Responsible Reading

I’ve been thinking about something for a while. What I’ve been thinking is this: that readers have responsibilities as well as writers. More precisely, effective communication is not entirely the responsibility of an author or speaker: the people reading a work, or in the audience of a talk, also have responsibilities they must meet if the encounter is going to be optimally fruitful.

An example:

There is a debate in the freethought blogosphere right now regarding Rebecca Watson’s recent talk at Skepticon 5 (I wrote an on-the-fly recap of the talk here). If you haven’t seen it and want to give it a look (I’ll wait – trigger warning for rape and sexual harassment, since Watson repeats some ugly arguments for the purpose of critiquing them):

Some freethinking colleagues have criticized the talk quite roundly. Ed Clint has flat-out called it “science denialism”, while Chris Hallquist (fellow Patheos Atheist blogger) judged the talk “awful”. The thrust of their criticism (in addition to some small errors Watson made and has acknowledged) is that Watson’s critique was over-broad, focused on the whole of evolutionary psychology which, despite what they see Watson arguing in her talk, is a “real science”. Thus, she is “denying” the reality of evolutionary psychology as science. As Clint writes:

The main points Watson wants to drive home are that evolutionary psychology isn’t science (as indicated by the quotes in the subtitle), and that researchers involved in it work deliberately to reinforce stereotypes and to oppress women.

On the other side of the ledger, Stephanie Zvan has defended Watson, arguing that the talk was not an indictment of all evolutionary psychology, but a critique of the misuse of science in certain constrained contexts, and of some very poor published work in the field. Zzvan contends that the talk was about “pop psychology” rather than evolutionary psychology per se – a claim Hallquist calls “a rather obviously inaccurate description of the contents of the talk.” It may seem, reading Clint and Hallquist’s critiques alongside Zvan’s defense, that they are responding to different talks. What is so obvious to Clint and Hallquist about the talk is not obvious to Zvan, who thinks her interpretation is pretty clearly correct.

How does this come to be? Fundamentally, I think its down to what the “readers” (or, in this case, listeners) are bringing to the table: their professional interests, their intellectual concerns, their relationships. On a second viewing, it seems to me that there is merit to both sides of this argument: I broadly agree with Zvan, in that I think the talk is generally an attack on pop psychology and bad evolutionary psychology, but I also agree with Clint and Hallquist that there is a certain lack of clarity around this point that makes it seem, at times, as if her critique is broader.

The opening section of the talk is clearly a criticism of the misuse of science by companies who want to add a scientific veneer to their products, but from about 8:50 onward she seems to broaden her critique to the whole “field of study” called evolutionary psychology. To her credit, Watson does limit herself to discussing “many pop evolutionary psychologists” at this point (a phrase she repeats later, 15:28) – exactly when she should, when she’s outlining  key term in her argument – but then goes on to say that “the biggest problems with the study [she is examining], though, are the same problems which are leveled against evolutionary psychology as a whole” (12:25). She then goes on to make some rather broad statements about evolutionary psychology as a whole which, as Clint shows, are not entirely accurate. The rest of Watson’s talk then seems to vacillate between a specific and broad critique in a way which makes some sense of the differing responses of Clint, Hallquist, and Zvan. So Watson, I think, could have been clearer and more careful about delineating the boundaries of her criticism. But does this lack of clarity (along with some unfortunate small errors) justify the judgment of the talk as “awful” or “science denialism”?

I think not. And I think not because I think, as a reader of a book, paper, article etc., or as a member of an audience of a talk like Watson’s, that it’s partly my responsibility to be receptive to the medium, tone, and nature of the work in front of me, and to make certain allowances. Watson’s talk was a highly funny presentation for a lay audience. It was not the presentation of an academic paper at a professional conference. It was delivered, from the start, in a highly ironic and slightly over-the-top manner (this is not a criticism, merely an observation). And, as such, it seems to me reasonable to expect a somewhat loose, amusing primer in a topic, which may be rather hyperbolic, rather than a highly accurate academic disquisition on evolutionary psychology. I know I have to be on my guard for overstatements, because comedy works, frequently, through overstatement and exaggeration.

Some of the responsibility for correctly understanding a talk rests on me, not the speaker, and I err if I criticize the speaker for misconceptions based on my lack of sensitivity to the medium in which they are speaking. To criticize a talk in a way which overlooks its genre and the context in which it was given is to hold it to the wrong standard. It’s not precisely that Clint and Hallquist’s criticisms are invalid: the flat-out errors should be changed, and I think it would be great if Watson were clearer regarding the scope of her challenge to evolutionary psychology. If I were in Watson’s shoes I’d be grateful for the sort of close analysis Clint provides, because it would help me improve my talk. But to charge her with “science denialism” seems to me too much. Update: D4M10N, in the comments, makes the following excellent recommendation: “If I was going to do a broadside against the misuse of some branch of science, I’d be sure at some point to research what the proper use thereof is supposed to look and sound like, so as to provide examples to the audience of what that branch of science looks like when it is working properly.”

A similar lack of consideration for the nature and context of a communication, I believe, can be seen at the root of some of the odder criticisms leveled at Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist. Simon Davis’ review, for instance, spends considerable time investigating the minutiae of Stedman’s experience at an atheist event and party years ago which Davis did not attend. He claims to have even interviewed the panelists at the event in order to determine (Simon has kindly clarified this point) He spends some time exploring what cocktails and food was served, and how people were dressed. This, in response to a book which is explicitly published as a memoir, is faintly absurd: the point of a memoir is to give the writer’s memories and reflections on their life, not to provide a fully-sourced and entirely accurate account of past events. And, as such, while Davis might well be correct that no mint juleps were served, as Stedman remembers, the criticism is rather beside the point: and it is Davis’ responsibility to encounter and respond to the work on its own terms.

This responsibility on behalf of the reader is not a get-out-of-error-free card for any writer or speaker who makes a mistake, of course. It is no good, after a wildly misleading, erroneous, or outrageous speech simply to say your critics have misunderstood the context and genre of your speech. Care must always be taken by a writer and speaker to be as clear as possible within their chosen genre. But I do want to suggest that good skepticism includes giving one’s attention to the nature of a presentation, and taking that into account when evaluating. If Watson’s talk had been a report or paper at an academic conference I would have been incensed. As a smart and funny talk for Skepticon’s audience, I was generally delighted.

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.

  • Simon

    He claims to have even interviewed the panelists at the event in order to determine what cocktails and food was served, and how people were dressed.

    Not at all so. The use of the term “in order to” is something you are inferring about a conversation you were not a party to and is false in this context. The answer is nowhere near as nefarious. The host of the event volunteered this information when I sent him Stedman’s original piece to see his thoughts.

    We can debate whether it was worthwhile and appropriate to bring it up in my review, but that is a different question.

    • James Croft

      I have edited this section to clarify – thank you!

  • oolon

    You do wonder how much the reaction is due to peoples dislike of Rebecca. I listened to the talk at the time and it is clearly presented in a humorous way and is obviously cherry picking some particularly poor studies to laugh at. I did not and do not expect it to be an unbiased sombre review of all the EP literature and field of study! But for some it needs to be held to an extremely high standard of accuracy and for some reason she *has* to cover all the angles not just the one she wants to – funny shit EP researchers come out with.

    • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

      If that’s what your talk is supposed to be about, then it’s pretty easy to make that clear to the listeners. Simply state your thesis and/or subject at the outset and then repeat it at the end, as is the norm and present evidence or argument in the midsection — after all, Watson’s only education and experience is in communications, so she should at least be capable of doing that much. This talk was presented to secular students at Skepticon, where critical thinking is taught and encouraged; it wasn’t a comedy show consisting of random points about random things (or was it?). The fact that Watson started and ended off-topic, but focused on EvoPsych during the midsection with all informational slides titled “Evolutionary Psychology,” while she kept referring to evolutionary psychologists as some sort of group, would naturally lead one to believe that the talk was about EvoPsych, with or without prior knowledge of the infighting. Also, her admission at the end that in reality she knows nothing about evolutionary psychology and finds it boring was literally dumbfounding.

      At best, it was a really bad speech full of misinformation (as is the norm for Watson) — whatever it was intended to be about. At worst, it was science denialism and the opposite of skepticism and critical thought.

    • SocraticGadfly

      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. And, per John just below, if neither of them is making distinctions, ugh again:

  • john

    If at different points in her presentation she refers to pop EP, and at others discusses EP “as a whole,” the responsible interpretation is not that she simply misstated the scope of her criticism. She was criticizing both pop EP (justly) and EP as a whole (unfairly). A cynic might suggest she deliberately conflates the two so that she can get away with leveling weightier accusations against the whole field of evolutionary psychology without having to answer criticisms from professionals in that field. Hey, I’m a cynic, so I’ll go ahead and suggest she’s doing just that.

    • James Croft

      That depends on whether you think that speaking of “evolutionary psychology” without limiting clarification after she has already established that she is talking about “much pop evolutionary psychology” means that she is making a more general claim in the latter instances. Someone more generous might think that since she establishes herself early on to be speaking about a limited range of phenomena that that characterization “carries over” until she explicitly widens her scope. And since I’m generous, I’ll suggest just that ;)

  • D4M10N

    If I was going to do a broadside against the misuse of some branch of science, I’d be sure at some point to research what the proper use thereof is supposed to look and sound like, so as to provide examples to the audience of what that branch of science looks like when it is working properly. When given the chance to do this, during Q&A, Ms. Watson was completely stumped. If not for people like Ed, this wouldn’t be much of a learning opportunity for skeptics as a community. Hopefully, though, much of the ensuing discussion will actually focus on the hypotheses generated by evo-psy and how they are tested.

    • James Croft

      This is a very good point – I’ll add a note to this effect to the post.

    • James Croft

      Although I have to say that there is SIGNIFICANT value in a message which simply says “don’t believe everything you see in the papers about science, and even be careful of journals, for these sorts of reasons”. That’s a message lots of people still need to read.

      • bluharmony

        I agree with you here. I just don’t think that it should be done under the guise of expertise in an area of one’s total ignorance. Had Watson started with “I don’t know anything about evolutionary psychology and I’m not qualified to speak to the science, but here’s my layperson’s impression of some of stuff I found in a Google search and heard said by others” there would be no argument. Further, she could have even pointed to experts who criticize evolutionary psychology competently (Coyne, Pigliucci).

        • James Croft

          It would be a good idea to have included some critiques from people like Coyne and Pigliucci, yes. I wonder, have they written on the sexism aspect at all in a way which would be directly relevant to the talk?

    • julian

      If not for people like Ed, this wouldn’t be much of a learning opportunity for skeptics as a community.

      Yes, I’ve learned science denialism doesn’t mean science denialism anymore.

      Hopefully, though, much of the ensuing discussion will actually focus on the hypotheses generated by evo-psy and how they are tested.

      Why should that occupy the conversation? We’re not evolutionary psychologists and much of the work that goes into forming those hypotheses will be something we approach through someone’s retelling.

      It’s valuable to have a general understanding of a subject, enough to make an informed (if flawed) opinion on it but understanding the minute details of a discipline seems like a lot to ask for a community that won’t be practicing it. I like Watson’s talk because it’s practical. She give us examples of this discipline being misapplied in popular culture, how it’s misapplied and why.

      That’s a worthwhile discussion. It arms us against these claims, and helps us go about countering them.

  • badrescher

    It was not the presentation of an academic paper at a professional conference.

    Um, what? Really? It may not be an academic paper, but it’s not a fiction-based con and her talk was presented as an analysis of, in part, scientific findings.

    If you think about the goals of these conferences, how is it okay to give a talk about something for which you have little or no expertise? This is EXACTLY the kind of thing that skeptics are trying to inoculate people AGAINST.

    Watson’s talk was a highly funny presentation for a lay audience.

    She is a layperson in this field herself and it was not a comedy routine. The responsibility of the audience is not relevant. The responsibilities of speakers and organizers is.

    This is an extremely serious problem, in my opinion. I’ve discussed why in a blog post (with links which discuss the consequences):

    • James Croft

      I don’t think Watson was presenting on something about which she has little expertise. As I see it her talk was fundamentally about how some forms of evolutionary psychology are currently misused in ways which reflect and reinforce sexist assumptions. As a long-term skeptic with lots of experience investigating and speaking on the relationship between science and culture I think she was well-prepared to give the talk, and I think in general she supported her case well with effective examples.

      Nor do I agree that “the responsibility of the audience is not relevant”. The ultimate skeptical responsibility pretty much always, in my view, resides in the listener, for it is they who has to make the final judgment as to the legitimacy of any claim. Outside cases of outright lying (which this was not) we must always filter what we hear through appropriate processes of skeptical questioning. And part of that process, i argue, includes a nuanced understanding of tone, context, level etc.

      • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

        Can you give me an example of a talk where Watson was skeptical rather than dogmatic, especially in relation to feminism? Just one would suffice.

        • Marcel Kincaid


        • James Croft

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen a talk by her I’d describe as “dogmatic” – do you have examples?

          • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

            The dogma is typically buried behind anecdotes and snark, but it’s there. Just as it is in her EP presentation, for example. She wants people to think all of EP is bad, so she conflates real EP with pop EP. It’s also very easy to separate is/ought, and yet she doesn’t, and she’s giving this presentation to very young people, who think it’s funny and that she’s some sort of authority. Why does she do this? She’s too smart for it to be an accident.

            Take her anti-douching speeches, most of us have been told that douching is bad for you since 8th grade, so why is she giving them?

            It’s always the same line in the end. Women are oppressed. Blame the patriarchy and male privilege. Blame the men. It doesn’t matter how many women disagree with her, and want to be our own, independent selves, we don’t get to be heard.

            It’s oddly similar to how you had to be a sexy Skepchick to be cool, actually, before she turned feminist.

            All I can ask for is that my gender, race, or sexuality doesn’t define me, and I find that in the Western world, for the most part, it doesn’t. I’m very grateful that that’s indeed the case. Sure there is sexism in the atheist community, but calling all men who disagree with a particular woman misogynists isn’t the way to fix it. It’s the way to make it much, much worse.

          • James Croft

            “It’s always the same line in the end. Women are oppressed. Blame the patriarchy and male privilege. Blame the men. It doesn’t matter how many women disagree with her, and want to be our own, independent selves, we don’t get to be heard. ”

            This is an interesting point, a little OT, but I’m intrigued: isn’t it quite possible that it is true that women are oppressed even if many women do not think they are? What people think is true is not what is true, surely?

      • Marcel Kincaid

        ‘As I see it her talk was fundamentally about how some forms of evolutionary psychology are currently misused in ways which reflect and reinforce sexist assumptions. ‘

        This is simply not an honest evaluation of her talk, as follows from the pieces by Clint and Hallquist. Of she did show that ‘some forms of evolutionary psychology are currently misused in ways which reflect and reinforce sexist assumptions’, as Ed Clint made a point of stating in his notes of agreement. *But she went way beyond that* — to deny it after reading Ed Clint’s piece is *dishonest*.

        • James Croft

          I was at the talk, I watched the talk again before posting this, and I read Clint’s post twice, and I deny, for the reasons I have stated, that it is clear that she DID go “way beyond that”. I agree with Zvan: Clint simply misunderstood a couple of the sections he quoted and is responding to a broader charge that is not nearly as unequivocal as you seem to believe. I note you don’t offer any evidence to support your claim other than referencing Clint’s post. Obviously I’ve read it and do not agree – I responded to it above!

          You will have to do rather better than this.

          • bluharmony

            She explicitly states that she’s criticizing all of EP in an interview about the speech. So those of us who understood that (thankfully, most) were “reading responsibly.” Apparently we not only grasped her full meaning, but her actual intent. As for any conflation, she clearly does it to poison the well. Having non-experts talking about complex topis is irresponsible and completely unacceptable, and that’s the bottom line.

            Would you take a class in calculus from a janitor by trade who’s never studied it himself? Watson’s speech is unacceptable for the same exact reason. This is doubly true in a community that’s supposed to be skeptical. We’re promoting the hijinks of a charlatan.

            Please reconsider your position on this and think of how many people all over the world are coming away misinformed because of Watson’s talk.

          • James Croft

            Could you link to the interview? That might change my position quite substantially.

          • Stephanie Zvan

            Here’s a transcript of the interview and a link to the audio:

          • James Croft

            Thanks – I had found it yesterday actually. Listening to the interview I’m even more convinced my analysis is reasonable. She is not optimally clear by any means, but a charitable analysis would, I think, judge that she was indeed intending to critique pseudoscience and media credulity, not the whole field of evolutionary psychology (which she is pretty clear must have good proponents).

            The main difficulty is with the section in which she “explains” what Evolutionary Psychology is, which is an unfair and inaccurate characterization as Clint has pointed out (and as I alluded to in my initial live blog of the talk). But it’s certainly not the case, from my perspective, that this makes the talk a dishonest piece of science denialism.

      • badrescher

        “I don’t think Watson was presenting on something about which she has little expertise.”

        Then you are part of the problem, James.

        Psychology is a field in which people go to school for a decade to gain expertise in only part of it. Rebecca TRASHED an entire branch of it, yet she has absolutely no formal training in the field and every talk that I have seen of hers that touches on the subject, including this one, demonstrates just how shallow her understanding is.

        If you can’t see that, then nothing that I say will lead you to take this problem seriously. But then, reducing the spread of misinformation isn’t your focus, it’s mine, so you have the luxury of ignoring things like this while I do not.

        • julian

          Rebecca TRASHED an entire branch of it

          No she didn’t.

          Believe what you want to, you clearly have more issues with her than just this talk (although I doubt they’re personal.)

          Last comment on this as I don’t see any headway being made.

        • bluharmony

          Isn’t reducing the spread of misinformation what skepticism, atheism, and rationalism are supposed to be about?

          • James Croft

            Sure, which is why we should welcome stringent criticism of our work.

        • James Croft

          I think there are a number of disagreements to untangle here. For instance, I don’t agree that one needs to be an expert in a given field in order to effectively criticize work in that field. But I am very unwilling to hash-out such disagreements with a distempered interlocutor.

    • Marcel Kincaid

      badrescher is exactly right and the response from the OP is deeply dishonest. Ed Clint laid out in detail how RW’s talk was disinformational, and none of his points has been refuted.

      • James Croft

        I agree in the post that the errors and disinformation should be corrected. Apart from that, to what are you objecting?

        • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

          Poor presentation, lack of critical thinking/skepticism, and promotion of dogma via misleading statements about a particular science.

        • Marcel Kincaid

          I’m objecting to you failing to refute any of the points Ed Clint made, points that completely invalidate your claims about how RW’s talk should be interpreted. No one who *honestly* considers Clint’s critique can be “generally delighted” with the talk *as a presentation of information and reason* … but that you are generally delighted with it because it matches up with your preconceptions I don’t doubt.

          You say you take intellectual honesty seriously, but you appear to be a Dunning-Kruger-like case … you lack what it takes to even grasp what intellectual honesty is.

      • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

        Right. All he has received is personal attacks for showing how skepticism is supposed to work.

        • James Croft

          You will note that I strenuously avoid personal attacks in this post and in my writing as a whole. Not guilty.

          • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

            I am aware of that, appreciate it, and agree.

    • julian

      That’s all rather silly and absurd, isn’t it?

      The issues with anti-vaxxers and the like is the spread of gross misinformation. Misinformation that’s harmful to the well being of others and reinforces biased views of “good” programs and medicines. Watson’s talk lacks any of that. At worst she gives a false impression of how well accepted some scientists and their long discarded ideas are.

      Even though she overstates her case at times, Watson still gives a mostly correct picture and she warns of legitimate issues with evo psych in mainstream media outlets. There’s nothing wrong with that (except the bits she should correct and add for future talks).

  • jj

    SERIOUS CORRECTION – this WAS oresented at an academic conference prior to Skepticon. At the Berlin World Skeptics Congress.

    • James Croft

      This is not a correction: whether it was presented there or not is immaterial to the points I am making here in response to a talk at Skepticon 5. It also seems from the website of the 6th World Skeptics Conference that it was not an academic conference in quite the sense I understand the term, but rather something a lot more like Skepticon. Finally, the description of the talk on that website bears out my interpretation here that Watson was most interested in misuse of science by the media:

      “As skeptics, we often turn to scientific research to inform our worldview. Unfortunately, a lot of research hits the mainstream media regardless of whether or not the science is accurate.”


      • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

        We shouldn’t be guessing. As the speaker, she had every opportunity to make her intent clear. This is considering that, at least as far as I know, she has no training or experience in anything other than communications, street juggling, and writing ad copy for J. Jill.

        • James Croft

          I believe it was reasonably clear, and that the areas which lack clarity should be judged in her f avor. That is what I have been arguing.

        • badrescher

          You know what? I don’t care what her intent was. She isn’t qualified to discuss this topic and she demonstrated that clearly. I honestly don’t understand what all of this discussion is even about. It’s a no-brainer to me.

          I’m absolutely disgusted by the total lack of regard for knowledge and expertise (and SCIENCE) this so-called rationalist community continually demonstrates. It’s pure anti-intellectualism, plain and simple.

          • bluharmony

            Yes, yes, and yes. This community is actually the opposite of what it claims to be.

      • Kristjan Wager

        You’re right. The 6th World Skeptics Conference in Berlin was not an academic conference, and its format was similar to Skepticon. I was there as a participant.

  • jj

    A serious academic conference that is on the Skeptical Inquirer website, featuring Dr Eugenie Scott, Simon Singh, James Randi and Ezard Earnst.
    The World Skeptics Congtess is serious academic and had the same talk, not a college run free event like Skepticon. It is wrong to say they are the same.

    • James Croft

      I cannot honestly say, because I’ve never been, but nor have I ever attended an academic conference which sold tickets for entry and looked so much like a convention. Nonetheless, as I note, I am responding here, and the people who I am discussing this with are also responding, to the presentation at Skepticon 5.

    • Kristjan Wager

      It was not an academic conference. It was a gathering of skeptics. Like Skepticon.

  • Marcel Kincaid

    The intellectually dishonest justifications for non-scientist RW’s anti-science screed keep coming in.

    • James Croft

      What in my post is “intellectually dishonest”, specifically? Note that I take intellectual honesty extremely seriously, so I expect full details and solid arguments.

      • Marcel Kincaid

        You address none of the objections from Clint and Hallquist. You are “generally delighted” with a propaganda piece that indisputably attacked EP as a whole from someone with no credentials to do so, someone who cherry picked a tiny bit of the literature and primarily focused on media coverage — exactly as Ed Clint so carefully laid out — with Watson begrudgingly admitting that there *might* be some valid EP but is “boring” and it’s necessary to make stuff up, etc. etc. Regardless of what think you take extremely seriously, no intellectually honest person could write the piece you did.

        • James Croft

          I don’t address each of the objections because I generally agree that, were the talk to be interpreted how they wish to interpret it, the criticisms are valid. That is why I wrote (and it’s always a good idea to read what people actually write):

          “It’s not precisely that Clint and Hallquist’s criticisms are invalid…”

          I wrote that because I mean it. I think their criticism is valuable and generally would help create a better talk (as I also note in the piece). But I also think they have 1) misrepresented Watson’s intent and 2) held to talk to a standard which is not warranted by the nature of the talk (comedic, for non-specialists, focused on other issues etc.).

          You seem to be writing as if I’ve slammed and condemned Clint and Hallquist. I have not. I have agreed that their criticisms are valuable, but added an additional consideration which I believe speaks in Watson’s favor.

          I note you do not in fact address the point of my post nor the argument made…

          • John C. Welch


            You can’t have it multiple ways. For example, you keep going on about “intent”. Well, unless she clearly, using words like “it is my intent to show…” or similar, we *cannot know what her intent is*. Pretend for a moment that there are people in the audience who do not follow her from talk to talk or eagerly consume every piece of content she puts out. For those people, it would have been a lot of work to figure out if she was talking about:

            1) Pop EP
            2) Pop EP as presented by the media
            3) EP the scientific discipline
            4) EP the scientific discipline as represented by the media.
            5) EP the scientific discipline as opposed to Pop EP

            She swung between those like a hyper-brachiating gibbon on fire. At some point, at *some* point, the presenter of a talk is expected to do SOME work with regard to having a point and staying on it in a way the audience can follow sans a friggin’ copy of Excel. She also doesn’t get a bye for the non-academic nature of the talk or venue. She chose the topic, she could have at least done something besides cobble together a backing store for a comedy routine.

            The kindest, the absolute kindest thing you can say about the talk is that it was both poorly put together and given, which given Rebecca’s degree, training, career, and cause…is kind of appalling. She is a professional speaker on things like skepticism, science in the media, feminism, and similar. It is not, too much to ask that her presentations show this by at least staying on the (clearly articulated) point If we are to believe that the sole purpose of this talk was, as you keep stating, to show how the media misrepresents EP, it was, by any and every measure a failure. She could not even come up with a single reference for learning about legitimate EP because it’s “boring”.


            She couldn’t come up with links to legitimate informational sources.

            Because they are “boring”.

            She was presenting at a *skeptics* conference and she had no references to further information.

            And you are OKAY with this?

            It was not a good presentation. You can argue the specifics all you want, but the fact that there is *so* much disagreement over what she was trying to say shows that it simply was not a good talk.

          • James Croft

            I actually make the same point in my post: that she seems to vacillate between criticizing one specific thing and something much broader, and should be clearer. Does a lack of clarity and occasional errors make one a science denialist, though? I do not think so.

  • Vicky Caramel

    Looking at this in a wider context, Watson’s agenda is feminism. She appears to subscribe to some pretty wacky feminist theories which doesn’t stand up to skepticism, and to which EP is a serious spanner in the works.

    I think that its a pretty safe bet that as this debate rages, Watson’s supporters if not Watson herself will be touting the idea that gender stereotypes are an artificial construct imposed by a male dominated society. They viciously attack any challenge to this ideology by fair means or foul…. actually, it’s usually foul.

    It appears to me that you have bent over backwards to be charitable to Watson when she doesn’t deserve it on her track record.

    • James Croft

      My agenda – at least one of my agendas – is also feminism. I think feminism is extremely important, and I imagine if we were able to come to an agreement on what feminism is we’d probably concur that it is important. And, for the record, I think gender STEREOTYPES are “an artificial construct imposed by a male dominated society”. Not all acknowledgements of gender DIFFERENCES are stereotypes, though.

      I’m not sure I want to go into my views on this at length here, but perhaps in a future post.

      • julian

        I think you’ll want to ban most of these commentors if you don’t want to spend every post on feminism or RW explaining things most sensible people accept. You already have a pair arguing for gender stereotypes (or at least heavily implying the criticism of them by feminists like Watson are wrong and that there’ truth to these stereotypes). That should give you a hint as to where this will go in future posts.

        • julian

          Of course, that’s only a suggestion and you’d probably be right to tell me to buzz off. But these conversations are rarely in good faith.

          • bluharmony

            You know how to make them more so? By speaking in good faith yourself. There’s room for feminism in your belief system, and that’s fine, no one is trying to take that from you. But there’s no room for ideology in skepticism. Any ideology. Period.

          • James Croft

            This is very interesting: where is the “ideology” everyone is responding to?

          • Iamcuriousblue

            In the case of Rebecca Watson and similar “strong” feminists, I would say it’s a strain of highly ideological feminism that takes claims of social constructionism to be foundational, and will defend that core idea without regard to accuracy, much the way creationists or homeopaths will stick to their ideas in the case of contrary evidence. Since evolutionary psychology is more or less the main challenge to social constructionism these days, it will of course come under attack by those that have an a priori commitment to the idea of social constructionism.

            Now, of course, the jury is out on the causes of human behavior – it’s far from settled science, so adhering to either evolutionary psychology or more politically correct fields of social psychology is not quite the same as defending creationism. However, treating a strong version of either field to the exclusion of the possibility of the other, and treating any of this as final settled fact is most certainly a case of ideological commitment overriding objective inquiry.

          • James Croft

            Thanks Iamcuriousblue – that makes the charge much clearer. I don’t see evidence of it in this particular talk, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem elsewhere. I’m for open-minded investigation of the facts when it comes to questions regarding the social construction or otherwise of things like gender, along with a sensitive understanding of how such concepts are as a matter of fact used to oppress people. This is not an area where it is easy to proceed without error.

          • julian

            But there’s no room for ideology in skepticism. Any ideology. Period.

            How would that work?

            Many bring ideology into skepticism.

            We had (have) the Global Warming skeptics, the MRA skeptics, the skeptics who believe whites are now oppressed, skeptics who believe philosophy is pointless masturbation (kinda an oxymoron if you ask me), skeptics who believe libertarianism is the only way to run government, skeptics who believe forming “temples” is horrible and beneath us all and the list goes on.

            ((Bit of a tangent but, each of those communities are often encouraged to participate more and thanked for adding to the discussion. Why don’t feminists receive similar thanks?)

      • badrescher

        The problem, James, is that a feminist agenda – or any other ideology, for that matter – has no place in science or scientific skepticism. Science INFORMS our values; it does not drive them. When it drives them, it is unscientific.

        Here’s a post I wrote on this a while back:

        • James Croft

          Science may not drive our values, but our values have frequently driven science. And I don’t object to science informed and driven by positive, humane values, including the belief that women are equal to men (feminism).

          • badrescher

            I think you should read what I wrote again, James, then read the link. Science informed by values is not good science. In fact, it’s the opposite of what science is about. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.

            It is very clear that you are more interested in maintaining the delusion that Rebecca can do no harm and that science and reason are whatever you want them to be. That’s the opposite of good reasoning, objectivity, and reality. I’m not going to spin my wheels anymore; I’m done here.

          • baal

            I appreciate your (James) attempt at praxis here but I’m not sure it works. I’d have to listen to RW’s talk more.
            This comment at 10:01 am, however, has hit a bit of a sore sport for me. It’s a disingenuous argument. This is a tautology, ” including the belief that women are equal to men (feminism)”. I don’t disagree and don’t fathom that anyone remotely skeptical would disagree. Agreeing to that very moderate and rational definition, however, is not even remotely close to accepting the range of substantive arguments nor the argument forms of self-labeled ‘Feminists’. I further assert that the gravamen or median of complaints are against specific substantive points or specific arguments and yet the complaints are treated as attacks on the moderate basic definition.
            For example (and not about this talk or the penumbra), some feminists analyzing everything from the patriarchy framework. This drives me up the wall. Too often when you start with a theory (any theory but reality), you wind up not properly discerning weights for various factors. I have made this complaint in other places only to branded (via a non-sequitor) ‘not a feminist’. The explanation being something like, “well, if you disagree with this basic tenent (patriarchy uber alles) you don’t support women.”

            More on point with your larger assertion, feminism (equality concerns) can point out items or social objects for scientific investigation but I hope the other regular scientific modes of analysis or acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis are done in accord with the evidence and not scored in accord with feminist theory.

          • bluharmony

            Science should not be driven by values. That’s how bad science comes to exist. That means you’re proving what you want to prove rather than what is.

            The ideology we all refer to is a slightly moderated form of radical feminist theory, which begins with conclusions, and is inherently unscientific. That is the fundamental principle behind all of Watson’s recent talks.

            We’re all of equal worth, but we’re also all individuals. And the fact that some biological gender differences exist is indisputable. What we must ensure is that no discrimination or abuse occurs because of that fact. Misrepresenting science won’t help us get to that point.

          • James Croft

            I rather think that science should always be driven by values: without an orientation toward justice and welfare we may descend into a mire of technological progress unfettered by compassion.

    • Marcel Kincaid

      “It appears to me that you have bent over backwards to be charitable to Watson when she doesn’t deserve it on her track record.”

      Regardless of her track record, she doesn’t deserve it on the basis of the talk she actually gave … a talk that “generally delighted” Croft because … confirmation bias; he liked what he heard. To talk about reader responsibility and then write a piece like this that abdicates such responsibility is the height of irony. Apparently “responsiblity” only applies to folks like Clint and Hallquist, who are supposed to ignore the reality of this hit piece on EP directed as propaganda to unskeptical “skeptics”.

  • http://www.skepticink/skepticallyleft bluharmony

    That’s fine, but can you acknowledge that the feminists you support are harming a lot of women by consistently telling us that we have no free agency and are incapable of competing with men unless you step down and condescend to us? I am so sick of this. As a woman, I am deeply insulted by “feminist” men telling me how I should feel and what I should do. And on an intellectual plane, I am perfectly capable of competing on a level playing field with any of you. All despite a history of rape, abuse, and real oppression (as a Jew in Russia) in my past. There’s a point at which feminism becomes bigotry, and PZ Myers illustrates it brilliantly. I hope that isn’t the case with you.

    • baal

      Bluharmony, thanks for you comments on this thread and others. I’ll be reading your blog as a result. I skimmed a few posts over there and think you views deserve a substantive response from…I don’t know what to call them other than ‘self labeled feminists’. I keep looking for them to deal with your points (others have made them too) and there is a dearth of substantive response. I’ve only seen generic arguments or ad hominems as replies – it’s like they have a static world view and are incapable of seeing through the eyes of another well enough to be on point.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    I know I have to be on my guard for overstatements, because comedy works, frequently, through overstatement and exaggeration.

    True, but there’s generally contextual hints that the exaggeration is just that. If someone quips about Darth Cheney having microsurgery on his heart, I’m not going to suddenly think that the former Vice President is a Sith Lord with an anomalous circulatory system. Similarly, when Watson likens V.S. Ramachandran to the memetastic “honey badger,” it’s pretty clear that she’s overstating his unflappability for the sake of comedy.
    By contrast, when Watson says that the satire “Why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” got published, there’s no clue given to the audience that it was published in a notorious fringe rag rather than in a journal that evolutionary psychologists would generally accept as legitimate. There’s no indication that the audience is supposed to understand that this is a distortion. Indeed, I doubt that she even realized that it was a distortion.

    • James Croft

      There were plenty of “contextual hints” in her delivery that she was making her points in a particular way for comedic effect.

      As for the VS Ramachandran piece, yes – she overstated the significance of that case.

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  • Laurence

    Thanks for this James. I respect the hell out of you. I’m really curious what Massimo Pigliucci thinks about her talk and Ed Clint’s response since he is very skeptical of Evolutionary Psychology as a scientific discipline.

  • Rinus

    Come now, James. Would you defend someone who trotted out Deepak Chopra in a talk about how quantum physics is crap? Chopra has plenty of detractors, many of whom know as little about quantum phyics as Watson knows about EP, but you’ll note that effective communicators don’t call what Chopra does quantum physics. They call it “woo” or “gibberish”, not quantum physics. And how would you react when one these speakers, when asked if there’s any good quantum physics, replied with “Uh, dunno. Probably, yes, but it’s boring.” Or if they described Chopra as “a regular contributor to journals on quantum physics” without mentioning these journals are run by crackpots, and that they are widely recognized as such.

    As for getting the basic facts wrong; that’s just plain lazy and incredibly unprofessional. Watson would do well to just ditch this talk or completely re-write it, if she wants to be taken serious as a science communicator.

    • James Croft

      I can’t see the force of the Chopra analogy – what in Watson’s talk is it referring to?

  • Chas Stewart

    You know I appreciate your pitch perfect tone when discussing skeptical topics and usually find myself agreeing with you but you’re just being far too charitable in this case. Yes, all her sources were pop psychology and so we could infer this to be what she’s skewering but she doesn’t just stick to her sources.

    1.She describes evo-psy as a discipline that believes human brains evolved entirely during the Pleistocene and haven’t evolved since. Is this pop or regular evo-psy? There are no sources for this so I can’t tell. This is about the time during the conference that I became a bit agitated.

    2. She believes that we know hardly anything about hominids during the Pleistocene. Was the audience to believe her characterization of the information produced from Anthropology without any sources? Is this a pop science rebuttal or a regular science rebuttal?

    • James Croft

      If she is wrong about those things she should acknowledge she was wrong and change them before she presents the talk again. As I say repeatedly in the post, these errors should be noted and criticized, and I think she did NOT clearly delineate the area of her criticism.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      Chas Stewart:

      Yes, all her sources were pop psychology

      Actually, I think you’re conceding too much here. There are places in her talk where she refers to scientific papers, such as “Gendered differences in receptivity to sexual offers,” and criticizes them, which (a) means that no, her sources weren’t all pop psych, and (b) makes it hard to maintain the contention that she was just skewering pop psychology.

  • clod

    I expect she gave the talk because the balance of her mind was disturbed by ideological feminism, or jet lag.

    • James Croft

      What do you mean by “ideological feminism”?

  • clod

    Ideological feminism is dogmatic adherence to the analysis of society through the lens of patriarchy theory, the deliberate oppression and suppression, use and abuse of women by men, systemic male violence, rape culture, misogyny and all the rest.

    It is similar to religion in that its basic tenets are not open to question: they are sacrosanct, and anything, or anyone, perceived as a threat to the dogma (such as EP), must be attacked, ridiculed or denied.

    That is what underlies this ridiculous talk by Watson, and also explains its hysterical defence by her supporters.

  • Iamcuriousblue

    “On a second viewing, it seems to me that there is merit to both sides of this argument: I broadly agree with Zvan, in that I think the talk is generally an attack on pop psychology and bad evolutionary psychology, but I also agree with Clint and Hallquist that there is a certain lack of clarity around this point that makes it seem, at times, as if her critique is broader.”

    Well, indeed that’s the sense that I get, because in places, she says “pop evolutionary psychology”, and in that, I’m on the same page with her. And in other places, she pretty much drops all pretense of the pop psychology part, and makes it a broadside against the field itself, and in that part, it’s a critique she makes recklessly without due diligence in researching the actual state of the science.

    “Watson’s talk was a highly funny presentation for a lay audience. It was not the presentation of an academic paper at a professional conference. It was delivered, from the start, in a highly ironic and slightly over-the-top manner (this is not a criticism, merely an observation). “

    Sorry, but that’s just not an excuse. Of course at a skeptic convention, presenters are expected to be a great deal more entertaining than would be typical of an academic conference. (I would certainly hope, anyway.) But that is not reason to introduce an audience to a subject via a snotty, one-sided broadside that has little regard for accuracy. One can be accurate and nuanced and still be entertaining, though I suppose if one is a professional controversialist, that might come with some difficulty.

    Of course, Watson has every right to present her topic this way, but lets call it for what it is – propaganda rather than skepticism. Skepticism by definition must have some regard for truth and accuracy, something I do not see evident in Watson’s presentation.

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  • clod

    Yeah…mebbe be not quite the same as creationism, but it sure seems like a similar sort of closed mindedness, a fixed, unbending, obsessive & fundamentalist mindset.

  • Doug

    Man… if you thought defending Stedman was like talking to brick walls, have fun defending Rebecca. I really admired your patience during the accomodationist/gnu battle (although we fell on different sides of the Stedman line) and you’ll certainly need all of it here. I think it’s pretty obvious that your take is right and that she went a little too far (during a lay talk by a lay speaker that was never going to be comprehensive anyway) at times but still did a good job critiquing pop evo-psych. Good luck getting anyone to give her an ounce of the benefit of the doubt though; they are way too invested in hating her, feminism and anything associated with it.

    • julian

      ^What that one said.

      Also, I don’t think I ever mentioned how much I enjoyed your discussion with Zvan. Helped me sort through a lot of thoughts as well as emotions. Tempered me quite a bit. Thank you.

      • Doug

        What Julian said for me too ^ That dialogue was very helpful.

    • Pitchguest

      “… they are way too invested in hating her, feminism and anything associated with it.”

      Which is why most of the criticism has to do with the content of the speech, and not Rebecca Watson specifically. Not really invested in the hatred of feminism either if I recall. Ed Clint also made it very clear he wasn’t attacking Watson, but that’s still an indictment on his part, isn’t it? But I suppose you’re too focused on … oh you get the idea.

      By the way, regarding “hating her, feminism and anything associated with it” — as you people like to say — citation needed.

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  • Kevin Watson

    About Faitheist and the whole “was such and such served or people wearing such and such” criticism because Chris clearly states that some of the minutia of details in his book may be misremembered. When he adds back trivial details such as a description of a persons outfit, holes in his socks, or a type of drink it is to allow the reader to create a mental picture of the experience based on the narrative. *sigh*