Evolving skeptic psychology
This is a reply to my friend James Croft’s post and his follow-up post here about the reaction to my criticism of Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk. I recommend reading the source posts if you haven’t, including mine and his.
First I want to say that I have noticed that my critique has lead to many very good discussions about the role of expertise in choosing speakers for conferences as well as on evolutionary psychology. I am very gratified to see these important issues getting some air time.
The responsibility of the reader
In his first post, James’ main point is to “responsible” listening. I spent several days considering the necessity of using the very controversial phrase “science denialism“, and I discussed the matter with associates, as well. I also watched and rewatched the video in order to really listen to the characterizations specifically. Lastly, I looked at how other people responded to the video to get other perspectives. Here are some of those (these are all from before I wrote my original essay):
You do not tear down an entire field of research because a small number of papers released (and not even in respected journals) are offtaste. -discomcomcobulated Commented at Ashley Miller’s blog; Zvan commented on the page 6 comments down, but doesn’t correct him. Kate Donovan replied to discomcomcobulated, saying in part:
…some of the studies she cited (particularly the casual sex and gender differences) one appear in my psych textbooks …and are taught in class. So, no, it’s not just silly media talking about them. – Kate Donovan, telling us it’s not just the media; Zvan doesn’t correct her.
That there are scientists unscrupulous enough to take such a deal is atrocious, and brings the entire scientific practice into disrepute – but Watson also made it very funny, which is her particular genius. …Watson also shone an unflattering light on evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline with a lot of problems. -James Croft
The female-to-male ratio seemed really good at this conference …, a sense that was reinforced by the crowd’s enthusiastic response to Rebecca Watson’s speech denouncing the pseudo-science of “evolutionary psychology” -Amanda Marcotte
Rebecca Watson’s humorous talk on the sexist pseudoscience rampant in evolutionary psychology was immensely entertaining and got boisterous applause. -Adam Lee [emphasis mine]
It seemed to me like all of these here, James included, seemed to think “evolutionary psychology” (not “pop” or media) got stomped, good. James himself even originally called it perhaps “unfair”, but it could only be unfair if it was misrepresenting a subset as a majority or totality. The response from Watson’s allies (with her blessing) has the distinct appearance of the narrative being changed only after it became embarrassing and that they exploited James’ hyper-generosity of spirit to help them. Most of the comments on this matter in the twitter and blogosphere also tend to disagree with the newly-minted interpretation. Few seem to be buying it. For example, take these bloggers:
Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology. -Ken Perrott
I watched Rebecca‘s talk and quite enjoyed it, the only criticism I had about it was that it was not clear whether she was critiquing pop-EP solely or EP as a whole. The argument seemed to be framed around pop-EP but Rebecca delved into EP intermittently enough to cause confusion. By the end of it I did get the impression she was trashing EP overall and not just pop-EP, and it seems I am not the only one.-Peter Ferguson
In his second post James wrote several paragraphs about effective writing/presenting and described in the finer points of communication pitfalls. This is all just a little.. bizarre. Watson, if the new narrative is believed, made the mistake of being unclear at times about exactly what her talk was about (general vs. specific). This sort of error is 101-level: tell the audience precisely what your talk is about in the first minute. It is doubly important to be clear if you know the topic is controversial. This is a very simple, but egregious error which doesn’t call for a journey into Croftian theory of advanced semantics. Which explanation is more parsimonious? That Watson, according to James a “marvel” and one of skepticism’s “finest activists”, who speaks for a living and has for years bungled up the single most basic, most important part of her talk like a freshman. And she did so multiple times (she has presented the topic repeatedly)? Or is it more likely that Watson was so sure, so confident that evolutionary psychology was indefensible tripe that there was no need to think about distinctions or to read a paper?
Watson wasn’t unclear, attempts at apologetic obfuscation notwithstanding. On the contrary, she has been very clear. Let’s review.
How we know it wasn’t just about “pop” psychology
1. She says so. Around 8:50 she defines her subject: evolutionary psychology. Not “as it exists in the media” not “bad versions” or any other qualifier. Since her introduction is jokes and a shopping example about the “science proving it [women evolved to shop]”, this is the first point she describes what her talk is about. She could have framed this on her slide any way she wanted to. Here’s how she actually made it:
After reading through the bullets and expounding a bit, Watson says, So it seems like there is a veneer of science.. it’s got the word evolution in it. “It” can only refer to the field as a whole, as she has just described. Watson is evidently saying that evolutionary psychology has a veneer of science because it isn’t real science. We also know she can’t mean a subset because she says that it “has the word ‘evolution’ in it”. One cannot describe an abstraction (the set of evolutionary psychology research which penetrates the media) in terms of containing words. There is no generous way to take it which changes this. This entire segment has no mention of the media or “pop” verbiage. It leads into her first example with no qualification in the transition.
I might add that during these minutes (8:50-9:40) she uses the words “for many pop evolutionary psychologists…” but listen to the entire remark (9:03) …for many pop evolutionary psychologists, this means that there is one overall human nature that transcends human culture.” Her for many… remark refers only to the statement about there being one human nature— and she got that wrong. That is not a provincial view of some “pop” evolutionary psychologists. It’s a common, if not universal viewpoint in the field. Am I the only one who realizes this is just a rhetorical device? If you were going to delimit the topic, why wouldn’t you start with it, instead of mentioning it on the fourth bullet point?
Then there are these (which James also noted)…
The biggest problems with the study, though, are the same problems which are leveled against evolutionary psychology as a whole. (12:25)
Evolutionary psychology requires that our brains evolved 12k, -1M years ago and haven’t changed since (12:46) Clearly stated, EP says this. Not pop, not “some”.
According to the evolutionary psychologists, brains stopped evolving (13:11) Note, not “some”, not “pop”.
They never tell us what genes. There’s no evidence to support it. (13:27) Who is they? No one has been specified, other than “evolutionary psychologists” from 16 seconds earlier. No evidence? At all? Not one paper, from any researcher? Well, you have to admit, she’s very sure of herself.
these examples seem to be completely ignored when evolutionary psychology proponents use present-day groups as proxies… Note, evolutionary psychology proponents (here, “proponents” is awkward but can only mean researchers. No one else can be said to use hunter-gatherers as proxies. Non-scientists could defend the use of proxies but can’t actually use them in that way. That is research). Again there is no “some” and there is no “pop”. James notes that at 15:28 Watson uses the limiting phrase “…who think that a lot of the pop evolutionary psychology…” but again, let’s look at the entire remark:
This is why there’s tons of people, particularly scientists, who think that a lot of the pop evolutionary psychology is nothing more than just-so stories… This is a rhetorical device, the citing of unnamed people and scientists plus Stephen Jay Gould who agree with the premise “we don’t know much about the Pleistocene”. She also gets it wrong. Stephen Jay Gould wasn’t picking nits with “pop psychology”. He was calling out the adaptationist research program as a whole. His paper most known for speaking to these “stories” is called The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, which never uses the word “Pleistocene” or that argument. Both times when Watson qualifies she is referring to a sub-point, not to a main one. Many believe it’s just-so-stories. Many believe there is one over-all human nature. Neither of these remarks restricts the overall topic.
I am afraid I must re-quote the end as well. Proooooobably? I’m guessing yes? (47:34) Watson is caught off guard. The only possible reason this could be true, is that she simply never really thought about whether there was “real” evolutionary psychology science. If she never thought about it before, then how could she possibly have distinguished bad from good in producing the talk? Couldn’t she have been in danger of confusing one for the other? Of confusing bad science with bad science reporting? You have to know the difference to proceed, unless you don’t think there is one. Her method was apparently to use google as her research instrument, necessarily resulting in her sole use of abstracts and tabloids. However, it’s a mistake to believe that her choice of method alone implies some specific intentional focus. It says nothing of the sort.
Further, why did Watson not correct the questioner who asked broadly about evolutionary psychology (not about media representation or “pop”)? Shouldn’t she have then said “oh well probably, but I am only talking today about pop evopsych..”? She didn’t. She answered without pause, as if there as no odd implication in his question at all, because there wasn’t.
2. Watson suggests audience members get more information from people who do dismiss evolutionary psychology, and not just the “pop” version. For example, Greg Laden:
We would expect a species like humans, born with this big blank brain and subjected to many extra years of learning as children, to develop these differences as a function of culture rather than genes. That, to me, is the most likely null model. I’m not sure I would attribute a priori much likelihood to a genes-up model of human behavior. How the heck would that work, anyway? 
…one could think of Evolutionary Psychology as the deformed misguided freakish evil sibling of behavioral biology that should have been smothered at birth. Not that I have strong feelings about it or anything …” 
**EDIT: Laden aside deleted per JJRamsey’s comment ** Rebecca also invites members of the audience to learn more from Amanda Marcotte. You might remember her from a page or so up in this post.
“The female-to-male ratio seemed really good at this conference compared to others I’ve been to, a sense that was reinforced by the crowd’s enthusiastic response to Rebecca Watson’s speech denouncing the pseudo-science of “evolutionary psychology”” -Amanda Marcotte
Marcotte also wrote,
“I read and research a lot of “evolutionary psychology”, and while they are very good at getting people to cop to anti-feminist opinions and sexist behaviors, I have not really seen many—any?—that prove their contention that these behaviors or opinions are encoded in the genes instead of learned from the environment. …I’ll add that I refuse to blame journalists reporting these studies for “misrepresenting” them. If anything, most journalists aren’t skeptical enough of evolutionary psychology.” (emphasis mine)
Marcotte makes it clear she has a deep understanding (not a superficial media view) and that the media aren’t to blame, and that the field is chiefly misogynist frauds and pseudoscience.
Can it now be maintained that Watson earnestly wished to address “pop” evolutionary psychology of the “media”, as is being maintained with Watson’s approval, having also told her audience they should learn more from people who do damn the whole of it? Isn’t it reasonable to assume these people she cites approvingly as resources influenced her own opinions?
3. In May of this year Watson did a brief post-talk interview. Here is a transcript of some of it. Listen here.
Interviewer: so you have been talking about how science…
Watson: …in the scare quotes
I: yeah. is used to uh produce a to resolve the uh.. strengthens uh prejudice about women. and you have been talking about evolutionary psychology and the problems with this. Maybe you could summarize a little bit what you’ve been talking about.
W: yeah basically I used my talk as an opportunity to slam evolutionary psychology for half an hour. cause..
W: yeah well it’s been building up for a while. I uh I just get so tired of seeing women evolved to shop… women evolved to like the color pink… women evolved to be terrible at math and logic.
I: yeah and men evolved to rape
W: yeah men evolved to rape. yeah uh I mean the thing is once you look past the headlines and actually look at the studies what you see over and over again is pseudoscience being passed off as science.. they have tons of assumptions that they don’t support with the evidence. and uh they make up just-so-stories that seem to fit the facts. and it only ends up reinforcing stereotypes which does harm to all of us.(emphasis mine)
There is no hint of qualification and Watson goes out of her way to tell the interviewer that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscience when you read actual studies beyond the media blurbs.
There is no charitable way to take all of these observations and conclude she meant to circumscribe the topic. James’ claim is doubly, well, odd, because she is a skilled communicator. I am very serious when I say this. She is (generally) excellent at conveying the ideas she wishes to convey and to get the message across to her audience. My understanding is that public speaking is largely her career (along with the writing/blogging). Her degree is in communications. Now you wish me to believe she abjectly failed to do the one thing she’s demonstrably excellent at, trained at, and experienced at? That she couldn’t have guessed a presentation over a highly controversial topic needed to be carefully framed? Accepting that is a greater insult than my own account, that she finds evolutionary psychology to be total nonsense (or did, until it became embarrassing).
I would also like to address one specific statement James has made.
In these areas, she dropped the ball and didn’t write as responsibly as she might. Her response – to acknowledge the errors and say she’ll fix them in an upcoming talk – seems to me the correct one, and we will be able to judge the sincerity of that commitment once the talk has been given again (I, for one, am sure she’ll make appropriate modifications).
She did no such thing. Watson mentioned that I was correct about Dr. Kruger, the Chinese in the UK study, and the subjects of the “Why People have Sex” study. That’s 3 errors/serious problems out of dozens (and not counting ones I didn’t mention for time/length reasons). It seems that she suddenly has the resources to check facts. One wonders why she didn’t do that before spreading the misinformation across the globe at multiple engagements. This brings me to my final point.
The “pop” apologetic does not absolve Watson, even if it were true
Consensus on the “denialist” charge is not the most important thing. I firmly believe the term is apt. I have provided my evidence and standard. I have seen no attempt at rebuttal. However, let us not get mired in the label. What matters is that the raison d’être for having a skeptical conference, part of the very promise of what it offers was severely betrayed. The reputation of Skepticon may be damaged and perhaps the local skeptical community, too. This is a problem that surely extends well beyond the topic of evolutionary psychology and Rebecca Watson, and it needs to be fixed. Organizers need to prioritize adeptness and competence over friendships and internet “personalities”.
James does not think it matters that a skeptic conference speaker essentially googled her way through a talk (which she actually delivered multiple times, and wanted to do 3 more times at least), getting dozens of bits wrong and leaving half the audience a false impression about science. He may also be biased by his friendships with Watson’s allies, with his strong interest in feminism, and with his love of charismatic delivery. It’s OK for James if the delivery is chock full of errors, as long as it’s fun and the speaker promises to listen to critics. I disagree. We should not necessarily expect speakers to be professional scientists or even subject matter experts at a conference. But we should expect a speaker advocating for skepticism to have applied intellectual and skeptical rigor. As everyone now knows, that is nowhere near what Skepticon got that day.
We now have cause to wonder, as good skeptics, about the quality of all of Watson’s talks, and those of other speakers. I happened to have had experience doing things Watson decided to talk about and I am a former secular student leader, meaning I would get wind of these events. I also just happened to have no particular fear of Watson’s friends, who have now crafted colorful ad hominems in attempts to discredit me. If Watson could not be bothered to research a topic which she clearly cares about deeply (a cause of sexism/rape apology) how much work is she putting into other topics? Is it helping feminism to deliver such poorly-crafted rants? What about other non-expert speakers? Who knows? This confluence of events leading to my involvement was highly unlikely.It’s not too likely experts in the areas of other talks will be both listening and willing to stick their neck out to criticize. Like me, they won’t have an “axe to grind” but will simply want to defend their discipline against sloppy attacks by those with little to no knowledge of their field. No one is watching the watchers.