Have you seen Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk yet? You should. It’s a brief, entertaining look into some of the ways evolutionary psychologists abuse science when it comes to gender essentialism. Just a word of warning, though, that Rebecca* repeats some ugly arguments about things like rape and sexual harassment. She’s using a good deal of sarcasm, but when you’ve heard enough of them, sometimes you’ve just heard enough.
One good reason to watch the talk now is that Ed Clint has posted a criticism of sorts of the talk.
I say, “of sorts”, because most of what Clint is upset about has nothing to do with the talk. You’ve watched it by now, right? You’ve seen the title: How Girls Evolved to Shop and other ways to insult women with “science”. You’ve seen all the newspaper headlines. You’ve seen the book covers.
You understand, presumably, that this talk was about the industry of pop psychology, which sells us reassurance that our world, in which gender roles are continually enforced, is just a consequence of natural differences between the sexes. Rebecca targeted both a credulous, sensationalist press and the methodologically weak science that produces the results used by that press.
To Ed Clint, however, that talk is denying the legitimacy of the entire field of evolutionary psychology. The title of his post? “Science denialism at a skeptic conference”.
Where does Clint get this idea?
Some of it is made up out of whole cloth. He makes the claim “Watson sees evolutionary psychology as being on par with creationism (she makes this comparison at 8:28) and therefore finds it fit for ridicule.”
At that point, she’s talking about a study designed to address the idea that women have evolved to shop. She says, “However, it’s not just the marketers who are coming up with the bad science like this. And in fact, researchers at the University of Chicago came up with a study that also supported this same theory, that women evolved to shop. Uh, the ‘scientific theory,’ and I’m using ‘scientific theory’ in the same way that creationists use ‘scientific theory’, which is not a scientific theory.”
In other words, these researchers supported a hypothesis. They did not create an overarching explanation for a large body of evidence, which is what theory means in the technical language. And Rebecca was comparing herself to creationists, not the researchers at the University of Chicago, much less all evolutionary psychologists.
That last bit, however, is the main problem with Clint’s post. At least within the post, he fails entirely to distinguish between criticizing a practice that is well-represented in a field and saying that the entire field is worthless. That is true despite all the cues in the slides that this is a talk built around pop psychology. It’s true despite the criticisms targeting specific researchers, studies, and conceptual frameworks. It’s true despite the fact that Clint quotes part of Rebecca’s answer from the Q&A on whether there is any good evolutionary psychology.
Rebecca’s full answer:
Is there any good evolutionary psych. Probably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. Because, really, good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene, and we have no evidence for this, but maybe this. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. So if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media, and therefore, it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned.
Once again, this points to the fact that this is a speech about popular psychology. I happen to disagree about the “boring” part, but she’s dead right about the fact that evolutionary psychology in the popular media is appalling.
Clint seems so set on thinking Rebecca is criticizing all of evolutionary psychology despite all the clues to the contrary that he managed to produce this statement:
The first work she mentions in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cites a Telegraph article referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist paid for by a business to help them sell things better. This has no relevance to Watson’s thesis, unless it’s also true that Colgate’s “9 out of 10 dentists recommend you give us your toothpaste money” studies prove that dental science is bunk.
And he presents it without, apparently, stopping to consider that using that “study” makes sense if Rebecca’s thesis is something else entirely, say, something relating to the title of her talk. (He also calls sticking to that topic “cherry picking”.) You know, something about science-in-scare-quotes being used to insult women. If this is science denialism, then so is Vaughn Bell’s caution about a survey that was a marketing gimmick for a sex shop.
What are some other things Clint objects to? He lists a number of time stamps that are supposed to be Rebecca theorizing about “Thousands of people in dozens of countries, women and men all working together toward goals such as defending rape as ‘natural’ and therefore good.” I’ve produced transcripts of them so you can judge for yourself.
20:07 After talking about Satoshi Kanazawa suggesting that men harass women because they’re not sexist:
It’s not unusual for evolutionary psychologists to make dumb-ass pronouncements about sex, particularly why every kind of sex is natural for a man while women hate sex unless they’re using it to get money or babies or cuddles.
In fact, this is one of the major ways evolutionary psychology is presented to the masses. This is hardly the only field in which this happens. If this is Rebecca indulging in science denialism, so is Dr. Petra Boynton listing sex myths that come from the sex “experts” presented by the press.
22:43 After noting two books, one explaining why women have sex and the other explaining why men don’t, and pointing out that the views of sex in our culture are generally screwed up:
At least these psychologists did actually ask women why they had sex. There have been other studies where women didn’t really seem to figure into it at all. This is a particularly fun and horrific one. This is ‘Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers’, published in 1989. There are a number of studies that are based on this idea that men appear to enjoy casual sex way more than women do, and women, of course, again only tend to want sex when they get a husband out of it or money or babies. So they take this as a given.
This quote discusses three different types of studies. I’m not sure which of the three is supposed to be what Rebecca is generalizing to evolutionary psychology as a whole. Whichever one it is, pointing out the unexamined premises inherent in a particular research design is generally considered a critical part of the scientific process. If it is science denialism, so is pointing out that WEIRD populations may not reliably stand in for humanity in general.
23:41 After describing the findings of the study:
So obviously women hate sex. Because evolutionary psychologists can apparently find no better way to approach potential mates in public, this study has been tried out multiple times.
When it has been pointed out that a particular methodology doesn’t address hypotheses that compete with yours, it isn’t very useful science to continue to repeat the same methodology with tiny variations that also don’t address those competing hypotheses. This is pretty basic research design. If pointing that out is science denialism, then so is my post on how political convictions affect IQ research.
35:40 After discussing a study on color discrimination and color preference that didn’t support the idea that pink is a girl color and blue is a boy color:
But that didn’t stop the headlines: ‘Study proves that girls like pink.’ There are plenty of stereotypes like that: Men don’t cry, for instance. Up until the Enlightenment, it was completely cool for men to cry. I don’t know if you know that. It was seen as evidence of honesty and integrity. Odysseus, for example, cried all the way through the Odyssey. And he murdered everybody who wanted to bang his wife. Everybody. And then he cried. Had a little cry about it.
This section of Rebecca’s talk is about ignoring contradictory evidence. In particular, in the field of evolutionary psychology, it is critical to understand the way behaviors under study have changed over time. Traits that are stable through very different societal structures are much more likely to be genetically determined, and history gives us many more societal structures than we can study in our modern, rapidly globalizing world. If pointing out that history gives us a strong counterpoint to the hypothesized “universality” of a trait is scientific denialism, someone should really be complaining about Carol Tavris’s talk at CSICon.
36:08 Following immediately:
And then there’s the idea that women’s natural place is in the home. Prior to the 19th century, it was actually expected that men would retain an equal hand in raising children and helping out around the home. Couples were partners, who might have performed different tasks, but they had an equal hand in running usually agricultural businesses and things like that and maintaining the family and home. And then when the Industrial Revolution came around, men started work in the factories, leaving women at home to take care of everything else.
I really have no idea how Clint gets anything like science denialism out of this section, much less allegations of an international conspiracy. Perhaps the time stamp provided is wrong, or maybe he’ll explain his thinking.
38:40 Following immediately:
So now evolutionary psychologists ignore all that and pretend that women’s place is in the home and then they look for reasons to “scientifically” support that.
Yes, in fact, some of them do. Noting this still doesn’t mean all of them do it. After all, many of these people are studying sexuality. Others are studying political decision-making. Others…well, you get the idea.
It could be argued that “pretend” is a bit harsh, but it seems fairly reasonable. Criticism of evolutionary psychology on historical grounds is nothing new. Criticism of this essentialist type of evolutionary psychology has not exactly been quiet or shy. These criticisms should be known by any evolutionary psychologist focused on this question who is serious about understanding the background of their field. Unless they are addressed in the design of research and/or acknowledged as major weaknesses in the evidence supporting these hypotheses, it’s hard to suggest anything other than “ignoring” is going on. If this kind of clear labeling is science denialism, so is this.
Moving on, Clint continues his objections:
At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works.
Here is what Rebecca said. Note that the context limits this specifically to “a lot of the pop evolutionary psychology”.
This is why there are tons of people who–particularly scientists–who think that a lot of the pop evolutionary psychology is just nothing more than just-so stories, as Stephen J. Gould noted. And the accusation that they make is that evolutionary psychology researchers first identify a behavior, like shopping; they assume that it’s evolved in response to environmental pressures–they don’t need evidence for that; and then they find anything in our ancient past that might be relevant to that.
One of the major criticisms of evolutionary psychology’s methods is the lack of falsifiability in this backward look. Do we perform a particular behavior? Well, there’s this thing that it might have been important to do at one point that could maybe transfer to the modern world in that way, so that’s evidence to support an evolutionary perspective on the behavior. Any ways in which this behavior might be less than adaptive (or decrease reproductive fitness) are not discussed. If Rebecca is engaging in science denialism by pointing this out, so is Jerry Coyne when he looks at modern studies.
Watson’s talk is peppered with snark and sarcasm. Also, it should be clear by now she seems to have spent very little time researching the topic. She doesn’t treat the topic seriously. I do not merely mean that she does not take evolutionary psychology seriously— but the entire topic, including her own contentions, is more performance art than education lecture.
This is kind of an odd critique, being entirely stylistic. I’m not sure why it’s elevated beyond personal preference. I’ll just note that if snark somehow contributes to science denialism, then that’s what Kate Clancy, a biological anthropologist who studies women’s reproduction, was moved to do with the word “legitimate” after Todd Akin’s bizarre remarks.
I haven’t addressed everything in Clint’s post, not by a long shot. I’m not really interested in the idea he seems to have that Rebecca needs to talk about this topic as though she were a scientist. There are a couple of topics I think deserve their own posts, because they’re very common misapprehensions that aren’t restricted to Clint.
I do, however, find his conflation of criticisms–particularly specific, targeted criticisms–with science denialism to be a notion that needed to be examined in detail. After all, if criticism of “a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity”, no less a person than Steven Pinker has identified David Sloan Wilson, Elliot Sober, Robert Boyd, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy as science denialists.
The critiques Rebecca shared in this talk are not unique. Singling her and this talk out as anti-science while ignoring other, well-respected people who make these critiques is as ridiculous as the other ways she’s been targeted in the last couple of years. Really, it all needs to stop.
*I know Rebecca. I’ve spent enough time talking to her that referring to her by her last name seems silly. This is the only reason for the gendered naming conventions here.