Rebecca Watson on Evolutionary Psychology …

So, it seems that Rebecca Watson gave a lecture/presentation/whatever at Skepticon about evolutionary psychology, and Edward Clint, an evolutionary psychologist, replied to it. Now, Stephanie Zvan replied to Clint’s reply, and reading that got me to watch the presentation. It was the first time I’ve ever watched one of her lectures/presentations, and in the same vein as her normal style I suppose I have to say that like so many other first times, it was a bit disappointing. Hence, I feel the need to actually go through it and comment on it in some detail. I will, after this, get into Zvan’s reply to Clint because I think there are important things to say on that, although at this point I’m starting to feel like posting about Rebecca Watson is a bit like the old intros from Wayne and Shuster specials …

The biggest general problem I have with Watson is, interestingly enough, about the same general problem I have with Richard Dawkins, amusing considering the relationship between the two over the past year or so. In essence, both of them do not really argue their points. They, instead, rely mostly on mockery and rhetoric to make their points, which makes them really, really irritating to read or watch. When given a choice between making what they think, at least, is a funny mocking joke and making a serious, strong intellectual point, they always tend to jump to the mockery and leave the intellect behind. This, of course, plays really, really well to people who generally agree with you, as evidenced by the laughter at her mockery in this video (you can see it at Clint’s site, at the link I provided). The problem is that when you mock something, you always tend to misrepresent it at least a little bit to make the joke, and if you didn’t understand it in the first place you thus jump from a minor misrepresentation to something that doesn’t look at all like the thing you’re talking about. Which leads people who know what you’re talking about — whether they are in favour of it or not — to at least roll their eyes, and if they disagree with you that it’s mockable — or, in fact, that it’s wrong — then you are likely to get accused of creating strawmen or missing the point.

There’s a lot of mockery in this lecture. So this post, then, will be a bit long.

So, let me start at the beginning, and what actually made me decide that I had to examine this in some detail. One of the main issues in the entire lecture is that Watson is criticizing a purported science in some way, or purported scientific studies. But it’s a recurring theme — and so will be mentioned again and again in this post — that Watson will try to rebut scientific studies with rebuttals … that are, surprisingly, not scientific. In the Holmes study on women and shopping, for example, her first counter — and, oddly, the one that most looks like an actual counter — is that you don’t inherit learned behaviour, which she exemplifies by appealing to the example that her father is really good at playing the drums, but she isn’t, so she didn’t inherit that. The problem is that in order to make this stick as an argument, she’d have to demonstrate that shopping — and, particularly, the desire to shop — is learned behaviour. She doesn’t do that. On top of that, you can indeed inherit genetically influenced aptitudes, which may make doing certain things — like playing the drums — easier for you. Thus, there may indeed, then, be inherited aptitudes driven from the “hunter-gatherer” societies that we “evolved” (or, perhaps, adapted, since they really are the same thing to evolutionists) that make shopping easier and therefore more enjoyable for women, explaining why the society itself “evolved” towards those roles. Or, there may not be. To settle that, you’re going to have to do studies like the one Holmes did, come up with some hypotheses, and then test those hypotheses. Or, rather, you’re going to have to do evolutionary psychology.

Her next “counter” is to point at a supposedly bad choice that she, as an individual, made on a “smoking nun” doll, I think. Of course, you can’t point to specific cases and even specific individuals to make even a psychological case, and surely she knows that. Even when we harken back to the first counter, we know that genetic traits can skip individuals and even generations — see, for example, many cases of genetic defects — and so that absolutely proves nothing. But I suspect it isn’t supposed to; it’s just supposed to be a joke and mockery, something to move on from. As is her next point about us not gathering in a cave, and what malls would look like if that really was the case. That’s simply taking one statement way too literally, and without looking at the study itself to see if that was the hallmark of the theory.

So, from that study, she has made … zero actual serious scientific counters to it.

At about the 9 minute mark, she talks about what evolutionary psychology is committed to. Clint in his article goes after this, and I have to agree with his criticisms. Some hay has been made about her slipping “pop” in here to try to distinguish “real” evolutionary psychology from “pop” evolutionary psychology, and I will have more to say about this when I go after Zvan’s post, but she uses “pop” as a qualifier in exactly two places that I recall, and neither are really cases that make it so that we can understand that she is only going after “pop” evolutionary psychology. Even if it was, she gives us absolutely no way to tell “real” evolutionary psychology from “pop” evolutionary psychology, and she talks continually about evolutionary psychology itself and not media representations of it. So I think it fair, at least, to suggest that she isn’t clear enough about what she’s talking about when she uses the term “evolutionary psychology”.

At about the 10 minute mark, I think we start getting into the hypothesis/theory about shopping versus museums. Someone — I forget who, and don’t want to wait for it to reload to check right now — noticed that on a trip with some friends all of the men wanted to go see cultural sites — like museums — and all of the women wanted to go shopping. He posited that this might be tied to the “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle, and posited that shopping was more like gathering and that going to the museum was more like hunting. Now, before I get into Watson’s replies, let me point out that there are two scientific issues to be addressed here:

1) It needs to be established that this is a general tendency and not just something that applies to his specific circle of friends. I think most people just think that obvious, but science should not take the obvious as being obvious and so should establish that.

2) From there, we’d need to scientifically establish characteristics of museum-visiting and shopping that we can tie to the evolved attributes from those sorts of societies. This is what Watson quotes and it is right to note that these are weak.

Unfortunately, Watson’s responses are no more scientifically and scientifically strong than the ones that he uses. Her responses mostly boil down to her saying “Nuh-uh!” using exactly the same sort of flawed methodology that she accuses him — and evolutionary psychology — of using. Her first response is to jump on a few descriptive phrases — a description that it seemed like a conquest, and using the term “bargain hunting” — to say that shopping sounds more like hunting than like gathering. This, of course, is not science. It isn’t even philosophy. It is, as I said above, nothing more than “Nuh-uh!”. Her next comment is about the claim that shopping is more of a social activity than going to a museum is, and her reply is basically to mock the claim pointing out that you have social aspects to museum visits as well. Perhaps, but again that’s not a scientific rebuttal, which would be examining whether there is more of a social role in shopping than in visiting a museum. This is probably true; in really “fancy” museums, boisterous socializing with lots of loud talking is considered impolite, which may not be true of shopping. But, anyway, that would need to be studied, and so her reply, again, is not one. She also takes on the charge that you can take children shopping but not to the museum by saying … that you can’t take them shopping and can to the museum. I don’t think you could find a clearer example of her basically committing the same sins that she accuses her opponents of doing; this argument is the same argument with the presumptions reversed.

Now, someone could say that that was rather her point. But if it was, she really needed to make that clear, and make that the thesis of her lecture. As it is, it is unclear what her thesis actually is. For the most part, she spends her time talking about how bad evolutionary psychology is and talking about “bad science”, but she spends very little time talking about the science at all. Instead, she talks a lot about the presumptions, which is a fair point (the person she is criticizing here really does make some presumptions). And so, tying it in to things she says at the end, she could have had a nice and reasonable lecture talking about how we hold stereotypes — particularly about gender, since that seems to be what she’s most bothered with — and that those stereotypes get built into scientific studies in multiple fields — psychology and biology have this problem as well — and then we run the studies using these presumptions and come to conclusions that match the stereotypes. From there, she could say that these presumptions themselves must be challenged, to which I believe Clint would reply that he agrees and that evolutionary psychology does try. From that point, she could segue into her final point that the problem with not challenging those stereotypical presumptions is that we might end up putting forward ideas that make those stereotypes true, instead of simply reporting what is true. All of which would be valid and interesting.

But this is not what she does, as we shall see as we move on.

At about 12:37, she starts talking about the failings of evolutionary psychology:

1) It’s requires a presumption that our brain state and structure is derived entirely from what happened in the Pleistocene Era and that nothing that happens now can impact that. Clint takes this one on (and tries to defend the focus on that Era), but let me summarize what I think is really the underlying principle of evolutionary psychology: At least a number of psychological structures in humans were formed by/strongly influenced by our evolutionary history. This would, in theory, include adaptations since according to modern Darwinian theory you cannot separate adaptations from evolution, and so wouldn’t be limited to just the really, really old stuff. And it is important to note — and I’ll get into this more in my reply to Zvan — that not only do most New Atheists/New Skeptics think this true, they require it to be true to get around a number of problems they have. I think Clint would agree with my summary of their foundational principle, but if anyone wants to argue it, have at it. But if I’m right, then her first point vanishes … and it’s hard to see how it could apply to “pop” evolutionary psychology instead of “real” evolutionary psychology, since “pop” evolutionary psychology won’t delve into that much detail.

2)She claims it is unfalsifiable … which is rather laughable considering all the time she spends posting studies and making counters to … prove evolutionary psychological claims false. No, we may not know the full details of what happened long, long ago, but as Clint says we do know some things, and good evolutionary psychology is based on those things. But even that is an aside, since the testability of any evolutionary argument is not in going back and finding the exact conditions — for example, finding the “missing link” — but in finding structures today that demonstrate that. So, ironically, her attack here is more an attack against all evolutionary explanations than against evolutionary psychology as a whole, and New Atheists need evolutionary explanations to work or else they are in real trouble on issues as varied as irreducible complexity and explanations for morality/altruism.

Now, I have raised these sorts of criticisms before … against evolutionary explanations as a whole. In short, I have raised the issue that a lot of evolutionary arguments look a lot like she’s positing here: find a trait, assume it evolved, and then spin a story about how it evolved to get there without properly taking the environment and the stages into account. This seems to be the tack Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take as well. So her description and objection, then, isn’t completely unwarranted. What’s misleading is that it is applied as an argument against evolutionary psychology specifically, and not evolutionary arguments as a whole. In general, Watson’s comments are aimed at flaws in psychology and in evolutionary arguments, but because of her tight focus on evolutionary psychology it looks like she’s saying that these are special problems for evolutionary psychology. They ain’t.

At around 18 minutes, she talks about Ramachandran’s invented explanation for men preferring blonde women, and then points out that some evolutionary psychologists seem to have run with it. She laughs at this, but she is forgetting one really, really, really important thing: just because Ramachandran invented it off the cuff as something to mock evolutionary psychology that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. He could very well have stumbled onto the right hypothesis, which inspired some evolutionary psychologists to look for it. When she moves on to attacking one person’s take on why (the general “demonstrates health” example), if we put aside the fact that that person isn’t actually credible in the field of evolutionary psychology we can see that her rebuttals are more of the same. She talks about how Africa, with no blonde women, would be a counter to this … except that it’s obvious that in that area the selection pressures ought to be different and so they’d have a different set of attractiveness traits that might also be formed by evolution. And this would lead us to an excellent test bed, as we have two possibilities here:

1) The preference for blondes is universal, even in cultures without pale-skinned blonde women. If this is true, then this would be a universal trait, which would support the contention that this is an evolved trait very strongly, as it would be universal (and so would tap into a universal selection pressure). Separating this out from socialization would be difficult, but even that would demonstrate whether it is evolved or socialized (it should devolve to the second possibility when socialization is removed).

2) Africans do not have this preference, but have different ones, which would strongly support the contention that in the other cultures it has evolved due to selection pressures. It wouldn’t be proof, but it would strongly suggest it.

So, despite Watson’s comments that evolutionary psychology is not testable … those look like tests to me. So, then, why isn’t evolutionary psychology testable, again?

At about 20 minutes, she starts talking about evolutionary psychology on sex, and asserts that it seems like it was designed to make all sex that men like natural and all desire for sex in women driven by things other than, say, simply pleasure. Of course, one of the most discussed “findings” in evolutionary psychology is about how men are more promiscuous because it would allow them to spread their genetic material better, which sounds an awful lot like asserting that women are less because they have to invest more into the process of reproduction, and so it sounds an awful like they’re treated exactly the same, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good rant, I suppose.

At about 21 minutes, she answers the question of “Why do women have sex?” with the “Because it’s fun” line, which wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that she relies on it a lot and it indicates how she fails to understand science. Science should be about looking deeper, and behind the expressed desires of people. This is what psychology, for example, is all about. So simply stopping there is fine for her, but not for science as a whole.

Anyway, she then goes on to talk about studies looking at the desire for casual sex in men and women. Basically, the hypothesis was that for men casual sex is more the ideal, while for women more committed sex is the ideal, and it seems to me that biology, at least, bears this out a bit. So, they went out and tested it by having men and women approach random people of the appropriate gender and ask them to have casual sex. Men generally accepted; women generally declined (overwhelmingly so, in fact). Now, before we get into the criticism of this, let me point out two things:

1) This seems to be “good science”, in the sense that they formed a hypothesis and went out to test it.

2) This is more a psychological test than an evolutionary psychological test.

So, before I even got into Watson’s objections, I noted that if she actually wanted to make an argument, she’d bring up the fact that safety concerns might make it so that women were more wary of these situations than men were. She did make that argument, kinda, and so made an actual argument. Unfortunately, she bogged it down with comments about how women might feel that if something happened they wouldn’t be believed — which is far less likely to be the case than her simply thinking “I’m not going anywhere with this guy because he might rape and kill me if I do” — and snark about it men being too stupid to think this was a scam. But, yes, safety issues are a reasonable confound in this study, and so should be corrected for.

The funny thing is that she then goes on to cite studies … that purport to show this study wrong. You know, to falsify the hypothesis by proving that what we’d expect to see doesn’t actually happen. All this after she tries to say that evolutionary psychology is unfalsifiable. Add to it that she’s attacking the psychological parts using psychological studies, and one could be forgiven for thinking that either she has no idea about psychology or evolutionary psychology, or that she’s quite lost the thread of her own topic.

Anyway, she starts with a Speed Dating study that showed that women were less selective in those cases when they were put in a position to make all the decisions. Of course, Speed Dating is about meeting people for a more social rather than a directly sexual context, and so it doesn’t really apply to casual sex all that much, so it doesn’t seem like a great example. She also talks about a similar study that showed that women who approached like this were seen as being overall better than men who did this in terms of sexual ability and intelligence and all sorts of things, which simply demonstrates another potential confound: that men who make this sort of approach might look like creeps, and thus to my mind tie back into the safety issues mentioned earlier. So, an interesting study, but it has little to do with the original hypothesis.

At about 29 minutes, she talks about a study that showed that when people were asked to imagine those sorts of approaches from celebrities, friends and strangers the numbers went up. The problem with this is that this relates to fantasizing, and in fantasizing the numbers will, of course, go up. We all will fantasize about sexual situations that we wouldn’t engage in in real life, for various reasons. So what does this say about their real-world reactions, which are the ones most relevant for both psychological and especially evolutionary arguments? Not much. I won’t say it isn’t interesting, but all it means is that there’s far more work to be done.

At about 31 minutes, she gets into more “bad science” when talking about some ovulation studies. The main thrust is that in a lot of these they came up with studies to test certain hypotheses about the effect of ovulation on women, the studies came up with results they didn’t expect, and they scrambled to adjust their perception of the results so that it fit the hypothesis. Sadly, this is endemic to science; scientists do this all the time. This is not, therefore, particularly to evolutionary psychology, and the only reason they had to adjust the results is because the results potentially falsified the hypothesis. Again, that’s that thing that Watson says can’t happen.

Anyway, let me skim over a lot of the rest of the studies, because they’re really more of the same. Ultimately, I just want to say that a lot of the studies are potentially valid studies — even if she derides them — and that again a lot of her counters, well, aren’t. But the real meal comes in at about 37 minutes, where she starts talking specifically about bad science and the problems that can create for women. Now, as soon as I heard her start talking about the bad science, I wanted her to tell me how to tell the good science from the bad. But she never, ever does. So, I’m left with the impression that she classifies the good evolutionary psychology from the bad evolutionary psychology simply by the results it gets, and the stereotypes that she sees it confirming. So, it seems that she’s rejecting it based on the results it gets. But this, of course, is unscientific. For all of the problematic stereotypes she mentions in the lecture, she cites flawed studies related to it. But as she says, she is not a scientist and it is clear from her answer to whether or not there is good evolutionary psychology that she doesn’t know much about the field itself beyond what the media reports. If it was the case, then, that for all of these suspect conclusions evolutionary psychologists could say that, sure, those studies and theories were flawed but here are the hundreds of well-designed studies supporting these really well thought out theories … then wouldn’t those conclusions reflect “good science”, despite saying nothing different? It seems very much that Watson is rejecting evolutionary psychological results because they clash with her feminist worldview, not because they really are bad science. Or, at least, that seems to be her overarching concern because she really has no idea if they are good, bad or indifferent science, and she gives no other criteria and no indication that she has any other criteria than that. Which makes her earlier comments about using “theory” in the same way as creationists rather ironic considering that it seems that here she’s also arguing that because the results are personally distasteful there must be something wrong with the science. If she had given good scientific reasons to distrust the results, that would be different, but for the most part she doesn’t. And so it looks like her issue is with the results, not the science.

This carries on when she talks about specific problems. She cites the naturalistic fallacy, completely missing that the naturalistic fallacy is one that’s applied when you have good science, not bad science. It is a fallacy that says that just because things are a certain way it doesn’t mean that it’s right for them to be that way, which presumes that everyone accepts that things are that way. For example, eugenics is an example of the naturalistic fallacy because it relies on everyone accepting that evolution is correct, and then says that if we accept evolution as correct we ought to institute eugenics. But, of course, that does not follow because of the naturalistic fallacy. The interesting thing about this, then, is that while Watson has spent all of her time trying to argue that the conclusions are wrong and are the result of bad science, her discussion of harms starts off with one that would be the case regardless of whether the conclusions were right or wrong. Again, if evolutionary psychology proved all of these things correct the moves that invoke the naturalistic fallacy would still invoke that fallacy. So how, then, is this motivated by bad science, and how can I tell the difference?

Her next comment is about stereotype threat. But again, it’s obvious that this would hold whether or not the stereotype was generally true or supported by good science. Being reminded of it would still degrade performance. So, her presumption here must be that it’s just wrong, but that’s what we need science to find out, and she hasn’t provided any real science on that. Or, at least, no science that itself doesn’t suffer from similar issues. How this relates, then, to evolutionary psychology — which, recall, she has spent the bulk of her lecture talking about — is a mystery to me.

Her solutions are, of course, similar. They work to address the stereotype threat and the naturalistic fallacies, but do nothing to make the supposedly bad science better. Again, even if the science was settled and true we would still have these issues, and her solutions would still be just as valid. But wasn’t she supposed to talk about how bad science was causing issues? Saying that and then not saying how to fix the science, or even talk about anything scientific in her solutions seems rather odd, and confusing.

Ultimately, it is her answer in the Q&A that sums it up. She is getting all of her evolutionary psychology from the media, and is saying that if it doesn’t appear there then it might as well not exist to the general public. But the same thing can be said for almost all if not all science, and evolution itself has this as a major problem. It is not a criticism of evolutionary psychology that the media distorts it, any more than it is a problem for physics or biology that the media distorts it. Her focus is on proving it to be bad science, not bad reporting, and she spends a lot of time rather unscientifically attack the supposed scientific basis. There are potentially good points here, but as seems the norm for Watson — as well as other New Atheists like P.Z. Myers — she reads or sees something, is offended, and leaps off to attack it without taking the time to ensure that she has a) a solid, clear point and b) is making that point clearly around her mockery. Listening to it — and I admit I listened to it after reading the posts by Zvan and Clint — I can certainly see why someone might take this as an attack on evolutionary psychology as a whole, mostly because she never actually distinguishes the two or, in fact, bad evolutionary psychology from good evolutionary psychology. Indeed, she admits that she doesn’t actually know enough evolutionary psychology to tell the difference. Again, if she had gone with an approach of “We see these presumptions, science has to be careful not to presume them, here’s the harm in us creating rather than revealing stereotypical presumptions”, then she would have had a much clearer and more interesting lecture and would have avoided a lot of these problems. And yet, she didn’t.

So, that’s my commentary on her lecture. Note that I am not, in fact, a proponent of evolutionary psychology. I do think it has a number of flaws, although I don’t dismiss it as a field entirely. So this is not me coming here to praise evolutionary psychology, nor to bury it.

2 Responses to “Rebecca Watson on Evolutionary Psychology …”

  1. “Pop” Goes the Evolutionary Psychology? « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] Freelance Philosopher « Rebecca Watson on Evolutionary Psychology … [...]

  2. Sing my Angel! « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    [...] Myers insists that this should be acceptable, and then moves on from that to tie that to the recent criticism of Rebecca Watson taking on evolutionary psychology. The starting point of his defense is essentially [...]

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