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.
32 thoughts on “Rebecca Watson's Skepticon talk is NOT an example of science denialism”
Very odd when a scienceblog author defends a google-U person’s critique of a field she has no clue about. Or are you afraid the FTB hordes will descent on you if you don’t disown this use of your own methodology?
No, I just don’t think the allegations of conspiracy, false experts, or moving goalposts are credible. I do give him credit for having several valid points in critique of her talk, but I think if anything she’s guilty of over-generalization, not denialism.
Having read Gould — and liking him a lot — I’ll thow this out there: evolutionary psychology has more than an image problem.
I don’t doubt for a moment that evolutionary pressures could create certain behavioral traits. Lord knows that has been a well-trodden path in evolutionary biology forever. And there’s actually been a lot of good science fiction written on that topic (Octavia Butler for one, and a little bit of Ian McDonald).
If you are in a situation where it’s really easy to find “outlier” studies like the ones Watson talks about, and hard to find the good ones, then you have a serious problem. It isn’t just the media’s fault.
So much of our behavior is culturally determined — the sheer variety of human societal structures is testament to that. But a lot of evo-psych glosses that over. Even the studies I’ve looked at — and that isn’t many — I managed to ask “well, hey, did these guys ever travel to X place where the behavior is utterly different?” At a bare minimum ANY evo-psych study that purports to say a damned thing should test a few people from wildly different cultures.
At the very least I’d argue that the discipline needs a serious overhaul.
(I will admit a further bias on my part: I have issues with psychology as a field, and I am not so sure it quite qualifies as a science yet).
Anyone taking bets on whether Mu accepts that response?
It was a bit conspiratorial itself wasn’t it? I’m pretty sure I’m mostly off the FtB radar although I read Zvan’s response is well. I think Zvan was actually being too forgiving by saying Watson was only talking about pop psych. No, she did attribute these findings to evo psych as a whole and that is somewhat unfair.
Jesse, I agree, the “just so story” criticism has not been debunked as Clint claims. If anything, it should serve as a null hupothesis for evo psych researchers. The first question they should ask should be, “am I just studying personal or cultural biases?”. In regards to human behavior it’s far more likely that you’ll end up studying a cultural artifact before you come to some unversal behavior with a specific impact on natural selection. I don’t envy their field, when I run a PCR or a Western or create a surgical model, I can pretty reliably describe what I did and other researchers should be able to replicate with relative ease. While I have many opportunities for bias as well, it’s nothing like studying psychology, with it’s implicit personal and cultural biases, as well as an extensive history of abuse of biased findings to justify discrimination and abuse.
“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.”
If this is true, then it’s the understatement of the day. Such a “problem” is actually a pretty fatal one.
I have no opinion on “evol psych,” actually. The scientists will sort the wheat from the chaff. Watson is just not someone I’d listen to on the subject. I do like Steven Pinker a lot.
I agree with Jesse. I can’t say that I have read a lot of them myself, but I do read PZ’s site, and others, and they post these things a fair amount, especially “gender” related ones. And.. almost invariably, the result of the “study” is a bit like listening to a right wing talk show host, who can’t figure out why its insane to, on one hand, dismiss the idea that we need to look at Europe as a possible example of some social/health/etc., they are after all, all too “communist”, and “unstable”, and so on, solutions, and on the other hand, when they need to use something outside the US to babble about, declare, “Those places are just like the US and they are a fine example of why there is nothing wrong with the US!”, even when what they are talking about is **not** the same over there at all.
The question I, as Jesse, ask, when ever I see this stuff is, “What, do these people never actually visit any place outside what ever tony pocket universe they did the “study” in? Because, you can’t have it both ways, in the case of the political nonsense, and you can’t, in the case of conducting “science”:
1. Treat the entire rest of the planet as though its some other species, and therefor none of the differences count.
2. The other side of the coin – deny that differences exist, by ignoring places where the behavior doesn’t happen, and instead only focusing on examples of places where people do the same stupid things.
Good example – Where is the study on “rape” which examines why the never even had a word for it, in the one obscure culture they talked about not long ago on one of the science channels, where the “behavior” of the fathers wasn’t to isolate girls from boys, but actually build them their own special hut, to “talk” to them in, without parental interference? Did these people just “evolve” differently, somehow, or is “rape” actually a consequence of all the rest of the worlds bullshit obsessions over inheritance, purity, and fear of sex? Now, that is the bloody evo psych study I would like to see. But, instead we get idiot papers that ***assume*** that rape is adaptive, because, like… it happens every place, right? And, that is the exact bloody problem.
Wow this stuff is still going on? If I tried to follow this whole debate I’d go nuts! It’s pretty obvious that people are most biased and delusional about the facts when it comes to evolutionary psychology, we have more personally invested in what the facts really are than any other subject in science.
I mean on one side you have actual scientists, journals that conduct real debates, people who are actually qualified to be working with the information etc , and on the other side you have a lot of blogs and activist books and philosophers commenting, constant debates and drama and attacks… Who in their right mind would even listen to a person with this kind of background?
Some people get something out of this side of the fence, this aspect of culture. You’ve got the people who are clearly too obsessed with an idea to really understand what other people are saying, and then you’ve got, you know, real science debate.
Ah! I must turn away
I think, he was being kind. The talk wasn’t as bad as one side said, but was not at all a professional level first tier talk one would expect at a skeptic conference. What I’ve heard said is “Watson is a seat filler”. Or even a seat emptier, as when she told everyone to go to the bar at a recent talk (leaving the last speaker with a half empty audience to speak to). She’s the name you put on for the hipster crowd that wants a talk that will perk them up and is a speaker they can identify with. She’s not a scientist (She kept saying it), and she’s what she is…sort of an Anne Coulter sensation. We don’t expect from her the level of science we’d get from Dr. DeGrasse Tyson or Dr.Dawkins. She’s more the Adam Savage “going to give a talk that will keep you awake” type. Expecting a level or seriousness or science or investigation or work that one expects from another speaker is un realistic. She is asked to speak as she fills seats and is fun. No one gets mad when Adam Savage gives a fluff speech, same with Rebecca.
” She’s not a scientist (She kept saying it), and she’s what she is…sort of an Anne Coulter sensation.”
Rebecca Watson as the left/feminist answer to Ann Coulter? Good analogy, actually – I may be repeating that one.
I think that’s a bit much. No one is as horrific as that woman.
How lovely. I suppose Jesse Jackson is also the black community’s Rush Limbaugh.
That wouldn’t (and doesn’t) absolve her of responsibility. This is an important topic. This is a topic she recognizes as being incredibly important. She should do her best to represent it as fairly a possible.
I don’t mean with kindness or any level of reverence, but a deeper understanding of the subject would better equip her to deal with EP and explain to others the shortcomings of EP. Watson doesn’t need anything approaching a PhD for that. She jut needs to consider her topic a little more and be a little more conservative in her statements.
Anyway sorry for the off topic
Thanks for a reasonable rebuttal to the ongoing controversy surrounding Rebecca’s talk. I’ve been following this with interest, as a skeptic and a person who, for several years, was pretty heavily involved in evolutionary psychology. I worked with the father of many ridiculous sex-difference EP theories, Gordon Gallup Jr., and attended multiple conferences dedicated to evolutionary psychology, so I’d like to think I’ve seen a lot of this up close and personal.
I found Rebecca’s talk, while a bit sweeping and simplistic at times, to be a pretty fair representation of the state of research in evolutionary psychology. Of course the media exacerbates any published research dealing with sex differences, but the more time I spent in the field, I became acutely aware of how insular EP really was. Many of the research hypotheses are conceived in an echo chamber where just-so explanations were thrown out, and, lacking anyone with any training/experience in cultural studies or even anthropology to offer a counter-explanation, ended up roundly praised and accepted as brilliant insights into human evolution. While first embracing EP as a way to understand human sex differences, the skeptic in me became suspicious that research *always* fit preconceived cultural norms. I sat in disbelief and listened to sweeping conclusions being made based on results from MRIs done on 8 subjects (a “study” accepted for a conference talk, no less).
While there is a lot of interesting EP research literature out there, particularly around cheater detection, in-group/out-group perceptions, and decision-making, I left the field because I felt they were not interested in critically assessing their own preconceived biases, particularly around sex differences. The result is an idea death-spiral, where those who don’t buy into the large assumptions being made get silenced, dismissed, or ignored, and ultimately, leave the field. Those that remain happily plod along with their research, surrounded by others who serve not to criticize, but reinforce their own biases. If EP would just start talking to people in other fields (biology, anthropology, sociology) who are asking the same questions, they might be able to conduct meaningful, informed studies instead of the bunk that gets passed off as research today.
“Ok, first of all, you don’t need to be a scientist or an expert in a particular field to be critical of it.”
Yes, but if you criticize from a position of total ignorance, your criticism has no validity and is not worth anyone’s time listening to it.
I don’t think her position was one of total ignorance. I think she leveled a fair critique at how the field deals with female behavior. Rather than digging in and refusing to acknowledge there is a problem, critiques like this should result in reflection on what they’re purporting to show. She’s not just making fun of news items, she making fun of peer-reviewed papers. Now if you’re peer-reviewed literature is contaminated with garbage like this, even a little, you’ve got a problem. I become infuriated when our literature is contaminated with pop and political nonsense, like the Seralini anti-GMO paper. Worse, when the majority of your findings that make in the lay press are from such absurd findings, you’ve got a big PR problem. She was damning the research with their own findings and the researcher’s own, often strikingly ignorant, statements.
I’m curious to see PZ’s follow up critique against EP. I’m not saying either is right or wrong, but their criticism doesn’t represent science denial. The attempt to label it as such strikes me as being an excess of defensiveness. And these critiques aren’t new, coming from excellent scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould. These criticisms, rather than being addressed by the field, appear to have just been ignored and deflected, see Clint’s example of how they are “debunked”. Not from my read, I think it should be a source of continuing debate. Perhaps the field strives on inadequate scrutiny? We shall see.
Good article in general, but one criticism:
Ed Clint’s criticism about “varied environments” is a “valid point”? Really?
Yes, scientists can assume with a high degree of accuracy that only women got pregnant, that predators needed to be avoided, and that food needed to be obtained. But the problem with saying that is, you can say that of ALL mammals (many other animals as well, but definitely all mammals), including modern humans. If you could draw meaningful conclusions based only on those assumptions you’d expect all mammals behavior to be about the same, and that’s most definitely not the case.
So then, if we can’t make conclusions based on broad generalizations like that then we have to know something about humans specifically in order to draw conclusions about human behavior. And now we’ve established that, Watson’s critique that we don’t actually know anything about humans specifically carries a lot of weight.
(Often what kind of assumptions EPers make about behavior has a great deal to do with details beyond the basic assumptions. Yes only women get pregnant, but how often, and what does that do? Yes, predators need to be avoided, but how often, which predators, and how? Yes food needs to be obtained, what food is available, how easy is it to obtain, how much do you need, and how do you obtain it? Different assumptions in response to these questions give very different models of human behavior, and the crucial thing about these questions is that the answers to all of them differ for different human populations. A situation where women get pregnant about as often as they want to, what predators exist can be fought off easily, and food is so easy to obtain only a fraction of the population needs to do any work to obtain it is perfectly consistent with those three assumptions (and is in fact how modern humans answer those questions) but is almost never assumed by EPers.
I attended Rebecca’s talk in Christchurch. Noticed a few tweaks had been made that addressed some of the criticisms, as you’d expect from someone not being a science denialist.
The lecture room was packed, but this did not appear to be entirely with indignantly muttering Evolutionary Psychologists. My impression was that, like me, most were there because they didn’t know a lot about the topic but it interested them and because they had seen Rebecca’s other work. And it was a fun talk that raised some points worth thinking about – appropriately data-lite for a hot Saturday afternoon.
What I learned about EvPsych was not surprising – like any other field of science, it has some bad practitioners, some assumption-ridden or confounded experimental designs, some studies with small or biased samples, some instances where peer review has borked… and that such findings can be misused and manipulated. the overall Bad Things for science, if you don’t want Dr Bunsen Honeydew endorsing untrue and harmful stereotypes about women and men.
A detailed point rebuttal affixing ‘science denialism’ to what Rebecca actually presented seems, weirdly, defensive. Sure, no-one likes to hear negative things about their hobby horse, but if I was an Evolutionary Psychologist, I’d be thinking ‘crikey! (cos that’s we think down here), that’s no good. How can we make sure that our field doesn’t let this type of thing continue? wonder if I can find some good robust examples of EvPsych to highlight what not to do?’
Mentioning that the dodgy Kanazawa (?) guy was discredited and kicked out by his colleagues seems a little like a token downward glance at own EvPsych navel before once more hefting the lightsabre to en garde. ‘How did he get there in the first place and how can we avoid that in future?’ would be the science-y response.
HE started: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/12/10/ep-the-fundamental-failure-of-the-evolutionary-psychology-premise/
It doesn’t look good for EP so far.
NOW this is really going to be fun.
And it looks like Larry Moran is a “science denialist” too: http://sandwalk.blogspot.com.br/2012/12/the-best-of-evolutionary-psychology_10.html
What do you think of Laden’s “men have a rape switch” assertion? Also, what do you think of Stephanie Zvan’s “scientific” defense of Laden’s statement that “men are damaged women”? Do you agree with Zvan’s analysis? Do you really think Laden is an expert in the field and a proper reference for those who want to learn about EP?
Good piece, the only one to substantively address Clint’s so far. I tend to lean with you on the denialism portion, but don’t understand the reasons for the misrepresentations and factual errors in her talk.
PZ Myers went so far as to make the claims that 90% (exactly) of all EP is bad EP, and if a hypothesis has to do with human gender or race, it’s automatically bad. That’s his test. Seriously. Do you agree with this?
For those who don’t know both Jerry Coyne and John Wilkins have posted excellent pieces in defense of Evolutionary Psychology, and Coyne apparently teaches it in his introductory evolution course. He admits to not having watched Watson talk, but has read PZ’s posts on the subject.
“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.”
I can give you a critique of many papers without reading them by simply using Google. Since Watson used the most common examples of the criticisms leveled against EP, I see no evidence that she read the papers she talks about, and plenty of evidence that she didn’t due to her errors about them.
“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.”
Actually, there’s only one slide of showing an abstract (easily found on the web via Google). There are no actual papers. The pink study is a newspaper clipping. Can you tell me what you’re referring to here?
“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.”
Having spent about 15 minutes on Wiki, and having read several recent blog posts and the referenced papers, I think this is likely true. She’s clearly read Fine’s book, OTH.
“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.”
Agreed. Do you think 48 minute talk with (being generous to your argument) 24 errors is a good talk? The naturalistic fallacy point goes to the fact that just because something’s natural doesn’t make it good. There are lots of allegations that EP is rape-enabling and so on, when actually the reverse is true; if we could better asses criminal behaviors and why they occur, we could find solutions more easily.
Do you think science departments at universities should have their own PR departments? Aren’t you blaming, as it were, the victim for an unwarranted reputation? Do you think that talks about papers that are in no way representative of the field as being representative of the field further the goals of science education?
Final point: while I don’t support the MRA movement in any way, I think that acronym has been thrown around so much as to render it as meaningless as “misogynist.” Questioning theories and being skeptical of claims made by a woman (or even being extremely abusive) doesn’t automatically turn people into MRAs unless many of the online gender feminists I’ve spoken to are MRAs too. You should make sure someone is actually affiliated with that movement before bringing it up.
I am an MRA, and also an atheist who spends time in the atheist community. I will let you in on an open secret. MRAs by and large arent proactive about what the feminists do in your community.. i.e they dont butt in and argue against Laden et al.. you know why? the rest of the atheist community is doing it, spearheaded by the slimepit in the beginning.. while we sit back and LOL.
dude.. it really takes a lot of knowledge and time to figure out what exactly is going on in society, and the anti-FTB atheists are still in the first or second leg.
As James Onen (allegedly) said “Rebecca Watson has created more MRAs than Paul Elam ever could”.
Old timer MRAs have a maxim.. “we dont go out to them (i.e those who can see through feminist lies). we let them come to us”.
Good luck “ignoring us”.
This is possible, certainly, but Clint shouldn’t allege either way without evidence. When someone quotes specific aspects that require internal reading to have been done, I don’t automatically assume plagiarism via Google.
Showing the abstract and title is adequate to serve as a reference during a talk, I frequently show papers in that form while I reference them in talks. Clint asserted she cited no sources. Clearly, a slide with a paper, title and abstract, is a citation. I don’t know what you mean by citation, if showing the title page of a paper isn’t adequate. As far as the pink study, Watson specifically refers to how their data conflicts with their conclusions because the effect was reversed in other countries. Sure, this could be from google too, but shows that, at some point, analysis deeper than newspaper level was done. Since Clint is making claims about her analysis he should be providing the evidence that she hasn’t done her own research into these papers. As far as I can tell from the video, she has references, she cites data not discussed in the lay press etc. To automatically assume this is all from googling is not a fair assertion without evidence to back the accusation.
Also, the complaint over citation is totally besides the point. What is the point of citations? To give credit where it should be attributed, and to help people find the sources. So, she gave a talk where it might take some work to find the sources. Non-ideal, so what. And if I were these researchers I’d be kind of glad if someone made it harder to trace these things back to me. Her lack of citation doesn’t signal the papers she described don’t exist (they all do), or that they’re jokes (they are).
What’s wrong with reading Fine’s book? The review that Clint links from Science was actually positive about her book. Clint just cherry-picked the critical line from an otherwise positive review to suggest she’s a “fake expert”. Who is using selective evidence here?
Ah yes, they are a starting point, I didn’t acknowledge all 24 are correct. And Watson is critical of the naturalistic fallacy too. She’s not proposing that because it’s natural it’s good, or normal. She’s objecting to the naturalistic fallacy.
I think university PR departments are a big problem. Both here, and a lot over at Orac’s blog, and at other scienceblogs there have been multiple complaints about how universities oversell, misrepresent, and outright bullshit in order to increase their profile. Science by press release does not have a very good reputation or history. From cold fusion to sasquatch DNA, it’s a bad sign when this is where reporters are getting their leads. So while it’s every university’s right to have a PR department, it’s a poor journalist that actually gives credence to their press releases without follow up, and sadly, that’s what happens much of the time.
Several of the examples that Watson cited were of EP’s engaging in the behavior specifically – not the pop media. In particular, the “pink is for girls”, Kanazawa’s nonsense, and “girls evolved to shop” conclusions were specifically endorsed by the researchers in question, suggesting that they, and not their PR departments, are to blame. So no, it’s not EP’s being victimized by bad university PR. It’s idiot EPs.
I think it’s debatable whether these papers represent the field or not. From recent evidence of “good” EP that’s been put out, as well as some of the criticisms linked above by PZ, Moran, etc., I think there are big fundamental problems with the field. I’d like to see the EP advocates address them without claiming denialism, because, especially with PZ’s article, he raises valid points. This is what scientific debate should look like. This is not denialism. This is challenging the field based on its product, and based on certain key assumptions, like adaptationism, which the critics, I feel, are making very strong points about. As far as PZ claiming it’s 90% bad? Well, that’s actually not a good claim to make without testing, and it wouldn’t be hard to do. Just search out the papers, get a sample, read them, determine which deserve to be scrapped, and calculate a percentage. 90% may be high, or low.
The percentage of papers that are crap generally in the biological literature is probably around 40-50% if you examine analyses such as those by John Ioannidas. And that’s not to say the data are bad, or the researcher’s conclusions are bad, but that’s probably about how often what we report often ends up not holding up. Things like the file-drawer effect are largely to blame. It’s only by repetition, replication, and expansion upon results that one finds the “good” papers and a lot of crap passes peer review that has problems. PZ’s criticism is different however. I don’t think anyone doubts the data the researchers are coming up with. No one is fabricating here. Although there have been some critiques of study design, the main claim being made is misinterpretation based on flawed assemptions. I could see how they could easily hit 90% based on a systematic problem with certain axioms the EPs are working with, but one should test claims, sure.
I’ll check out the defenses by Coyne etc. I actually find this debate pretty interesting because it is a valid debate.
I have not seen an EP show up here, link articles, and say “here’s examples of good EP” Watson is wrong. If anything, the EP’s showing up here are saying, “yeah, the field’s got problem.” The articles linked by Clint I thought were actually quite poor and did not support his points, including a failure to adequately address Gould’s “just so” criticism. They may have convinced themselves that they’ve rebuffed these criticisms, but the evidence raised by Watson and others suggests this is still a big problem for the field.
I was specifically referring to critiques of Laden for that statement coming from MRAs, which is where it came from. That was factual. I wasn’t calling Clint one, as I consider the label equivalent to sexist, I’m just saying, the only people that thought Greg actually believed that were these warped loonies, so he shouldn’t cite that as an example of how Laden is a fake expert. Laden is not a fake expert, and even if you point out examples of where he’s been in error, or even a little nutty, that doesn’t diminish the fact that he has specific knowledge relevant to these discussions. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you write long enough you’ll say something stupid (See James Randi on climate change), that doesn’t mean you’re a fake expert. We’ve written about what defines fake experts, and neither of Clint’s examples were good, or even close. I haven’t read Svan’s defense of it either. It seems all rather silly to me considering Laden himself says the statement wasn’t being made seriously.
In his article, Clint is alleging denialism, falsely, to avoid discussing valid critiques of EP’s products. This is not denialism. This is the opposite. This has actually spurred what I think is a very healthy debate about the field, by people with real knowledge of evolution, like PZ and Moran, and can only help the field – if they don’t dig in and ignore these criticisms.
Astrokid, I will happily ignore disgusting misogynists like the MRA’s as long as I can. You guys are just like “White rights activists” (like Vox Day), claiming they’re not racist while basically saying everything a racist white nationalist would. People who react to equality as if it’s oppression are just objecting to the loss of their unfair advantage, or any attempts to counteract institutionalized disadvantage.
“And Watson is critical of the naturalistic fallacy too. She’s not proposing that because it’s natural it’s good, or normal. She’s objecting to the naturalistic fallacy.”
The problem is that not even the evolutionary psychologists are saying that rape is good. You are right that she’s presuming that the evolutionary psychologists are using the fallacy, and she even goes on to claim [around 38:22 in the talk] that they say that “it’s natural for men to rape, therefore we don’t need to look into ways in which we can change our culture to stop men from raping.” Yet in Coyne’s critique of sloppy science within Thornhill and Palmer’s book _A Natural History of Rape_, he nonetheless quotes the authors as saying the very opposite of Watson’s allegation: “Not only does an evolutionary approach generate new knowledge that could be used to decrease the incidence of rape; some of the proposals put forth by individuals uninformed by evolutionary theory may actually increase it.” Oops.
I suspect that Clint thinks that Watson is projecting her own use of the naturalistic fallacy onto EP, that is, she reads “rape is natural” as implying “rape is good,” and then assumes that this is what those studying EP are thinking.
A really convincing MRA gloating comes off so much better with a ‘muahahahaaaa’ at the end. Last time I looked, Paul Elam’s maxim on the ‘Voice for Men’ site was “F*** Their Shit Up”. Or is that new-school MRA ?
And as for the (alleged – nicely distanced there) quote “Rebecca Watson has created more MRAs than Paul Elam ever could” ? Condensed : the ole ‘look what you made me do!’ defense (Rebecca made me a MRA! ).
Well, this is a blog about denialism – just sorry that it’s been pugged with MRA –flavoured rather than straight science denialism, Mark. Although perhaps you expected as much by mentioning Rebecca, given her talk included the concept of insulting women.
Arstrokid, you’re suggesting something Rebecca Watson does (guys- don’t do that) or something Paul Elam, or Honey Boo Boo for that matter does, has the power to *create* an MRA. I’d contend said candidate already was one and just didn’t have the lexicon – a ‘created’ MRA has finally found an excuse and appropriate acronym to rally their values behind. It’s just something they’ve never had to actively explain or justify before, sort of like a flushing process (just not the becomingly-complexioned kind).
“Final point: while I don’t support the MRA movement in any way, I think that acronym has been thrown around so much as to render it as meaningless as “misogynist.”
Yeah, but you don’t unsupport the MRA movement either. or define the your take on the term ‘misogynist’ And then, just to completely obscure any intent, use the word ‘meaningless’ in the same sentence.
Whether or not Rebecca’s was a ‘good’ talk scientifically– it was never sold or promoted as such. from attendance, certainly seemed like one that the skep community here wanted to hear. And if you check the title, it was very much about how in general science (not EvPysch in particular) can reinforce sexist biases. EvPsych seems to be one of main offending fields.
“Condensed : the ole ‘look what you made me do!’ defense (Rebecca made me a MRA! ).”
Rebecca certainly forced me to look at the facts, and she has been found extremely wanting.
A whole year of rape cries and not one police report. These victim players don’t even play the victim right. They are just harassing bullies with nothing better to do. They are the reason men will claim every rape accusation may not be true.
Reality in a civilized country needs MRAs.
so are you saying Rebecca made you an MRA?
do you think if I sent her some wool and bile, she’d make me one too?
J. J. Ramsey – “Yet in Coyne’s critique of sloppy science within Thornhill and Palmer’s book _A Natural History of Rape_, he nonetheless quotes the authors as saying the very opposite of Watson’s allegation.”
Only if you take it out of context of what they are arguing, and only selectively quote from the article. They are indeed saying rape is favoured by natural selection, and therefore the conclusion can be drawn that it’s an entirely natural act to engage in. The argument about motives that the author’s make removes cultural and sociological arguments that can also apply, even the fact that a significant fraction of rape victims are either too young or too old for reproductive strategies to apply. I’d say rather than sloppy, it’s a correct assertion to say “it’s natural for men to rape, therefore we don’t need to look into ways in which we can change our culture to stop men from raping.” They do say that, and even worse make out any cultural or sociological changes that don’t take into account their “theory” on rape could increase rape, rather than decrease it. Unfortunately for the authors, as Coyne proves, the claims are weak and as he points out near the end of the article: “While denouncing feminists and sociologists for their misguided and scientifically uninformed attempts to deal with rape, Thornhill and Palmer overlook the major improvements that these groups effected in legal
and cultural attitudes toward rape.”
More from the article: “…Thornhill and palmer perform a rather ingenious trick by advancing two disparate theories, both in support of the idea that rape is “natural and biological.” The first is called the “byproduct hypothesis,” which maintains simply that rape is a side effect of other evolved human traits. In other words, rape is “evolutionary” because it is performed by men whose brains, bodies, and behavior have evolved to a point at which rape is physically and emotionally possible. This is a reasonable view–indeed, a tautology–that few biologists will find objectionable. The second hypothesis is called “direct adaptation,” and it maintains that rape is much more than an evolutionary by-product: it is a direct adaptation installed by natural selection to allow sexually disenfranchised men to produce children. This latter view is far more controversial, and it is clearly the centerpiece of Thornhill and Palmer’s book. Nearly all of the discussion and the cited evidence are directed at proving the truth of this second theory….”
“…But they do declare that social policies to eliminate rape will not work unless they take into account the crime’s evolutionary origin. Their “evolutionarily-informed” suggestions are either obvious and derivable from non-evolutionary views of rape (punish rapists more harshly, teach young men not to rape, urge women to avoid secluded spots) or fatuous (build male and female summer camps farther apart, use chaperones early in a relationship) or invidious (counsel rape victims by telling them that their trauma is adaptive).
Thornhill and Palmer justify Darwinian anti-rape courses for men by noting that “individuals who really understood the evolutionary bases of their actions might be better able to avoid behaving in an `adaptive’ fashion that is damaging to others.” Does anyone imagine that young men will be less inclined to rape when they are told that it is in their genes? Or that rape victims will be consoled by knowing that their trauma and their depression have evolutionary roots? Thornhill and Palmer also claim that women in scanty dress are more likely to be raped, and should keep this risk in mind when picking their clothes. The reader will search in vain, however, for any evidence that more skin provokes more rape. The source of Thornhill and Palmer’s advice on this point is a mystery…”
Mitch: “They are indeed saying rape is favoured by natural selection, and therefore the conclusion can be drawn that it’s an entirely natural act to engage in.”
Yes, they are, but they are *not* saying, as Watson alleges, that rape is *good*. Nor, contrary to what Watson said, are they saying that “we don’t need to look into ways in which we can change our culture to stop men from raping.” Indeed, you yourself point out some of Thornhill and Palmer’s advice on change the culture. As far as I can tell, the advice is _bad_, but the very existence of such advice contradicts what Watson had said. She didn’t even accurately portray what evolutionary psychologists like Thornhill and Palmer were getting wrong.
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