Recently, Bob Costas, a sports announcer, spoke out about gun control. In reply, the right wing has been in a frenzy of denunciations — he should just shut up, he’s not qualified to speak, he can’t possibly have reasonable opinions about anything other than football (of course, these same angry commentators don’t express similar opinions about Ted Nugent). It’s called Shut Up and Sing Syndrome.
Named after a Laura Ingraham book and a 2006 documentary about the harsh reaction to the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush comments, this syndrome condemns many Americans to believe that actors, musicians and athletes — really, anyone not deemed political “experts” — have no right to use their platform to address issues considered “political” in nature. In this case, conservatives are insisting that Costas is not merely wrong on the substance of his gun-related comments, but also that, according to the New York Times, “it was inappropriate to use the platform of an NFL telecast to make arguments concerning a hot-button issue like gun control.”
The insinuation is that as a sportscaster, he has no standing to weigh in on a political issue. In other words, like critics of outspoken athletes who tell them to “shut up and play,” critics want Costas to simply “shut up and talk only about sports.”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s a problem in more than just entertainment and politics — it’s also a problem in skepticism. What it really is is an authoritarian defense of orthodoxy that dismisses criticism unless it comes from the right kind of person — preferably one comfortably embedded deeply in the orthodox position. It’s a version of the Courtier’s Reply, only in this case it’s used to defend science, or a political position, rather than theology. Shut Up and Sing Syndrome imposes unjustifiable barriers to criticism: you don’t get to criticize the subject at hand unless, for instance, you have a Ph.D. in the relevant subject, or some other lofty credential, even if the criticism is based on obvious and trivial flaws that a layperson can see.
The layperson could be wrong, of course, because they’re lacking some deeper understanding and are focusing on superficialities. But even in that case, the proper response isn’t to declare that they should not be allowed to voice that opinion because they don’t have the right credentials, but to address the criticism. And if the layperson is right about the problem, hoo boy, but are you screwing up if you’re trying to silence them.
That’s happening to Rebecca Watson right now. She dared to point out that a lot of pop and evolutionary psychology is bad science, and as a reward, the witch hunt is in raging progress. We’ve actually got people declaring that she only has a bachelor’s degree in communications, therefore she wasn’t qualified to talk about a field of evolutionary biology. Some people are slyly arguing that she shouldn’t be allowed to talk about science at all at conferences, and comparing her to Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher.
I’m trying to say that skeptics should criticize people who talk out of their asses about science on a public stage.
And I’m trying to say that skeptics should criticize it rather than do it themselves.
A skeptic, like anyone else, is entitled to make a mistake or two, even a big one. However, making a habit out of spouting one’s uneducated/under-educated opinion (or regurgitating one’s own interpretation of a cherry-picked opinion of an expert) from a stage is not what good skeptics do; it’s what people like McCarthy and Maher do. It shouldn’t be tolerated, much less encouraged.
I’ve heard this before, from cranks on the other side, and I can mention one name that ought to give these skeptics pause: Emily Rosa.
Remember her? The nine year old girl who published her science fair project that showed that “therapeutic touch”, which claims that practitioners can diagnose ailments by waving their hands above them, didn’t work? She got the same kind of response from quacks, who dismissed her experiment because it was an insult to all the nurses and doctors who believed in it, and because she was a little nobody who couldn’t know how to design an experiment.
They were right. She didn’t have a high school diploma even. Heck, she hadn’t managed to graduate from 6th grade yet! How could she possibly find anything wrong with the ideas of MDs and nurses who had years and years of training?
Easy. Sometimes highly educated people hold stupid ideas — stupid ideas that aren’t that hard to unmask. And sometimes the worst kind of attitude comes from people who have a blind faith in the work of experts, to the point that they assume they can’t err, or that the process of science is so robust that it can’t fail.
Science uses peer review (not just “review”) to weed out bad studies, test the robustness of findings, and discuss appropriate conclusions. Peers are people who work in the same field – experts.
OK, stop laughing. I know you all know that some of the most execrable crap gets published in peer-reviewed journals, but the above is the opinion of Barbara Drescher, well-known skeptic and arbiter of what is True Skepticism. She has a degree, how could she be wrong?
Every scientist knows that peer review is not infallible. We spend a good chunk of our training sitting in journal clubs, mercilessly tearing apart papers published in even the most prestigious journals. Peer review helps weed out some of the bad stuff, so it’s a good thing…but it just improves the odds. And when you’ve got some deeply ingrown subfield where all the “peers” buy into the same bullshit, and approve and publish each others’ papers, the garbage can reach toxic levels.
And sometimes it’s really useful to have outsiders look in and make criticisms and suggestions — it can shake you out of the cozy warm easiness of dogma and get you thinking productively. For instance, I think philosophers have made invaluable contributions to evolutionary biology, forcing me to question some assumptions and rethink some of my old ideas. I also think amateurs have been invaluable, something Drescher finds unlikely.
Scientists in related fields (or even completely different fields) are sometimes able to criticize the methodology of a given study, but big-picture stuff usually requires specific expertise. Non-scientist experts in a field of science are rare. VERY rare.
No, it’s not that rare. Ask the astronomers, who have a deep and wide tradition of amateur observers. Ask taxonomists, who have long relied on non-scientist collectors. Ask the skeptics, Drescher’s own peer group, who have been putting people on stage and in print for years who have no scientific credentials at all. Are all the UFOlogists who have been debunking sightings been test pilots and rocket scientists? Have all the Bigfoot and chupacabra debunkings been done by experts with Ph.D.s in zoology? Have the skeptics who expose bleeding statues of the madonna as natural phenomena all been equipped with advanced theology degrees?
I will also point out that sometimes the experts are busy, or aloof from the public, or take acceptance of their discipline for granted, and they aren’t interested in participating in a public discussion of their field. That’s the case in evolutionary biology, for instance, where the truly rare individual is the qualified, credentialed expert in a particular field who is willing to spend the time in public education (it doesn’t help, either, that often outreach is derided within a field as a waste of time). The relevant specific expertise is some accurate knowledge of science and an enthusiasm for communicating it to others. If you’re going to silence the communicators who don’t have advanced degrees and deep expertise in a field, you’re going to seriously dry up the roster of people who are allowed to educate the public. And you’re going to have to fire a lot of notable public scholars.
Bill Nye? Mechanical engineer. I guess that recent stuff about evolution, climate change, and space exploration will have to stop.
David Attenborough? He does have an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences, but his career training was in management and broadcasting. Off with his shows!
Bill Bryson? College dropout. Oops. Clear out that chunk of the bookshelf.
Adam Savage? Art school dropout. Man, that guy can’t have anything worthwhile to contribute.
I could go on. But the point is if you think non-scientists with something useful to say about science are rare, not only are you wrong, but you are damning most of the planet to ignorance. In my perfect world (which isn’t here yet, obviously) everyone would have the basic competence to understand and critique general ideas about science, and could understand the logic of a science experiment. It shouldn’t be that hard. It shouldn’t be rare.
Sometimes you can shake up the big picture stuff by focusing on the details. Sometimes the really telling reveals occur when an amateur and an outsider point out that an experiment or methodology are wrong…especially when the experts dismiss the objections with a condescending, “well, that requires specific expertise to understand.”
And that’s the case here.
Rebecca Watson turned over the carcass of evolutionary psychology and exposed a lot of the rot underneath. What she did was talk about a series of published evolutionary psychology work, and research that was touted as legitimate science, that was obviously, patently, ragingly bogus — stuff that was so wrong that you really don’t need an advanced degree in an esoteric field to see it. It was bad science through and through.
Now you could say that maybe those are the exceptions — every field has bad actors in it, and misinterpreted and misleading experiments. Maybe Watson doesn’t have enough depth of understanding to appreciate the good work done in the whole of evolutionary psychology, and her condemnation was too sweeping.
But here’s that telling reveal: in response to an exposé of shoddy science within the field, the evolutionary psychologists aren’t saying, with some embarrassment, ‘Yeah, we need to clean house a bit, and we should maybe be criticizing the sloppy work ourselves a little more loudly.’ No, instead they’re saying, ‘Kick her off the stage right now.’ She is accused of being a “science denialist”. All the attention is being paid to a biased critique of Watson’s talk that does a damned poor job of defending evolutionary psychology.
I know what science denialism is. I think denying the flaws in your own science is a pretty good example of it.
(What’s coming next: I’ll be addressing the possibility that a whole field could be wrong, then I’ll discuss the flawed premises of evolutionary psychology, and then dig into a few sample papers — papers that I’ve been assured represent good evolutionary psychology.)