More on Watson’s talk and evolutionary psychology

In just the past two days, Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon 5 talk and Ed Clint’s critique (and to a lesser extent my post) have generated a lot of online discussion. In no particular order: John Wilkins has weighed in here and also tweeted this post; both strike me as worth reading (which isn’t to say I agree with everything in them; I obviously disagree with Wilkins’ comments on Dawkins).

Dan Fincke recommend my post on Facebook, generating a long comment thread. Dan makes some good points about Watson’s “so boring” answer to the question she got at the end of her talk:

The full quote:

“Probably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. Because, really, good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene, and we have no evidence for this, but maybe this. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. So if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media, and therefore, it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned.”

So, there are no interesting results in evolutionary psychology. Therefore we can only make stuff up. Really good evolutionary psychology would admit we have no evidence for anything and have no knowledge of the Pleistocene and are just shooting hypotheses. 

Where is the qualification there? Where is the limiting to “Bad science reporting by the media”. This is when asked if there is any good evo psych. She admits she has no idea if any such good science exists and explains that any such good science would be just confessions of profound ignorance, no evidence, no interesting results, and so too boring for the media to report.

In response, Stephanie Zvan said:

No, and I’m not sure how you get that. She’s saying that good evolutionary psychologists would be up front about what they do and don’t know and how strong their evidence is (not very for most things, as it’s a fairly new and very complicated discipline) and that this wouldn’t make for exciting press coverage.

This strikes me as more nuanced than what Watson actually said. As Dan explains (I’ve added a paragraph break to this quote):

Then I would think she could say something like this, “Good evolutionary psychology would patiently first figure out what was genetically determined or determinable, would replicate its studies cross-culturally, would find evidence that patterns were repeated in our own history and generate interesting results worth reporting on in the media. Since I haven’t researched whether any evolutionary psychologists have managed in fact to do such due diligence, I cannot speak to whether it exists.”

That would be an endorsement of evo psych as a possible science with the possibility it actually has achieved results. Instead she gave the impression that the GOOD evo psych cannot do anything more than offer hypotheses and confessions that they lack evidence based on how we know nothing of what went down in the Pleistocene. She didn’t explain how patient evo psych could develop robust, multi-sourced evidence BEFORE announcing any conclusions–just like other sciences do. She gave the impression they would have to prematurely be coming forward with confessions there’s “no evidence” instead of have initially qualified results that over time can more and more confirmed and turn into interesting science–and that this further development may have actually already happened.

James Croft has also weighed in, criticizing Watson’s talk to an extent but also arguing that calling it “science denialism” (as Clint did) or “awful” (as I did) is excessive. To respond to that: when I was writing my post, I tried to hunt down some quotes made in the context of the evolution/creationism debate explaining why being sloppy about bad popular reporting of the field vs. the field itself is not OK. After not finding those quotes, I decided not to get into the comparison with creationism and went with the neuroscience example instead. The comparison with creationism seemed just a little too easy.

That said, the closest non-hypothetical, non-evo psych analogs to the kind of sloppiness I saw in Watson’s talk I can think of are definitely from outright science denialists. I think of Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution, which tries to attack evolutionary biology by attacking bad high school textbooks. Not a perfect analogy, but it seems to me that the parallels to science denialism are definitely there.

I really would like to know what James would think of a talk like Watson’s about neuroscience–or, since I’ve brought the subject up, evolutionary biology itself, or global warming, or any other common target of science denialists. James emphasizes that Watson wasn’t delivering a paper at an academic conference, but rather giving “funny talk for Skepticon’s audience.” Well, I certainly don’t expect academic papers at a conference like Skepticon, but I do expect talks to be up to the standards of responsible popular science writing, which in my view Watson’s talk wasn’t.

James wrote a follow-up post where he makes a very important point:

This responsibility goes beyond the basic concern for truth which must be the bedrock of all communication which aims to educate. Obviously a writer is responsible for ensuring that the data they present is as accurate as possible, for organizing the data in a way which is not misleading, and for generally guiding the audience to understanding. But they also need to be careful to pitch their material at  level appropriate to their audience, to think of the audience’s likely prior experiences and to take those into account, and to always ask “Will I likely be misunderstood?”

This last is critical: when writing – either for print or presentation – it is essential to put oneself in the shoes of the audience. The question should not be “Do understand what I mean?” but “How might they understand what I have said?” Much miscommunication can be avoided if people take the opportunity to give their presentation before a critical test-audience and ask them how they understood it. Sometimes the results are surprising. I give a very large number of public presentations, and I’m frequently amazed that things I say are understood in the way that they are. “How could you think I meant that?”, I sometimes find myself wondering.

This is why I have such a big problem with William Lane Craig. When Craig claims that all the major points of the Biblical stories of Jesus’ resurrection are “facts,” you can try to be charitable and interpret that as merely a slightly obnoxious rhetorical excess. But the reality is that people who haven’t studied Biblical scholarship (i.e. most of Craig’s audience) are going to hear that and conclude Craig’s “facts” have been proven to the satisfaction of virtually all Biblical scholars–which is wildly untrue. With Craig I’m convinced this is deliberate. Watson’s similarly misleading claims may be due just to laziness, but they’re still a big problem.

Not that I think all of the problems with Watson’s talk can be written off as mere miscommunications. For example, she’s just plain wrong when she claims that evolutionary psychology holds that human brains stopped evolving after the Pleistocene. There’s no way to interpret that where it comes out true. But in other cases where her claims may be technically true, they’re still egregiously misleading.

For example, when Watson delivers her “…and it got published” punchline to the story of Ramachandran’s attempt at a Sokal-style hoax, most of the audience isn’t going to know that the journal it got published in wasn’t an evo psych journal, and was in fact already known for its lax standards. The audience is going to assume Watson is telling the story because it tells us something about the standards of mainstream evo psych journals, which it doesn’t. She’s misleading her audience, and it’s that kind of thing that makes me comfortable saying the talk was awful.

That’s all for now, but I’ll likely have another post or two on evolutionary psychology coming up in the future.

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