Skepticon 5 Day Two – Rebecca Watson on Evolutionary Psychology

Rebecca Watson of Skepchick is a marvel: extremely funny, always-knowledgeable, and seemingly on top of all the latest developments in the relationship between science and culture. I pity any scientist or pseudo-scientist who finds themselves on the end of her wit-skewer. She has a way of piercing nonsense with a smile and a wink which is utterly irresistible.

Her target today: the dodgy nature of much evolutionary science. Apparently, it has become ever-more commonplace for marketers to purchase scientific “credibility” for their products by offering a sum of money to PhDs with a more or less relevant qualification to come up with “science” which supports the results the marketers have decided they want in advance. That there are scientists unscrupulous enough to take such a deal is atrocious, and brings the entire scientific practice into disrepute – but Watson also made it very funny, which is her particular genius.

Watson also shone an unflattering light on evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline with a lot of problems. Watson’s recounting of VS Ramachandran’s evolutionary psychology article “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” – a satire which he was able to get published – highlighted some of these problems neatly and with hilarity: the people around me almost fell off their chairs laughing! However, I’m not sure her criticism was entirely fair here: evolutionary psychology comes in many forms, not all of which are as simplistic as the examples she was criticizing tonight.

This shifted smoothly into a commentary on our sexist society, 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. Finding that hardly any women accepted such a proposal, and that most men did, the researchers erroneously concluded that women are less interested in sex – without considering any of the social pressures which encourage men and women to act differently. To Watson, these studies revealed less about the sex-drives of women and more about the gullibility of men: “A beautiful stranger approaches you on the street and asks you for sex and you don’t think it’s a scam?!?”

The amount of junk-science which is published and propagated – particularly when it comes to supposed gender and sex differences - is truly astonishing, and some of the convoluted explanations researchers gave for their “findings” were completely hilarious – risible, in fact, and reprehensible because they mirror and reinforce existing social prejudice. This provides an important reminder that scientists are human beings, with all the weaknesses that entails: they are subject to prejudice and sloppy-thinking like the rest of us.

Watson ended her talk by stressing that these examples are not just funny but dangerous, causing real harm. This junk-science is used to reinforce social inequality (“this is why women shouldn’t vote!”); to excuse terrible behavior (“rape is natural!”); reinforces stereotype threat (which has real, tangible, negative results for stereotyped groups); and can change people’s self-perception such that they avoid areas of life they feel their “group” is supposed to be “bad” at, feeling like they don’t belong in those environments.

However, Watson stressed, you can overcome some of these stereotypes – particularly stereotype threat – by informing people that it exists and how it might effect them.

In all, another funny, smart, and incisive talk by one of Skepticism’s finest activists.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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