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.

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