G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Edward Clint, a graduate student studying evolutionary psychology at UCLA has a masterful response to a talk given by Watson at the annual Skepticon conference. Watson titled her talk “How girls evolved to shop and other ways to insult women with ‘science’”. It was filled with typical snark aimed at what she perceives as a misogynist academic discipline. Here’s video of the conference:
Clint’s summary criticism:
However, Watson seems to have only the most superficial understanding of evolutionary psychology and it isn’t clear that she’s read even one paper in the field. There are many reasons to think this. She cited no sources during her 48-minute talk beyond what is mentioned in newspapers and other media or publicly available abstracts. While she derided media distortion in one part of the talk, she implicitly trusted media reports for the bulk of it, and rather uncritically. It is true that Watson is not an academic and therefore has no ready access to scientific papers (the public generally has to pay publishers to view them, but I have made many papers discussed here available, see part VI). Watson made numerous mistakes in content, misrepresented very basic aspects of researchers work, got citations wrong, and demonstrated ignorance of contrary data. Some of these errors are listed in part IV and discussed in part II. Lastly, we know that Watson is not versed in the literature because she admits this herself. At the end of her talk, an audience member asks Watson if there is any “good evolutionary psychology”. Watson throws up her hands while saying “prooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring.. because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. [...] if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media[...]” (see index 47:30)
This same criticism has been leveled by evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban against Rebecca Watson’s snark twin, Amanda Marcotte. Interesting how confident both of the women in question seem to be about their understanding of evo psych despite what seems to be a pretty solid argument against their mastery of the field:
In short, Marcotte doesn’t understand the most basic assumptions that underlie the field, which have been made very explicit in many places. Instead, what’s happening here is that she’s relying on her intuitions about what a field called “evolutionary psychology” is trying to do, which is why she thinks it’s about showing that behavior is genetic as opposed to learned. As something of an aside, note that she thinks that psychologists “prove” things, an incorrect impression many of us are able to suppress in our first year undergraduate students in introductory psychology classes. There is a sense in which her ignorance of the way science works, generally, works against her narrower claims because of the credibility that it costs her.
From here I’ll just relay Clint’s points which are laid out in a concise and heavily cited article which, besides smacking Watson on the bottom, also offers a proper review of the discipline of evolutionary psychology. I’ll point out up front that Clint views Satoshi Kanazawa as a hack. I mention that only because I know that readers here enjoy his work:
Watson repeatedly cites outliers, people and publications not involved with evolutionary psychology, and disreputable instances of each (as well as a few reputable sources). The first work she mentions in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cites a Telegraph article referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist paid for by a business to help them sell things better. This has no relevance to Watson’s thesis, unless it’s also true that Colgate’s “9 out of 10 dentists recommend you give us your toothpaste money” studies prove that dental science is bunk.
Or, it’s like arguing that since Jusin Bieber sucks at music that Mozart must have sucked at music too.
Some of Watson’s criticisms would un-make many sciences were we to take them seriously. For example she says (13:27) “they never tell us what genes” as if this is a grand indictment of evolutionary psychology. There are scientists making in-roads in this area, but tracing the path from genes to structures to behavior is difficult-to-impossible, except in the case of disease and disorder. Further, we certainly don’t hold any other sciences to that standard, even the ones for which genes and adaptation are critical. Does anyone know precisely which genes make a cheetah fast, and exactly how they accomplish that? The peacock’s feathers, the fish’s gills? Shall we toss out all the evolutionary biology for which we do not have genetic bases identified? I should think not.
At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.
Watson wants us to believe this great dark power is working, inhibiting social justice, hurting real people and the advancement of science, and that it is entertaining to talk about. She says (for example) that it is working to justify rape. To make rape OK. …But hey, no big deal, right? Not big enough to research properly or to stop making jokes about for two minutes. This flip attitude lacks empathy, and I find it ethically repugnant. If even close to true, her claim isn’t funny. It deserves real skeptical inquiry and serious investigation and she gave it none of this.
Both Clint and Kurzban points out that both Watson and Marcotte focus on a paper by V.S. Ramachandran titled “Why do gentlement prefer blondes?” which was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses which focuses on publishing out-there theories. Both skeptical chicks use Ramachandran’s paper as evidence of the inherent misogyny in the discipline even though Ramachandran himself claimed the paper was a hoax and despite the fact that the journal it was published in is not peer-reviewed and not considered a leading outpost for evolutionary psychology. Watson and Marcotte, like many feminists, cherry pick from the fringes of the discipline thinking that they’ve debunked the whole thing.
I haven’t come across a rebuttal from Watson or any of her usual defenders (PZ Myers) which tells me that they are ill-equipped to offer a true and rigorous critique of evolutionary psychology.