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Posted by on Dec 5, 2012 in Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Science, Uncategorized | 38 comments

Do You Need To Be An Expert To Criticize Science?

PZ just wrote another response to Ed Clint’s critique of Watson’s Skepticon 5 speech. Once again, it isn’t substantive, but goes to qualifications, which, to be fair, were indeed addressed by Clint and by others. So, the question is: Does someone need to have any qualifications to criticize something? And obviously the answer is no, anyone can criticize anything; it happens all the time, and often that criticism is spot on.

But typically, it helps to have either a background in or knowledge of a particular science or other complex field before your criticism of that field will be relevant, articulate, informed, and logically sound. And when someone demonstrates that their criticism is none of these things, then the question of qualifications and competence comes up. When Rebecca Watson delivered her speech at Skepticon 5 (and is apparently presenting the same speech in New Zealand three times) she made many substantive errors that someone with even a layperson’s understanding of science wouldn’t have made. Thus she was unqualified to give the speech. It’s that simple.

Important Addendum:

Apparently PZ Myers believes that Paul Ryan’s degree in economics doesn’t qualify him to speak to economics, yet Watson’s degree in marketing qualifies her to tear apart evolutionary science. TRIGGER WARNING — ad homs:


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  • I actually just left a reply on his blog saying qualifications are not needed to discuss a topic, but sufficient knowledge is needed, which Rebecca did not have,

    • bluharmony

      The funny thing is that PZ can’t seem to come up with a substantive response “off the cuff” because so far both of his responses have been red herring fallacies in respect to Clint’s substantive claims. The first one was just a lengthy ad hom. The second is also irrelevant. And yet he claims that EP is so easy to criticize that even someone who doesn’t know anything about it can do it. And PZ *is* [supposed to be] a scientist.

      • To be a red herring with respect to Clint’s substantive claims PZ would have had to have claimed that his responses addressed those. He’s been quite explicit that he’s waiting to do so.

        • bluharmony

          Why did he even need to write this again? He’s constantly going on about how Watson is the best science communicator ever. Clint exposed some of her errors. The only relevant response is to explain why those weren’t errors, even though it’s now admitted that some of them clearly were.

          • aanimo

            I don’t know. Personally, I would have preferred that he waited to do a scientific critique. It just wasn’t a red herring — and I apologize for nitpicking like that.

          • bluharmony

            Well, I suppose because he expressly said he wasn’t addressing the substance, that would be the case. And yet he does address the substance with sweeping generalizations. So far, both of his posts have been mean-spirited and useless.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    If they were skeptics, then they would decide an argument on the merits of the argument. But the FTB crowd seems to have made up their mind that they and the people they support are infallible.

  • NeilTerry

    I read Ed Clint’s piece yesterday, and thought it was a completely fair and unbiased piece of criticism. I wanted to be fair and hear any rebuttals, so I read PZ’s piece today.
    I have seen the “shut up and sing” ploy play out many, many times. It is obviously a real phenomenon. Usually I hear it from social conservatives against liberal celebrities who champion gay marriage or other cultural issues, but I think almost everyone does it to some extent when their biases or beliefs are challenged by someone they don’t have full respect or admiration for. But PZ totally failed to make his case. All he did was make the claim that she was only being criticized because she is Rebecca Watson. He didn’t address anything Ed Clint said, he didn’t show that Rebecca did anything other than what Ed claims and shows. He didn’t show how any of her generalizations were helpful or accurate or a good representation of the field. He ignored all of the actual points and just declared it to be a non-issue, and by doing so basically accused Ed of doing nothing but grudge-holding or worse.

    I was hoping for a clear and fair criticism of Ed’s piece, or an honest discussion of what Rebecca got right and not-so-right in her talk, but all I got was another mealy-mouthed catch-phrase that criticizes with no substance at all, and establishes the prized mantle of “victimhood” for Rebecca once again. And of course, the commenters just piled on with substance-free bashing of all evo-psych, more conflating of the bad or overly speculative with the reasonable and testable (one of the main criticisms agianst Watson…never dealt with, but heartily engaged in by others). Tons of loud claims of supporting racism, sexism, rape-apology, all with no merit and no facts.
    In short, the usual pharyngula horse puckey. The always right, never wrong, self-congratulatory self-righteous circle jerk with no substance whatsoever, which I have grown to loathe over the last few years. I wanted so much to see some merit, but it was just monkeys throwing poo and claiming enlightenment in how well they can justify their poo-parties. Not one real critique of the science, not one fair response to the criticism…just another in-group rally and a whole lot of hate, finger-pointing, and accusations.

    I’ll give PZ another shot, and read his actual promised critique of evo-psych when it comes. I am a layman, with no relevant credentials. He has at least a relevant background, and has a chance to reach a lot of people like me with a reasoned and reasonable post. But if it’s just another poo-party and in-group loyalty test then I’ll just ignore it. If I’m expected to believe that all evo-psych does is defend patriarchy and oppress women and minorities with pseudoscience, I will need a good amount of evidence and a reasoned argument. I hope he doesn’t waste his opportunity with just more antics, catch-phrases, silly accusations and BS. I probably won’t even skim the comments, they have been a sewer for years and I doubt that will ever change.

    • bluharmony

      The problem is that all but the most strident feminists usually criticize EP in an even-handed way, and the field (especially its pop manifestations) certainly merits some criticism, but then so do all social (soft) sciences. And hell, there are errors made in the hard sciences as well. God damn evil patriarchy messing everything up again. 😉

      BTW, feminism has the least evidence-based support of anything out there, and is actually anti-scientific methodology. Which, I suspect, is the real problem here.

      • aanimo

        BTW, feminism has the least evidence-based support of anything out there, and is actually anti-scientific methodology.

        That really depends on who you’re talking about. Lots of scientific research has been done, in various different fields, regarding most of the more typical feminist claims. So, sure, there are feminists and feminisms which aren’t evidence-based and anti-scientific, but the opposite is also true.

        • bluharmony

          I’m largely talking about radical feminist theory, which has become surprisingly mainstream.

          • aanimo

            Yeah, but if Watson has to be careful to always specify that she’s talking about mainstream pop evo psych, you should probably be careful to specify which kind of feminism you’re talking about (and mainstream? really? do you have any data to back that up, or is this just a noise-on-the-internet heuristic?)

          • bluharmony

            I’ll refer you to the Feminism 101 Blog — the same “valuable” resource that Watson refers everyone to during her speeches. That’s where they say that sexism can’t go both ways, for example.

          • aanimo

            So it is just a noise-on-the-internet heuristic, then. If that’s valid to claim that radical feminism is in any sense mainstream feminism, then it is also perfectly valid to use as the basis for a claim that junk evo-psych is mainstream evo-psych.

          • bluharmony

            It’s what Watson teaches, and I think it’s junk, yes.

          • bluharmony

            It’s what Watson preaches, and I think it’s junk, yes.

            But it’s also what the (far more qualified) authors of the books I
            cited claim that modern feminism has turned into, so it’s not just a noise-on-the-internet heuristic.

            Besides, noise on the internet these days is some of the most important
            noise there is.

          • bluharmony

            Also there’s a big difference between the media misrepresenting EP, and feminists fighting amongst themselves, I think. If they can’t come up with a consistent theory, how can I? Beyond equity feminism, I think it’s all garbage, personally. But each feminist’s bucket of garbage is different. It’s like religion that way.

          • bluharmony

            Also, go for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Sommers’ work, Pinker’s work and see who feminists typically cite when making their arguments.

  • The problem is that Watson left herself with no place to hide. We can discuss her credentials all day long but I can’t recall ever hearing such a wholesale dismissal of a field (outside of those fields generally considered to be unscientific), so her vulnerability stems not so much from her lack of authority as from the extremity of her claims.

    Some very basic concepts fall under the banner of evo psych and many people tend to overlook that. Kin selection springs to mind immediately, reciprocity, altruism, the list goes on. These are all areas of evolutionary thinking which form part of the evo psych canon (even if they predate the usage of the term) and it is a simple misportrayal of the scope and depth of the field to trivialise it by commenting on things such as preferences for blonde hair and then finishing the talk with a shrug of the shoulders to suggest that if there is anything good in the field it must be somehow be really obscure and boring.

    She may as well have dismissed the entire field of particle physics on the grounds of some of the more speculative areas of string theory (not that there are really any non-speculative areas!) as if any shortcomings you can attribute to this field of enquiry applies to the whole discipline.

    Had she cut her talk in a different fashion, emphasising that she was concerned specifically about:
    – popular treatment and reporting of evo psych specifically
    – the ‘why’ questions in particular, and differentiated between claims of traits (which are generally testable, at least in theory) and the conditions and selection pressures that account for the adaptation (which is generally speculative, by its very nature)
    – the possible over specificity of some of the research
    – the sometime over confidence in results, especially when set alongside other potential explanations

    …had she gone down those lines she would have given herself a little more breathing space and, i propose, come across as somewhat more nuanced in her approach.


    • bluharmony

      I agree completely. Great comment. I’d love to see you blog with us (though that decision isn’t mine to make).

      • Very kind of you to say that, thanky you 🙂 Not quite so sure my wife would be as keen to see another time sink adding to my online time, however!

        • bluharmony

          Give it a thought, though, you write extremely well and always try to take a balanced approach in your videos. Love them. 🙂

    • I agree. And she still has scope for limiting the damage by withdrawing the overall wiping of evolutionary psychologically – and doing it honestly by admitting she had gone overboard. It would help if she mentioned some studies which she thinks were good science too.

      Rebecca is being interviewed specifically on her talk tomorrow am (New Zealand time) on Kim Hill’s radio programme. I’ll have a listen and see if she is moderating he claims at all. There will also be a link on radio NZ if anyone wants to follow it up.

      • bluharmony

        It would be great if you wrote a short commentary about it. You probably have a less biased perspective than some of us (like me!)

        • I have written something at

          Sceptical humility and peer review in science (

          That also has a link to the interview

          • bluharmony

            I just read it, retweeted it, and then listened to the interview. I frankly don’t even know what to say about it; it’s yet another version of the Egate story, it doesn’t address any of the criticism leveled at her speech, and she seems to not understand the problem of introducing political ideology into skepticism (which I write about early on in this blog). I can’t really argue with her points about abusive internet behavior, but that appears to come from all directions, including certain feminists, and not just “misogynists.” Also, we still have no idea if these anonymous “misogynists” are atheists, but we know that the feminists on, say, PZ’s blog definitely are. So I’m puzzled.

            The interviewer seemed puzzled too, or was asking tough questions, at the very least.

  • Dick Strawkins

    Rebecca Watson, or anyone else for that matter, is perfectly free to talk about whatever subject they choose. Criticising individual studies that use bad science is something that any skeptic can and should do – although you should take the time to read the details of those studies rather than relying on a second hand report.

    The issue that scientists in particular are having with her talk, is that it dismisses an entire field of biological science. To do such a dismissal in a rational manner implies that you have examined the evidence for the field as a whole. While a scientist who works in the field should have the education and experience to make such a judgement, a non-scientist will be required to dedicate a huge amount of time to get themselves educated in the subject in order to ensure that the dismissal is both rational and fair IF their dismissal is contrary to the consensus scientific opinion.

    Remember, evolutionary psychology is basically a term for the study of the evolution of human behavior – a branch of ethology. It’s pedigree goes back to Darwins writings in ‘The Descent of Man’ and ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’.
    What’s more, EP, like other areas of evolutionary science, is not a homogenous theory. There are many competing hypotheses in EP (and for individual topics within EP- gender differences is only a small part of its scope) as there are for other areas of evolutionary science.
    The identification of bad science being done in one part of evolutionary psychology is not a sufficient justification for ignoring the good studies within that field, any more than the Piltdown study ( rather ironically, made much more interesting because the perpetrators “made it up”) is a justification for dismissing evolution as a whole.
    There is a reason why serious academic conferences almost exclusively use qualified experts in their field of research to impart the latest research.

    Perhaps it may come across as elitist but what’s wrong with putting a value on education and study as a means to promote rationalism?

    • Karmakin

      Nothing wrong with putting a value on it, but there’s something VERY wrong with turning it into a sort of gate that you must get by in order to be able to discuss a subject. There’s real value in having outsiders discussing a subject, as long as they’re doing it from an informed point of view and doing it fairly. That was the problem with RW’s talk was that it was unfair and leaned upon several anti-science tropes and patterns.

      The example I’d give is economics actually (considering the video). Quite frankly, I feel that having some economics education (or at least relying exclusively on that education) can actually make someone less informed on these subjects. Economics 101/102 has some bad/out of date assumptions and models IMO, which can result in bad economic policy or support for that policy. As an example, the unit value of labor, which actually can only be measured in an increasingly limited number of cases (solo craftsmen and cold salespeople come to mind) does a poor job of modeling the reality of most modern firms (and as such results in over-selling job losses that come with wage increases). With more education, of course, you can take courses that off-set these initial issues, but it doesn’t change that they’re still there.

      EP really does have the same problem. People with a “101” level understanding of the subject do sometimes use it for sexist means, as a way of explaining why overt gender roles are a necessary thing in our society. That is probably what RW’s speech SHOULD have been about I think, instead of disparaging the entire field. The problem is that their “Feminism 101” is hardly any better…an overly simplistic and incorrect model.

      There’s a very real pattern here. The drive to create simple models results in those simple models taken as absolute gospel resulting in a rather dogmatic view of the world.

    • bluharmony

      Right, and that’s what Coyne and the feminist critics he supports do, unlike Watson, who just bumbles around like an unemployed comedienne.

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  • Interestingly, I find myself in rare agreement with PZ for much of this article:

    I agree with him in the general sentiment he expresses – having outsiders critique entrenched flaws in a field is not a bad thing. Where I completely break with him is where he applies this to the specific example of Rebecca Watson, who clearly did a royal hack job in her critique of evolutionary psychology. She clearly has not engaged with the subject deeply, and I think that’s incumbent upon somebody untrained in a subject who’s offering any sort of analysis or critique of any field.

    PZ clearly misses this and writes it off as another case of the big meanies going after poor Rebecca Watson. I see it more as a case of Watson being held intellectually accountable for the shit she dishes out – nothing wrong with that.

    • I also have to add that it’s no small irony that the usual suspects at FTB are singing this tune now. Because when I brought up criticism of their pet favorite ideas in social science and “science studies”, I got an earful of how I was totally unqualified to criticize, as my background was mainly in the “hard” sciences. Some of these people’s “rational” arguments extend only about as far as an internet debate thread.

      • bluharmony

        I agree completely.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    One thing that comes to my mind… science is almost a pure meritocracy. Theoretically, anyone could participate in any field. Obviously most of the work is done by specialists with equipment, funding, and time, but anyone could do good work and get it published.

    Similarly, a well known figure in a field will tend to be given the benefit of the doubt (at least for a while), just because of his previous work.

    Now, what I’m wondering is if PZ, who really isn’t famous for his research work (at least compared to Dawkins, Paidan, or Gould) is taking the activist route to try and make a name for himself?

    Off topic, but I’m just curious…

  • Ronlawhouston

    Fundamentally, it’s all a rehash of the nature versus nurture debate. The funny part of that debate is that there seems to be a correlation between political ideology and your take on nature versus nurture. Generally, liberals don’t like things like biological determinism. I suspect that PZ thanks to his liberal nature has some bias against evolutionary psychology. Watson because of her feminism probably finds evolutionary psychology loathsome and potentially dangerous. I am curious as to what PZ has to say. I avoid his blog generally, but I may have to see how he handles this issue.

    • “Generally, liberals don’t like things like biological determinism.”

      And yet many “biological determinism” bashers *love* sociological determinism. 😛

  • bks3bks

    Has anyone done as much to popularize Evolutionary Psychology as Rebecca Watson? I’ve been reading the biology literature for over twenty years now, yet after stumbling upon this brouhaha on Greg Laden’s blog, I’ve read more about evo-psych in the past 24 hours that in the preceding two decades. I believe she should be given an honorary doctorate for her contributions to the field!


    • bluharmony

      Ha! That’s one way of looking at it.

  • You need to be a scientist to criticize science as much as you need to be a theist to criticize religion. It’s an absurd concept.