Sorry, things will be quiet for a week. Cranks, please don’t start crying censorship. I’m just not going to be available to moderate comments until the 6th.
Month: December 2012
NYT shows how pointless Connecticut's Assault Weapons ban is in 2 images
See here for why existing assault weapons bans are just pointless demagoguery. There is no functional difference between the assault version and non-assault version of the same rifle.
Talking Gun Control At Scienceblogs
Matt Springer has written a post Against the gun control that won’t work, and he correctly points out that previous gun control efforts have been little more than shameless demagoguery, including the totally-worthless assault weapons ban. People must understand that the previous major legislation the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was an atrociously-stupid piece of legislation. The weapons that fell under the ban were not banned because of function. As Springer points out, the ban focused on cosmetic elements of weapons so that lawmakers could put them on a table and describe how they banned scary guns, but in no way prevented the sale of similar semi-automatic weapons that could accept large capacity magazines and drop lots of rounds, only without folding stocks or flash suppressors.
However, I disagree with his summation that none of the control efforts previously tried has value, or that things like registration and other barriers to ownership won’t work. Let’s address some of these common arguments and why while they sound appealing, they’re an example of “letting the perfect destroy the good”.
Starting Gun registration: The shooting was carried out using firearms which were stolen from a person who legally purchased them, had a background check, and filed and was granted a purchase permit. The mass shooter in Norway acquired his weapons under a regulatory regime of full registration, as did the perpetrators of the two infamous school massacres in Germany in the 2000s. Registration of firearms prevents mass shootings in the same sense that automobile registration prevents DUI – they don’t, they can’t, and they’re not intended to.
Well, a highly-motivated individual may accomplish a lot, but that doesn’t suggest registration has no role whatsoever in preventing mass shootings. Yes, in these massacres in other countries, the laws were obeyed, as in Connecticut. But creating obstacles to ownership probably decreases the frequency of such incidents, as the differences in gun violence between these countries demonstrate. We have had 4 mass shootings during Obama’s presidency, not to mention, our yearly toll of some 30,000 people a year killed by guns. Our per-capita death rate is about 4 times higher than our next door neighbor, Canada, or any of these countries mentioned with death rates in the tens or hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands.
When you make it harder to get guns, it makes it harder for people who are deranged, angry or otherwise dangerous to own them, and you’re going to decrease your rates of gun violence. Just because it isn’t perfect, and doesn’t prevent a highly-motivated individual from doing all the work, doesn’t mean that you can’t deter dozens of other would-be shooters from mass violence.
Finally the DUI analogy is poor if you point out that some weapons are like giving someone a tank to commit their DUI. A DUI on a tricycle (read black-powder musket), is different from a DUI in 18 wheel tanker truck (your AR-15 might be a good example). Really significant barriers should be put in place to prevent civilian ownership of clip-fed semi-automatic weapons.
Assault weapons ban: Connecticut has one, and the weapon was legal under it. The reason is simple, and common to all versions of the assault weapons ban – “assault weapon” is an inherently meaningless concept whose legal definition is essentially cosmetic.
Agreed, assault weapons bans as they exist are totally useless. However, that doesn’t mean an intelligent ban couldn’t be designed. I think the sale or ownership of magazine-fed weapons should probably be prohibited or severely restricted for civilians. The ownership of extended magazines such as those used by the shooter in Aurora should be a federal crime. They should cease to exist outside of military use. Allowing ownership of revolvers, bolt and breech-fed rifles and shotguns, would satisfy legitimate home-safety, sporting, and hunting applications that can and should be protected by any gun control regulation. The problem is clip-fed semi-automatic rifles and handguns. These are the guns that do the most damage-per-second, with easy reloading, and the ability to bring and use hundreds or even thousands of rounds by a single person. It would be far more difficult (but still not impossible), for similar events to take place if we severely restricted weapons available to pump, bolt, an breech weapons that do not have the capacity to drop as many rounds per minute. And I would still be able to go skeet shooting, hunt deer, duck, or target shoot to my heart’s content.
Total prohibition of firearms: In a country with well over two hundred million firearms, it is logistically impossible. But if it weren’t, there is not much reason to believe it would do any good. Guns can be acquired illegally and are not required for mass murder in the first place. The worst school massacre in US history was carried out by a bomber in Michigan. The Oklahoma City bombing killed nineteen children and a hundred and fifty adults. The Columbine shooters attempted to go down in infamy as the Columbine bombers and would have killed many more people had their improvised propane bombs not mercifully failed. While bombs require a modicum of effort, more lethal than any single mass shooting was the 1990 Happy Land arson, the perpetrator of which killed 87 people with a gallon of gasoline. The most lethal mass shooting prior to the shooting in Norway was carried out by a South Korean police officer in a country where civilian possession of firearms is prohibited. Norway itself does not completely prohibit firearms ownership but the restrictions are extremely tight. Prohibition has a terrible track record at preventing dedicated psychopaths from mass murder. For that matter, is has a terrible track record at preventing violent crime of the more mundane sort.
While I agree prohibition is logistically-impossible, the reason isn’t that if we ban guns the loons will just build bombs or burn people alive. Again, a motivated, deranged human is extremely dangerous as long as anything combustible, and anyone vulnerable is in reach. That doesn’t mean that forbidding the sale of compact, high-capacity killing machines over the counter won’t have an effect. Just because there are alternatives to guns, doesn’t mean gun access should be so easy. Take the example of the crazy guy that stabbed 20 kids in China last week at about the same time. Yes, a deranged person just needs a kitchen knife to wreak havoc in a school. However, the difference in death count was significant. No one died. It’s actually quite difficult to kill people with a knife, and very difficult to kill lots of people. Just making mass violence more difficult, while not stopping mass violence, will make it less deadly.
We’re not talking about perfection here. We’re talking about progress. Making it harder, making the violence rarer, will decrease the amount of gun violence, as almost every country besides the US demonstrates every year with their gun violence deaths at a tiny fraction of our own.
Improvement of NICS: If you buy a gun, you have to fill out paperwork and undergo a background check. These checks have been very good at preventing purchase by people who are disqualified by criminal records. But while adjudication as mentally incompetent is also disqualifying, such records are only poorly integrated into the system. This flaw was the source of the Virginia Tech shooter’s weapons.
It’s dangerous to create databases of people tied to conditions like mental illness or other discriminatory conditions. The difficulty of making such databases effective will persist because of issues with individual’s privacy rights.
Repair of the catastrophically bad US mental health apparatus: There’s a dire article in Gawker making the rounds, a first person account of a mother trying to raise an extremely troubled kid. They have basically two options – prison or muddling through alone. There is almost no systematic way of helping the helpable deranged, and almost no systematic way of containing the non-helpable deranged until they commit a violent crime and get sent to prison. This must be changed, and changed immediately.
I agree, mental health parity should be a focus of this presidency and Obamacare. Mental illness should be treated, insured, paid for and taken care of just like any other illness. Our continued inability to deal with mental illness is a national shame. However, in general, the mentally ill are less likely to be violent and more likely to be victims.
Secure schools: If you’re determined to herd children into buildings with no law enforcement or other responsible armed adults (mass shootings almost exclusively happen in areas that are both 1) “gun free” and 2) don’t have law enforcement presence), at least build the buildings in a safe way.
But then won’t the criminals just pick the locks or bring bolt cutters? Interesting how in this instance the suggestion that increasing the difficulty of access works when applied to door access, but not when applied to gun access. You see the flaw there? I also think it’s sad that rather than dealing with the threat the suggestion is to continue to fortify our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods. Safety shouldn’t mean having to live behind fences and barbed wire.
The flaw in most of his reasoning is to say that because something doesn’t work perfectly, means that it has no value. Stringent registration and background checks will fail, but they create a larger obstacle for many who otherwise can just walk into a gun store and buy an incredibly dangerous gun with no questions asked. A prohibition on new sales would not do anything about the existing guns, such as used in this case, but it would, again, make it much harder for those like Cho that had to purchase their own to carry out their crime.
In particular a ban on certain functional aspects of guns could reduce mass violence. Ban extended clips such as were used in aurora, make it a federal crime to own one. Make them nonexistent. Do not allow civilian purchase of weapons that are magazine-fed. Bolt action hunting rifles, guns with a breech, revolvers, shotguns etc, are still deadly, but they have legitimate sport and personal defense uses. There is also no constitutional amendment protecting ownership of magazines or clips, so make it against the law to own one larger than 5 rounds, or to own more than a limited number. That would be completely adequate for sporting uses. Finally, place limits on ammunition purchases and stockpiling. The second amendment says we have the right to keep and bear arms, but says nothing about restrictions on industrially-produced cartridges that feed some of these more deadly weapons. Such cartridges, after all, didn’t even exist when the constitution was written, coming almost 100 years later. Make it against the law to own or carry more than 100 rounds of a given ammunition. You could still go to the range, buy and dump lots of rounds in practice, but given the bag limits for deer in any given state, do you really need to keep thousands of rounds at home? What exactly are you preparing for? I realize, bulk purchase of ammo is economically-sensible, and convenient for people who over the years will likely use that ammunition in target practice and hunting. Allow unlimited shotgun rounds of buck or birdshot, and maybe .22 caliber rifle rounds etc., but strongly consider round limitations on 9mm, .357, .223, .45, .50, 7.62mm etc. The more power, speed, and range of the bullet, as well as it’s use in clip-fed semi-automatic weapons, the more care we should take to prevent bulk ownership.
There are ways to sensibly and effectively regulate firearms and ammunition. We should engage in this debate though, with adequate information on the function of these firearms, their applications for legitimate sport, and their capacity for rapid fire and reloading. The mass violence problem is one of ready-access to semi-automatic weapons that are magazine fed. Limitations on their access, or outright restriction, while not-perfect, would make mass violence much more difficult, and more unlikely to see the death counts we have seen in recent years.
Disclaimer – I am a gun owner and enthusiast who target and skeet shoots. Weapons I own would become illegal under my suggestions, but I think that’s a reasonable sacrifice to prevent the extremes of gun violence. I would happily trade my magazine-fed weapons for a revolver and maybe an over-under shotgun I could use for target and skeet respectively.
Did I call this or What? Mike Adams blames medicine for school shooting.
Crazy Luddite Libertarian Mike Adams is following his usual script, ghoulishly using the school shooting in Newton to pillory his usual bogeymen he blames for anything. True to form he is blaming psychiatry and medications for the school shooting. What was it I said yesterday?
At some point it is likely he’ll find a way to blame his other favorite bogeymen, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, doctors (especially psychiatrists), and scientists.
Did I call this or what?
What is really stunning is how the cranks have continuously, and incorrectly flogged the IOM’s “to err is human” study for the last decade. Depending on the crank, they claim the study shows that either doctors or drugs are responsible for 100k deaths a year, but I’m pretty sure no one has actually ever read it. The study actually suggests that medical mistakes may have contributed to between 44-98k deaths a year (they always cite the high end), but, you have to actually look at what the mistakes are. Drug related mistakes or “adverse drug events” were estimated by the IOM to be responsible for 10% of these preventable errors. A large portion of the errors are the failure to intervene or failure in timely diagnosis. Which means, the IOM on review of a hospitalization felt that a death may have been caused by a failure to intervene. In other words, it’s very strange that the cranks use a study to call doctors a killer, when the study actually shows one of the most common medical errors was the failure to medically intervene. For example, such a mistake may be not recognizing a stroke and providing the appropriate medication in time.
The IOM study was meant to show how doctors could do better, that we could implement systems to prevent mistakes that were too common in medical practice. But the cranks wave it around to say, “medicine doesn’t work!” when the study frequently blames the failure to provide an appropriate medical intervention for the deaths. Anyone else see the problem with their logic?
Doctors just can’t win with these people, but that’s ok. We’ll be fine. We have the medications and technology that actually work, and as studies like the IOM’s show, we’re also willing to admit we can do better.
Mike Adams couldn't go 6 hours without promoting an insane conspiracy theory about this school shooting
As anyone who reads my blog or Orac’s knows, Mike Adams, the “health ranger”, is a deranged individual who denies HIV causes AIDS, promotes some of the most absurd quackery in the world, and also is such an all around crank you can rely on him to wax conspiratorial about almost any dramatic news story. He’s done it again, already alleging a conspiracy and coverup in this most recent school shooting, and citing his bizarre conspiracy theories about Aurora as further evidence of these shootings being “staged” by the US government. I wouldn’t suggest clicking the link unless you want to lose several IQ points, and I am not interested in a full repetition of Adams claims here.
Aside from the ghoulish nature of using events such as these to promote one’s bizarre anti-government conspiracy theories, I think this is a case-study on the formation of new conspiracy theories. It is true, in the early attempts at understanding what was happening many different accounts were offered. Watching these horrible events unfold I noticed how at first the media was confused but gradually began to report a more consistent, and terrible picture.
To a sane person, one sees this as the general confusion that results from a “fog of war”. We know that the press is desperately seeking any information that adds to this story, because people are desperate to know what happened? How many were hurt? Is the suspect loose or apprehended? Is this going to keep happening? Will this be the event that finally convinces people to do something about this problem? They also are relying on eye witness reports of individuals who probably only experience a narrow portion of the same events. Eventually the pieces are stitched together, an investigation takes information from all the witnesses and tries to make all the differing accounts mesh. And we know when people are frightened, anything out of the ordinary can and should be reported to make sure every possible lead is followed to its conclusion.
A conspiracist, however, sees this confusion, and rather than seeing a general pattern of natural disorder surrounding such events, sees the hand of whatever bogeyman they truly fear. In this case, Adams pins this on the government, because hey, we all know the government is in control of everything, is completely competent at keeping all secrets, and is apparently is full of people that secretly train madmen to shoot schoolchildren. At some point it is likely he’ll find a way to blame his other favorite bogeymen, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, doctors (especially psychiatrists), and scientists.
I hate writing about events like these before we know all the details, but I also can’t stand just how repugnant a person Mike Adams is, and how objectionable his conspiracy theories are. His hatred of government is so extreme that within hours of any tragedy he’s there, pinning the blame on those who likely are trying to work the hardest to provide aid, help the victims, and identify the culprit. Our government isn’t perfect, but the idea that there’s some agency (Adams suggests it’s the FBI) that routinely, and with no leaks or evidence of its activities, is planning mass murders of American citizens is simply a revolting accusation to pin without overwhelming evidence. And what’s his evidence? The pretty ordinary and expected confusion surrounding a mass shooting. With that, he accuses the government of staging this mass murder. Maybe a second gunman will be found, maybe the witnesses were right, but what evidence would that be that the FBI kills schoolchildren? Plenty of these school shootings in the pasts have been committed with accomplices, and plenty have been done by solo nutjobs.
It’s amazing that anyone reads his site, but then, there will never be a shortage of defective brains that will happily consume Adams’ writing, and give no thought to the total absurdity of the accusations, or the frankly despicable nature of someone who would level them without evidence. Government is not perfect, we shouldn’t really love it, or hate it. Government in the end is just people, just other Americans like us. I have many family members and friends that work in government, many that are part of agencies conspiracy theorists have accused of this and that, and it amazes me that they think that their fellow citizens so frequently, even routinely, kill, poison, or otherwise harm other Americans. That events like these could be staged, and the secrets behind all of our government’s machinations against us kept so perfectly secret is absurd. Our top spy couldn’t even keep where he put his penis a secret, and people think that government can just go around shooting schoolchildren without someone objecting, someone telling the press, someone coming out against it?
I think if anything these interpretations events say a lot more about the people making them than they do about the events themselves. Conspiracy is often, if not exclusively, an expression of hatred, and throughout history we’ve seen them used to direct hate towards one group or another (a lot of them have been directed at one group of people in particular). I suspect it’s actually the conspiracists that are capable of anything, any crime, any despicable act, and their routinely unethical behavior in pushing their nonsense is just the beginning of it. For one, the conspiracist is clearly consumed with hate, so much so, that every event is viewed through the blinders of their rage. No party can be at fault except whoever is the object of their hatred. And maybe, just maybe, if they were in charge this is how they would use their power. This is how they think the world works. This is how they think others think and act. And this is why they are so scary.
Pathetic Cherry pick by the Global Warming denialists
It’s gratifying to see news agencies get it right, when climate change denialists leaked the IPCC draft report and cherry picked a single sentence out to suggest an increased solar component, no one fell for it. To their credit, the journalists have gone to the source who said:
He says the idea that the chapter he authored confirms a greater role for solar and other cosmic rays in global warming is “ridiculous”.
“I’m sure you could go and read those paragraphs yourself and the summary of it and see that we conclude exactly the opposite – that this cosmic ray effect that the paragraph is discussing appears to be negligible,” he told PM.
“What it shows is that we looked at this. We look at everything.
“The IPCC has a very comprehensive process where we try to look at all the influences on climate and so we looked at this one.”
Professor Sherwood says research has effectively disproved the idea that sunspots are more responsible for global warming than human activity.
Audio: Mark Colvin speaks to Steve Sherwood and John Cooke (PM)
“There have been a couple of papers suggesting that solar forcing affects climate through cosmic rays, cloud interactions, but most of the literature on this shows that doesn’t actually work,” he said.
“Even the sentence doesn’t say what they say and certainly if you look at the context, we’re really saying the opposite.”
So, surprise surprise, global warming denialists are behaving unethically by leaking a document that they agreed not to leak when applying as reviewers, then they double down by picking out a sentence to make it appear the report says something it doesn’t. There seems to be no rock bottom for these jokers. via Stoat.
Rebecca Watson's Skepticon talk is NOT an example of science denialism
I was recently pointed to this post by Edward Clint which purports to show Rebecca Watson using the 5 tactics of science denialism during her talk “How Girls Evolved to Shop” which was critical of evolutionary psychology at Skepticon.
I watched her talk, found it entertaining, informative, wondered why I haven’t been invited to Skepticon, and I found I agreed with many of her examples of really bad pop psychology nonsense that’s filtered into the media through both scientists, press-release journalism, and marketing disguised as science. In particular the “pink is for girls” idiocy, which when I wrote about it at the time I came to the same conclusions as Watson that it was a stupid interpretation of the data, and the researcher who was actually promoting this glib, incorrect, and historically-bogus interpretation was a fool. It was unusual in that it was an example of the scientist herself, not even the media, disastrously misinterpreting the data to make it meld with a specific societal bias about females.
The problem with this talk was that Watson used specific examples, especially those made prominent by the media, as indicative of the entire field of evolutionary psychology, and thus may have over-generalized about the field as a whole. Even though at the end when asked if there are any good evolutionary biology papers, she suggests there likely are but that’s not what makes it into the media because they’re probably boring (lies are often more entertaining), it was too late. The thrust of her talk probably was too one-sided, and suggested the nonsense that idiot journalists latch onto, and some of the more oddball researchers are indicative of an entire field, which is unfair. Edward Clint takes this as a sign of science denialism, however, and tries to fit the 5 tactics to her talk. While I agree that Watson may have over-generalized, this isn’t denialism. Let’s go over his points and discuss why I don’t think her talk crosses this line.
The denialism brought to Skepticon was to the field of evolutionary psychology, a thriving social science with roots going back to Charles Darwin himself. The critic was internet pundit and self-described feminist and skeptic Rebecca Watson. Watson is known for her blog website, as co-host of a popular skeptic podcast, and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. But Watson holds no scientific training or experience. The charge of science denialism is a serious one, and I will support the claim with a preponderance of evidence.
Ok, first of all, you don’t need to be a scientist or an expert in a particular field to be critical of it. At no point does Watson suggest she’s an expert, which would have been the only reason why such a critique is relevant. A layperson is perfectly entitled to research a field, and then give a talk such as this critical of a systematic bias towards women present in the field. I think she actually makes a compelling argument that there is a bias problem in the interpretation of the data coming out of these papers, and a big PR problem for evolutionary psych in that it’s especially the biased, stupid, and inane studies the media latches onto and amplifies for lay consumption. She doesn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how I interpreted her talk.
The main points Watson wants to drive home are that evolutionary psychology isn’t science (as indicated by the quotes in the subtitle), and that researchers involved in it work deliberately to reinforce stereotypes and to oppress women. Watson frequently makes overly broad claims about the “they” or “it” of evolutionary psychology without further specificity, leading her audience to assume she simply refers to the entirety of the field, or to a large majority of it.
This is an unfair evaluation of her talk. I don’t think at any point Watson indicates this behavior is deliberate, malicious, or dishonest. It’s clear that she’s exposing a systematic bias in the interpretation of the data from these studies. She is not suggesting fabrication, tweaking, or dishonesty, just stupid conclusions, and flawed study designs, and I agree with her that in these examples, she makes the case, these particular researchers are either idiots or blind to bias.
Now we may ask, how would an (apparently) expert skeptic investigate the domain of evolutionary psychology to reach and support the conclusions that Watson has? The first step should be having a firm grasp on what evolutionary psychology is, and to have a working familiarity with the subject. Since we are talking about a scientific field, this at least would mean reading some papers, or maybe at a minimum, some scholarly reviews and meta-analyses. And they should be typical of the field, meaning from reputable journals and mainstream researchers. It would be silly to call biologists creationists and religiously motivated while pointing to Michael Behe and Francis Collins as examples of biologists as a whole.
As far as Watson’s over-generalization of her findings to the field I agree with this criticism, however, my interpretation of the talk as a whole was about how when it came to ascribing differences in behavior due to sex that evolutionary psych has some big problems with systematic bias towards affirming societal stereotypes about women. I think she makes a compelling case for this, but it is possible, of course, that the cases she listed are the glaring exceptions. Clearly with regard to Kanazawa, the guy is a crackpot, but she also had some pretty deadly critiques of other more legitimate researcher’s conclusions.
However, Watson seems to have only the most superficial understanding of evolutionary psychology and it isn’t clear that she’s read even one paper in the field.
This is unfair and disproven by the talk in which she provides specific critiques and interpretations of data where they conflict with the author’s conclusions. It’s very hard to do this without reading the paper.
There are many reasons to think this. She cited no sources during her 48-minute talk beyond what is mentioned in newspapers and other media or publicly available abstracts. While she derided media distortion in one part of the talk, she implicitly trusted media reports for the bulk of it, and rather uncritically.
I don’t understand this because it’s clear from the video that her slides actually have several of the papers up and clearly visible. I also don’t think she blindly trusted media reports either, as she cites specific instances, like the “pink is for girls” study, in which the media cooverage, and the author’s own conclusions differed from the data.
At the end of her talk, an audience member asks Watson if there is any “good evolutionary psychology”. Watson throws up her hands while saying “prooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring.. because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. […] if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media[…]” (see index 47:30)
Setting aside the striking anti-science attitude that only media-hypable science can be interesting, as well as the jarring ignorance that a scientific field composed of thousands of researchers working for decades and publishing in numerous reputable science journals only “probably” has some good work being done, Watson clearly reveals that she is only familiar with evolutionary psychology in the “media,” having moments before shown incontrovertibly how unreliable the media is.
I don’t think she expresses the attitude that media hype is only sign of interesting science. I think her talk should have been narrowed, however, to specifically address how evolutionary psychology has major bias problems when it attempts to explain differences between male and female behavior.
The first work she mentions in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cites a Telegraph article referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist paid for by a business to help them sell things better. This has no relevance to Watson’s thesis, unless it’s also true that Colgate’s “9 out of 10 dentists recommend you give us your toothpaste money” studies prove that dental science is bunk.
Again this is an unfair criticism, because she specifically addressed that this was marketing disguised as science. Watson states:
“all of the best studies I think are commissioned by shopping centers, so no this is actually marketing disguised as science, which is a trend that is becoming more and more popular as mainstream new outlets phase out any and all support for actual journalists that understand science.”
The strength of her point was how she moved from the obvious, BS, marketing-driven science and compared it directly to actual academic evolutionary psych purporting to show the exact same thing.
Supporting the extraordinary claims that a large scientific domain is sexist in general and methodologically bereft requires extraordinary evidence. It should entail a very serious, careful look at the nuts and bolts. How is peer-review accomplished? How well does it function? Are many awful studies passing it? How many? How easily? How is it that thousands of people, women and men, in dozens of countries across decades of time are all morally compromised in the same way? Did she speak to even one person who actually does evolutionary psychology?
I agree with Clint here that she needs more evidence before she castigates the entire field, however, I do think that she makes a compelling argument that (1) evolutionary psych has issues with injecting societal bias towards women into its conclusions – and this is actually not an extraordinary idea given the long history of psych and bias towards women, non-whites, immigrants etc (I would suggest a read of “Mismeasure of Man”) . If it been completely eradicated, I’d be shocked. Her failing was she generalized this flaw to evolutionary psych as a whole, and not just this subset of papers dealing with sex differences in behavior in which the findings always seem to conform with the most recent societal biases. (2) I think she shows, and this is not in dispute, that findings which reinforce a stereotype about women are widely circulated in a credulous media, and this is harmful.
Finally, let’s address Clint’s critiques that this actually represents the 5 tactics.
In 2007 Scienceblogs writer Mark Hoofnagle wrote an oft-cited essay about 5 general tactics used by denialists to sow confusion. John Cook distilled these a bit for an article in 2010 which discusses climate science denial.
It is useful to cite Hoofnagle here because Rebecca Watson demonstrates all five of these in a single presentation and because climate science and evolutionary psychology have a lot in common.
Watson’s denialist tactics
1. Conspiracy theories
Watson frequently spoke of a shadowy, diffuse “they” of evolutionary psychology. When she cited researchers by name, they were held as examples of the they, and not distinguished as a subclass. She also often spoke to their devious, immoral intentions. Not just that they’re mistaken about their claim or that their method is flawed, but that they actively wanted to oppress women and reinforce harmful stereotypes. Thousands of people in dozens of countries, women and men all working together toward goals such as defending rape as “natural” and therefore good (see video indices 20:07, 22:43, 23:41, 35:40, 36:08, 38:40). No evidence was presented which could establish these ulterior motives in such a large group, and as I shall explain, they are entirely false. Mark Hoofnagle wrote the following on Scienceblogs about conspiracy theories; not Watson’s, but his words fit equally well here:
[…] But how could it be possible, for instance, for every nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline.
The problem with Clint’s analysis is that at no point does Watson ascribe conspiratorial behavior to these scientists typical of a denialist argument. I think she’s ascribing a systematic bias towards women, and given the issues that science has had in the past with systematic bias towards less-valued groups in society, this is not either out of the realm of possibility or even surprising that it’s still persistent in psychology. This is where a reading of SJ Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” would come in handy to understand how these biases are propagated. What was amazing was how Gould, in his description of the science behind alleged-differences in races, showed that the researchers weren’t fabricating or being outright deceptive, but were led by bias into over-interpreting data, throwing out inconsistent data, and methodological errors that would affirm their prior conclusions. Conspiracy in science is frankly absurd, but bias in science is a constant struggle, and one should, if anything, suspect its presence until proven otherwise. Contrast this to the global warming conspiracism of cranks such as Inhofe, who describe the entire field as a “hoax”, which suggests active deception for an alterior motive.
Denialist conspiracy theories are non-parsimonious. That is they raise more questions than they answer, because they’re generally being used to explain the absence of data, rather than fit together existing data into an explanation of reality. This is why it’s so absurd when denialists talk about actual conspiracies, like criminal conspiracies, or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Those are not “conspiracy theories” in the modern parlance, because they provide an explanation that fits the data, the results of investigation, motives, etc. They don’t create more questions, like, “how could all those thousands of people keep quiet.” The answer is they can’t. Just ask Lance Armstrong, the tobacco companies, or any gangster that’s had their operation undone by a snitch. Secrets are pretty hard to keep.
Watson is not proposing a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory here, instead she’s demonstrating examples in which authors are clearly overinterpreting their data to conform to societal assumptions about women. This is far from an extraordinary claim about psychology, it’s been demonstrated in the past, and is something psychologists should be on constant guard against, because it is more likely than not that at some point bias will enter their interpretation of data. Watson’s case is pretty solid, in regards to these examples, that the bias is plain to see.
Fake experts are not featured prominently in Watson’s talk. However, at the end Watson cites several fake experts whose opinions on the science are inconsistent with established, uncontroversial knowledge. She implores the audience to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a book seeking to justify a radical social constructionist view of gender differences. While Fine makes some reasonable points about some flawed studies, scholarly reviews have criticized Fine for cherry-picking studies as examples which are amenable to her conclusion and ignoring the rest
Watson goes on to suggest Greg Laden’s blog. Laden is a bioanthropologist who is on record uttering unscientific opinions such as that men are testosterone-damaged women.
Clint acknowledges these examples are weak, and in particular picking on Greg is really just a smear. I think it’s hard to interpret his post on “men as testosterone-damaged women” as serious, as he himself says:
e. Or whatever. Other people were more thoughtful about it and objected to the statement because it is wrong. Well, that’s good, because it is in a way wrong, because it is an oversimplification. But it was not meant to be a description of the biological and cultural processes associated with the development of individual personality, culture, and society. I am a little surprised that people thought it was such a statement, because it is so obviously a remark designed to poke certain men in the eye.
It was a shock-statement, not a serious statement of scientific fact, and it’s unfair of Clint to be dismissive of Laden over such a triviality. Only the MRAs seem to take that statement seriously, and they, as a group, should be ignored whenever possible. As far as Cordelia Fine, I have a great deal of trouble speaking with any confidence on her position in the field as a non-expert myself. However, reading Diane Halpern’s review in Science (no denialist rag) I find it to be more-nuanced that Clint’s quote suggested. Halpern writes:
Cleverly written with engaging prose, Delusions of Gender and Brain Storm contain enough citations and end notes to signal that they are also serious academic books. Fine and Jordan-Young ferret out exaggerated, unreplicated claims and other silliness regarding research on sex differences. The books are strongest in exposing research conclusions that are closer to fiction than science. They are weakest in failing to also point out differences that are supported by a body of carefully conducted and well-replicated research.
I think a book described by an expert reviewer as a “serious academic book” but flawed in one regard shouldn’t be so easily dismissed, as this reviewer in Science, while critical, was mostly positive about her book. I think the fake expert moniker should not be applied to either of these two, and frankly, considering true fake experts out there like Monckton, the assertion is somewhat laughable.
3. Cherry picking
As outlined in part II, Watson restricted her citations to stories that appear in the general media and critical popular science books. She focused on some of the worst possible examples that could be found, such as the interviews (not publications) with the disgraced Satoshi Kanazawa, instead of focusing on mainstream, reputable researchers. She also limited her citations to the sub-topic of sex and gender differences. While it is understandable that she may choose a narrow topic to present to a conference, she frequently makes her claims about the field in general, not merely as it pertains to sex and gender differences. For example, she rehashes Stephen Jay Gould’s “just so stories” criticism, (long debunked by biologists and others), but then uses as examples only sex and gender claims.
Now here I agree with Clint, Watson should have limited her remarks to evolutionary psych and the “sub-topic” of sex gender differences, as it’s clear that there is more to evolutionary psych than this idiotic “girls like pink” crap. But I’m also going to disagree with him that Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism has been “debunked” based on his provided link I actually agree more with Gould than I do the author. While Gould was clearly proven wrong in a few instances, I think his criticism of “just-so stories” is actually quite-compelling, and is an attempt to try to avoid a biased understanding of evolutionary mechanisms to try to find a purpose to every behavior, or every evolutionary modification. This criticism reads truer to me than many of the post-hoc explanations I’ve seen in evolutionary biology, and if anything should be internalized by researchers in this field. To reject the possibility that one is telling a “just-so story” without adequate evidence is to reject the null hypothesis prematurely. While it is clear from the essay that this evolutionary psych can have its hypotheses tested, and even that Gould was wrong in one instance, doesn’t mean that it’s a tendency in the field and one that needs to be addressed.
4. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver
Some of Watson’s criticisms would un-make many sciences were we to take them seriously. For example she says (13:27) “they never tell us what genes” as if this is a grand indictment of evolutionary psychology. There are scientists making in-roads in this area, but tracing the path from genes to structures to behavior is difficult-to-impossible, except in the case of disease and disorder. Further, we certainly don’t hold any other sciences to that standard, even the ones for which genes and adaptation are critical. Does anyone know precisely which genes make a cheetah fast, and exactly how they accomplish that? The peacock’s feathers, the fish’s gills? Shall we toss out all the evolutionary biology for which we do not have genetic bases identified? I should think not. Cognitive science also focuses on models divorced from physical stuff like genes and even neurons, but no one doubts that genes and neurons make cognitive capabilities possible (which is why genetic illnesses can severely impact them).
While it’s true that it would be unreasonable to posit a genetic explanation for each trait since so many traits are polygenic, and we have a very incomplete understanding of the function of much of the genome, this criticism shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Eventually this field will have to incorporate genome-wide analysis into our understanding of human behavior, although Clint is right, not every finding in biology that’s important or worth publishing about needs to be explained down to the last atom.
At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.
Yes, but the real criticism here is the absence of testing the null hypothesis, as I explained above. This should be a critical component of hypothesis testing. She also has a point that if there are too many explanations for the data, all of them consistent, the finding isn’t of particular value.
At 13:39 Watson says that we can’t know enough about the distant past to make assessments of what might have been adaptive. She refers to variation in climate and “environment” and that the lives of our ancestors also “varied”. In other words, evolutionary psychologists can’t make any assumptions. We can’t assume women got pregnant and men didn’t, or that predators needed to be avoided, or that sustenance needed to be secured through hunting or foraging; these are real assumptions evolutionary psychologists use. If we were to toss out evolutionary psychology for this reason, we must also toss out much of biology, archaeology as well as paleoanthropology. Much care must be used in deciding what can and can’t be assumed about the past, but archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists know this quite well.
This is a valid point.
Last but not least:
5. Misrepresentations and logical fallacies
Please see section V. 25 False and misleading statements made by Watson. In that list, items 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, 19, 20 and 25 are misleading statements. This is not a comprehensive list. Watson makes liberal use of logical fallacies. I will describe just one for the sake of brevity.
The naturalistic fallacy. One can hardly find a more pristine example of this fallacy than in criticism of evolutionary psychology, and Watson’s remarks were no exception. She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an absurdity of course; it’s every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.
Yes, but Watson was describing it as a natural fallacy herself! You two are actually agreeing with each other.
I also think that his list of false or misleading claims by Watson is worth reading and it really should have been the starting point for the discussion about Watson’s talk. They actually have a lot of common ground between them, and frankly evolutionary psych needs a wake up call to its public image problem. Instead Clint clumsily tries to fit the tactics of denialism to her talk, and in my opinion, fails. Yes there are problems here, and he raises valid points. But the presence of denialism is not one of them.
Dr. Oz is an increasingly dangerous promoter of denialism and quackery
I’m very disturbed to see the amount of exposure that Dr. Oz has credulously given to gay conversion therapy quacks. Via Ed I read Warren Throckmorton’s coverage of the disaster on Oz’s show, with the reversion therapists lying and contradicting their own previous statements about the therapy, what it accomplishes, and their philosophy of sexual orientation. Worse, those brought on to counter the misinformation were given no time to address all the falsehoods, all the while the gay conversion therapy quacks were represented as being of equivalent expertise.
It’s unfortunate that even as we’re seeing success in having gay conversion therapy banned as quackery in some states, professional cranks like Oz are undermining the process of educating people about homosexuality. Homosexuality is not a disorder, has not been considered such by legitimate professionals for almost 40 years now, and does not need treatment. It is also not the fault of the parents, the individual, or a moral failing. Attempts to “repair” people that are homosexual have been studied, they are unsuccessful and only cause harm. It is a sign of progress that California is taking steps to ban this therapy in regards to minors as forcing quackery on those who can not protect themselves from it. Reversion therapy is not legitimate medical therapy and is harmful. As stated in the CNN article:
But the psychiatric organization [the APA] — which is the world’s largest of its kind, with more than 36,000 members — determined, in fact, that reparative therapy poses a great risk, including increasing the likelihood or severity of depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior for those undergoing therapy. Therapists’ alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already felt by patients, the association says.
“The longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences and the health and mental health professions is that homosexuality per se is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation,” the association says.
We know that the lack of acceptance of a child who is homosexual puts the child at much greater risk of depression, other mental illness and suicide.
We should heed ERV’s warning, do not go on the Dr. Oz show, even if you think it’s to set the record straight. He won’t give fair time to the actual credible scientists or experts, he’ll just trot out the psychics, and quacks, and frauds, and maybe allow a soundbite at the end to contradict an entire hour of misinformation.
This might represent a truism in general about professionals on television. Television is entertainment, and the need to entertain routinely contaminates the delivery of factual information. Oz might have started with some actual legitimacy, but the need to put on a show, day after day, eventually will compromise your ability to maintain standards of professionalism. Oz has now sunk so low as to be irredeemable. This is homophobia disguised as medicine, and it is despicable for a medical professional to promote it uncritically on television.
Vox Day is a White Nationalist, who'd have thought?
We’ve mocked Vox Day in the past for his creationism, his sexism, and his general stupidity which is of course matched with the usual crank traits of egotism, and unshakeable certainty. Today though, I he’s apparently gotten even worse, endorsing white nationalism and defending the anti-Obama secessionists. His essay, in essence, says the only thing keeping him from migrating to a new country is there just isn’t anywhere left that’s all white. Via rightwingwatch:
Is the secession of several American states truly unthinkable? Is the breakup of the United States of America really outside the boundaries of historically reasonable possibility?
They mock the secessionist petitioners in Texas and other states, celebrate the infestation of even the smallest American heartland towns by African, Asian and Aztec cultures, and engage in ruthless doublethink as they worship at the altar of a false and entirely nonexistent equality.
This is especially true given that the English people and the Scottish people have far more in common than Americans do with the tens of millions of post-1965 immigrants from various non-European nations around the world, or their urban enablers. The fact that the future citizens of Aztlán are presently content to continue collecting tribute in the form of state and federal largesse does not mean that they will refrain from exerting the political muscle that their growing demographic weight provides them once the contracting economy brings the gravy train to an end.
It also seems unlikely that the millions of Americans who have moved away from declining school systems, who have retreated from an increasingly vibrant communities, and who have fled from high-tax jurisdictions will continue to retreat as the people who destroyed their schools, their communities and their state budgets attempt to follow them.
They will not because they cannot. The frontiers are closed. There is nowhere else to go.
This is why it doesn’t matter if one considers the birth of an American Independence Party to be desirable or not; it is inevitable.
You see? Behind all this secessionist talk, the birtherism, the immigration lunacy, it’s just racism. Vox Day has now come out as a white nationalist. This is what they really believe. They believe equality is false. They believe all our problems are caused by nonwhites. He calls for the formation of a independence party to slow the “infestation” by non-whites, because there is no geographic escape from them anymore. There’s a name for this political philosophy. It’s called white nationalism. World Nut Daily, and Vox Day, have shown their true stripes.