Rebecca Watson’s awful Skepticon 5 talk on evolutionary psychology

When I first heard about Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon 5 talk from James Croft, I was a bit skeptical. Now the video for the talk is available, and yeah, it’s pretty bad:

Ed Clint, a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA, has written a lengthy critique of Watson’s talk, including a list of “25 false and misleading claims made by Watson.” With some of the claims Clint labels “misleading,” you could argue she didn’t mean to suggest what Clint takes her as suggesting, but in other cases Clint catches her in clear falsehoods, or points out claims which really are pretty damn misleading.

For example, Watson claims that according to evolutionary psychology, the human brain evolved completely during the Pleistocene. This is wrong, as I’ve pointed out before. What evolutionary psychologists do claim, and they’re right about this, is that there’s a limit to how much evolution could possibly have happened since the invention of agriculture ~10k years ago.

Similarly, Watson’s audience had no way of knowing that VS Ramachandran’s attempt at a Sokal-style hoax only got published in a journal known for its lax standards and not at all representative of evo psych journals, or that 68 evolutionary psychologists issued a statement saying that “[Satoshi] Kanazawa’s bad science does not represent evolutionary psychology.” These are things I didn’t know before reading Clint’s article; it’s extremely well-sourced and has a lot of good information like that.

Stephanie Zvan is unhappy, though. She claims Clint failed to recognize that Watson’s talk was about “the industry of pop psychology”… which is a rather obviously inaccurate description of the contents of the talk. I heard Watson put the “pop” qualifier on one of her claims about evolutionary psychology exactly once. The rest of the time, she just talks about “evolutionary psychology” or “evolutionary psychologists” without qualification, as well as a lot of claims about specific studies in legitimate journals.

Zvan, actually,does an even better job of providing examples of this than Clint did, but doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with the quotes from Watson’s talk she provides. Cited as coming from the 20:07 mark, we get, “It’s not unusual for evolutionary psychologists to make dumb-ass pronouncements about sex.” Then, at the 36:08 mark, there’s this:

And then there’s the idea that women’s natural place is in the home. Prior to the 19th century, it was actually expected that men would retain an equal hand in raising children and helping out around the home. Couples were partners, who might have performed different tasks, but they had an equal hand in running usually agricultural businesses and things like that and maintaining the family and home. And then when the Industrial Revolution came around, men started work in the factories, leaving women at home to take care of everything else. So now evolutionary psychologists ignore all that and pretend that women’s place is in the home and then they look for reasons to “scientifically” support that. [Emphasis added.]

There are other examples. Here’s the exact wording of the erroneous “Pleistocene” claim I mentioned above (8:46):

So, briefly, let me tell you what evolutionary psychology is all about. It’s a field of study that’s based on belief that the human brain as it exists today evolved completely during the Pleistocene era when humans lived as hunter-gatherers.

A little while later, at the 13:17 mark, we’re told that, “Evolutionary psychology theories tend to be unfalsifiable.” Then, at the end of the talk (45:26), Watson tells her audience, “Here are a few resources for you, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, particularly in mocking evolutionary psychologists, which never gets old.”

At the very tail end of the video above, Watson takes one question, about whether there’s any good evolutionary psychology. Zvan quotes her response as evidence that Clint had the point of her talk all wrong:

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.

Wait. “Probably”? You mean she doesn’t know? Shouldn’t she have figured that out before giving a talk like that? In any case, her claim that evolutionary psychology can only be interesting if you make up everything, and the only way to do good evolutionary psychology would be to say “I don’t know” a lot, is itself a sweeping generalization about evolutionary psychology.

To see why this is all so egregious, consider the example of neuroscience. There’s a lot of ridiculous, hyped up stories about neuroscience in the popular media. Particularly annoying is the “when people do X, something happens in the brain!” genre, which tries to draw grand conclusions from what should be very banal findings by now. (Given everything we know about how the mind depends on the brain, we should expect something to happen in the brain anytime anyone does anything.)

That would be a great topic for a talk at a skeptic conference. But imagine a talk that started off doing that, but then made a claim of “telling the audience what neuroscience is all about” (and getting it wrong.” Imagine the speaker then claimed that “neuroscience theories tend to be unfalsifiable,” that “it’s not unusual for neuroscientists to make dumb-ass pronouncements,” and accused “neuroscientists” (without specifying “some,” “most,” or “all”) of ignoring important facts and engaging in an obviously dubious methodology.

Imagine at the end of the talk, the speaker declared that “mocking neuroscientists never gets old,” and that when questioned as to whether there’s any good neuroscience, the speaker said “probably?” but then claimed it would have to be totally boring and mainly involve a lot of saying “I don’t know.”

Would neuroscientists be pissed about such a talk? You betcha. Nobody would buy the “oh, she was just talking about pop neuroscience” defense, or indeed similar arguments about any other branch of science. But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen that defense made about sloppy criticisms of evolutionary psychology. That’s a big part of why when I wrote the introductory post for my series on evolutionary psychology (a series which I never really finished, sadly), I said this:

Feel free to use this as a thread for evo psych bashing, but if you’re going to make a claim of the form “evolutionary psychology says X” or “evolutionary psychologists do Y,” tell me whose work you’re referring to. Cosmides and Tooby’s? Donald Symons’? David Buss’? Steven Pinker’s? Robert Trivers’? Geoffrey Miller’s? Whose?

One final point. At the end of her post, Zvan says:

I do, however, find his conflation of criticisms–particularly specific, targeted criticisms–with science denialism to be a notion that needed to be examined in detail. After all, if criticism of “a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity”, no less a person than Steven Pinker has identified David Sloan Wilson, Elliot Sober, Robert Boyd, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy as science denialists.

Following the link, here’s what Pinker actually said:

 Now, “evolutionary psychology” has also come to refer to a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity. Obviously that can be criticized, just like any other empirical theory; some of the sharper critics include David Sloan Wilson, Elliot Sober, Robert Boyd, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

In other words, he’s saying, “criticism of evolutionary psychology is perfectly legitimate, and here are some of the ‘sharper critics.’” Not “science denialists.” Now there are two ways to read “sharper critics”–at worst, it may mean “harsher critics,” but calling someone a “harsh critic” of something isn’t necessarily itself a criticism, if their criticisms are justified. In context, Pinker is suggesting the criticisms may be justified.

But I suspect Pinker was using “sharp” here in the sense of “smart,” i.e. “these are the smarter critics.” The reason I suspect that is, again, in context he’s emphasizing the criticisms may be legitimate, and it fits better with what I know of these scholars’ reputations and especially my first-hand knowledge of Sober’s work. If that’s right, Pinker is paying the people he lists a compliment. The opposite of what Zvan claims.

Update: Ah, I see, the last paragraph I quoted from Zvan was an attempt at a reductio of Clint’s supposed view that any criticism of a particular approach is science denialism. Except that’s obviously a caricature of Clint’s view. He argues Watson is guilty of science denialism because (he argues) she uses tactics common among science denialists and makes a large number of false and misleading claims, among other things.

I’d also point out that I’ve read some of Sober’s work on evolutionary psychology, and he’s way more nuanced than Watson was. Even Jerry Coyne’s criticisms, which Zvan also uses in an attempted reductio, are more nuanced than Watson, though I suspect Clint would take issue with Coyne’s claim that evolutionary psychologists have done a poor job of policing themselves.

  • D4M10N

    It would be trivially easy to condemn almost any scientific field (especially an emergent field) if we were to restrict ourselves to critiquing the popular literature and media reporting thereon, along with a couple of the worst practitioners therefrom. What disturbs me most about this talk is that this is considered to be an adequate approach to discussing the field as a whole, because delving into the actual science itself would be boring. How little respect must once have for the skeptical movement to deliver such a speech and expect them to swallow it whole?

  • Axel

    I am could have done a critique of Physical Sciences by using the same format she used.

  • bluharmony

    Excellent. I was going to write much the same, but you beat me to it. I hope you don’t mind that I tweeted your response.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Course not!

  • Stephanie Zvan

    So this whole post is, “Yuh-huh! She was too talking about all of evolutionary psychology despite the title of her talk and all the material she chose for her slides because I can take a few quotes out of context and get all defensive on behalf of an entire field of science even though Rebecca has already commented on that post to agree that she was doing what Stephanie said she was doing.”

    Really, Chris, I expect better from you. I’m not sure why I still expect better at this point, but I do.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Well, I don’t expect better from you at this point, but let’s try anyway.

      I don’t think anything else in the talk particularly changes anything, and I even addressed your main piece of “context” in my post. If Watson really didn’t mean to talk about anything but pop psychology in her talk, she’s still a horribly sloppy communicator at best.

      I mean, if the subject of her talk had been any other field, what “context” could even hypothetically justify treating her topic the way she did?

      To take the neuroscience example again, if someone got up at the start of a talk on “neuroscience,” and announced they were going to use “neuroscience” to mean “the stuff you hear about neuroscience in the popular press”… well, in a sense you’d have to shrug your shoulders and say “okay, I guess that’s what they mean by ‘neuroscience.’” Nevertheless the audience, especially the neuroscientists in the audience, would be right to feel annoyed and kind of insulted at this weird re-definition of the term.

      Really, part of the reason I wrote this post is because it seems like a lot of people who set themselves up as critics of “evolutionary psychology” (whatever they imagine that term to mean) feel entitled to a degree of sloppiness that no one in the skeptic’s movement would ever use with any other established branch of science.

      • hf

        It certainly seems bad, but I’m interested to see PZ’s promised response. (I also haven’t watched enough of the video to know if I’d call it a “talk on evolutionary psychology” – she doesn’t use the term for more than 8 minutes – but I’ll go along if this was your honest impression.)

        As for Zvan, the last paragraph you quote from her needs another clause to be grammatical, but she seems to agree with your response. I read it as, ‘Pinker would be surprised to learn that these people were “science denialists” by definition.’ This is why I have doubts about your interpretation.

        • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

          He responded by saying that Ed was smarmy.

          • miller

            …and that was wrong, because calling PZ small and vulnerable while purporting to be compassionate is not smarmy by any stretch of imagination.

          • Marcel Kincaid

            PZ called Ed Clint smarmy, *then* Ed offered an explanation of PZ’s behavior by suggesting that PZ is small and vulnerable … so, no, that’s not smarmy by any stretch of an honest person’s imagination.

        • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

          The only *right* response would have been to address the argument on the merits. It’s evident that the parties involved don’t like each other; the better person is the one who dwells on that the least.

          • miller

            I agree. There’s obviously a lot of bloggy drama in the subtext, and it’s not doing anyone favors.

        • Marcel Kincaid

          ” I’m interested to see PZ’s promised response”

          Why? Myers is doubly unreliable, both in re EP about which he is quite irrationally opinionated (as John Wilkins said, he habitually ignores the evidence), and in re the RW/elevatorgate/MRA construction.

        • Chris Hallquist

          Aha! See update.

      • Marcel Kincaid

        “the neuroscientists in the audience”

        At the end of her talk, RW asked if there were any evolutionary psychologists in the audience, and went “whew!” when no one responded … because, y’know, it’s always a good thing when there’s no one competent around to point out your errors, fabrications, and all around BS.

    • John C. Welch


      If someone’s *entire talk* is being taken to mean something other than what they meant, (I am of course assuming you have directly communicated with Rebecca about this, and aren’t just basing your conclusions upon your own interpretation of the talk), then at the very least, that’s a sign that the talk, as set up, failed. If it was meant to be *solely* a criticism of how the media plays out EP, then it failed, because it doesn’t come across that way . In fact, the entire “EP GOT PUNKED WHEN THEY FELL FOR “GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES” section does not come across as a criticism of the credulity of the media for not knowing the difference between a proper science journal and a hack job.

      It comes across as someone bagging on EP, even though the field as a whole doesn’t consider the journal referenced in the video as serious. It would be *very* difficult for someone not in on the joke to realize what Rebecca was talking about. For someone doing their first talk, I can understand trying to be a bit too clever in terms of point, but Rebecca is neither new nor untrained in this field. She has a degree in Communications and makes her living via..well…*communications*. It is almost unbelievable to think that she looked at this talk in any serious way and thought it was clear that she was critiquing the media and not EP as a field.

      So we’re left with two rather bad conclusions:

      1) Ed Clint was right, and Rebecca’s talk was a simply dreadful attempt at a hatchet job on EP.
      2) You’re right, and Rebecca’s talk was poorly thought-out, planned and delivered.

      Neither option is A Good Thing for her.

    • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

      What Ms. Watson thinks she was doing is irrelevant. What’s relevant is what she was actually doing and what all of us saw her doing, and that was bashing evolutionary psychology in a misinformed, clumsy, and — admittedly — inaccurate way. Hell, even most of her slides had “Evolutionary Psychology” as the topic header. Her snark can’t make the misinformation she presented disappear. Also, any experienced speaker would know that you begin by a presentation by stating your thesis and end by reiterating it. That’s how you clearly communicate your message. As a marketing major, Watson should have at least learned this much. However, she was all over the place, and the only topic she seemed to bash continuously was Evolutionary Psychology, as well as the scientists working in the field. So the only reasonable assumption one can make is that her thesis was this: Evolutionary Psychology sucks (and I’m going to use irrelevant and/or incorrect examples to prove it).

    • Marcel Kincaid

      Stephanie, no one expects better of you, as you have repeatedly proven yourself to be shallow, dishonest, and stupid, as you did here.

    • bluharmony

      Actually, Watson herself says her speech is about EP generally — not pop EP, not tabloids — in an online interview (making all the same factual mistakes), just search for it. This both disproves Zvan’s theory for her blog post and contradicts what Watson has to say about it in the comments there. How’s she gonna womynsplain herself out of that one?

      Chris, I sent you the link on Twitter if you want to add it; I’m too tired to write.

  • DR

    Oh noes, Chris, you dared criticize Queen Rebecca. Get ready for the sh*tstorm that will follow… A balanced, reasoned argument seems impossible as soon as Rebecca gets mentioned. Considering her complete lack of credentials, and her lackadaisical attitude towards evidence (it’s not her fault, she’s not a scientist after all, nor has she ever claimed to be), it’s shocking how much venom gets spit everytime her name is mentioned.

  • Jeff

    Stephanie, I believe they call this “doubling down”?

  • miller

    To say nothing of Rebecca’s talk (I don’t watch videos unless they’re transcribed), keep in mind that most of us don’t study evo-psych, give no presentations on evo-psych, and make no evo-psych-based decisions. From a standpoint of not wanting to invest any time in it, all I can do is observe that popular evo-psych is terrible, and avoid more overarching conclusions.

    (I’m sorry, this comment would have been more appropriate on intro-to-evo-psych post, but I wasn’t reading your blog back in March.)

    All I really want to see is a popular explanation of a single example of how evo-psych uses evidence to disconfirm a non-adaptive hypothesis. All the evo-psych evidence I see comes in the form of, “If X is adaptive, then we’d expect behavior Y. Here is a study showing Y.” And Y is usually a “conventional wisdom” claim, such as the claim that women are more likely to reject casual sex. I observe that no evidence is presented to disconfirm alternative explanations for Y, and that since Y is “obvious”, it’s really more of a retrodiction than a prediction.

    For example, here is an article proposing that people reason poorly because they were evolved to win arguments. The notable thing about the article is that it did not advance a single piece of evidence in favor of this theory. I did not read the hundred-page review article by Mercier and Sperber, but my boyfriend did, and he confirmed that the review was the same way. It was a good review of cognitive biases, but had no evidence connecting this to their particular causal explanation or disconfirming other causal explanations. The most charitable view I can muster is that Mercier and Sperber are not credible researchers. But I have no motivation to be as charitable as that.

    • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

      I love it when people base their comments on the fact that they were either too lazy or too disinterested to watch or read what they’re arguing about. Also, have you heard of hearsay?

      • miller

        I don’t watch videos because it’s sort of an accessibility issue. Therefore, I’m resigned to having no opinion on Watson’s talk. Since Watson is clearly the topic of this post, I apologize for having said something off-topic. I just wanted to complain about pop evopsych.

        • bluharmony

          Aw, I understand and apologize if I sounded snippy. Lately I’m taking all this way too seriously, I think. I like EP, and believe that on many levels it must be valid (even if we don’t have it all figured out quite yet), but what we must watch out for is that the descriptive (the is), even if correct, doesn’t become prescriptive (the ought).

  • baal

    I have to mostly sigh at RW’s talk, Ed Clints reply and the resulting hulabaloo (here and other places). While this may come off as an attempt to silence RW, I’m not asking for that. Given the shitstorm (valid or not, (mostly not but there is some validity here and there)) that always appears when RW talks, she might consider not talking or working to further her views via routes other than public speaking. This would not be a case of the bullies winning so much as a recognition that a reporter cannot report on a story when they are the story. I don’t think there is a shortage of folks who would (or could) give the same speech she did.

    • Ryan Grant Long

      That “shitstorm” as you call it is no doubt highly lucrative for her, she seems to thrive on this type of controversy. You might as well ask Ann Coulter to stop being so mean.

    • DR

      I don’t think RW should stop talking altogether, since she has a right to her opinion. But it’s mostly an uninformed one, based on nothing other than her own prejudices and “gut feelings”. Rebecca works in an evidence-free zone: if it’s truthy, it’s worthy. Considering that she hosts a show which (rightfully) advocates skepticism, I do think that she should pull back, examine her attitudes towards evidence, and then come back armed. She does make good points, and in the specific case of Evo-Psych, there’s a lot that merits criticism (evo-psych is very iffy when it comes to standards of evidence). But Rebecca is not well placed to do the critiquing, at least not in an effective way, and certainly not when she has as bad a track record as she does regarding respect for evidence.

    • ikonografer

      indeed, there is no shortage of overhyped idiots.

  • Zerodash

    The most disappointing thing, to me, is how the reaction to Ed Clint is going just as a cynic would predict. An article as lengthy as his, with references, warrants at the very least a point-by-point rebuttal. This is what productive discussions entail. Instead, he is being labeled as a bigot. Just like Rebecca’s fan club does every single time “the enemy” says anything (or is implied to say something) against her or her doctrine.

    To me, it does little to dispel the concept that perhaps RW and her club really do think there is some kind of nefarious conspiracy out there.

    • mikmik

      Hallq, you will not ever get SZ or her ilk to admit to a single mistake, let alone arguing unfairly. Never. Not only does she know the facts of what really goes on, she knows your motivations and TELLS YOU what you are really all about. Always with the condescending trailer added on.
      If you are well known, it’s “I expected better from you,” and others, it’s “leave it the professionals.”
      Anything, any single thing, that shows or paints a picture of women as having had an influence on ‘gender roles’ is automatically wrong, and if you argue against her (and her ilk) and make a point, you are wrong because you have an agenda and are biased.
      This crap about ‘RW can do no wrong’ is getting very tired, as is there complete contempt for skeptical thinking in her approach.

    • bluharmony

      But all of us on the network knew that would happen even before he posted his piece. It’s knee-jerk at this point.

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  • Bystander

    I don’t see a link to Svan’s post here (oddly), so for what it’s worth, here’s the link:

    • Chris Hallquist

      Sorry about that. My bad. Added to main post.

  • CommanderTuvok

    It is no surprise to see PZ and Svan “double down” straight away. It is fascinating to see how quickly and how angry some over at FTB seems to be simply because somebody had the nerve to (rightly) criticise Rebecca Watson.

    These are the same people who fall over themselves to “name names” and “call people out”, except that is, when it comes to themselves. In the event of that, as we can see by their response, they expose all of their cognitive-dissonance affected minds.

    Zvan often writes a whole blog post on something Dawkins has tweeted (usually she can’t decide whether if Dawkins is being sarcastic), and yet, when Rebecca Watson puts her mouth in it at a major conference, she goes into denial.

  • N_J

    Another great example of double-down groupthink from the FtB/Skepchick cult: None of them can ever, EVER be wrong in even the slightest details, and how anyone who dares disagree is necessarily stupid and uninformed. Classic cult mentality. They’re so oblivious they actually believe they’re convincing everyone with their frantic doubling down and desperate scrambling to cover for Watson. Thanks for all the lulz, guys.

  • randomer

    “If that’s right, Pinker is paying the people he lists a compliment. The opposite of what Zvan claims.”

    Your reading comprehension kinda sucks, to be honest.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    In other words, he’s saying, “criticism of evolutionary psychology is perfectly legitimate, and here are some of the ‘sharper critics.’” Not “science denialists.”

    Stephanie is decrying Clint’s conflation of criticism of evo-psych with science denial, and pointing out that Pinker, for one, clearly doesn’t share that view. Sneaky of her to use irony and do other confusing things like use dependent clauses and multisyllabic words. How’s an evo-psych enthusiast supposed to keep up?

    • Marcel Kincaid

      Pinker would agree that RW’s sort of “criticism” IS science denial. Zahn employs the absurd fallacy that, if some criticism is valid then all criticism is valid.

      • C.J. O’Brien

        Aw, you guys got me again. So lively and creative, having a contest to see who can miss the most points in the shortest period of time! It’s hard to keep up with you fucking geniuses.
        Say hi to Steven for me. He sure is lucky to have you for a spokesperson.

        • Marcel Kincaid

          Your rebuttal by snark fails. No honest person would deny that EP advocate Pinker would not view RW and her critique with the same regard as he has for David Sloan Wilson.

        • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

          Clint gave evidence of the five common requirements for science denialism in Watson’s speech. This is not the same as criticism, obviously. However, he stated that he’s willing to debate the point if someone can provide evidence to the contrary, and that his views on the matter are flexible. Saying, “No it’s not!!!” isn’t evidence to the contrary or even engagement with his argument.

  • Christina C.

    @Stephanie Zvan: You and your merry band of circle jerkers have reached an all time low. You all are absolutely RIDICULOUS.

    Hey, I moderate comments pretty damn lightly here, but do try to keep your comments at least partially substantiative -Hallq.

    • N_J

      “All time” low? The FtB/Skepchick/AtheismPlus crowd always manages to find ways to sink lower. Give it time, they’ll take an even bigger and more embarrassing pratfall over something else. Guaranteed. It’s what happens when a bunch of angry, incompetent, bumbling, Dunning-Kruger ideologues are convinced that they’re better than everybody else.

      The following image says it all as far as I’m concerned:

      • C.J. O’Brien

        Ah, now I see what she meant by “all time low”: Stephanie was blogging again, wasn’t she? grrrrr.

        But at least I’m glad to see that the reasonable, rational, non-circle jerking folks are sticking to the good work of producing demeaning caricatures of their ideological enemies. Will there be any harassment or rape threats coming? I do hope so, as this latest low and RIDICULOUS outrage must be resisted by all the most honorable means.

      • randomer

        “The following image says it all as far as I’m concerned”

        Same here; it tells me you’re a completely frivolous person. ;-)

  • DSimon

    I am so frigging tired of the sarcasm and snarkiness and venom that get dragged out by so many on either “side” whenever there’s a hint of an opportunity to fight for or against FTB. Are we seriously at the point now where we can’t just disagree about stuff directly, like skeptics/freethinkers/rationalists should?

    As it is now, way too much comment space and emotional energy is going into this “our bloggers are clearly better people than your bloggers, you jerks” crap, and it genuinely takes away from our ability to actually figure out when we’re wrong and update our own beliefs without embarrassment, which should be the whole damn point!

    • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

      I’ve tried (I don’t know if I succeeded — and I know that I don’t always succeed) to not do any of that, but no one seems interested.

      • randomer

        That kind of make-believe isn’t gonna fly with anyone who’s actually read your contributions elsewhere (must be immersive for you, though).

        • Jeff

          I’ve read them, I have no dog in this fight, but I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.

      • DSimon

        (Minor editorial heads up: bluharmony, the link you’re supplying to your blog is invalid, it’s missing the “.com”)

        Bluharmony, I really appreciate your efforts to this end, and those of other members of the community to keep the nastiness toned down. In particular, I’m happy that you are able to strongly disagree with Watson while at the same time making it clear that rape threats and similar attacks are out of line when directed towards Watson or anyone else.

        However, reading through your blog archives, I still worry that you (probably unintentionally) sometimes use an unnecessarily combative and personal tone when you discuss bloggers that you strongly disagree with. I don’t mean that you make any actual ad hominem statements (or any similar fallacies), but rather a more subtle problem: that you sometimes use accusatory or derisive connotations that encourage an us-vs-them attitude, which in turn makes it much harder for readers with opinions either way to objectively consider the issue.

        • bluharmony

          I think that’s fair criticism to make, and there was a point at which a confluence of circumstances, defamation, and attack posts made me behave in a way I’m not proud of. But that was after I tried reconciliation multiple times and failed, being called all sorts of names (ironically, including whore and bitch). I just don’t feel that there’s any resolution to be had at this point. People like Chris and many others are awesome, but I’m always going to be somewhat damaged by this experience. I went into this a strong supporter of feminism, but I’m not any longer. Frankly, it scares me, because attempts have been made to harm me in real life — not just in online arguments. And I don’t see that as pro-woman, pro-rationalism or pro-humanism.

          • DSimon

            I understand your situation; everyone does things they’re not proud of when they’re under enough stress. My suggestion would be to worry not about whether you can reconcile personally with those you disagree with, but rather to focus on not escalating the conflict further, even if you conclude that you would be justified in doing so. There’s a bigger issue at stake here, which is whether or not we can pull out of this mess and have a healthy rationalist/humanist/etc. subculture in the future.

            Much of the worst nastiness on either side is delivered not by the major well-known people but by their fans and commenters. I’m entreating you, please review your future posts before publication to see whether or not you are encouraging your own fans to interact with those across the divide in this way, even unintentionally or with subtle tone and connotation. Anything you can do to reduce the background level of vitriol will be a great help in the long run.

          • bluharmony

            I disagree on this point — there are about seven people on the “feminist” side who drive the nastiness, and it’s mimicked by their commentariat. Other than the obvious — PZ Myers, who actually gives awards to the nastiest — the worst offender is currently posting in this thread. Ms. Zvan’s entire blogging output consists of nothing but personal attacks and bad science. The fact is that I don’t want this kind of behavior in the rationalist community, and that’s where I take my stand. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want her in the community; it just means that I find her behavior unacceptable and until she changes it, I reserve my right to say so. I also reserve the right to oppose unqualified speakers who intentionally conflate issues to serve personal agendas. And finally I reserve the right to oppose those who intentionally manufacture controversy for blog hits and profit. Those are not noble goals, and they are more likely to destroy the movement (if they haven’t already) than any outside force.

            There are people on “my” side who drive the nastiness as well, but I am not one of them. I do not profit from this, and I have been significantly harmed by it. At the same time, I refuse to keep silent any more. For a year I was abused with no way to respond. I had no blog, just a private FB page and a Twitter. Now that my voice is a bit louder, I intend to use it, and that includes criticizing others when I find their behavior appalling.

            As for forgiveness, I’ willing to give it to anyone who offers a sincere apology, and I hold no permanent grudges. Ever. But I do become more wary and I don’t forget.

          • DSimon

            I reserve the right to oppose those who intentionally manufacture controversy for blog hits and profit.

            This is an example of what I’m talking about! That statement assumes malevolence and dishonesty on the part of someone else, even though simple disagreement (i.e. on whether or not a subject is or should be controversial) is a plausible explanation. The principle of charity says this is a bad idea, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities watching the results of people break that rule to understand its value.

            I’m begging you, please stop making these casual accusations, they’re making the situation worse! After gauntlets like these are thrown down, it’s incredibly hard to work back up to anything like a productive disagreement. Help to make the conversation about what people say, not about whether their motives are pure, because discussions on the latter path go nowhere.

          • DSimon

            (The first sentence of my comment above is intended to be in quotes.)

          • bluharmony

            Writing an entire post about what a liar I am, while defending the disclosure of my home address because I’m a lawyer (?!) — what kind of charity can I apply to that? It will forever damage my career and livelihood, despite multiple false accusations and defamatory claims therein. Sure, when someone argues with me, I will apply the principle of charity. But I will not apply it when someone’s intent is clearly malevolent. As for the language you object to, it’s not really mine — Dawkins tweeted it. I should have put it in quotes myself.

            Should I similarly apply the principle of charity to the feminist who told someone contemplating suicide to jump off a bridge?

            Should I apply the principle of charity to the regular dog piles on Pharyngula, encouraging self-rape and other vile acts and engaging in vicious name-calling?

            Should I apply the principle of charity to disclosure of private (not public) information?

            Should I apply the principle of charity to those who dehumanize others, and make nasty jabs at gay men and trans-people?

            Should I apply the principle of charity to the fact that posts are edited and deleted to alter the narrative on Butterflies and Wheels and other sites? To people who misrepresent what others say and tell lies?

            If you’re willing to pay all my bills and support me for the rest of my life (and also all others whom they harm), I promise to apply the principle of charity to people who behave that way. Otherwise, my intent will be to expose them. I will, however, apply the principle of charity to anyone who argues the issues in good faith, to anyone willing to occasionally admit that they’re wrong, to anyone who is aware that we’re all biased, and to anyone who’s willing to apologize for mistakes they’ve made. But I will not apply the principle of charity to those who continue to be vicious.

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  • J. Quinton

    I find this a little ironic, from a sociological perspective. Conservatives hate evolution and it looks like liberals hate evolution too. And they both seem to hate it for the same reason: It shows that we really are related to other animals, and that – just like other animals – the brain runs on biochemistry and not magic. I’m thinking that belief in mind-body dualism plays a significant role in the evolution-hate among liberals and conservatives.

    • Will Ross (@TwistedByKnaves)

      I would have said that this comment stream provides ample evidence that the brain runs on hormones.

      This is great soap opera for a disinterested passer by. Thank you all so much!

      • skep tickle

        A well-founded talk on neotribalism – with examples if the speaker can document them unassailably and has a thick skin – might be a useful addition to some upcoming skeptics conferences.

        • bluharmony

          No kidding. Good idea for a blog post.

  • Sam Rosen

    Here are a few stupidities I noticed in Rebecca Watson’s talk:

    She insults men for “foolishly accepting the offer of sex even though it could be a scam.” She doesn’t take a moment and say “hm, men know it could be a scam, but they are willing to risk it… maybe this says something about the strength of their preferences.”

    Also, Rebecca Watson thinks men are more attracted to the confident women. This is why they say yes when women are upfront. This is a testable claim. In the study, have a friend ask on behalf of the attractive woman so she seems less confident. My prediction is that confidence has almost no causal effect.

    Rebecca Watson’s belief that “being good in bed” is a causal variable in the minds of most men is laughable. When I want to have casual sex, I care 99% about what they look like 1% how skilled at sex they are. I’ve never once thought, hey that chick is pretty ugly, but she *seems* adept at sex, so let’s rock baby.

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  • Liz

    Worst part is, she never has to defend herself anymore. Far more intelligent and gung-ho minions do it for her and she just sits back and takes it in. Once she had to defend mediocre work and badly worded speeches (for a communications major, I’m sad to say that her vocabulary is bizarrely limited and painfully sophomoric) which made things worse because her retors were as cringe-worthy as her initial statements or speeches.

    Now that job has been taken out of her hands and she hardly ever defends herself anymore allowing people who are far more adept to do it for her. You’ll generally see “I’m sorry I can’t comment on this, I’m traveling now” etc and that will be her only comment. After that, all the following reader’s comments do the arguing for her. It’s a shame that someone with such limited education and speaking finesse (also, laughing at her own awkward attempts at sharp wit during talks or on SGU is so painful, after years of hearing her continue to do this, I still cringe) would even be considered for public speeches on science and other subjects that they are absolutely not capable of delivering.

    People who feel uncomfortable with her speaking engagements state that there are dozens of specialists in the community she’s a part of that can do this job far better. When detractors state that she’s basically a media whore her proponents deny this completely. If she wasn’t and her group wanted to give someone more qualified a fair shot at the same subject matter, they would. They don’t. This sort of makes people think that she is being paraded around because of controversy and not because she has anything educated or important to say.

    When stating that this kind of opinion is flaming fires, her proponents should take a look at why the community and/or conferences that support RW don’t pro-actively try to find people who actually specialize in whatever subject matter they’re looking to cover. I’m not saying that RW should stop speaking etc. but just until recently, she was generally MC of costume parties and on panels discussing grass-roots and such at conferences and not taken seriously as some kind of academic. Since the controversy began, she has miraculously transformed into a person who has something to say about science. How do you think that makes people feel when they know that a year and a half ago she was on stage giving out prizes for best costume?

    • the moother

      It is for this reason that I have re-subscribed to her YouTube channel… So that I can see for myself how irrelevant she is without having to hear from the overlords how great she is.

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  • Francois Tremblay

    Wow, Hallquist, I see you are still an idiot who yaps at the ankles of your betters. Good job on that. There was not a single damn thing wrong with Watson’s speech, you pedant. It’s incredible the lengths you will go through to defend free marketeer prejudices against skepticism.

  • Steven Carr

    And then when the Industrial Revolution came around, men started work in the factories, leaving women at home to take care of everything else.


    ‘The Industrial Revolution in part was fueled by the economic necessity of many women, single and married, to find waged work outside their home. Women mostly found jobs in domestic service, textile factories, and piece work shops. They also worked in the coal mines. For some, the Industrial Revolution provided independent wages, mobility and a better standard of living. For the majority, however, factory work in the early years of the 19th century resulted in a life of hardship.’

    A more reliable source is

    ‘Frederick Engels, writing in the late nineteenth century, thought that the Industrial Revolution increased women’s participation in labor outside the home, and claimed that this change was emancipating. 1 More recent historians dispute the claim that women’s labor force participation rose, and focus more on the disadvantages women experienced during this time period’

    I don’t know what sort of Industrial Revolution America had, but here in Britain, where we invented the Industrial Revolution, the textile mills were full of female (and child) workers.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘She insults men for “foolishly accepting the offer of sex even though it could be a scam.”’

    Did Rebecca Watson really claim ‘…via a series of strange studies in which attractive members of each sex stopped passers-by on the street and asked them if they’d be willing to go have sex with them.’

    I’ve certainly heard of studies where college boys were asked on campus by perfect strangers if they wanted to go on a date with them. Most said ‘yes’.

    I’ve certainly heard of studies where men were shown pictures of perfect strangers and asked if they would be willing to have sex them in theory. Most said ‘yes’.

    But I’ve never heard of a study where women propositioned men in the street for sex.

    Perhaps I’m ignorant. After all, I’m sure there are studies I’ve never heard of.

    When was this study? Where? Obviously, Rebecca must have documented it.

    And , really, did most men say yes to instant sex?

    Just walk through the red-light district of a town and you will see that the street-prostitutes do not have anything like a 90% success rate in propositioning men. Most men just walk past.

    I will be charitable and assume Rebecca did not invent this study. It would be wrong of me to think otherwise.

    Which makes it even more intriguing.

    How did the men who propositioned women for sex not get arrested.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘She insults men for “foolishly accepting the offer of sex even though it could be a scam.”’

    Did Rebecca Watson really claim ‘…via a series of strange studies in which attractive members of each sex stopped passers-by on the street and asked them if they’d be willing to go have sex with them.’

    I’ve certainly heard of studies where college boys were asked on campus by perfect strangers if they wanted to go on a date with them. Most said ‘yes’.

    I’ve certainly heard of studies where men were shown pictures of perfect strangers and asked if they would be willing to have sex them in theory. Most said ‘yes’.

    But I’ve never heard of a study where women propositioned men in the street for sex.

    Perhaps I’m ignorant. After all, I’m sure there are studies I’ve never heard of.

    When was this study? Where? Obviously, Rebecca must have documented it.

    And , really, did most men say yes to instant sex?

    Just walk through the red-light district of a town and you will see that the street-prostitutes do not have anything like a 90% success rate in propositioning men. Most men just walk past.

    I will be charitable and assume Rebecca did not invent this study. It would be wrong of me to think otherwise.

    Which makes it even more intriguing.

    How did the men who propositioned women for sex not get arrested?

  • Edward Clint

    It should be noted that Jerry Coyne has come out in support of evolutionary psychology as a legitimate discipline which has matured over the years.

    Also, I am well aware of the “sharper critics” of evolutionary psychology Pinker mentions. For example Elliott Sober- I wrote a paper with him. See the December 2012 issue of Quarterly Review of Biology. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to work with Sober. We had many discussions about the field.

    • Chris Hallquist

      You wrote a paper with Elliot Sober? How’d you pull that off?

  • MegaSolipsist

    I’m amazed anybody takes Rebecca Watson seriously.
    I’ve seen some of her videos, and she’s just awful. She has a staggering persecution complex and I think she passed feminism a long time ago, skipped sexism and went straight to misandry.
    There’s a video with her aggressively talking to people on the street, and when she goes to read something off some paper that she has she gets interrupted, so she starts screaming at the guy and calling him ‘fuckface’.

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  • Dave Het

    Is this the Ann Coulter of psychology?

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