Despite all the problems caused by a handful of belligerent misogynists in the atheist/skeptic movement (here’s a good post on how deeply uneducated and downright dumb the supposedly “skeptical” misogynists can get—so much so that suddenly they’re making up previously unstated “rules” denouncing long-standing journalistic practices), I still believe that skepticism is an important field that has a lot of value. And will only get stronger when it stops being a welcome home to people who just want to boost their own unearned superiority complex, and instead takes a turn for the more humanistic and compassionate.
Take this ridiculous and upsetting “news of the weird” piece that’s going around and being covered by places like the New York Times and Gawker. I can say with 99.9% certainty that this baby in India is not suffering from “spontaneous combustion”. The New York Times coverage is particularly upsetting, because it gives the reader a poor idea of what the scientific opinion really is on this, positing that the baby may have a “rare disease” and suggesting that the “diagnosis” of spontaneous combustion is merely controversial. The reality is that it’s really not. They found one crackpot who is willing to say that it’s a possibility, but that isn’t, in itself, much evidence of anything. Yes, believers in spontaneous combustion often cite the lack of evidence of anything starting the fire or the weird burn patterns that supposedly happen with it, but anyone who knows anything about fire should know none of that is particularly surprising. Fire, uh, burns up a lot of the evidence of what started it a lot of the time. The fact that a lot of cases just so happen to be alcoholics who smoke—and thus run a high chance of passing out with a lit cigarette in their hands—should be enough to give pause to anyone who wishes to believe.
This case also shows why I think it’s important for skeptics to also learn to be skeptical of a sexist society. If you’re oblivious to the way that things like child abuse or domestic violence function, you might be overlooking what is the likeliest explanation for a family having a kid who repeatedly “catches fire”, one parent who is angrily and preemptively denying abuse, and another parent that is quietly and stoically staying out of the spotlight. You might also know that abuse is so taboo that it might be easier for doctors to play along with running tests that play into the parents’ preferred explanation than to ask hard questions about the likelier possibility that someone who is repeatedly set on fire is being deliberately set on fire. You would know things like, say, how questioning patients about abuse is so emotionally difficult that doctors are increasingly getting special training on how to do it safely and reporting abuse is so difficult that we need laws to basically force doctors to overcome their fears to do it.
Now there’s always a myriad number of possibilities in cases like this. It could be that the baby’s crib is in a place where there’s something causing fires. It could be a third party setting the baby on fire. It could be a lot of things. But if you’re more investing in minimizing and denying the realities of abusive behavior than you are in accepting the fact that it’s really, really common, you’re more likely to overlook what is the likeliest possibility here.
I hope that whatever is causing this poor baby’s repeated misery is figured out and soon. But it’s definitely a good example of how a combination of skepticism and understanding of basic feminism would make it easier to get to the bottom of this a lot faster, either by outing an abuser or at least eliminating that possibility by giving investigators the best place to start compiling evidence.