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.

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.

  • Chris Hallquist

    Is this the paper she was talking about? It looks like they actually do consider a number of possible explanations.

    Also, “women are less interested in sex” seems like a wrong explanation, but “women are less interested in sex with random strangers, even attractive ones” seems likely to be at least part of the explanation here.

    • bluharmony

      Yep, she completely misrepresented the study. Par for the course.

  • Chas

    Man you wrote a lot in a short amount of time. I was curious where VS Ramachandran published that article (scientific versus rag publication) then I saw your link and the the article sure does look sciency. How terrible.

  • Tim

    well, it was a fun “jokey” talk – and was perfectly ok when taken as such. There is a well known use of pseudo science market research used in the media – no doubt about that (do skeptics need this pointed out to them? – really?)
    The problem here is when people start to think talks such as this have intellectual merit.
    She completely dismissed a field of science which she knew nothing about. I could just as easily dismiss physics if all i needed do was point to published pseudo research

    • Sally Strange

      You should try it then, since it’s so easy. I’d love to see it.

      • Chas

        That’s not what Tim meant.

        He meant that Watson was picking on loons and acting as though all of evolutionary psychology can be characterized by them. It’s not intellectually rigorous but extremely funny when used by Watson. She’s brilliant in that way.

        • Tim

          Its so unfair.
          My comment was almost exactly the same as Eds science denialism blog … ok, so he padded it out a bit with all that sciencey stuff bla bla bla.
          But he gets all the attention, and all I got was one mildly snarly post from sally strange.
          Its elitism I tell you.

      • bluharmony

        Sure, I can’t see physics happen and when it does, I can’t recognize it, so it’s now debunked.

  • Michael

    Also note that the “why gentlemen prefer blondes” paper is from Medical Hypotheses, a journal that is notorious for publishing poorly-supported, irresponsible tripe. Their aim is explicitly to publish wild hypotheses that are not yet substantiated by research. It is not considered a meaningful part of the scientific record and it is not considered acceptable to cite it as offering empirical support for anything. The publication standards of Medical Hypotheses are in no way indicative of the overall field’s intellectual standards.

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  • Edward Clint

    I’ve written a detailed critique of Rebecca Watson’s talk which may be of interest to some of you here.

    • Guest

      You sir just gained a follower.

    • SocraticGadfly

      As I said on James’ other post, I agree in general there’s a lot of BS in Pop Ev Psych. To be more academic than Watson apparently was, I think even legitimate evolutionary psychology needs to ditch the EEA, and that Ed Clint is defending Pop Ev Psych (which is halfway to junk science) much more than legit evolutionary psychology.

      That said, it IS Rebecca Watson, and she IS now being defended by Stephanie Zvan, and we’re getting the nth-wave feminism, etc. in the mix. Speaking of that, James, aren’t you risking the nth-wave feminist wrath by referring to Watson’s wink and smile? Anyway, if I were left a Hobson’s choice between Clint and Watson, I’d say “a pox on both their houses”:

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  • Steven Carr

    Rebecca Watson was not attacking evolutionary psychology at all.

    It was a speech about *popular* psychology.

    Once again, this points to the fact that this is a speech about popular psychology. I happen to disagree about the “boring” part, but she’s dead right about the fact that evolutionary psychology in the popular media is appalling.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘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.’

    That sounds like a very strange study. How did the researchers manage to avoid being arrested?

    When did this study happen?