that compared to the acid bath in your stomach, Dew is nothing, and it would take days of constant contact to have any real effect. I then pointed out the real health concerns with such drinks are the calories, caffeine, and tooth damage that drinking too much of them can cause. Think they would listen to me? One guy even said ‘why bother bringing that up? this drink is just a nasty acid.’

    My response was simply “I prefer to do things for the right reasons, not for scary, made-up ones.”

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