αEP: Shut up and sing!

This is one of a series of posts I'm working on over the next few days to criticize evolutionary psychology. More will be coming under the label αEP!

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.

That's possible.

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.)

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Kickass post!
I have been wondering about the methodology of evolutionary psychology for a long time. Many researchers I have come in contact with do not necessarily have a good understanding of evolutionary biology to begin with.
I am looking forward to your next post so I can look into some concrete papers on the subject.

Kind Regards,

By Marcus A. Brattberg (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

I think you have a number of good points but I'm waiting for some creationist troll to twist this to his/her own ends. Certainly your examples are using science to debunk bad science, but certain segments of the population may miss that.

By Alate_One (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

Bob Costas is an idiot. The foozball nut was so enraged that if he did not have a gun he would have found another way to kill his wife. OJ Simpson killed his with a KNIFE. I wonder if Costas wants knives banned too?

Cavement used to kill each other with rocks tied to the end of a stick. I bet they had a council meeting to discuss banning rocks and sticks. Hell, some people still use rocks - ever see a protest in the middle east? We should confiscate ther rocks becuase rocks kill people.

ALCOHOLICs kill people when they drive drunk. Let's band alcohol ... and cars. Cars kill people.

People like Costas should not be allowed to stand with 750 million light years of a microphone or a camera. They should all be captured, detained, and shipped to a new planet so we can be at peace.

Gun free zones do not work. The most gun free zones in the world are prisons, yet people still get killed there. When the Obamanoids come for my guns, I'll then make myself a spear and then go gun grabber hunting. the old fashioned way. They think it was bad to get shot, just wait until they feel a 7 inch spear run through their kidneys from behind while the vengeful knight tortures the remaning life from them and moves on to the next offender of freedom. By the end they will be begging to be shot, but our reply will be that they took away our only means to quickly ease their pain. Sorry. better luck in hell.

Then again, we all know the Obama administration has conservatives on the terror watch list while hey fund and arm Al Qaeda in Syria and Egypt. Nice going. Support the terrorists and punish your own people. And they said ur president was not a communist. He he. When a president openly punishes his own people for observing their own constitution and then funds and arms Islamic terror organizations, he is a commie. Sorry, you have no winning debatable material to counter this claim. Try again. My name is probably next on the hit list. Obama has already assasinated Andrew Breitbart and several others including one 17 year old girl. Guess I'm next. Warning - I will make one hell of a vengeful poltergiest if I am assasinated by my own government that I pay taxes to. I will be hard to get rid of. I predict that I will get my money's worth before I leave for the spirit realm if I am assasinated.

Then again, they will probably use the gray aliens' soul capturing device and trap me in a little box. and use my bodu to comit more crimes. The little turds.

By Knight of the … (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

Well yeah. Good post PZ. But I'll keep laughing with Bill Maher because he's a wise-cracking comic. If he were a serious political advocate (or I took him as such) then I wouldn't be in his audience.

While I keep hearing about the unscientific and sometimes even bigoted stuff happening in/coming out of evo-psych, I have to wonder.

I mean, sure, they could be misusing these issues to promote old-fashioned bigotry and nonsense, but isn't there merit to the basic idea behind it? To the question of how evolutionary development affected and still affects our psychological setup? I can't help but think that there is a lot of evolutionary effects to that, considering how we behave, how animals behave, how similar we are; much more similar than a lot of people would like, and how some behaviours and patterns seem like atavisms and the like.

I guess what I'm asking is... is there a more objective side to evo-psych? Are there people, resources etc. that you could turn to that don't work towards some sort of agenda in that regard? Is there an alternative that deals with these implications without the unscientific detractions to it?

I can't imagine that an entire field would be poisoned in this way and that none of it could have any remaining merit. But where to turn to?

But doesn't one need familiarity with the work beyond the one or few studies to give proper context to those particular findings? In science we build on the work of others and add to a greater body of knowledge. Shouldn't we have some familiarity with that body of work so that we may most accurately interpret the results?

Also, I don't see where Drescher said that Watson shouldn't be allowed to speak about science. Nor did she say that degrees should be required. She's saying there should be some expertise obtained. She says it's rare that people obtain such expertise outside of academia, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, so I don't see how the given list invalidates that. These people are exceptions who do have some expertise. They either did/do science (Rosa, Savage), are science advocates (Nye), consult experts (Savage, Bryson), research and write books (Bryson), etc...

In a lifetime of working in manufacturing, I have found that machine operators on the factory floor (experts) often know more about the working of the machinery than the machine designers and the operator's supervisors. Everyone makes mental models of their world by contemplating it. Although such models may be strange or even wrong if listened to they often contain insights that can lead to a better understanding of the operation of the machinery. In this sense we are all expert social scientists being embedded in society and mostly thinking about how it operates. So we are all experts for a social problem such as gun control and anyone's opinion deserves consideration and rational argument. I have not seen or heard the comments made by Bob Costas but as a member of society he is just as likely to have thought deeply about gun control as a so called expert.

On the subject of gun control, I suspect that "Knight of the Order of Orinada" is being a bit facetious but he should look at the statistics of murder rates in USA, Canada and Australia. My analysis shows that the murder rate for all causes other than guns is about the same in USA, Canada andAustralia and is about 1 murder/100000 people. However the rate for gun related murder is about 0.5/100000 in Australia and about 0.8/100000 in Canada compared to 5/100000 in the USA. I therefore conclude that if the US were to enact and enforce gun laws similar to those in Australia then the total US murder rate would fall to about the same level as we have in Australia about 1.5/100,000. I know correlation is not causation but it seems to be a bloody good case to me.

@Knight of the Order of Orlnada - nutty or what? Anyway I hope you survive the aliens.

By Tim Spear (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

I not only plant to survive the aliens, but I plan to combine forces to eradicate left wing fascism. Well, not really eradicate them, more like probe them into submission. I would love to get my hands on one of the Reptoid flash guns though. Much better than a regular gun. I know were to find them, but fear them enough to stay away. Maybe one day I'll trade a liberal for one of their flash guns.

By Knight of the … (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

I believe that people are wishing her kicked off the stage for falsely portraying EP by cherry picking people who have already been 'house cleaned' by loud and united denouncement by evolutionary psychologists in a collection titled "Kanazawa's bad science does not represent evolutionary psychology". I seem to remember creationists using similar straw men in order to "debunk" evolution.

Her argument seems bedded in the same flawed logic used to attack E.O. Wilson and sociobiology in the 1970's with the same wild leaps to conclusions, speculation, and inflammatory false accusations of racism and sexism to heat things up before tossing in a pinch of conspiracy theory. In other words, she dropped the skeptical ball on this one. I fear that you, Professor Myers, have done the same so far, as you have offered no actual criticism to the subject. You have only defended Watson's poorly thought out criticism. I hope to see better from you in the following articles.

While formal credentials are not required to make intelligent critiques of a legitimate field or profession, expertise usually is. The would-be critic generally needs to educate themselves, formally or informally. Creationists offer an example of those who won't or can't educate themselves in the field they wish to critique.

Evolutionary psychology is a field I don't know much about, even though I have a strong interest in both evolution and psychology. It may that Watson's generalizations are valid.

However, I'd have to learn more about evolutionary psychology, and learn more about how people active in the field have responded to her claims. "You're wrong because you don't have formal credentials" is an illogical response, but has it been the only response?

It may be a weak field, but it probably isn't entirely at the level of fraudulent claims about healing touch or psychic powers. It is true that an intelligent nine year old can possess sufficient expertise in daily reality to offer an intelligent critique of those types of claims.

Here's a link to an article on evolutionary psychology from just a few days ago, laying out what a researcher in the field thinks are the key ideas.


Some local friends and I are looking forward to your series. One of the friends participates (as I do) in the U of MN Twin Cities journal club on human behavioral genetics, with most of the researchers from the Minnesota Twin Study. Sometimes "evolutionary psychology" gets a lot more popular press than all the other schools of thought in psychology put together, so psychologists are especially interested in examining the claims of evolutionary psychology.

By Karl Bunday (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

"Shut Up and Sing Syndrome" is common, and I fear that it increases public disdain for science. If the public were told that logic was a set of mental tools that could only be used by PhD philosophers, they would soon think of logic as some deliberately abstruse thing eggheads only did to feel superior. (Er, maybe they do anyway. The use of terms of art as bludgeons against the less educated certainly contributes to that, though.) I have several times confronted an MD with published research that didn't support his claims and been told that as a non-MD I lacked the capacity to read and think about journal articles. Feh.

However, I did not interpret the criticism of Costas as an example of this syndrome. Most people were not suggesting that he did not deserve to hold an opinion about gun control, only that it was not appropriate for him to express it while he was being paid to comment on football to a diverse public audience. Expressing any political opinion, on any subject, that might offend some of that audience does not serve his employer's interests. And suppose that he had said every woman in America needed to get a handgun so she'd be prepared to shoot abusive scumbags? Honestly, I doubt that you would be quite so quick to defend his taking up broadcast time with his opinion.

I'm looking forward to your critique. I don't think the field has adequately addressed SJG's "just-so story" criticism, and they have ignored the problem to their detriment. If anything, the just-so story should represent their null hypothesis - the thing every study should be specifically-designed to disprove in order to demonstrate an effect. Every one of their peer reviewers should be asking, "is it possible we're just studying cultural artifact?" And until it's demonstrated to a high degree of certainty that it is not simply cultural artifact, they should not publish.

Knowledge is still important and that doesn't come across strongly enough in this blog post. If I didn't already know your thoughts and stance on science, science communication and criticism of science, I might think it's something you underplay.

Especially with how you overemphasize Emily Rosa. Yes, she's a good example of non experts criticizing a field but the field being criticized is a very unique case. It's one where academic scrutiny is rarely applied so it doesn't seem like a legitimate parallel to the Watson case.

Likewise with you mention of UFO's. In order for it to be analogous a UFO skeptic would have to give a talk on the impossibility of several of engineering ideas behind UFO's. The speaker would also have to get some points wrong.

That said, I think the response of the skeptical community for that speaker would have been less harsh. There would have been no accusations of science denialism, being an ideologue or the rest of the gibberish Clint and Drescher tried to introduce.

I beg to differ. Many of the people you mention, although not certified "experts", have taken the time and gone to the trouble to educate themselves since science education is a large part of their job. This is a far cry from a celebrity with no qualifications whatever using the air time they get from a totally unrelated occupation to express their opinions. I suspect that this (understandably) enrages members of the public who may actually BE educated in the field about which the celebrity is expressing their (often wrong) opinion. I have had this experience and it cannot help but piss one off.

By William McLaughlin (not verified) on 13 Dec 2012 #permalink

"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"

You'd know all about that PZ, you'd know all about that.

But, y'know, you might be right and all. Why does one need a Ph.D. in the field to see it's wrong? Same way one doesn't need a Ph.D. in climate science to know that "climate change" is bunk. I mean, the climate has always changed, what are you talking about?

And don't pretend it's any different. :

"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"

Er, no, no she didn't . She said the real science was too boring, couldn't be bothered reading it, just read the popular stuff, dont'chaknow. Real science is awfully _boring_.

"OK, stop laughing. I know you all know that some of the most execrable crap gets published in peer-reviewed journals"

I imagine so. I mean, you've even published something.

Oh, sorry, out of line? Don't like it when it's coming back your way?

I have some chaps at the Discovery Institute who say you'll fit right it. They'll send you the forms in the morning.

As long as squid retain the right to bear arms, why worry about handguns?