Saturday Storytime: All Cats Are Gray

I was ten. I was still terrified of what might be hidden under the bed or in the closet or anywhere else that made hiding easy. What I knew of the world that didn’t hide from the light was bad enough. What concealed itself must be worse.

I was in my bedroom. Somewhere outside of that, my parents were probably fighting. They might have been taking a break. Somewhere beyond that was a new school, a new set of kids who didn’t like the same things I did, who didn’t talk the same way I did, who didn’t even play the same games I did. Nowhere around me were the water and the trees that always accepted me.

All that mattered less than it had an hour or two before, because I was reading Lore of the Witch World by Andre Norton. I’d been reading fantasy all my life–mythology, the creatures and deeds tales of writers like C. S. Lewis, fairy tales–but this was the first time I held grown-up fantasy in my hands. This was the first time I saw people, and particularly women, dealing with both the trials of daylight (war, displacement, rape, disability, being outcaste) and the half-seen creatures of shadow. And they succeeded. Not easily, but they succeeded.

I needed that just then, perhaps more than anything in the world.

Now, I write fantasy sometimes. At that point, it was written into me. Nor am I alone, which I think is part of the uproar over Ginia Bellafante’s dismissive comments about sex being used to pander to women, who would otherwise turn up their pretty little noses at fantasy. We’re being told to chose which part of our identity is the valid part. Are we women, or do we like fantasy? It’s a silly, impossible question, and we’re not going to stand for it.

There is a bit of irony in this for me. The woman who wrote fantasy into my consciousness started writing at a time when “women didn’t write fantasy”. They did actually write it, of course, and publish it, but they did so under male names. Even Andre Norton, whose name is ambiguously gendered, published her early, science fiction stories as Andrew North.

So in honor of the woman who taught me that fantasy isn’t just for children and that the dark can be managed, here is one of those early stories. An excerpt:

Steena was strictly background stuff and that is where she mostly spent her free hours—in the smelly smoky background corners of any stellar-port dive frequented by free spacers. If you really looked for her you could spot her—just sitting there listening to the talk—listening and remembering. She didn’t open her own mouth often. But when she did spacers had learned to listen. And the lucky few who heard her rare spoken words—these will never forget Steena.

She drifted from port to port. Being an expert operator on the big calculators she found jobs wherever she cared to stay for a time. And she came to be something like the master-minded machines she tended—smooth, gray, without much personality of her own.

But it was Steena who told Bub Nelson about the Jovan moon-rites—and her warning saved Bub’s life six months later. It was Steena who identified the piece of stone Keene Clark was passing around a table one night, rightly calling it unworked Slitite. That started a rush which made ten fortunes overnight for men who were down to their last jets. And, last of all, she cracked the case of the Empress of Mars.

All the boys who had profited by her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory tried at one time or another to balance the scales. But she wouldn’t take so much as a cup of Canal water at their expense, let alone the credits they tried to push on her. Bub Nelson was the only one who got around her refusal. It was he who brought her Bat.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: All Cats Are Gray

Is This a Bad Day?

Yesterday morning, I left for work dressed for the temperature, not the windchill. Since I walk to work, this makes a difference. At one point, I thought, This is stupid. If I had to do anything more than walk a mile and a half, like stop walking at some point, being dressed like this would kill me. Ah, Minnesota spring.

Still, chilly weather is good for something. In this case, it was pushing my heart rate without sweating to death (or even beyond the requirements of office etiquette). Spring and fall, between icy sidewalks and saunas, is a good time to get in aerobic exercise instead of just movement on my commute.

That put me going at a good clip as I rounded the last corner before the office, which put me a few feet in front of a couple of guys talking as they walked together. One of them sped up to (I assume) try to pass me. He couldn’t. I walk pretty quickly for a short woman.

So, instead, he decided to tell his friend that I walked “too fast” to show off my ass. Then he proceeded to describe what ought to be done with my ass “right here.” From three feet behind me. Loudly. With hand gestures I could partly see out of the corner of my eye.

I tweeted about it. Why? These things should be documented for those who don’t see them because they don’t happen when said people (i.e., guys) are around. Not that my friends don’t trust me when I say that this happens to me, but here, now, and details all matter when you want to provide a visceral understanding. If you stand next to me, it won’t happen, but I’ll cheerfully put you next to me when it happens.

People on Twitter were suitably supportive, and I went about my day.

Later, I was chatting with one of my twitter friends about this post on whether there are “hot” authors in science fiction. I was annoyed with “pretty pretty versus scifi pretty” and particularly with the idiots who decided to discuss how one woman rated while she stood in front of them. To the best of my reckoning, “scifi pretty” is nothing more than “I’m so simultaneously drawn to and terrified by your smarts that I can’t see straight enough to fully engage in my normal judgmental, anti-social behavior.” Let’s just say the discussion says far too much about the people trying to make the decision.

My friend and I were talking about why we wouldn’t even want to touch a discussion that seemed designed to reinforce boring stereotypes, elevate the importance of superficial criteria, and make people feel bad about themselves. Instead, we held our own private appreciation fest over those in F&SF who are hot in all sorts of ways (not an insignificant number of people).

At one point, I complimented his partner. He agreed enthusiastically. Then he asked, “Is this a bad day to compliment your looks?”

Never mind what the compliment was. I’m not going to tell you–not that and not the compliment I paid him. Because as nice as it was, being asked about how I was doing after my morning was an even bigger compliment.

It told me he was paying attention to my day. It recognized that paying me a compliment was supposed to be a benefit to me. It recognized that my needs of the moment might not include validation of my appearance. It was risky in a society where we have few templates for that kind of behavior, particularly since he and I have never had that sort of chat. In short, it was tailored to me in a way that compliments almost never are.

I love having friends who are that adult, that adept. And I love that a day that starts with that kind of crappy personal interaction can end with some of the best. Not a bad day at all.

And sorry, boys and girls, but I’m pretty sure that his current romantic relationship means he’s not available for more.

Is This a Bad Day?

Skepticism Is a “How,” Not a “Who”

On Thursday, I noted the attempt of certain proponents of evolutionary psychology (specifically that dealing with matters of gender and sexuality) to position themselves as skeptics resisting the dogmatic pressures of societal group think. I contrasted that with actual, procedural analysis of evolutionary psychology practices and claims. I also documented how one set of researchers is spending time selectively looking into evolutionarily adaptive reasons for behavior, when we already know that behavior looks much like other behavior with no reasonable adaptive value. (Yes, that’s vague. The post itself it much less so. I promise.)

I wrote all this in the context of a web page and email that the CFI Michigan put out promoting a lecture by one of the researchers I critiqued, hosted by a local student group. Then I ended the post with this sentence: “That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work.”

The objections have been interesting, both to my post and to Bug Girl’s post at Skepchick, which is a rantier take on the same topic. I covered the discussion of the science on Friday.

Now we come to my single sentence about Michigan CFI, which has produced its own interesting responses. Two people from the group commented on my post, one of whom also commented at Skepchick. One of these invoked his title with CFI Michigan, lending his comments here official weight (whether intended or not). A note was posted to Facebook as well by another member, where it generated several comments and a signed response from the group’s president. The Reasonable Doubt podcast reposted that note, where it generated even more comments. And one of the CFI Michigan officials who commented here made a (public) snarky comment on her Facebook profile (which is used for skeptical networking) about being as rational as we claim to be and “liked” a comment using the term “femi-nazi” and suggesting that rape is “too emotional” a topic for some people to handle.

You can catch all the drama aspects at Jason’s post at Lousy Canuck. I’m generally going to lump it all together in this post under the umbrella of “unprofessionalism,” because I want to focus on the promotion of skepticism and critical thought. According to their About page, this is also an area of focus of CFI Michigan.

The purpose of Center for Inquiry | Michigan is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an international, nonpartisan, nonprofit 501©(3) organization that encourages evidence-based inquiry into science, pseudoscience, medicine and health, religion, ethics, secularism, and society. The Center for Inquiry is not affiliated with, nor does it promote, any political party or political ideology.

Through education, research, publishing, and social services, CFI seeks to present affirmative alternatives based on scientific naturalism. The Center is also interested in providing rational ethical alternatives to the reigning paranormal and religious systems of belief, and in developing communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share experiences.

There is also a statement on this page about the calendar that brought Shackeford’s talk to Bug Girl’s attention, and then to mine.

We host numerous educational and social events throughout Michigan. Our events are open to the public. Visit the Event Calendar to learn about upcoming events.

Event topics include: science, religion, philosophy, social issues, politics, atheism, humanism, agnosticism, skepticism, deism, evolution, morality and ethics, secularism, rationalism, psychology, and others.

That is the sum total of CFI Michigan’s contextual statements on the purposes of their calendar. They host events on topics that are associated with their mission in a positive way. It’s little wonder that Bug Girl was originally confused over who was hosting Shackelford’s talk. And this would be the answer to Jennifer Beahan’s question at Skepchick:

How is it okay for you to say “my views are NOT the views of Skepchick, or the other writers, hence the edits above” …

But, when I say “CFI does NOT endorse the views or research of Dr. Shackelford” – that’s not okay. How is that any different?

The difference, of course, is that Bug Girl’s disclaimer is attached to the original post. Jennifer’s disclaimer only appears where anyone is already being critical of Shackelford. There also seems to be some confusion about the official position of CFI Michigan on Shackelford’s work, given the statement from the executive director:

We respect and value Dr. Shackelford and his work, and his role as a faculty adviser to the Atheists at Oakland University student group. I have previously invited Dr. Shackelford to speak to CFI and he was unable because of scheduling conflicts. We welcome the opportunity to host a talk with him when schedules align.

There may be some distinction between not endorsing his research and making a statement about respecting and valuing his work, but I’m not sure what it is. At this point, we appear to have gone from passive uncritical promotion to active endorsement, whether that was the intent or not.

The difference between intent and actions was a big part of my discussion with Jason Pittman, Advisory Board Chair in the comments as well. Jason objected, at length, to my single sentence quoted at the start of this post. His position:

Stephanie, we have encouraged and facilitated criticism of Dr. Shackelford simply by promoting the event. CFI has provided info about the event so that you and others can provide the criticism. Your post about Dr. Shackelford proves my point. We promoted the event. You have provided criticism. When we promote an event, we are encouraging critical thinkers to attend (sometimes to the detriment of the speaker at said event!) Skeptical criticism of ideas is what CFI is all about.

It’s…an interesting thought. There’s just one little problem with it. As I pointed out to Jason, there is nothing about the CFI Michigan website, the calendar item, or the email promoting the event that would look any different if they were intending everyone to take Shackelford’s work and word as gospel. Why? According to Jason, CFI just acts as a conduit to match up skeptics with material about which they can be skeptical (“We provide a forum for people to address controversial topics and our audiences are extremely critical.”).

Let’s unpack the assumptions required for Jason’s statement to work in this context.

  • The CFI Michigan website and email list reach people who understand CFI’s intent in promoting events and speakers.
  • The CFI Michigan website and email list reach people who have the tools and knowledge to effectively challenge speakers.

I’ve covered most of the first point already, but I’ll add one thing. The people who receive these emails sign up at events or through other skeptical organizations. However, the simplest way to get on the list is to provide your email address through the same website that includes the m
isleading description of the events calendar. There is a high likelihood that both the website and the email reach people who have no idea what’s meant to be going on. They reached at least one already.

To address the second assumption, I’ll note that I’m not on that list. My participation in this discussion is a fluke, brought about because Bug Girl was thoroughly frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from CFI Michigan. It’s also only because of Bug Girl that my post ended up anywhere that CFI Michigan members would see it. She posted it to their Facebook page. Counting on a situation like that–a highly motivated recipient who knows someone familiar with the scientific literature on a topic–is a bit of a stretch in terms of organizational planning. Also, given CFI Michigan officials’ unprofessionalism and retrenchment in response, I wouldn’t count on it happening again.

While I’m sure there are plenty of members of CFI Michigan who have excellent critical thinking skills and who are wise in the ways of argument, that simply isn’t enough. You also need good information. This is a problem that becomes noticeable any time you’re dealing with topics that haven’t been hashed over by skeptics for ages. Critical thinking can’t cut it without information. When it tries, we get James Randi being very publicly wrong on climate change. We get Lawrence Krauss suggesting that guessing the age of girls he saw with his friend is enough to tell that his friend is innocent of having sex with trafficked, underage hookers. We get Penn and Teller having to retract the claim that there’s no connection between secondhand smoke and cancer. We get Brian Dunning repeating DDT chestnuts in a skeptical podcast.

It just doesn’t work, no matter your skeptical credentials or pedigree. You can’t “do” skepticism without knowledge of your topic. So CFI Michigan can have all the critical thinkers it wants. Unless those critical thinkers are provided with information about the subject of rape and background on the questions and disagreements in the field, they have no way of evaluating a speaker on the topic. That is particularly true with this speaker, whose research relies on an incomplete understanding of the topic. No one can train critical thinking on information the speaker, host, and promoters don’t provide them.

A good example of this came up at the event itself. A comment from someone who attended:

As someone who has just participated in the event, I wish to point out that whether or not someone is swayed by his arguments, we must at least take his data into account. Shackleford acknowledges that there are limitations in his studies; he also acknowledges rightly that just because we study something that is deplorable does not mean we endorse the act. Somehow, people always seem to forget that. Studying rape as it happens, and looking for an explanation, is not the same as justifying it

This completely misses the actual objections to Shackelford’s work. It isn’t that people don’t want him following the evidence. The problem is that he is following only those tiny bits of the evidence that point the direction he wants to go. If he were following all the evidence, he’d be headed somewhere else. But CFI Michigan’s promotion of the event, made with an assumption that somehow effective criticism would just happen because they were CFI Michigan, left people unable to do more than nod at the line they were handed.

If that weren’t enough, the treatment of a reasonable criticism as a personal attack left those affiliated with CFI Michigan apparently feeling that the right thing to do was support their friends rather than pay attention to the real, scientific criticisms Bug Girl and I both offered. None of the postings on Facebook engendered any engagement with our points, just comments like, “Well, just as we are expected to clear all speech and art with Muslims first to avoid giving them offense I guess the Skepchicks also feel they deserve a veto over ideas. An important lesson to remember – it isn’t just right wingers who dislike freedom of speech.”

That’s not how you promote reason on a topic. I stand by my original statement.

Skepticism Is a “How,” Not a “Who”

Saturday Storytime: Fragments of a Painted Eggshell

Alexander Jablokov writes fiction that is…odd. That’s a compliment. Futuristic science fiction is supposed to be odd, in ways you don’t quite expect. An excerpt:

“But she’d be someone else then. Not Rue.”

“Contrary to what you might have heard,” he said, “it’s not actually that easy to change a personality by sticking in false past memories. The old personality wants to continue to exist somehow, like a vampire that won’t be killed. The new memories get rearranged to justify the old personality. Sometimes people contract for memories that make them make sense to themselves. Gives them an excuse for being what they are. Obnoxious, unpleasant, distant from those who love you? Create memories of mistreatment by your parents. It all makes perfect sense then.”

His despair hung around him like a swarm of gnats, making him squint and squish up his face. He had real memories back there somewhere. He seemed very attached to them: an odd, regressive sentiment.

“We all do that,” she said. “Freelance and untrained. We have to….”

“Bah,” he said. “That’s childish. All of it is. You’re just avoiding the main issue. Tell me. Do you love your daughter?”

He barked the question, and thrust his face into hers like an interrogator in a concrete-walled basement cell trying to extort a confession. His eyes were flat planes of meanness, and for an instant she couldn’t think of an answer, as if the reply was something complicated, easily screwed up.

“Yes!” She choked in a breath. ”Yes, I love Rue. I love my daughter!”

“Why?” His voice was suddenly gentle. The interrogator was sure he had broken his prisoner.

“Why? Because … I do.” She looked away from his harsh gaze. A streetlight had been captured in the countless independent drops on the window. Each had its own vision of the light, and each was exactly the same.

He shook his head. ”You love your daughter because you were programmed to. It’s…natural.” He lingered contemptuously over the syllables. “A complex preset behavior evoked by a releaser. Evolution, survival. Well, you know the drill.”

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Fragments of a Painted Eggshell

More on the Science of Rape “Adaptations”

In yesterday’s post, I noted the attempt of certain proponents of evolutionary psychology (specifically that dealing with matters of gender and sexuality) to position themselves as skeptics resisting the dogmatic pressures of societal group think. I contrasted that with actual, procedural analysis of evolutionary psychology practices and claims. I also documented how one set of researchers is spending time selectively looking into evolutionarily adaptive reasons for behavior, when we already know that behavior looks much like other behavior with no reasonable adaptive value. (Yes, that’s vague. The post itself it much less so. I promise.)

I wrote all this in the context of a web page and email that the Michigan CFI put out promoting a lecture by one of the researchers I critiqued, hosted by a local student group. Then I ended the post with this sentence: “That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work.”

The objections have been interesting, both to my post and to Bug Girl’s post at Skepchick, which is a rantier take on the same topic. Today, I’ll summarize the objections to how we dealt with the science, although the one I got here was not exactly helpful:

You have a very poor understanding of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary theory, and human origins. I suggest going to Shackelford’s talk or contacting him for more information and explanation. I would not consider him a “rape expert” nor do I think he considers himself as such either, but he is a very well-respected evolutionary psychologist. You are misinterpreting his research and related research.

It doesn’t note anything in particular that I’m supposed to be wrong about, acknowledge that I read his papers, or seem to understand that not being familiar with the literature on rape while studying the topic is a rather large problem. It makes it incredibly difficult to design studies, much less understand what your results are telling you.

Comments both here and on Skepchick, as well as Bug Girl’s post itself, note that there are a rather large number of rapes (non-vaginal, involving males or females outside reproductive age ranges) that have no chance of increasing the rapist’s odds of reproduction. One Skepchick commenter attempted to address this criticism:

If we’re talking about rape as an evolutionary strategy, then it would be as a built-in instinct. As such, it would need to do little more than create a forced copulation with a subject to be useful in that manner. In that context, a child rape and etc. could be thought of as a misfire of the rape instinct.

My response, which also applies to those who criticize Bug Girl’s statement that rape is not an adaptation, was that, yes, it is possible that there could be an instinct for rape that misfires, is warped by cultural pressures, etc. It is also possible that there is an instinct for sex that misfires, is warped by cultural pressures, etc. In fact, that would be the parsimonious explanation. However, scientists working on this rape adaptation theory are advancing their theory without doing the work that would be able to support something more than the parsimonious explanation. Until they produce some work that does counter the simple explanation, or even a testable theory that encompasses all of what is already known about rape, the simple explanation is the more reasonable one.

There also seems to be an idea that criticizing these researchers is somehow limiting the topics that it is acceptable for science to touch. I addressed that yesterday at Skepchick.

There are a number of comments that seem to be suggesting Bug Girl is making a moral argument in the place of a scientific one. There are a couple of problems with that. First off, she’s linked to three people (me included) discussing the scientific problems with this research. Any moral argument is being made on top of a scientific argument.

The second problem is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong in making an argument for the moral practice of science. We do this already. That’s why institutional review boards exist–to (ideally) ensure that the fewest people and other organisms are put at risk or injured by research. Bug Girl certainly isn’t saying that no research should be done on rape. What she is pointing out is that this research is bad (badly designed, badly reasoned, and badly represented–as supported by her links), and that the quality of this research puts people at risk, making it even worse research. It’s nifty to point out that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy, but that won’t prevent the idea that rape is promoted by evolution from becoming just another excuse to rape–unless someone knows how to abolish the naturalistic fallacy.

Rape is an issue that touches an incredibly large number of people. I fully support researching rape, and I highlight the results of that research on this blog. I also demand, and intend to keep demanding, that this research be of as high a quality as we can manage. Scientists can, and many of them do, do much better than to produce studies and statements that completely ignore vast swaths of our knowledge of rape and of victimization in general. We produce good science on this topic. There is no reason to tolerate bad science and every reason to sharply criticize those who produce it.

In a day or two, I’ll come back to this issue to talk about the response to my one sentence about the promotion by Michigan CFI. The issues and people involved are different enough that it warrants a separate post.

More on the Science of Rape “Adaptations”

Skepticism and Rape Adaptations


It isn’t terribly difficult to find well-written, skeptical pieces on evolutionary psychology. In fact, several have come out quite recently. They examine current evo psych theorizing in the light of scientific requirements for proof of any such theory.

Kate Clancy wrote a post on the variety of human behavior that evo psych studies attempt to represent by using mostly college undergraduate research subjects. In addition to her concern over undergraduates’ WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) demographics, she notes other ways in which these research participants aren’t representative of the whole of humanity they’re being used to study:

Another problem is that most work on relationships in EP tends to be heteronormative, meaning that they think nothing of assuming that either everyone is straight, or the universally best behavioral strategy is to be straight. They also tend to assume that the best strategy is to be monogamous, with occasional sneaky infidelity permitted if one can get better genes or more offspring that way (keep in mind that there is a difference between what might be biologically advantageous in a certain context, and what is culturally appropriate – the argument here is not against the culture of monogamy).

But heterosexual monogamy is only one reproductive strategy of many that humans employ. Depending on how you measure it, monogamy and polygyny (single male, multi female marriage) vie for the most frequent strategy – in fact, polygyny occurs in about 80% of modern human societies (Murdock and White 1969). There are even a few rare populations that practice polyandry, which is the marriage of a single female and multiple males. And, even in those populations where monogamy is practiced, serial monogamy is far more frequent than lifetime monogamy: this means that individuals have a series of monogamous relationships rather than find one mate for life (so no, divorce is not a modern human invention).

And that’s not even getting into the nonhuman primates with whom we share a fair amount of evolutionary history. In short, Clancy makes the case that if we wish to describe a behavior as evolutionarily adaptive in humans as a whole, we need to consider more than a subset of the behavior in a single culture.

Also looking at the challenges that evo psych must meet in order to scientifically determine the adaptive value of a behavior is Jeremy Yoder. In a multipart series examining the evidence that homophobia is an evolved trait, he breaks down the multiple lines of evidence required:

When evolutionary biologists say a trait or behavior is “adaptive,” we mean that the trait or behavior is the way we see it now because natural selection has made it that way. That is, the trait or behavior is heritable, or passed down from parent to child more-or-less intact; and having it confers fitness benefits, or some probability of producing more offspring than folks who lack the trait. Lots of people, including some evolutionary biologists, speculate about the adaptive value of all sorts of traits—but in the absence of solid evidence for heritability or fitness benefits, such speculation tends to get derided as “adaptive storytelling.”

A few particularly interesting points were brought up in these posts. One, which should be obvious but often seems not to be, is that evo psych is talking about biological mechanisms for behavior, which means that a demonstration that the behavior is widespread is not enough to support claims that a behavior is evolved.

To recap: Gallup proposed that homophobia could be adaptive if it prevented gay and lesbian adults from contacting a homophobic parent’s children and—either through actual sexual abuse or some nebulous “influence,” making those children homosexual. In support of this, he published some survey results [$a] showing that straight people were uncomfortable with adult homosexuals having contact with children.

I pointed out that all Gallup did was document the existence of a common stereotype about homosexuals—he presents no evidence that believing this stereotype can actually increase fitness via the mechanism he proposes, or that it is heritable.

The next item of interest didn’t come from Yoder, but from Jesse Bering, who wrote the article to which Yoder was responding. Bering described his affection for research that is done “without curtseying to the court of public opinion.” Yoder points out that a study providing a rationale for homophobia didn’t exactly run counter to public opinion in 1983, when it was done.

Later, in a response to Yoder’s first post, plus those of others, Gallup himself suggests that his critics “tip-toe around the fact that my approach is based on a testable hypothesis” and “go out of their way to side-step the fact that the data we’ve collected are consistent with the predictions” because the hypothesis is “politically incorrect or contrary to prevailing social dogma.” Given that Yoder specifically discussed the relevance of his data to his theory, it’s difficult to award Gallup the mantle of abused maverick he and Bering both claim for him.

Earlier this year, Jerry Coyne wrote (in response to another Bering article), a caution about building strong evo psych edifices on slim foundations. In this case, he examined the idea of the “rape module”–a genetic, inherited predisposition among human men to commit rape–and of specific, genetically programmed, inheritable behaviors in women designed to avoid this “rape module.”

Well, one can debate whether reading a story about rape is the same thing as being sexually assaulted, or whether a marginal increase in handgrip strength would have been sufficient in our ancestors to fight off a rapist. But the important part of these studies is that they were apparently one-offs—they have not, as far as I know, been replicated by other researchers. Do we accept single results, based on surveys of American undergraduates at a single university, as characterizing all modern women?

As we know, many studies in science, when repeated, fail to replicate the initial results. Think of all the reports of single genes for homosexuality, depression, and other behavioral traits that fell apart when researchers tested those results on other groups of people! And if an author did an initial study (not a replication) of handgrip strength that didn’t show the relationship with ovulation, would that even be publishable? I think not.

I suggest, then, that the results of evolutionary psychology often reflect ascertainment bias. If you find a result that comports with the idea that a trait is “adaptive,” it gets published. If you don’t, it doesn’t. That leads to the literature being filled with po
sitive results, and gives the public a false idea of the strength of scientific data supporting the evolutionary roots of human behavior.

In addition to critiquing the studies themselves, Coyne also notes that this is not the first time the “rape module” idea has been criticized.

Thornhill and Palmer’s book was controversial, with many critics claiming that the authors were trying to excuse or justify rape. Bering takes after these critics, properly noting that “‘adaptive’”does not mean ‘justifiable’,” but rather only mechanistically viable.” But what he doesn’t mention is that there were strong scientific critiques of the “rape module” idea as well. I produced two of them myself, a long one in The New Republic and a short one with Andrew Berry in Nature, pointing out not only scientific weaknesses in the evolutionary scenario but Thornhill and Palmer’s unsavory fiddling with statistics, distorting what the primary data on sexual assault really said. Bering doesn’t mention the scientific controversy, noting only that “it’s debatable that a rape module lurks in the male brain.”

The New Republic article is itself a strong skeptical look at the science used to bolster the concept of the “rape module.” I recommend reading it in its entirety. Coyne discusses the various versions of the idea that rape is a product of evolution (one trivially vague enough to be meaningless–but intuitively acceptable–and one stronger and requiring proportionally more evidence) and how they are played against each other in such a way that they could describe any evidence. He also applies a broader understanding of crime to provide alternate explanations that don’t require a biological predisposition to explain patterns of victimization, and he explains how the evidence in three studies used depend on statistical manipulation. He also examines claims that rape can only be prevented properly using an evo psych framework for understanding it.

Given the availability of people like these, with the tools and inclination to turn a skeptical eye on the topic of evolutionary psychology, it is perhaps no surprise that Center for Inquiry Michigan is promoting a speaker tomorrow night on the topic of evo psych and rape. What is surprising, however, is the identity of the chosen speaker. Dr. Todd Shackelford is the director of the Evolutionary Psychology Lab at Oakland University.

Dr. Shackleford will present a talk on the competing theories of rape as a specialized rape adaptation or as a by-product of other psychological adaptations. Although increasing number of sexual partners is a proposed benefit of rape according to the “rape as an adaptation” and the “rape as a by-product” hypotheses, neither hypothesis addresses directly why some men rape their long-term partners, to whom they already have sexual access. He will present the findings of two studies that examined these hypotheses, discuss the limitations of this research and highlight future directions for research on sexual coercion in intimate relationships.

Now, the problem is not that Dr. Shackelford is an evo psych researcher. There are people doing good work in evo psych. The problem is that Dr. Shackelford isn’t doing good work on this topic. In particular, the work he is presenting, relating female infidelity to rape of female partners by male partners, doesn’t tell us anything that the already robust scientific literature on rape hasn’t already told us.

In the 2006 paper that Shackelford will be presenting tomorrow, “Sexual Coercion and Forced In-Pair Copulation as Sperm Competition Tactics in Humans,” (pdf available) Goetz and Shackelford demonstrate a correlation in heterosexual couples between the likelihood of female infidelity (past or present, rated by the male or female partner) and the likelihood of male sexual coercion, up to and including rape via physical assault. This isn’t news. We already know that men who endorse rape myths and the acceptability of sexual violence against women under certain circumstances are more likely to rape. One of the common attitudes that predicts rape is that “sluts” lose the right to say, “No.” (“Nice girls don’t get raped.”) Non-monogamy is used to excuse rape, and not merely rape by prior sexual partners.

Non-monogamy also isn’t alone among excuses for rape (Scully and Marolla, 2005, pdf available). The idea that women secretly want the sex is common. Rapists claim that the circumstances of the rape were beyond their control due to drugs, alcohol, or emotional problems. People see demands for sex as more reasonable in circumstances where financial contributions to a date or relationship are uneven. None of these, however, are examined whether they similarly contribute to rape within an existing relationship. Without that, the 2006 paper tells us nothing about whether potential female infidelity triggers “sperm competition tactics.”

Nor is this Shackelford’s only study that ignores our broader knowledge of crime in a way that selectively supports evo psych explanations for violence against women. In the 2002 paper, “Understanding Domestic Violence Against Women: Using Evolutionary Psychology to Extend the Feminist Functional Analysis,” (pdf available) Peters, Shackelford, and Buss note the trend toward fewer domestic assaults of post-menopausal women as support that domestic assault is evolutionarily selected as a means of controlling fertile women. They do this using New York City police incident reports for assaults against women only.

They don’t use data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, despite the fact that they cite the survey in the paper. Nor do the results for female victims don’t look substantially different than those they do use. From the NCVS:

Then there is the NCVS data for males:

There are fewer assaults overall, but the pattern isn’t much different. In fact, the pattern isn’t much different if you look at other types of crimes, either.

Given this information (the report on the age of crime victims dates to 1997), the challenge isn’t to explain why the rates of domestic assault fall off near menopause, but to explain what is common to all crime experienced by females in the U.S. that produces that age curve, whether the crime is sexually motivated or not. This study, by again ignoring the data on the broader topic, fails to tell us anything about what it purports to be studying.

In order to actually present a skeptical view of a topic, it is not enough to assert, as some evo psych advocates do, that yours is the minority viewpoint or not widely accepted. That is simple contrarianism. Skepticism and honest inquiry require that one deal with all the information available on the topic. They also require that we not use the absence of information that would allow us to choose between explanations to argue for only one of these explanations.

The studies produced on this topic by Dr. Shackelton don’t meet either criteria. That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work. [ETA: This topic is discussed at some length in the comments. They’re worth reading.]


Goetz, A., & Shackelford, T. (2006). Sexual coercion and forced in-pair copulation as sperm competition tactics in humans Human Nature, 17 (3), 265-282 DOI: 10.1007/s12110-006-1009-8

Peters J, Shackelford TK, & Buss DM (2002). Understanding domestic violence against women: using evolutionary psychology to extend the feminist functional analysis. Violence and victims, 17 (2), 255-64 PMID: 12033558

Skepticism and Rape Adaptations

Lying About Nuclear Safety

The buzz this morning on Twitter was George Monbiot’s rejection of the anti-nuclear movement based on the statistics it uses, published in the comment section of The Guardian.

First she sent me nine documents: newspaper articles, press releases and an advertisement. None were scientific publications; none contained sources for the claims she had made. But one of the press releases referred to a report by the US National Academy of Sciences, which she urged me to read. I have now done so – all 423 pages. It supports none of the statements I questioned; in fact it strongly contradicts her claims about the health effects of radiation.

I pressed her further and she gave me a series of answers that made my heart sink – in most cases they referred to publications which had little or no scientific standing, which did not support her claims or which contradicted them. (I have posted our correspondence, and my sources, on my website.) I have just read her book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. The scarcity of references to scientific papers and the abundance of unsourced claims it contains amaze me.

It’s worth a read in total. It’s also worth stacking up against a pro-nuclear energy piece in yesterday’s Guardian, written by Dr. Melanie Windridge and published in the science section. If you read my previous piece on the statistics used to show nuclear energy is terribly safe, you’ll see a familiar piece of information:

The World Health Organisation estimates that indoor air pollution from biomass and coal causes 1.5m premature deaths per year.

This, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the production of electricity. This is indoor air pollution from fuels burned for cooking and heating, mostly in stoves or hearths with no venting. It’s appalling, and fixable if we’re willing to deal with world poverty, but it has nothing to do with the nuclear power industry. It’s a simple case of lying with statistics.

[An an on-topic aside, the author of the Death per TWh statistics that have been floating around, Brian Wang, commented on the post that calls their reliability into question to let me know that I was wrong about him using indoor air pollution deaths as part of his coal numbers. Instead, he was attributing all deaths from urban outdoor air pollution to coal. Windridge puts the coal numbers at 100,000 a year instead of the 1.2 million Wang used, although her numbers are probably low.]

The article gets worse, however. Windridge cautions against getting too upset at the idea that radiation is leaking from the reactors.

Calls to widen the exclusion zone or to evacuate must be weighed against the risks of evacuation, which itself leads to many deaths, especially among the old and infirm.

She tells us this in the same article in which she says:

It has been three weeks since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. There have been problems at the Fukushima plant with cooling, gas explosions (not nuclear), and radiation leaks – all serious issues, but so far no one has died.

She is in such a rush to tell us how grand nuclear energy is that she forgets (I’ll assume) to think about what she already knows. There have already been evacuations from Fukushima, to the tune of 210,000 people. And she’s right about one thing. There have been deaths, 25 that we know of so far (not including the two Dai-ichi workers killed in the tsunami or the one killed when a crane collapsed during the earthquake).

The Guardian newspaper reports Friday that Japanese Self Defense Force troops found 128 elderly patients abandoned at a hospital about six miles from the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

According to the British newspaper, most of the patients were comatose and 14 of them died soon after being discovered. Japan issued an evacuation order for the area surrounding the Dai-ichi plant as the possibility of a meltdown increased in the days following the quake and tsunami.

Another 11 elderly Japanese — residents of a nursing home slammed by the tsunami — were found dead by security forces, apparently having succumbed to hypothermia. The newspaper said 47 residents of the home died as the wave initially washed over the building in Kesennuma.

Those are the people we know of. There will be more. There probably already have been more, of the 128 if nothing else. The conditions were bad during transit for everyone who was evacuated, and they are only marginally better in the shelters. Japan is not a young country, and even among the young, there are those who need medicine and power to live. (Yes, power is a factor in survival, too. At least there’s wind to take up some of the slack.)

So we have nuclear proponents lying about nuclear safety as well. Think anyone’s going to repudiate their movement for it?

Lying About Nuclear Safety