When Denial Is Progress

Bernice Sandler spoke at last year’s Women in Secularism conference. The title of her talk was “The Chilly Climate”, and it covered (in brief) her decades of researching the ways in which women’s contributions are treated as less valuable than men’s.

In some ways, the talk was sobering. We’re not talking about blatant sexism–for the most part. The behaviors involved are subtle, easy to overlook unless you’re paying specific attention, and they are often invisible as just the way things are done. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have real effects.

Depressing, right? Or perhaps “chilling”.

However, Sandler hasn’t just studied the problem.

Continue reading “When Denial Is Progress”

When Denial Is Progress

Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology

A couple of weeks ago, Brad Peters of the blog Modern Psychologist left a comment on my post on Rebecca’s Skepticon talk. He suggested many of us, me included, were going too lightly on evolutionary psychology. Today, he’s put up a post saying something very similar.

Many, for example, want to censor Watson based on her apparent lack of scientific credentials (she has a communications degree). My thought is this: if you do not like what she has to say, you ought to engage her in debate, based on your own reasons. You should not try to dismiss an argument because they do not work within that field, or you don’t like what they have to say. By this logic of ‘specialized credentials,’ we might follow a slippery slope where we decide that only experts in evolutionary psychology should be able to critique their own, which is absolute nonsense, since conceptual communities naturally gravitate toward insular thinking that only serves to reinforce its own biased set of assumptions. It is for this reason that we need not less, but MORE people challenging theories from the outside.

Edward Clint, an evolutionary psychologist, seems particularly offended by Watson’s critique, and in his multiple-page attack of Watson’s position, goes so far as to accuse her of ‘science denialism’. Of course this is a ridiculous assertion, and both Stephanie Zvan and Mark HoofNagle do a fair job of arguing his points, though they regrettably suggest that Watson might have been critiquing only a small segment of pop evolutionary psychology. It seems blasphemous to critique the whole field, lest you ironically find yourself charged with ‘denying science.’

I suspect that if Peters and I were to talk it out, he’d find that I don’t consider the problems Rebecca brought up in her talk to be a particularly “small segment” even by his reckoning. But that’s a quibble. Continue reading “Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology”

Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology

Putting the "Post" in PTSD

I’ve written a number of times before about the fact that survivors of sexual assault have much worse outcomes when they face doubt and stigma from friends and family after reporting. This has, needless to say, not been a popular position among the “Women lie about rape!” and “I’m not blaming her but what was she doing there/dressed that way/flirting with him” crowds.

I’m receiving a good bit of criticism elsewhere for saying that it’s an asshole move to focus on and pile on someone who is being harassed and threatened, even if they reacted to the harassment and threats in a way you don’t find acceptable. Despite what I’ve had to say about rape victims, I’m apparently only telling people to act like decent human beings because their target is a friend of mine. Of course, that always seems to be the case, no matter who I’m standing up for in exactly the same way. Greg today. Ophelia last week. Rebecca the week before. Who will it be tomorrow?

Or maybe, just maybe, this is a consistent drum I’ve been beating because it’s important. How important? Continue reading “Putting the "Post" in PTSD”

Putting the "Post" in PTSD

Readings in Evolutionary Psychology

I know you’re all still very interested in the subject of evolutionary psychology. Given that, I’ve collected a short selection of readings that may interest you. First, we start with the incomparable Scicurious and her Friday Weird Science feature.

The handsome stranger clutched her shoulders, supporting her as she swooned. The suddenness and violence of the robbery and her rescue disoriented Beverlee, and for a few moments she did not know where she was. But as she began to be conscious of her surroundings, she was increasingly aware of the tall, firm man she leaned against, of his  big hands clasped around her shoulders, warm through the thin linen of her chemise.

She looked up hesitantly through her lashes, and into the dark, deep eyes of her rescuer. As their eyes met, a shock seemed to pass through them both. He leapt backward, and for an instant Beverlee felt the loss of his touch, the coldness where his hands had touched her.  But the moment passed, and gathering himself, her rescuer spoke.

“Christmas” he said, flatly. “Bride baby cowboy doctor secret lady.” And each word sang deep in Beverlee’s spirit, tapping something deep in her she hadn’t known existed: the desire to find a long term mate that would provide food and shelter while she had loads of babies.

from the romance novel I will someday write.

Sci takes a look at the methods behind a study purporting to show that inherent tendencies in female mating strategies are reflected in Harlequin romance titles. Hey, now, come on. They looked at 15,000 titles. How can a sample size that large not represent good science? I doubt I’ll spoil much to let to you know that Sci will tell you. She’ll also be hilarious as she does it. 
Continue reading “Readings in Evolutionary Psychology”

Readings in Evolutionary Psychology

In a Violent Context

In light of the discussion on Kate’s post about assuming mental illness in the case of a mass murder, this post and, particularly, Daniel’s are extremely relevant again. It really shouldn’t be that hard to think about why people who are not mentally ill might do terrible things. It happens all the time. Shootings like these are just one of the less typical ways it happens.

When the incomprehensible happens, we are much happier if we can reduce the event to a single cause, put it in its little pigeon hole where it can’t disturb us as much. Attributing mass violence like the shooting in Aurora, CO to mental illness fits this bias of ours very comfortably. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mental illness really is the answer–or the only answer.

Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology started a discussion on this topic when Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords and several others. With this new act of mass violence that we are attempting to explain away instead of understanding in all its dimensions, he’s focused his thoughts more. The questions he prompts are fascinating, particularly for those familiar with how much cultural context–what we collectively accept and reject as civilized behavior–determines diagnoses of mental illness.

Continue reading “In a Violent Context”

In a Violent Context

On Political Correctness in Science

Make a criticism of some sort of research that props up a conservative ideology and you’re likely to hear something about political correctness interfering with research. This is true even if your objections are methodological.

However, if you really want to understand what it looks like when political considerations interfere with scientific research, I strongly suggest you watch this talk by Jennifer Oullette from this year’s Skepticon. You’ll have a little perspective to apply to those claims. Also, it’s an interesting talk.

The Perils and the Promise of Psychedelics (Rethinking Wonderland)

On Political Correctness in Science

Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis

There is a tendency in discussing evolutionary psychology toward confusion over what should be the proper null hypothesis. To put it simply, what do we assume* in the absence of evidence for an hypothesis?

This confusion is not specific to evolutionary psychology. It is a problem whenever we talk about studying topics in which many of us already consider ourselves experts. Being human, we are, of course, all experts on what that means. Or we think we are. So we think we know what base assumptions about humanity we should use absent any evidence to the contrary.

Picture of graffito by Banksy: caveman with fast food burger, fries, and shake
Detail of photo by Lord Jim of Banksy’s caveman. Some rights reserved.

The fact of the matter is, however, that we are not experts, not most of us. We haven’t studied the huge bodies of literature coming out of anthropology, psychology, and sociology that would be required to have to the first clue what kind of assumptions are warranted. Our assumptions are based on “Everybody knows” and some very simplified understanding of biology and living in a world in which variability is to a large degree defined as dysfunction. They are rarely nuanced or complex.

This means that when we hear someone arguing against a particular interpretation of data, when we hear someone say that a hypothesis was not supported, we tend to think that person is arguing for a null hypothesis that is…well, somewhat out there. Someone tells us that the data is insufficient to determine whether a particular difference observed between two groups is genetic, and far too many of us hear that person assert that there is no genetic influence on behavior. Genetic influence is treated as an all-or-nothing proposition.

I know. When I put it like that, it sounds a bit silly, but it happens with amazing regularity.
Continue reading “Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis”

Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis

Once You Look Past the Headlines

If you read blog comments or follow discussions on Facebook or Twitter, you probably know by now that a few people are relatively desperate for everyone to know about this interview that Rebecca Watson did with Swedish Skepchick back when she was in Europe for the Berlin World Skeptics Congress. There are various parts of it they would like you to pay attention to, but, well, we’ve already discussed priming once this go ’round.

Still, since this is apparently now an important interview, it will be good if everyone has full access to the whole thing. In order to facilitate that, and to keep the utility of quote mining to a minimum, I’ve produced a transcript.

You will find the occasional [?], which indicates this is my best guess at what was said. You will also find the occasional number in brackets. That refers to text that follows the transcript. However, I still suggest you read the entire thing (or listen to the full interview) before reading any of my take on things. Continue reading “Once You Look Past the Headlines”

Once You Look Past the Headlines

Everyone Expects the Naturalistic Fallacy

There is an odd line of argument that comes from evolutionary psychologists when people object to poor quality research on rape coming out of their discipline. A form of this argument is in Ed Clint’s post on Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk.

Portait of a man built up from trees, rainbow, sun, and birds.
Some natural things are quite nice.

The naturalistic fallacy. One can hardly find a more pristine example of this fallacy than in criticism of evolutionary psychology, and Watson’s remarks were  no exception. She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an absurdity of course; it’s every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.

Well, no, but before I get into discussing why this is wrong, here’s another example of the argument in the wild, provided by Clint. Buss & Schmitt argue:

More generally, we believe that proponents of all theoretical perspectives should keep an open mind about the scientific hypothesis (and it is only that, a hypothesis), that men may have evolved adaptations for sexual coercion. It should go without saying that rape is illegal, immoral, and terribly destructive to women, and should in no way be condoned, whatever the ultimate causes turn out to be. Unfortunately, what should go without saying has to be repeated over and over, since those who advance evolutionary psychological hypotheses are unjustly accused of somehow condoning or excusing rape. The naturalistic fallacy, mistakenly inferring an ought from an is, seems to be a particularly stubborn error committed by critics of evolutionary psychology, despite the many published descriptions of this error (e.g., Confer et al. 2010).

As Vandermassen (2010) points out, the two central contenders for explaining sexual coercion are (1) adaptations for rape, (2) byproducts of adaptations that evolved in non-rape contexts (e.g., desire for sexual variety; male use of aggression for other instrumental goals), or some combination of the two. We concur with Symons’s 1979 summary that the then-available evidence was not “even close to sufficient to warrant the conclusion that rape itself is a facultative adaptation in the human male” (Symons 1979, p. 284). We believe that his conclusion is as apt today as it was then. Nonetheless, absence of evidence does not qualify as evidence of absence. Scientists from all theoretical perspectives have a responsibility to uncover the actual underlying causes of rape, even if they turn out to be unpalatable or repugnant. Whatever the flaws inherent in the Thornhill-Palmer book, it is perfectly reasonable for them to advance their two competing scientific hypotheses. It is a gross disservice to current and future victims of rape to prematurely discard either of them.

I’ll mostly be talking about this example, as it indulges less in telling us what someone is thinking and is closer to the primary source. It also contains a glaring error that should tell you what critics are actually objecting to. I’ll save that for a little later though. First, the problem with just saying, “naturalistic fallacy”. Continue reading “Everyone Expects the Naturalistic Fallacy”

Everyone Expects the Naturalistic Fallacy

Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism

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. Continue reading “Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism”

Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism