Boobquake: Valid science communication event or just a bunch of boobs … quaking?

This is a somewhat stream of consciousness response to an interview of Michael McRae by Tokenskeptic followed by an interview with Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking.

Please go listen to the podcast, it is quite good.

How much change has happened in the way the world views crazy religious beliefs because of boobquake? How much change in the way we cause change has happened because of the critique of boobquake? I’d say a little of each, but not much of either.

I think that the critique of boobquake is somewhat disproportionate to the event. Boobquake was clearly never meant to be that big of a deal, got bigger than planned, and thus subsequent critiques that insist that is was poorly planned are kinda dumb. I mean, you can’t be poorly planned if you are a spontaneous event bigger than expected, by definition. At the same time, there are real issues (of which I was mostly unaware until I listened to this podcast) of conflict not just between philosophical camps (of which I was at reasonably well aware) but of rather aggressive feel-bad bashing of people on both sides of the boobquake controversy.

My cleaned up notes on the McRae part of the interview (you should listen to the interview to get what I’m saying here):

The podcast started out, I sensed, as a conversation between two people who had every intention of setting up Boobquake with a negative critique, even to the point of calling the Quakers’ integrity in question by talking about post-quake “claims” of success.

Boobquake was claimed to be a failure because scientific facts were not transmitted. But again, post hoc, did Jen really claim that this or that fact was communicated?

Interesting points were made about how to do a better job of science communication, about the so called “placebo protest” and how to make a more effective protest, and that’s good. I’m a bit cynical about that, though, because I have the sense that some of the more effective instances of protest have been the ones that were not that well planned but had a high impact in part because of their spontaneity. Not to say that a better job could not have been done, or that one should never plan protests, but I don’t buy that every effort needs to be planned and controlled, and that every effort that was not well planned in advance automatically deserves more effort to criticize it than effort to effect it to begin with. In other words, this was a mole hill that could have been a better molehill being buried under a mountain of “yer doin’ it rong’ reaction.

(My cynical reaction in part is that the real reason for this critique comes out around 20 minuets with the discussion of the old JREF crew looking at the new people and not liking the competition. Makes me wonder. I didn’t see a lot of self reflection there among the purist skeptics.)

Claims were made without real evidence when the discussants opposed boobquake, and claims about boobquake that were often reasonable were discredited because studies had not yet been done to evaluate those claims. One side granted itself the use of confirmation bias, while the other side was accused of relying on it. Several times. That’s the skeptical skeptic in me talking.

Tiny little blog faces need to shut up and let the big giant ice bergs lead us. ???? That is one of those interview bits that the people involved look back and wish they had not wandered into, I would think.

Desiree’s segment was more constructively useful, perhaps because she is an actual expert on the sort of thing one would want to do to create a skeptical or scientific protest. Again, I think the spontaneity is an energy-creating effect, but yes, things can be done with more clearly defined goals. But here’s the question I have, then: Which subset of the skeptical community is currently addressing the frequent claims made by Iranian Clerics and US Evangelicals (female bodies cause earthquakes and the Haitians are screwed forever because of a pact they made with Satan, etc.)? Huh? Where’s the web site? Who’s in charge? Who’s on the protest planning committee?

I don’t think there is one. I think boobquake is an indicator that the skeptical community has dropped the ball on actually DOING something … or being systematically, scientifically, communication sciencey, all cool and ready to deal with these stupidosities when they arise.

If this was a relationship instead of an Internet event, one might guess that criticizing boobquake is a psychological response to one’s own inadequacies that are not overtly recognized. When the cleric made the dumb-ass remark about earthquakes, the JREF response squad didn’t come on the scene. Because there is no JREF response squad. Instead, there was a vacuum.

And, apparently, boobs abhor a vacuum.

Boobquake was a phenomenon, largely unplanned. Addressing the people who did it, and telling them that they did it wrong is one possible response, and I learned a few things listening to that response. Using the phenomenon in an effective way, if possible, is a different, possibly smarter and more useful response. Brush boobquake aside as a mostly spontaneous event of ephemeral consequences (good and/or bad) on the way to the drawing board to set up the dumb-ass blaming the victim statement response squad.

What if you were in favor of increased measures for airplane safety? And a plane happens to crash …. Do you lament that it would have been better if different people died in the crash, of that the crash had happened in more optimal location? No. You would, after paying due respect, use the event as it was in service of your cause, if appropriate. If the cause is to criticize each other, then blame the quakers. But if the cause is to promote skeptical thinking, use this event to move the battle line against the clerics, use it to push them back a bit more, use it to recruit and organize something that will be more effective.

When spontaneity gives you lemons, make lemonade.

I’m afraid that the outcome of boobquake is that the crazy religious people are more convinced of the veracity of their own cause (there was a major earthquake on that day, after all) and the outcome of the critique of boobquake is a further rifting in the community. Two failures, both avoidable.

We talk a lot about how women were using their sexuality, but not much is said about how women were using their sense of humor.

If women were made to feel badly about not wanting to be involved, then the people who made them feel that way were … boobs! That was totally inappropriate. I did not see that happening from where I sat, but my view was not that open.

Yes, it is all depends on how you measure it, and the way I measure it, in my community, boobquake was a minor success. Every year, with some degree or another of success, I try to organize or encourage the organization of a visit by skeptics, science educators, atheists, etc. to the Christian Creation Science Fair at a local mall. We go there for a number of reasons, not the least of which to show that we can in fact show up and look at the science fair posters and not kidnap and kill any of the children. We also simply have used it as an excuse to get together, and this year’s version was a great success that way. It is a protest, it is a community building effort, it is an outreach program, and it is a direct mild confrontation with those we’re kinda pissed at for trying to shove their religion down the throats of kids in our public schools. In a nice way. It is quiet, closed, and low key, like Desiree’s “sit in” nurses.

Boobquake was the same thing, more or less. A bunch of people got together for a diner organized by Stephanie Zvan (I was sick and could not go), there was blogging, etc. The science fair effort was also criticized, but the critics were early on clearly misinformed of what we were doing and they went away. Boobquake seems to have pissed a lot of people off. Boobs tend to do that. Another difference is that our little science fair get together does not usually get heavily analyzed.

I personally would not have thought of boobquake, and I have no problem that it happened and almost made it to a boobquake dinner. I was sick so I stayed home and monitored the seismographs, just in case. I totally get that one can make protests more effective, and do a better job at science communication. At the moment, however, I see zero in the way of organized well planned efforts to deal with these frequent curses … randomly timed but frequent enough that we know there is always one coming … these rallying cries of the fundamentalist religious leaders that defy science, history, and humanity, blame the victims, and deflect observing eyes from the real problems.

So, I hereby call for everyone who was involved in boobquake OR the protest of boobquake to estimate the amount of time you spent on that effort, and figure out a way to spend the same amount of time again but dealing specifically with the fundy curse problem.

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20 thoughts on “Boobquake: Valid science communication event or just a bunch of boobs … quaking?

  1. Great post, maybe because it confirms my preconceptions. I think part of the reason Boobquake spread so quickly was that it WAS seen as fun and not specifically as an “effective form of protesting” which has connotations of metaphorical sobriety, hard work and the like. It’s very hard to plan something that appears as spontaneous as Boobquake did, so something by the hypothetical JREF response squad would have faced more difficulties.

    The fact that this was from a single blogger known for being quirky probably helped too — an organised response is more likely to come from an organisation which often appears more faceless. Of course if James Randi did a personal message on YouTube it should be successful, but I get the feeling that knowing there’s an organisation behind something makes it seem less personal.

    It might be interesting to compare this to the campaign from about 8-10 months ago for Indian women to send their panties to the leader of a right-wing Hindu group. The format was quite similar but there was the extra dimension of direct contact with the fundies.

  2. Actually, Boobs tend to abhor rational thought and being exposed as well… Boobs.

    I listened to the podcast and I never got the sense that it was an Assault on the JREF. I know it is hard for people to believe but there is more to Skepticism than the JREF. Personally, I no longer think of the JREF as anything other than a footnote in Skeptical History. Randi is lovely but it is a message that never got off the ground because they forgot the EDUCATION part. We’re smart… chances are we’d be skeptical anyway. I was certainly a critical thinker long before I’d heard of James Randi. The undereducated, uninformed masses… they could have been helped – more outreach and education and less on the mockery would have been a good call. Peter Popoff being exposed as a charlatan on Johnny Carson was funny – Peter Popoff making several million dollars last year is a testament to how very little the Skeptical Movement counts in this country, and is a particular testament to the effectiveness of stunts.

    I like the term “Placebo Protest” – I think it suits the movement perfectly. I think that there should be one of the old-fashioned “Web Rings” established for skeptical blogs so that I can use the term Circle Jerk and giggle… “Heh, I said Circle Jerk Web Ring” there is lots of stroking, and lots of feeling really, really good and really, really clever but nothing actually gets done.

    BoobQuake became a sensation because ‘Heh, she said Boobs’ nothing more. Applying the patina of Science or Freedom of Expression, or Feminism (Fanged and Unfanged), Awareness, Seismology, or whatever other ridiculous notions made their way into the debate is disingenuous. If it had been a “National Moment of Silence for People Killed By Ignorance” No one would’ve bothered to retweet the URL and you know it.

    Want to protest Nutty Dark Age Clerics or any of the other nonsense that makes skeptical fingers fly across the keyboard in a flurry of outrage that manifests itself by an uptick in tweets but no real action? Flash your tits for a fee and then write a check. Mirror any of the hundred or so videos on YouTube highlighting the mistreatment of women who live under the yoke of oppressive clerics, then get off your ass and volunteer to help elect politicians who support Science Education. Fly to Oklahoma and protest the nuttiness in our own backyard, adopt a member of the Texas Board of Education then ground his ass for life for being an idiot, and then call your Congressman to demand that Science Standards be established in our schools. Have a Bake Sale and send the proceeds to the NCSE. Throw a Wet T-shirt Contest where soft, flabby middle-aged male skeptics jiggle their pasty white flesh for charity and then send the money to the NCSE or because the antidote to ignorance is EDUCATION.

    Just, Christ on Crutches do SOMETHING, ANYTHING that will actually have an impact on the situation instead of simply sitting around TALKING amongst yourselves. The damn Tea Baggers have managed to put together a movement that has political clout, they get media coverage and face time to deliver their message to the the uneducated and ill informed public… and we, the clever ones, the really smart ones, the smug and the witty, can’t get over a D-Cup shaped intellectual speed bump.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out, I can see some odd comments that don’t make sense (it’s McRae, btw) but I’m glad you got the overall gist. 🙂

    “…perhaps because she is an actual expert on the sort of thing one would want to do to create a skeptical or scientific protest.”

    As opposed to Michael McRae being a qualified scientist with a Masters Degree in Science Communication, a former Science Circus worker, who currently working for Australia’s CSIRO in science outreach with both Science by Email and Carbon Kids program? Funny summation! 🙂

    Don’t you remember Greg? You’ve mentioned him before in your own blog: – where you mention ‘Skepticism and Communication’ it features a blog link to an interview with him –

    You might like to listen to Episodes #9 and #10, Greg, so you can familiarise yourself further. He has a book deal with an agent in the works, that I consider to be the next ‘Demon Haunted World’. 🙂

  4. [OT] – but it involves some boobs – this sort of reporting never fails to get me screaming and throwing things (and I can throw a chair better than Steve Ballmer) – from the BBC:

    “An Islamist militant link to the New York car bomb plot is ruled out by police, as a manhunt continues for a white male.”

    Yeah, because as everyone knows, there’s no such thing as a white muslim. All those folks in Serbia and Bosnia – they’re not really white, they just paint themselves. Of course the reporter could have failed their kindergarten English class and unintentionally jammed those unrelated claims (‘islamist militant link’ + whitie) together.

  5. “I think boobquake is an indicator that the skeptical community has dropped the ball on actually DOING something … or being systematically, scientifically, communication sciencey, all cool and ready to deal with these stupidosities when they arise.”

    Yes. 🙂

    What I take from all of these “objections to, and reasons for” actions like boobquake, is that we should take the time to figure out what an ideal skeptical protest would look like, before the next opportunity to hold one comes up. When you design an action, you have to base your decisions on (among other things) the issue, the community, the timing, the current/vs potential support and the objective. In the classes I teach, we use many case studies to get the students to plan actions. Skeptics could do this easily; we have enough examples to look at.

    This may also take away the emotional aspect of attempting to debrief constructively. Humans have pesky human feelings, which often get in the way of constructive assessment. Speaking about hypothetical actions could help. It’s also a lot more work and not as fun, but it’s worthwhile, I think.

  6. Desiree, do you want to do a longer interview? If you don’t already have one planned somewhere, I would be more than happy to do one with you. I can’t think of anybody so thoroughly embedded within the skeptical community with more experience getting messages across to a wide variety of audiences, which is something else I think we’re not always great at.

  7. Stephanie, you did a lot more, but I was only making a limited point. But clumsily. (These were just cleaned up field notes, really.)

    Podblack: I certainly didn’t mean to diminish McRae’s excellence by highlighting Desiree’s so strongly. Thanks very much for adding the additional McRae-related context.

  8. Desiree: Thanks for the comments. My response to you happens to be in lengthy email I sent you this morning, which is almost certainly going to be a framework for a blog post with some follow-up. So, I’m going to save my energy now. Although what I really want to do is to give you a pony.

  9. I know, Greg, and it wasn’t even particularly clumsy. My comment was aimed much less at you than at the tendency of critics to ignore anything but the social aspects of the event.

    Actually, though, I expect the dinner to turn out to be useful. A bunch of people met who should have met before. At least one person already walked away from it with a couple of volunteers for one of her projects.

  10. I have to first echo the sentiments of podblack and desiree on this one all around, especially the notation that skeptics failed to respond to the cleric in the first place. At the same time, however, I fail to see how that’s relevant and I find it odd that we hold the community to this kind of standard post-hoc.

    Asinine statements like the cleric’s are made every day. Blog posts and podcasts and tweets and FB shares are full of criticisms of these things. The difference between those and boobquake are simple: boobs. A young woman with a well-publicized blog suggested that women show their boobs, then started a FB page and invited hundreds of thousands of people to an event with the word “boob” in the title. It’s not rocket science to explain why it played out the way that it did.

    The community in general should never let these things get by us, but questioning JREF’s lack of response in an article about Boobquake suggests that a statement by JREF would have even remotely that same reach as a boob joke.

    Now, many have cited that as a good reason to support Boobquake, which brings me to my “I’m really disappointed” moment:

    “Claims were made without real evidence when the discussants opposed boobquake, and claims about boobquake that were often reasonable were discredited because studies had not yet been done to evaluate those claims.”

    Perhaps you and I read different threads, but I don’t think so. Evidence was discussed. It was also ignored. Perhaps you didn’t read that far?

    Here’s the problem: Discussing research of social phenomena is never simple. We have no study which specifically examines the effects of asking women to show their boobs in protest to stupid cleric’s claims that doing so makes men commit adultery which in turn causes earthquakes.

    So, yeah, you could say that the specificclaims that Boobquake is ineffectual or even harmful have not been examined.

    But that’s bullshit.

    There are libraries crammed with research on the various components of this thing from polarization to placebo to belief bias to pedagogy to body image to narcissism to cultural conflict to ignorance of incompetence to ingroup/outgroup mentality.

    And the responses to any attempt to discuss this stuff were “it’s just a joke” and “it’s not real science”. Which, btw, is certainly in line with the creator’s words, but contradicts her actions.

    Blurring of lines between atheism and skepticism aside, we call ourselves “skeptics” because we use the scientific method to evaluate claims. I didn’t see much skepticism in arguments supporting this thing.

    Yes, we need more applied research – research which does not require a flow chart and 50 citations to determine its relationship to the real-world. Like the pilot study I just reported:

    But, applied research is a trade-off and it is difficult to generalize findings to other situations because the study is so specific.

    This is the nature of soft sciences. Society is a complex system. There are no objections to Boobquake that allow the arguer to discuss the evidence in enough detail to satisfy a ‘believer’ (if there even is such a thing as “enough”) in blog comments. That doesn’t mean that the arguments are not evidence-based.

  11. Barbara, would you care to revisit this statement for accuracy?

    A young woman with a well-publicized blog suggested that women show their boobs, then started a FB page and invited hundreds of thousands of people to an event with the word “boob” in the title.

  12. Barbara: Perhaps you and I read different threads, but I don’t think so. Evidence was discussed. It was also ignored. Perhaps you didn’t read that far?

    I was referring specifically to the dialog between Podblack and McRae in the first half of the podcast.

    It was an impression I had but a strong one. Perhaps I should go back and earmark statements, but that’s unlikely to happen.

  13. More Barbara:
    So, yeah, you could say that the specificclaims that Boobquake is ineffectual or even harmful have not been examined.

    But that’s bullshit.

    I definitely was not saying that. In fact, I was agreeing in this post and in my second post on the topic that one can analyze and plan. However, I think the informal discussion in the first half of the podcast was just a bit one sided in that regard. Strawmen were harmed.

    I didn’t see much skepticism in arguments supporting this thing.

    Boobquest was very widely heard of. As far as I know, that’s the only statement I’ve made about the general phenomenon. Regarding our local version of it, I made a few more observations which I maintain to be accurate. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

    What I would like to know, Barbara, is what specific response do you think would have been effective from the point of view of the skeptics community (or, more exactly, what response by the skeptics community) would you like to have seen to the statement by the Iranian cleric or to Pat Robertson’s comment about Haiti? (Or, what response that did happen do you applaud.)

    Boobquake is over. We need to move forward. How? Don’t you think everyone should be asking themselves this?

    (Don’t forget to read my second post on this)

  14. “Barbara, would you care to revisit this statement for accuracy?”

    Testimony to the importance of specific definitions, I suppose, but would you be satisfied if I replaced the first “boobs” with “cleavage”?

  15. “I was referring specifically to the dialog between Podblack and McRae in the first half of the podcast.”

    There was only one side presented in the podcast, so I assumed that when you referred to two you were discussing a discussion which took place elsewhere. The rest of my comments rely on that assumption.

    Regarding “dick shake”, I don’t see a difference. I would predict that it would not be nearly as popular and that we probably would not be having this conversation. It eliminates a discussion about whether women are objectified, but calls the objectification of men into question. It’s a whole lot closer to a scientific test of the hypothesis, but only if it is clear that men must commit adultery and then there is still the problem of defining dependent variables and other parameters.

    The thing is, we aren’t talking about “dick shake”.

    A proper response? Well, I’m always in favor of good old fashioned education. I am quite certain that there are a range of appropriate and effective responses beyond my expertise (Desiree would be my first stop if I were looking for them), but my response in this particular situation is simply to educate.

    Addressing the cleric’s statements is easy. Getting people to internalize the issue is not. Education is not a one-day pursuit. It’s a giant block of granite we chip a little off of every day.

    But why didn’t I write about it or anything else? Because I am not capable of catching and covering everything.

  16. Barbara, I’m talking about the technological impossibility of Jen inviting “hundreds of thousands” of people to Boobquake. I’m talking about the incorrect implication that this was an attempt by Jen to create a big event. She’s been quite up front about that, and the circumstances bear her out.

    I was actually the first person to spot a news report in the wild and tell her about it. It was based entirely on the blog posts. She asked for advice on Twitter on dealing with the first several media requests. She was not persuing the media. It was the other way around.

    As for individuals, Jen doesn’t have the reach to invite more than about 10,000 people to an event on her own, even using her blog and Twitter. Using Facebook, she can only invite her friends. She has a lot more of them now, but the maximum number is still 5,000, and I have no idea how many of them are female. In order for the hundreds of thousands number to be reached, an awful lot more people had to like the idea and pass the word. In fact, PZ Myers is almost certainly responsible for reaching the greatest number of people.

    Treating Boobquake as Jen promoting herself is simply inaccurate. And if we’re going to criticize, by all means, go ahead, but the criticism has no chance of reaching its mark if it’s based on inaccuracies.

  17. Barbara, I asked whether you’d like to correct a factual inaccuracy. You did not, so I explained why it’s important. You may continue to stand by the inaccuracy if you choose.

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