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Posted by on Dec 4, 2012 in Blogging, Evolution, Psychology, Skepticism | 27 comments

Evolutionary Psychology, Clint, Watson, PZ Myers and going about things properly

I am writing this piece in response to a recent exchange that has come to involve a growing number of people in some particular corners of the blogosphere. Most of you who will be reading this will not need me to go into great detail as you will probably have already read the exchanges. This is how, effectively, the process took place.

1)      A blogger called Rebecca Watson (Skepchick) spoke at a prominent skeptics’ conference called Skepticon 5. She spoke on the topic of evolutionary psychology (EP). This can be found here.

2)      Ed Clint, a blogger here at SIN, and an evolutionary psychologist took umbrage to the talk and rebutted its various points here in a lengthy piece. The main thrust of the piece being that she was adopting denialist techniques in dismissing EP, presenting fallacious arguments in the process.

3)      Twitter and blogs sparked up a little. People like PZ Myers got involved. PZ is a prominent and vocal atheist who has done a great deal of good for the atheist cause, often from the confines of his Pharyngula blog. He included comments like “The excesses and devious misrepresentations in that post were painful to read, as was the revelation that Clint is throwing away his career by jumping on the evo psych bandwagon in graduate school.”

4)      Other people have also weighed in (such as Stephanie Zvan against Ed, on FTB here, as well as Justin Griffith for, also on FTB here, and the Incredible Hallq for, on Patheos here).

In effect, the exchange has caused something of a minor storm. I want to just throw my tuppence worth into the mix; but in doing so, I want to attempt to be as objective as possible whilst at the same time trying to communicate my, what I perceive to be, somewhat lack of bias.

Now, I know Ed. Sort of. I write on the same network as him. I communicate with him fairly regularly. However, in saying that, this is pretty much what we do – we communicate on a writing and network basis. I don’t go round to his for beers and he doesn’t come round to mine (there is a pond in the way). I know next to nothing about him, in all honesty. I like him, as much as I can do without knowing an awful lot about him. He is friendly to me, and I to him. Hi Ed.

Now, believe it or not, as far as Rebecca Watson is concerned, I don’t know who she is. I really don’t. I don’t mean this in any critical way. She is evidently far more famous and noticed than I probably ever will be. I believe she is something to do with the Elevatorgate scandal. And before you accuse me of pretending not to know about that, I simply don’t. It was not on my radar and still isn’t. I know it has a lot to do with someone coming on to someone else in an elevator and this causing a shitstorm involving feminist issues. I am fairly sure Watson was the one come on to in the elevator, but she might equally have been the person who reacted against or for this in the aftermath. I simply don’t know enough about it. I do not keep up with such politics at conferences, for no other reason than that I spend too much time writing, working, looking after twins, writing more, reading, researching and so on. I was given a link to a really good synopsis of the whole affair. I read it, and thought “so that’s what happened” but have since learnt many more things which have pushed those nuggets out of my all-too-small memory. Hi Rebecca.

The point here is that I am in no position to claim a presuppositional bias for or against either protagonist in this exchange. I know Ed a little more than Rebecca Watson, but have no opinion of her prior to the Skepticon talk. This may bias me intuitively to Ed, but I like to think of myself as rational enough to realise that and mitigate for this, concentrating on content.

However, I have watched the video of her talk, and I do have issues with what she said, or more the manner in which she went about presenting her case. Now some defendants of her talk suggest she was presenting a case against pop psychology in the media (such as the Zvan link above). However, this is clearly not the case. It seems fairly obvious, to me at any rate, that Watson was having a concerted go at evolutionary psychology.

To make matters worse, and given the context of a public speech, she got things empirically wrong.

“[Evolutionary psychology is] a field of study based on belief that the human brain as it exists today evolved completely during the Pleistocene era when humans lived as hunter-gatherers”

Of course, many features of our brains evolved far longer ago. The so-called “reptilian brain”  is 500 million years old. The limbic system is 50 million years old. The neocortex is 2.6 million years old-  600k years before the Pleistocene. This is a bizarre thing to have claimed.

She also claimed that VS Ramachandran got his satirical EP paper published. Every part of this claim seems to be a little wrong. His “satirical paper” was actually categorically a hypothesis – a falsifiable explanation about an observed feature of people (although it’s a poor one). So it isn’t strictly satire. Second, the journal Medical Hypotheses was not peer-reviewed in the 90′s when he submitted. It was NOT peer reviewed then. In no scientific sense can his paper be said to have been “published”. He may as well have posted it on a blog.

It is not a case that I am defending EP here. I actually am fairly agnostic on EP. My thoughts are this:

1)      EP must be a valid concept given that psychology doesn’t spontaneously pop into being in a particular form.

2)    We have not had a static psychology in the last 200,000 years or through hominid development, that would be unrealistic to assert.

3)      Therefore, present human psychology must have developed over time.

4)    However, isolating particular causal factors in such a development is understandably a tricky business and can present many problems, many of which are being thrown around the forums at present, to which many people are replying. Whether these criticisms hold is another question.

With this in mind, listening to a renowned skeptic (hence her invitation to speak) critique an entire discipline in such a way is disappointing. What is a shame here is that, for all we know, Watson may be ultimately correct, or she may not. In other words, the methodology and findings of the vast core of EP could be false or problematic. But the way that Watson arrived at the apparent conclusion that this is so is unwarranted. It is about justified beliefs, to get philosophical.

So, firstly, are these Watson’s beliefs and, secondly, does Watson justify her beliefs appropriately?

On the first question, it certainly appears that one of the core aims of her talk was to undermine the discipline of EP. This is evidenced in several points. Bert Russell, commenting over at Rock Beyond Belief, stated this:

“What I had hoped to point out in my comment was that I think it is a stretch to argue Rebecca Watson was only criticizing evolutionary psychology in the media and not as a whole given her response to a question at the very end of her presentation. She was asked if there was any “good evolutionary psychology,” to which she responded with a protracted “Prooooooooooooooooooooobably.” She even said that you can only have “good” evolutionary psychology if you just “make it up.” That is not something anyone could ever reasonably expect to hear from someone who is merely criticizing evolutionary psychology in the media. It is something we can expect from someone who is criticizing the science wholesale.”

Given this, it does seem that there was a concerted effort to discredit EP as a whole, especially given some of the jokes and ensuing laughter elicited from the audience. It is worth referring to some of Ed Clint’s points here. Again, I must emphasise that ‘debunking’ EP is a fine enough objective if done properly. A thoroughly academic debate could easily be had on this where we would expect to see adequately referenced material being supplied by both sides. However, in Watson’s case, it does appear that her methods were a little lazy and popularist. Perhaps apt in dismissing the very tabloid-style popularist EP works she referenced, but not really good enough to dismiss an entire discipline involving a large number of varied studies.

You see, she is in a position of responsibility and authority here: she is on a podium, speaking to rational people in an assumed rational manner. But when genetic fallacies pop up on a regular basis, one has to be a little concerned. There are many good, well-intentioned  and well-qualified scientists working in the field of EP, and it is concerning to see someone dismiss their work to a skeptical audience in the manner of a science denialist without proper justification.

There is a difference between debunking some pieces of work in a field and debunking an entire field based on a couple of not-so-carefully selected pieces of work. Especially if you have absolutely no expertise in that field. I could dismiss entire scientific fields quite easily with reference to a few problematic papers. Creationists do it all the time. But unless you can show pretty robustly that the work you are critiquing and dismissing truly is representative of the field as a whole, then the practice is not worth an awful lot.

I am disappointed in the reaction of PZ Myers, too. I’m sure he couldn’t give two hoots about what I think, either, and he is probably right there. My opinion really doesn’t count for all that much. But I do get a sense of kneejerk support for ‘one of their own’. And I don’t mean to incite an FTB vs SIN situation – I can’t think of anything that would interest me less. There are some awesome blogs on FTB. I think Reasonable Doubts is quite simply the best podcast on the internet, bar none.

No, I just think PZ is wrong. His comment, as follows, doesn’t help:

“…a competing network (which is fine, of course) which they proceeded to stock almost entirely with writers with an an anti-FtB and strongly anti-Skepchick slant — I’ve had to laugh at the lineup which looks largely drawn from the ranks of the Slymepit, a notorious anti-feminist/anti-Rebecca Watson hate site, and my list of banned commenters. And looking at the people who comment there, again, they seem to be largely driven by hatred of Watson and feminism in general.”

Although I may fit into the excluded portion of the ‘largely’ category (I have never written on any of the topics mentioned, or Atheism+, preferring other topics and have never visited Skepchick’s blog or read any of her work in my life), it is hard not to take some kind of offence. Hey ho, no big deal there, it just seems a shame to throw toys around the room like this.

Because, at the end of the day, whatever Watson said should stand or fall on the merit of what she said. If, within the talk, there was enough to show that her methodology was sound, as expected from skeptical conference speakers, and that her speech didn’t contain numerous errors, and that she didn’t establish a dismissal of an entire discipline based at least partly on fallacy, then all is well, and Ed has wasted a lot of time and effort in barking up the wrong tree.

Myers does seem to think that Ed had a hidden agenda and some kind of past with Watson. Do you know what? That may be. I haven’t got a clue there, I really don’t. And it doesn’t matter (at least, I couldn’t really care for expending energy of such matters). The important thing here, for the neutral, is whether what he says has merit. What he says, like Watson, also stands or falls on its merit. And if it does stand as a valid criticism, then people really don’t have the epistemic right to try to batter Ed with a big blogging stick because they happen to presuppositionally prefer Watson to Clint.

Come on guys, we are all skeptics around here! Let’s act like good skeptics, with good epistemologies. Let’s use the scientific method. Let’s stop the bickering, the poor reasoning, and the in group / out group mentality just for a while.

And by all means, let’s use this to have a mighty big debate as to whether EP is worth the paper it is written on. This is what we are about. Ideas and Knowledge! This is a clarion call to all the intelligent and rational people out there that for the past year have been pissing about shouting at each other, drowning out dissent with invective and more dissent. Yes, let’s disagree. Yes, let’s argue. Yes, let’s even care enough about knowledge to get a little heated. No, let’s not cloud our judgement, and our reasoning with intuitive, kneejerk reactions. How dare we, the so-called ‘rational’ ones, declare that theists and pseudoscientists build their conclusions upon poor epistemology and fallacy when we appear to be no better? And if I make fallacious arguments, and if I dismiss whole disciplines without proper justification, bloody well call me out on it. And make the critique as long as you like. After all, it will make me the better, more knowledgeable person for it.

Next post – IS Evolutionary Psychology a Pseudoscience?…

  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

    Excellently written Jonathan, a moderating voice in this debate. It’s very nice having you here. I want to clarify something publicly though, since the charge by Myers is that we stocked SIN “almost entirely with writers with an an anti-FtB and strongly anti-Skepchick slant.” Not true. Not true at all. You are a prime example of this.

    For the record, when inviting people to write at SIN there was no litmus test used to determine what potential writers thought about Freethought Blogs or Atheism Plus or Skeptchick. In fact, there were a few candidates turned down precisely because all they were able to say is that they disagreed with them. Our goals were long term. We knew Atheism Plus would be a passing fad. We wanted good writers regardless of what they thought about FtB’s or Atheism Plus or Skeptchick. We wanted a world perspective with writers representing various parts of the earth, and we did that. Not one potential candidate was asked what they thought about these topics. I may have asked about them only in so far as a potential candidate said something about them, but that’s it. So I find it interesting there seems to be a consensus among most of us about the negative influence of FtB’s and Atheism Plus. But that has developed in time as the writers at SIN sat and watched the Atheism Plus crowd do their own thing. One by one most writers here have learned for themselves what to think on these matters.

  • Andy_Schueler

    Come on guys, we are all skeptics around here. Let’s act like good skeptics, with good epistemologies. Let’s use the scientific method. Let’s put away the handbags, the poor reasoning, and the in group / out group mentality just for a while.

    Would be nice if that could work, but I think that too many bridges have been burned for that to happen. 

  • Jack_Ma

    There’s evolutionary psychology at work here.  Better duck.

  • Pingback: Expertise, Rebecca Watson, and why skeptics should care | Justin Vacula's Blog

  • pboyfloyd

    There may be a bit more elementary psychology going on here than evolutionary psychology, don’t you think?

    With that said, I am now allowed to say to Rebecca Watson, “Elementary, my dear Watson!”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SU3L6O6MNAPXLBIGJGEX5NW5UQ jqb

    PZ Myers has gone from being an arrogant, highly opinionated fellow who was almost always right, to being a grossly irrational bully who is doing the atheism and skepticism movement great harm.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Excellent post!  Thanks for stressing how we should behave as people claiming to be rationalists.

  • ZedZero

    “Come on guys, we are all skeptics around here! Let’s act like good skeptics, with good epistemologies. Let’s use the scientific method. Let’s put away the handbags, the poor reasoning, and the in group / out group mentality just for a while.”
    Jonathan, I am surprised at this denial faint and twist. You know we can not do this because our biology won’t allow us to escape tribal pissing matches. What skulduggery is this? Taking the moral high ground to evaluate your status amongst us unwashed?

    I’m kidding of course. I find the implications EvoPsy to be hilarious. There are going to a lot of smart people who are going to really hate this stuff. The religious deny evolution, the free marketeers deny AGW, a lot of intelligent people are going to deny EvoPhy I suspect. 

    I personally believe that atheist are not far enough removed from their religious bothers and sister in their sense of special creation when comes to intelligence or rationality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=600180458 Skeptnik Garrison

    Here, here, ego and ideologies, the two worst enemies of good science!

  • christthetao

    “PZ Myers has gone from being an arrogant, highly opinionated fellow who was almost always right, to being a grossly irrational bully who is doing the atheism and skepticism movement great harm.”

    I am tempted to say — look at the bright side!  Look at all the good he is doing the Christian cause! 

    But hatred and fanaticism are ugly, wherever they turn up.  What atheists “of good will” should realize, is that the kind of vitriol I documented a few days ago in “PZ Myers, guru of hate,” was just as evident before his tribe began directing their cesspool-dipped arrows at fellow atheists.  If you take the “humanist” part of “secular humanism” seriously, why did you take so long to get offended?  And why pretend he was “doing our cause good” just because he was shooting at someone else, before that? 

    Speaking as objectively as I can, I think this experience can do and has done some secular humanists good spiritually, even as they remain secular humanists, just as the sordid world of televangelism can help us Christians refocus.

    • http://twitter.com/Eshto Ryan Grant Long

      If it means anything, I am happy to report that as relationships with the… for lack of a better word, “controversial” atheists and skeptics have broken down for me in the past year and half or so, during that time I have also built more quality relationships with more level-headed atheists and theists alike.

      • http://www.skepticblogs.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

        Interesting, Ryan. Psychologically speaking, is that kind of attitude a corollary of success and fame?

  • Richard_Wein

    “Therefore, present human psychology must have developed over time.”
    I take it you’re talking about the genetic origins of human psychology. It might be wise to be more specific about that. I suspect much of the objection to EP lies in doubts about how much of our psychology is due to nature (genetics) and how much due to nurture (culture and individual history).

  • Ronlawhouston

    I really appreciate you and Ed calmly deconstructing Watson’s claims.  I’m just not certain that Watson is truly such a significant person to deserve so much time and effort to refute her claims.

    It is pretty clear to me that Watson used her feminist inspired bias in the whole nature versus nurture debate and turned a whole field of scientific endeavor as a whipping post to justify her bias.  What’s even sadder is that real scientists are doing the same.  

  • mcygnet

    I noticed an error in the original post. In reality, [url=https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/skeptics-with-a-k/id327034166]Skeptics with a K[/url] is the best podcast on the Internet, bar none. ;-) Not that I ever miss an episode of Reasonable Doubts, it’s really good, too.

    I raise Skeptics with a K because a hobby horse of one of its hosts, Michael Marshall, is the type of reporting Watson uses as her primary source. Is EvPsych  the real demon or is it PR-motivated “reporting?” The problem with, say, the Veet article she discusses is that it pretended to do science, not that the science it pretended to do is hopelessly flawed.

    • http://www.skepticblogs.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      //////skeptics with a K – they seem to be a Merseyside outfit. Can you tell me any more about them?

  • ThePrussian

    “She is evidently far more famous and noticed than I probably ever will be”
    No, she is far more famous than she deserves to be.  
    If you are curious, please allow me to shamelessly recommend the following:
    http://www.skepticink.com/prussian/2012/11/11/atheism-or-the-unbelievable-part-1/
    “Come on guys, we are all skeptics around here! Let’s act like good skeptics, with good epistemologies. Let’s use the scientific method. Let’s put away the handbags, the poor reasoning, and the in group / out group mentality just for a while.”  I’m sorry, but it’s far to late for that.  This isn’t about in-group/out-group, this is about something much more important.  Due to their irresponsible nonsense, people like Watson & Myers are an active menace to the cause of reason and progress.    I think there needs to be some scorched earth here, so that those looking for a rational, atheist voice see there is an alternative to the self-pity and self-involvement of FtB. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/E353JCTXVTLW6ET2E5WDEESJT4 Jeff

    Par for the course. Ed critiques Rebecca’s botched caricature of evo-psych. PZ responds with “he’s a bad person with evil motives & that crowd over there is out to get us”.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SU3L6O6MNAPXLBIGJGEX5NW5UQ jqb

    PZ Myers has continued to dishonestly misrepresent the situation with his latest  BS article: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/12/05/ep-shut-up-and-sing/ … note how he contradicts himself with his inset … his agenda is to attack EP, not just “pop evo psych” from his previous BS article (http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/12/03/oh-gob-evo-psych-again/). In several respects Myers has become much like Anthony Watts (of the WUWT AGW denial site), spouting pseudo-scientific criticisms of real science not in peer-reviewed journals but from the safety of a blog populated by cheering sycophant bullies.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SU3L6O6MNAPXLBIGJGEX5NW5UQ jqb

    “I’m just not certain that Watson is truly such a significant person to deserve so much time and effort to refute her claims.”

    It’s not a matter of whether Watson is a significant person, it’s a matter of her giving a very misleading presentation at two significant “skeptical” events.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SU3L6O6MNAPXLBIGJGEX5NW5UQ jqb

    “…a competing network (which is fine, of course) which they proceeded to
    stock almost entirely with writers with an an anti-FtB and strongly
    anti-Skepchick slant — I’ve had to laugh at the lineup which looks
    largely drawn from the ranks of the Slymepit, a notorious
    anti-feminist/anti-Rebecca Watson hate site, and my list of banned
    commenters. And looking at the people who comment there, again, they
    seem to be largely driven by hatred of Watson and feminism in general.”

    Myers displays his pathology in full force here. Of course his claims about skepticink are prima facie false and his claims about those commenting here are prima facie false. He finds some commonality (which does exist … criticism of him, criticism of Watson, less than full throated acceptance of their ideological feminism) between this site and “the Slymepit” and then transfers the entirety of his negative views of the latter to the former. And what of “the Slymepit” (which his tribe now call simply “the pit”) itself — Abby Smith (“ERV”)’s blog? Again we have the same process — *some* of the commenters there were genuine misogynists, and PZ transferred the entirety of his negative views about them to everyone posting there … but *some* people posting there were progressives and feminists who had been drummed out of or banned from Pharyngula and allied sites for lacking sufficient irrationality … and there was every view in between. So now when PZ sees someone who had posted there posting here, his entire belief system is validated … ERV was evil, her posters were evil, they are posting here, this is evil … guilt by association in full transitive glory. There’s a close parallel to the way that the presence of genuine anti-semites among the critics of Israeli policy is taken by supporters of Israeli policy as proof that all criticism of Israeli policy is anti-semitic. But actually the pathology is considerably worse in the case of Pharyngula/Butterflies and Wheels/etc.

  • JohnM

    No, you’re not “skeptics”.  You’re deniers of what is clearly seen in creation. And you’re fulfillment of prophecy.

    2 Peter 3:3-7
    …in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

    • Andy_Schueler

      You’re deniers of what is clearly seen in creation.

      *yawn*, you´re not even trying anymore, are you ? 

      And you’re fulfillment of prophecy.
      …in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 

      Preaching bullshit and predicting that people will mock you for this bullshit it is not a prophecy. Also, 2 Peter is a forgery – I thought you read Ehrman ?

      But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 

      Right, water formed the earth out of water – that´s exactly how it happened. Moron. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EKLVCB7JILVVQRABSW2NM2XXPQ Dawn

    I was in agreement with this until I came to the comment to “put away the handbags.” That is pretty offensive.

    • http://www.skepticblogs.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hi Dawn, actually I agree. My friend pointed this out elsewhere. I will remove it. I don’t know where you are from, but this is common parlance in the UK, but obviously has sexist overtones. Point taken.

    • http://www.skepticblogs.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      It does show how pervasive gender issues are when language is laden with phrases and references which are so embedded as to pass any kind of radar undetected. The user often has no concept of the language being used because it has lost much of its original connotation. What is even more telling is the first phrase that came to my head as a replacement was ‘bitching’ which would have been even worse!

      Thanks for your comment, though!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EKLVCB7JILVVQRABSW2NM2XXPQ Dawn

    Thanks! I am not normally that sensitive to language, but that really struck me wrong. I am not from the UK so that is probably why it stood out. I probably wouldn’t have noticed ‘bitching’ which  supports the idea that common usage minimizes our ability to notice sexist language.

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    People still read PZ Myers? Weird…