Sing my Angel!

Considering that I started listening to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack after Over the Rainbow ended (the original Canadian cast, as it should be sung) and am right now working my way through the entire series of “Charlie’s Angels”, that title has a double meaning for me [grin].

Anyway, P.Z. Myers has decided to jump into the deep end of the recent evolutionary psychology debate with a post entitled Shut Up and sing!, named after a book by Laura Ingram based on the controversy over the Dixie Chicks’ espousing of their political views during their concerts. Myers brings this up in the context of the recent flap against Bob Costas for talking about gun control during the half-time show of an NFL broadcast. Myers takes this as an indication that people were more upset about a sports commentator talking about politics than about him talking about it at two very inappropriate times: the first being during a sports show where one should talk mostly about sports and only about politics when it is directly relevant, and where if you do talk about it you should be neutral about it and the second being immediately after a tragic murder/suicide incident. But let’s not talk about that specifically, but about the first conclusion, that it was somehow wrong of Costas as a sports commentator to talk about and criticize politics. 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 this:

What it really is is an authoritarian defense of orthodoxy that dismisses criticism unless it comes from the right kind of person — preferably one comfortably embedded deeply in the orthodox position. It’s a version of the Courtier’s Reply, only in this case it’s used to defend science, or a political position, rather than theology. Shut Up and Sing Syndrome imposes unjustifiable barriers to criticism: you don’t get to criticize the subject at hand unless, for instance, you have a Ph.D. in the relevant subject, or some other lofty credential, even if the criticism is based on obvious and trivial flaws that a layperson can see.

Um, if the flaws are so obvious, then don’t you think that the people in the field would have already noticed them? Which means that either they did notice, found them to be damning, and moved on, or else they noticed, raised them, and the people who did the original work/study/hypothesis went back, corrected for them, and still came up with something that supports their theory/hypothesis. In all of these cases, the layperson who finds the original media report and then reads the original study will likely not be aware of all of this extra work. At which point, the people in that field will likely reply that yes, they know all of that, and fixed it, and so that the person who made the criticism really needs to look at the more modern work instead of raising as a criticism things that were done long ago. This becomes even more crucial when the criticism is raised against the field itself as opposed to just a specific result.

Thus, the “Courtier’s Reply”. If the objections really are so obvious that even those with only a shallow and trivial understanding of the field can point them out, chances are they already have been, and so the layperson is highly unlikely to be adding anything new to the debate. Thus, their criticisms seem wildly out-of-date, and to reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the field. If, as is the case with theology, people are using this shallow understanding to dismiss the entire field, it’s perfectly fair to ask them to actually know something about the field as it is today before they start going after the field. In Watson’s case, it was not unreasonable to think that her objections were not with the specific studies she listed, but were criticisms of the fundamentals of the field of evolutionary psychology. Clint’s pointing out that evolutionary psychology has actually already dropped the ideas that she’s criticizing reflects that she isn’t engaging with evolutionary psychology.

Ultimately, in order to get a decent reception when you criticize a field or things in a field, you generally have to demonstrate that you actually know enough about that field to make valid criticisms. There are two ways to demonstrate this:

1) Have credentials. The credentials don’t have to be PhD level, nor do they have to be even official. As long as you can demonstrate that you’ve put the time in to study the topics and fields enough to have an informed opinion, things will go better. As Myers has conceded that philosophers have had interesting things to say about evolutionary biology, let me point out that for the most part philosophers get their credentials in the second way much of the time, by reading and commenting lightly on relevant papers and works in the field. Philosophy, in general, studies everything, and so it’s easy to believe that a philosopher might have, in the course of their philosophy, studied other fields.

2) Comment in ways that demonstrate that you do understand it. This way will always get you a good reception, and if you fail to achieve this in your comments you’re toast no matter what your credentials are. Sam Harris, for example, passes 1) when it comes to ethics, but fails 2) because he seems to ignore or dismiss legitimate and long-standing debates and discussions in the field. His Bachelor’s degree is enough table stakes to get him into the debate, but his actual hand is empty … and philosophers have called his bluff.

Watson doesn’t have the credentials, as Myers admits. Does her talk demonstrate that she actually understands evolutionary psychology enough to be taken seriously as someone who isn’t just ranting? My opinion is that she hasn’t, but that’s the debate here, and hopefully Myers will demonstrate that she does know what she’s talking about at some point. Because it isn’t in this post.

I’ve heard this before, from cranks on the other side, and I can mention one name that ought to give these skeptics pause: Emily Rosa.

Remember her? The nine year old girl who published her science fair project that showed that “therapeutic touch”, which claims that practitioners can diagnose ailments by waving their hands above them, didn’t work? She got the same kind of response from quacks, who dismissed her experiment because it was an insult to all the nurses and doctors who believed in it, and because she was a little nobody who couldn’t know how to design an experiment.

Myers seems to think that this supports his point. In line with what I said above, I fail to see how. Did she really prove that it didn’t work? Was her experiment properly designed? My answer would be that I don’t particularly care, because there is no reason to think that she did run a proper experiment. She’s nine years old and doesn’t know how to do that. I’d wager that if she had come up with a result that disagreed with what Myers et al believed, all of the skeptics would be out in force making the same arguments that Myers derides. The history on this is clear; whenever some young person makes an argument that rationalists agree with, they are hailed as being “incredibly rational for their age” while even people with more experience and expertise are dismissed if they disagree (heck, see the replies to Polkinghorne and scientists that are compatibilists for more evidence). A nine year old is generally not capable of running a good experiment, and so those who support “therapeutic touch” don’t need to address it until they are given more reason to. End of story.

Easy. Sometimes highly educated people hold stupid ideas — stupid ideas that aren’t that hard to unmask. And sometimes the worst kind of attitude comes from people who have a blind faith in the work of experts, to the point that they assume they can’t err, or that the process of science is so robust that it can’t fail.

Sure … but how likely is that? If you think that you’ve found a major failing in a broadly studied field that you don’t know that much about, you probably should go and see if they’ve already thought if it and how they responded before presenting it as a fait accompli. In fairness, Rosa probably didn’t really do that, but Watson certainly did. I’ve seen this from all sides as I went through my philosophy degree, at one point being the person who thought he had seen all the obvious flaws and also seeing others less experienced and educated in the philosophy fire off the supposedly obvious flaws that, when examined, actually aren’t. So, sure, perhaps the people shouldn’t shut up about what they think about fields that are not theirs, but they should enter into discussions about them with the appropriate humility being fully prepared to be proven wrong. I don’t think Watson had that.

Every scientist knows that peer review is not infallible. We spend a good chunk of our training sitting in journal clubs, mercilessly tearing apart papers published in even the most prestigious journals. Peer review helps weed out some of the bad stuff, so it’s a good thing…but it just improves the odds. And when you’ve got some deeply ingrown subfield where all the “peers” buy into the same bullshit, and approve and publish each others’ papers, the garbage can reach toxic levels.

You know, I didn’t really buy the “denialism” charge, but right here Myers seems to be attacking the ability of science itself as a whole to correct its mistakes in order to preserve the ability for laypeople like Rebecca Watson to, essentially, spout off about it. Yes, we all know that science is not infallible, but does it really need people who are by their own admission only shallowly educated in the field to find its errors? So much for science, then. And remember, I’m not talking about fields like philosophy that read and talk about everything or related fields but that aren’t directly that field — like, say, evolutionists criticizing how evolutionary psychology talks about evolution — but someone with no directly relevant credentials whose knowledge of the field is, by her own admission, limited mainly to what she reads in the media (which keeps healing 50 points of HP for all members of my party [grin]). Science should not need it, which means that telling her to not criticize the field until she has proven that she’s done the work should cause no problems for science. If it does, then science is not only not the only way of knowing, it isn’t a very good one. I’ll stick with philosophy.

Let me make my point here clear: science should not need laypersons to comment on it in order to find the truth. If there are cases where different perspectives can in some cases find issues faster, that’s fine … but science should be able to correct itself without that, and so should lose little if anything if laypersons are encouraged to not try to correct it. Myers seems to be suggesting that that wouldn’t be the case, which to my mind is more damning a comment on science as a field than anything any anti-science religious person has ever raised.

Now, Myers does go on to wax eloquently about the contributions amateurs have made. The first one he mentions is philosophy, for which I thank him (but wish he’d defend philosophy as a field more, since a lot of his compatriots don’t find it useful), but it isn’t a good example because I suspect that the contributions they made were in analyzing the logic of the arguments and in pointing out issues with his theories/concepts … which happens to be what philosophy’s field is. It is unlikely that they designed good experiments and generated excellent empirical data on their own that helped, and so here he is thanking philosophy for going outside of their field to do … exactly what is in fact in their field. Thus, they actually stayed in their field. Yeah, bad example [grin].

But he gives other examples:

Ask the astronomers, who have a deep and wide tradition of amateur observers. Ask taxonomists, who have long relied on non-scientist collectors. Ask the skeptics, Drescher’s own peer group, who have been putting people on stage and in print for years who have no scientific credentials at all. Are all the UFOlogists who have been debunking sightings been test pilots and rocket scientists? Have all the Bigfoot and chupacabra debunkings been done by experts with Ph.D.s in zoology? Have the skeptics who expose bleeding statues of the madonna as natural phenomena all been equipped with advanced theology degrees?

The astronomers and taxonomists relied on the amateurs for data, not for commentary, so that’s a bad example. As for the skeptics, their contributions have been mixed. I would argue that those who are legitimately successful are those that fell into 2) above; even though they didn’t have formal credentials, they engaged with the topics and proved that they understood the claims enough to make valid criticisms that they had to take seriously. I would say that in the above cases much of the skeptical challenges have been fairly flat, as they relied more on mockery than on engagement, much like Watson’s talk.

Also note that Myers must be aware that for the theology case, many people have pointed out that they don’t know enough about theology to successfully “debunk” some of those cases, and so he’s relying on people just agreeing with him without really arguing for it. But that’s minor, I guess.

I will also point out that sometimes the experts are busy, or aloof from the public, or take acceptance of their discipline for granted, and they aren’t interested in participating in a public discussion of their field. That’s the case in evolutionary biology, for instance, where the truly rare individual is the qualified, credentialed expert in a particular field who is willing to spend the time in public education (it doesn’t help, either, that often outreach is derided within a field as a waste of time). The relevant specific expertise is some accurate knowledge of science and an enthusiasm for communicating it to others. If you’re going to silence the communicators who don’t have advanced degrees and deep expertise in a field, you’re going to seriously dry up the roster of people who are allowed to educate the public.

The problem here is that the acceptance of a layperson’s commentary on a field that is not theirs will vary — and rightly so — depending on what they’re doing:

1) Trying to summarize a field to express it to laypeople and the masses so that they understand and accept it. In most cases, if errors are found, the comment will be “Well, that’s not quite true, and so is a bit misleading, but you get the gist of it right. Thanks!”

2) Mild criticism of a particular result or of some of the fundamentals in a field, basically by pointing out issues that you might have missed. The responses here might be a little harsher, especially for those who will not brook criticism of the field, but in this case most people will at least be willing to listen for a bit before tearing into it.

3) Mocking and aggressive criticism of a particular result. This will usually spawn the response of “Have you actually read it?”, and a very hostile and defensive result.

4) Mocking and aggressive criticism of an entire field. You’ll get what Watson got.

Now, in the latter two, you’ll probably get that even if you happen to be right. But it is certainly the case that the response will be far harsher in those cases if you happen to be wrong. In Watson’s case, Clint clearly thinks she’s wrong, and so because she seemed to be mocking it and expressing it as if she knew exactly what she was talking about when to him she didn’t, she got a harsh reaction. You can look at the reaction to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong” to see just how well evolutionary biologists reacted to those laypersons — who are far less laypersons about that topic than Watson — jumping in and criticizing the theory of evolution and its conceptual issues. (Note: I was sure that Myers had commented on it as well, but can’t find it. Maybe it’s on the old site).

So, in essence, there’s nothing wrong with laypersons trying to educate people about a field. They just have to react with due modesty when they criticize it. Unless someone wants to claim that Watson acted with due modesty, I don’t see how the call for her to not aggressively criticize a field she doesn’t understand means that those who want to educate people about science in general can’t do that.

But here’s that telling reveal: in response to an exposé of shoddy science within the field, the evolutionary psychologists aren’t saying, with some embarrassment, ‘Yeah, we need to clean house a bit, and we should maybe be criticizing the sloppy work ourselves a little more loudly.’ No, instead they’re saying, ‘Kick her off the stage right now.’ She is accused of being a “science denialist”. All the attention is being paid to a biased critique of Watson’s talk that does a damned poor job of defending evolutionary psychology.

The problem is that the replies to this in at least Clint’s criticism seem to be two-fold:

1) We already did.

2) Some of the things you call shoddy science aren’t.

Again, I think the charges of science denialism against Watson are a bit strong, but at the very least she and Myers have to acknowledge that they don’t agree with Watson’s assessments on everything … and that there is no particular reason for someone like myself, a layperson with philosophical training and far more psychology than was good for me, to think that she’s right and they’re wrong.

Myers is making this a series, so I might end up doing one as well. After all, I’m off for a while and so actually have the time to do it.

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3 Responses to “Sing my Angel!”

  1. Muñoz Says:

    These people are bending and twisting themselves in all possible ways to defend an indefendable position.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    The sad thing is that all they really have to say is “She probably didn’t make it clear enough what she was going after, and was probably a bit forceful about it, but evolutionary psychology/”pop” psychology has problems and those problems do have an impact on how women and minorities are viewed”. Then the discussion could go on. But the rants go WAY too far.

  3. The Colour-blind Leading the Colour-blind … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] had promised, P.Z. Myers has continued on to discuss the failings of evolutionary psychology. And as I promised, I’m going to comment on […]

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