Whinging About Skepchick
A critique of a talk by Rebecca Watson is very likely heavily influenced by the critiquer’s membership in one group or another as defined by The Great Sorting. This not because Rebecca is a polarizing person. It is because she has been outspoken on issues that tend to polarize people, like feminism. This polarization is enhanced by the fact that a break-off group of skeptics have chosen to join the haters rather than the thinkers and doers. Also, she leads a group of women who have tried to open up the Skeptical Community to having more female participants and to more frequently address women’s issues, and this has led to significant push back. As you listen to Rebecca’s recent talk on Evolutionary Psychology or read critiques of it, especially those that specifically call her talk “science denialism” or “creationism” or some other absurd thing, keep that in mind.
(Because it isn’t science denialism.)
I’ve been asked by numerous people to read a blog post called Science denialism at a skeptic conference addressing Rebecca’s talk, written by some guy named “Clint,” but when I notice the blog network it is on, one created specifically to support the opposition to Atheism+, “Free Thought Bullies,” and Skepchicks, I find it hard to convince myself to spend the time on it. When I read the title of the post, which makes use of the inappropriate and absurd hyperbole just mentioned, I find it hard to convince myself to spend time on it. There may well be useful ideas in that post, perhaps it is even brilliant, and I’m not saying I’ll never read it. But I’m very busy and the chance of that post being informative or useful, and not overly annoying, is very slim. In other words, Clique Membership is more important, in many instances, than any honest attempt to engage in a conversation, for most of the people who respond publicly to anything Rebecca Watson says. For now I’m guessing that Clint is a Cliqueist.
This post-Great Sorting bias is evident in a recent comment by blog reader “bks” on my earlier post pointing to Rebecca’s talk. “bks” refers to Clint’s post and says “Now I’m really glad I didn’t waste 48 minutes..” Perhaps Clint was very convincing, but given the qualities I see in Rebecca’s talk, I don’t se how he could have been both convincing (of the talk not being worth listening to) and honest or thorough at the same time. Here are the facts surrounding the comment:
1) I am a behavioral biologist with expertise in the area of Rebecca’s talk, and I said I liked the talk although it had some flaws.
2) Clint is (probably) a politically motivated Rebecca Watson Hater, though he might also be a student of psychology or something, and he claims, apparently, that Rebecca’s talk is totally wrong (correct me if he’s saying her talk is good, but that is what I understand to be the case).
3) On the strength of those two assertions, “bks” decided to not bother listening to Rebecca’s talk because it must be bad, rather than judging it only after reading it.
That is a great example of the sorted sorting sordidly. “bks” could certainly have done what I’ve done … decided to not read it for some indirect heuristic reason. But that does not seem to be what he’s done. He seems to have judged it without seeing it.
Here’s what I like about Rebecca Watson’s talk
Much science is misrepresented or mistranslated as it reaches the public arena. For instance, say some cellular biologist unravels a small but important detail of the S Phase of cell division in eukaryotes. She writes a peer reviewed paper on it. During the process of developing the press report of that paper at her institution, some public relations expert pries the word “cancer” out of a lab assistant who is nineteenth author on the paper. Yes, yes, technically cell division is related to cancer, so the more we know about cell division the better, probably. So, now the press report says “New Finding at MRU may lead to cancer cure.” You know the drill.
Skeptics, including the special variety of Skeptic known as Skepchick, founded by Rebecca Watson, sometimes tackle this kind of misrepresentation or other misunderstandings of science. Many skeptics do not do so from the point of view of trained scientists. Even the trained scientists write about things that are not their own field of expertise. But skeptics, including Rebecca, generally have special insight (from skeptical philosophy and experience) which allows us to write useful essays, or give useful talks, that critique either woo and bullshit (homeopathy, Bigfoot, etc.) or the misrepresentation of science (Mono Lake aliens, some paper being misrepresented in the press as leading to a cure for cancer, etc.) There is a risk, though, of getting some if it wrong or contradicting oneself or making another error. For such a sin, we should not be carrying out summary executions. If we are sincere about our goals, we should be doing something different.
Evolutionary psychology is a bit different from other areas of science. In some ways, I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist, in that I am totally on board with the idea of identifying evolution based descriptions and explanations for features of human psychology. Some of my best friends are evolutionary psychologists. In fact, I’m pretty sure there is one using my bathroom right now, as I write this.
But there is a lot of what I consider inadequate science and bad reasoning being done within this field. There are two key features that I have critiqued: 1) The assumption, without evidence, that higher level psychological functioning in the cerebrum operates as behavior specific and distinct modules that are shaped by Natural Selection to do specific things … which develop to a significant level of specificity primarily by genetic programming; and 2) That the modern human is essentially a Ju/’hoansi person in a technologically and culturally different world, and that the Ju/’hoansi person represents a single physical and behavioral phenotype of human shaped by 2 million years of the same kind of selection operating on a single human ancestral population, and that this Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptiveness resembles the Serengeti.
So, when an evolutionary psychology paper gets out into the public arena, it may well be misrepresented by the media. If you work your way backwards from a misrepresented paper to the source in cell biology, physiology, endocrinology, and many other fields you’ll generally find good research when you get to the original published work, but, when you work your way backwards from the Major Media representation of evolutionary psychology, you often find that the paper itself is highly problematic. This is probably true for other areas of psychology as well (and sociology) for a variety of reasons.
Rebecca pointed this problem out in her talk and gave several examples, and, essentially, informed her audience that when they see certain things in the public press reports about human sexuality, sex differences, and related topics, the basic research in those areas may itself be highly suspect.
She is correct.
Here’s what I did not like about Rebecca Watson’s talk.
We know more about early hominid behavior than Rebecca indicated, but not at the scale needed for many of the assertions made in evolutionary psychology. So she’s right but I would say it differently. My critique is not that we don’t know about the Pleistocene, it is that there is a lot more to know than “it looks like the Serengeti” which would also imply that the amount of information we still seek much greater than often assumed by evolutionary psychology researchers.
Rebecca claimed that the idea that men hunt and women gather is highly questionable and cited a number of examples that contradict this. She’s got that mostly wrong; those examples don’t contradict the fact that the vast majority of mammal (and reptile) meat that ends up in forager meals is from male hunting. Having said that, “men hunt animals” and “women gather plants” is an oversimplification. In various societies men gather quite a bit, and often, much of the men’s diet is foraged plant food they eat while hunting. In some societies women do most of the fishing (but not in all cases). And, there are a few cases where women engage in mammal hunting, but that is rare and exceptional and the nature of that engagement often underscores rather than obviates the commonly asserted sex difference in foraging behavior, for reasons beyond what I can cover here.
Almost everything you ever hear about foragers, by the way, is an oversimplification, and I’m afraid that most people who talk about foragers, especially Evolutionary Psychologists, are happy to keep them simple despite the fact that they are not.
But otherwise Rebecca Watson’s talk was an informative and entertaining approach to bringing a valid critique of evolutionary psychology to a public audience, with humor and in fun and in all the other ways Rebecca is so good at. The Guild of Haters, however, care less about advancing skepticism than about plying their trade in snark and drek, so of course, they will not claim to see any of that. It would ruin their fun.
I would like to work with Rebecca on some of the details of this talk. It would not take much to fix up some errors that I see as important, but tangential to her main point. Maybe we’ll go up to the cabin next July and spend a couple of days on it. There may be hunting and gathering opportunities.
Update: Now I don’t have to read Clint because Mark did. Thanks Mark.