In MI, does CFI stand for Center For Incivility?

Oh boy! More blogosphere drama!

I’m a big supporter of skeptical groups and any other sort of outreach effort from the scientifically minded community, as I’m sure you know. Center For Inquiry‘s Michigan branch has an e-mail newsletter and an online calendar, which they use to promote science talks in the area. They host talks as well on occasion, but the event in question was not an event CFI sponsored or held in any way — they simply added this entry to their calendar.

Friday, April 8, 2011, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Join members of Evolution for Everyone (“E4E”) to hear a lecture on “Sexual Coercion and Forced In-Pair Copulation as Sperm Competition Tactics in Humans” by Todd Shackelford, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Psychology 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.

Normally I’d support this, and CFI for posting this calendar entry, because dialog is invaluable. However, not without some sort of disclaimer that this isn’t settled science — or that it might not be science at all, given the total dearth of evidence presented. Professor Shackelford has put out a series of papers detailing his hypotheses on the matter, and while I don’t generally question the academia of any peer-reviewed published paper, Stephanie Zvan shows more than amply why we should question them in this case.

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.

She goes on to completely eviscerate his work and his proffered data. The fact that he is evidently not familiar with the existing literature on rape, makes the hypothesis that he’s offered — that rape amongst humans is an evolved reproductive strategy — a “just-so” story made, as far as anyone can tell, to provide some small amount of cover to those who would rape. Don’t get me wrong — researching rape is absolutely laudable, because without research, we don’t have real data, and without real data, all we have are guesses as to why rape happens. I am simply convinced that “real research” is not what Shackelford’s engaged in here.

Bug Girl, of, leveled her own criticisms:

“Forced In-Pair Copulation?” That’s called rape, in humans. Why in the world is Michigan CFI promoting this guy’s work? As someone posted on my Facebook page: “A scientific treatise on “Reasons Why Bitch Had It Coming” seems like an odd choice of lectures for CFI to promote.” (BTW, CFI is not the sponsor of this talk, but they did use their website and email list to publicize it.)

The whole field of evolutionary psychology suffers from a lack of solid data. It’s easy to speculate about the “adaptive value” of all sorts of traits, from athletic ability to rape avoidance. The most consistent criticism leveled at evolutionary psychologists is that they start with a conclusion, and gather evidence to support it. And that they ignore conflicting explanations–which is not how science is supposed to work.
Randy Thornhill is cited copiously through the papers of Shackelford. Who is this Thornhill dude, anyway?

Thornhill claims that rape is an adaptation by low status men to reproduce. He’s a pundit that shows up on TV to talk about women’s estrus cycles and tips at strip clubs.
He’s an entomologist.
No. Really.

The source of his insights about women and sexuality? These insects. Scorpionflies.

Her post is understandably more emotional — the very idea that someone promoting a pseudoscientific hypothesis that basically undermines the negative experience someone might have gone through in being raped, and having other skeptics promoting the talk as though it is valuable insight worthy of consideration, is worthy of condemnation. However, Bug Girl is noticeably careful to avoid condemning CFI directly. While she mistakenly identified CFI as the hosts of the talk, she corrected herself as soon as it was made more apparent that CFI had little involvement with the talk outside of promotion.

That didn’t stop three particular emissaries from CFI MI from completely blowing the criticism of Shackelford (and the merited criticism of CFI MI for their lack of disclaimer of this controversial professor’s hypotheses) well out of proportion — into an “attack”, an attempt at “enforcing groupthink”, and as “skeptics acting as thought police”.

The drama doesn’t come from dissenting opinions about Shackelford’s work and contributions to the scientific body. The entirety of the drama I’m documenting, derives from the members of CFI MI whose egos were tweaked by criticism of their communication. Having been as systemically under attack as CFI has been, it’s honestly no wonder that some folks are defensive. However, the way one chooses to react makes all the difference in such situations, and I can’t help but consider the reactions to be well overkill.

From Jeremy Beahan on Facebook:

Here’s another case of the “ideological purity” mentality that should be rare in the skeptical blogging community…one that has effected me personally because it’s an attack on my wife who works for CFI Michigan (an educational non-profit with a secular agenda).
This [a misunderstanding on Jeremy’s part about Debbie Goddard] was followed by blog posts on “Almost Diamonds” and shaming CFI MI for “uncritically promoting” these ideas and the skepchick article almost entirely omitted Shakelford’s name, preferring to use “the CFI speaker” to maximize the association between the scientist’s most controversial statements and our organization (Btw..It’s not thier criticisms of Shakelford or Evolutionary Psychology I am taking issue with…as usual they presented some great critiques)

It comes down to this: our integrity as an organization is being attacked because we posted a science lecture to an online bulletin of events going on in our community. That’s really all that has happened. But because of this paper thin association we now have with a topic these bloggers find offensive we are now considered ideologically impure and deserve to be chastised.

This is what you call “digging in your heels” after “having your nose tweaked” while “having your head up your ass”. Or some other body part-related metaphor.

Nobody is condemning CFI, but people have rightly criticized CFI for not adequately explaining this talk and distancing themselves from their various guests. The proof that they did not distance themselves enough from this talk comes from that same Facebook post:

I did not realize that this was not a CFI-sponsored event – in part because the topic was off-putting (and somewhat nonsensical) and I chose not to look into it beyond reading the synopsis that was posted.
-Andrew Millard

Jason Pittman, after making concessions to Rebecca Watson and having fought with Stephanie over whether she should criticize CFI at all, posted the following:

I don’t believe that CFI Michigan should only host speakers with whom we agree. I understand that we are not hosting Shackelton or Shackelford or whatever his name is but we have had plenty of speakers in the past who believe that we all deserve to roast in hell for all eternity or other such nonsense. We read a disclaimer when we introduce them, listen to what they have to say, and then skewer them in the Q&A. Ideological purity is just plain boring.

I agree with every word of what he said in that comment. Ideological purity IS boring. However, given that CFI would likely link to a William Lane Craig talk with disclaimers that he’s controversial, or that he’s a Christian apologist, or that he’s generally full of shit, the calendar event for the talk and for all talks should have been adequately disclaimered, with, for instance, Stephanie’s suggested disclaimer: “CFI Michigan doesn’t endorse any speaker or their views. In the spirit of open inquiry, we encourage anyone interested in the topic to participate in the event by asking questions. We particularly encourage those with knowledge of and different perspectives on the subject to participate.”

The fight has never been about whether Shackelford’s talk is full of shit. It’s about whether or not CFI has a duty, as a skeptical outreach endeavour, of making note when people whom they promote might have little evidence for what they’re offering.

And my fight, now, is over whether paid representatives for CFI MI had any right to say the things they’ve said about people who have merely asked for a damned disclaimer on their recommended events.

Instead, Jefferson Seaver, Executive Director for CFI MI, said the following as an official position statement for the organization:

Jeremy, Jason, and Jennifer have clearly and accurately articulated our approach here in Michigan. We do not shy away from engaging — and sometimes collaborating — with individuals and organizations in the community with which we may disagree on one or many issues. We value finding common ground and working for common cause when possible. We value civil discourse with those with whom we disagree. We value challenging our own viewpoints — and challenging the viewpoints of others. We respect the ability of our members to evaluate ideas and reach their own conclusions. And we value education, which includes becoming educated about how others — with whom we may disagree — think about and understand the world.

A couple points of clarification: While the event being discussed was, as has been mentioned, organized by the Evolution for Everyone (E4E) group at GVSU, CFI Michigan unshamedly assisted with publicizing the event and we feel that it is a valuable contribution to educational programming on campus and in the community. We respect and value the work of E4E and hope to continue collaborating with them on similar programming in the future. 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.

The discussion that has arisen from criticism of Dr. Shackelford’s ideas, and criticism of CFI Michigan’s involvement in publicizing an event, is a valuable one to have. Not only is it valuable, it is the sort of dialogue that we try to engender between people and groups with competing views on religion, science, and many other topics. It is the sort of dialogue that we work to foster among CFI members, and hopefully from time to time even draw out conflicting opinions within ourselves.

Jefferson Seaver
Executive Director
Center for Inquiry – Michigan

That doesn’t sound at all to me like they’re interested in hearing any of the countercriticism to Shackelford’s work.

Oh, who’s the Jennifer mentioned in that quote? Why, that’s Jeremy’s wife, who is responsible for adding the talk to their calendar, and who Jeremy believes was being directly attacked for daring to put up some talk that doesn’t fall within the accepted groupthink! This Jennifer liked the following comment on Facebook.

Additionally, DJ Groethe, the current president of the James Randi Foundation, liked both the “Skeptics / Thought Police” Facebook thread and the statement by Jefferson Seaver proclaiming their support of Shackelford’s work.

Meanwhile, Stephanie proved that work is bunk. The same Stephanie being referred to as a “femi-nazi” in the above image. The same Stephanie who followed up on the original post exploring why CFI’s representatives might have been overreacting, over a single sentence in her post.

Jennifer is a paid representative for CFI. So is Jefferson Seaver. Why are they not distancing themselves from these distasteful ad hominems aimed at people who merely want to see more balance in discussions about complete and utter bullshit topics like “rape as adaptive strategy”, given how obviously bullshit those topics are?

Why are those folks that have been debating this particular topic so often, and for so long, being roundly and soundly criticized as “groupthinkers”, “femi-nazis”, and (in my own particular case) “beneath contempt”? Why should we stand for these ad hominems, and why should we be silent?

Beyond that, how long until I get excoriated for daring to say that this kind of ad hominem is beneath contempt and that it has no place in what was a discourse about what I can’t help but feel is a perfectly valid criticism of CFI MI’s communication? Consider that this blog post is ALSO a valid criticism of CFI MI’s representatives and their handling of this incident. It’s far from professional on all fronts. While I see many concessions made on both sides in the discussion, these harsh words all came as far as I can see entirely from one side.

Further reading:
Is there a rape proclivity bubble on a multi-axis quadrant?
Rape Myth #1: She’s Probably Lying
Rape Is Not an Adaptation
Skepticism and Rape Adaptations
More on Science of Rape “Adaptations”
Evolutionary Psychology for the Masses

In MI, does CFI stand for Center For Incivility?
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23 thoughts on “In MI, does CFI stand for Center For Incivility?

  1. 2

    I know. I freaking hate drama most times, and yet like some kind of wildlife show director, I feel this need to document bullshit like this.

  2. 3

    One of the ironies of the “engendering dialog” part of this is the comment on Skepchick from Jennifer saying that Bug Girl should have contacted them privately. Followed, of course, by Bug Girl noting that she already had, without response.

    I’m a little stunned by the failure to internalize the difference between promoting and promoting critically. More on that later.

  3. 5

    There are so many things that make me angry about this:

    1. In science, criticism of one’s argument does not constitute “thought policing”, “personal attacks” or “femi-nazism”. Don’t invoke “science” when you don’t even know what the hell it is.

    2. Dude, did these jerks even read Orwell? “Thought police” are agents of the government, not private citizens exercising their right to free speech on their own goddamn blogs. Drama, indeed!

    3. As an atheist and a scientist, I am getting increasingly annoyed by the conflation of skepticism, which is the willingness to critically evaluate every claim about the world whether you are partial to it or not, with a particular ideology. This particular ideology includes the conviction that anyone who has strong emotional reactions to a claim is incapable of critically evaluating it. (Mysteriously, this rule never seems to apply to strong positive emotional reactions to sensationalist claims put forth by evolutionary psychologists! Fancy that!) It also includes the conviction that anyone who discusses male chauvinism with any degree of sympathy for women is stupid and doesn’t belong to the skeptics’ club. Both of these beliefs are logically incoherent. (Dr. Ginger Campbell, a neurologist, did a podcast about the necessity of emotions to the capacity to think logically, by the way. But I digress.)

    4. This particular ideology, for which I don’t yet have a name, seems to dominate a lot of skeptics’ and atheists’ organizations (as well as some ScienceBlogs). It seemed to dominate the Richard Dawkins forum, for example, which is why I quit frequenting it back in 2008. I didn’t attempt to tell anyone how to blog. I just quit visiting.

    5. The issue isn’t incivility. The issue is CFI’s failure to live up to its own standards.

    Fuck this shit. I’m going back to my post about pharmacology.

  4. 6

    Thanks Jason!

    I gotta disagree with this point, though: “The drama doesn’t come from dissenting opinions about Shackelford’s work and contributions to the scientific body.”

    A LOT of people are interpreting my (and stephanie’s) criticisms as saying “you can’t study rape scientifically.” That’s part of where the groupthink accusation is coming from, actually. That’s not what we said–we mostly argued that this person studied rape in a massively unscientific way, and used the robe of evolution to dress up his stories.

    Le Sigh.

  5. 7

    The analysis of the literature by Stephanie is excellent, it documents the weakness, or outright bullshit, quite clearly. One question though, why is the topic of rape as an adaptive strategy “complete and utter bullshit”. What is even meant for a topic to be bullshit? Research certainly, but a topic?

  6. 8

    ethanol, I’d have to say that the topic is nonsensical — it assumes a priori that in humans, the most social animal, an anti-social behaviour is “adaptive”, as in, produces more or better offspring for a subsection of society that would not otherwise breed. Since it assumes a number of things that are already false, the topic is as nonsense as “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. The correct answer is “none, since there are no angels”, but nobody discussing the topic brings up the facts of the matter.

  7. 9

    ethanol, it isn’t that the topic was assumed to be nonsense to start with. However, once you look at all the data on the topic of rape, and what it means for a behavior to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense, it’s a statement that gets more and more reasonable. It’s a conclusion rather than a presumption.

  8. 10

    Stephanie Z: this makes more sense, though I think it is important to keep clear in these criticisms that it is the evidence (or lack thereof) that is being criticized and not the idea. jthibeault: It is not apparent to me that the premise of these studies is so fundamentally invalid. Even if human beings were the “most social animal” (I rather suspect we aren’t) this would not a priori rule out the utility of otherwise “anti social” behavior.

  9. Don


    I think Jason’s point, unless I’m misinterpreting him, is not that anti-social behaviors should be a priori ruled out as potentially adaptive; it’s that the topic under consideration seems to commit the grievous error of a lot of what I tend to think of as “naive evo-psych” in assuming a priori that if a behavior exists it must be adaptive. Given that the research flows from that obviously false assumption, the topic inches toward bullshit.

    That’s how I interpreted it, anyway.

  10. 12

    Don, you’ve interpreted me correctly and added more nuance than I felt I had time to add myself. Well said.

    Further, how often can an hypothesis be proffered without evidence, before someone is allowed to call that particular topic nonsense? For instance, creationism. Proffered time and again with little or specious evidence, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, and I’m not about to give that topic “equal weight” in the marketplace of ideas. The topic is built on a foundation of ignorance and deceit. Is it allowed to be called “nonsense” yet?

  11. 13

    Don: that would indeed be a more valid line of criticism but I think his response makes it clear that he is questioning the validity of the research question itself. Note the comparison to the question ” how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. Also note that the assumption he is questioning is not that observed behaviors must be adaptive but rather that such behaviors could be adaptive at all.

  12. 14

    Ethanol, such behaviours COULD be adaptive, if they had some kind of benefit that meant they’d procreate more frequently. But let’s get some evidence for that before trying to build a just-so story as to why!

    Stephanie shows why this particular set of papers is nonsense. And Bug_Girl shows that the entire edifice is built off a study of scorpionflies, which, last I checked, are not social animals. Of humans and scorpionflies, I’m certain we’re more social. If I’ve overstepped by saying “the most social”, fine. Maybe bonobos are more strongly social. We’ve also evolved to be communication specialists, but here I am, communicating poorly!

  13. 15

    Jason: I see now that you agree with Don’s analysis of your arguement but honestly I still have trouble squaring that with your previous response. Is the question “is rape, in some situations, an adaptive human behavior?” a valid one or not? Also the comparison to creationism seems somewhat weak. Creationism is indeed contradicted by a huge volume of evidence, while the hypothosis we are considering here is merely unsupported. Also note that creationism is best countered using the evidence, while asserting instead that it is a bullshit topic opens us up to (well deserved) attack.

  14. 17

    1. Only weirdo’s think rape is ‘cool’ or OK in any circumstance and 2. Damm, i like evo-psych. It’s just that it’s so newish-n-stuff, but I really do like it (but not this stupid theory).


  15. 19

    Ethanol–To repeat what I said in my original post at skepchick:

    The whole field of evolutionary psychology suffers from a lack of solid data. It’s easy to speculate about the “adaptive value” of all sorts of traits, from athletic ability to rape avoidance. The most consistent criticism leveled at evolutionary psychologists is that they start with a conclusion, and gather evidence to support it. And that they ignore conflicting explanations–which is not how science is supposed to work.

    Sure, all current human behavior has been shaped by our evolutionary past. But to argue on top of that truth that everything we do is not only adaptive, but must have been selected for somehow, is ridiculous and reductionist. There isn’t any data in these studies that shows that behavior is heritable, or that it conveys fitness benefits. It’s usually just “This happens a lot. Ergo, it must be important evolutionarily.”

    It's like asking how my avoidance of falling pianos is adaptive.

  16. 22

    Bug girl: Nowhere have I argued that Shakelford’s work represents strong science, or is even capable of supporting his most basic conclusions. I have merely been arguing that however weak their evidence, researchers in this field are working on a valid, and even plausable, hypothosis. This is not to argue that pluasability is a reasonable substitute for evidence. I would not normally even think it nescessary to make such an arguement but I was befuddled by Jason’s characterization of this as a “bullshit topic”. I agree with your analysis except for your comparison to falling piano avoidance, since this represents a behavior which is actually fundamentally implausible as a specifically evolved trait.

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