Friday, 4 January 2013

Why I think Rebecca Watson Seriously Misleads - 3.

More on Rebecca's Skepticon V talk, taking it from the thirteen minute to the nineteen minute mark.

Another problem is that evolutionary psychology theories tend to be unfalsifiable. A lot of times they will say “this stuff, these behaviours, is written into our genes”, but they never actually tell us which genes. There’s no evidence to support it.

It is openly acknowledged by most psychologists that no single perspective tells the whole story, so this is something of a strawman. It’s also misleading in other respects.

Whilst genetic evidence might be the strongest sort of evidence for an inherent behavioural tendency it isn’t the only such evidence. In regards to evolutionary psychology where genes cannot yet be identified universality of behaviour (in contemporary cases and the archaeological record) is considered telling evidence. So if I were to suggest “OK there is something about a smile which is generally understood to signal enjoyment and our ability to recognise this is psychologically ingrained” I might need to find the genes involved in order to prove this beyond all reasonable doubt, but that’s not the only available evidence.

Do we need to find the relevant genes in order to suggest inherited psychology? At the moment I am studying the psychology of autism, a phenomena for which the genetic influence is clear (in that it can be inherited) but barely understood. No single gene seems to be specific or universal to autism and the best they can do (assuming my textbook reflects the latest understanding) is identify a number of genes that have varying degrees of likelihood of causing or exacerbating ASD.

By Rebecca’s logic would this seem a weakness in the theory that autism can be inherited, or that the ideas behind the phenomena of autism as a whole are gravely suspect?

Similarly, we don’t have the genetic material of the vast majority of organisms that ever lived, so is the theory of evolution and ideas about natural history in the same sort of trouble as evolutionary psychology, and if not why not?

I also don’t think theories are generally falsifiable in the way in which hypotheses are. The hypotheses behind quantitative experiments arranged by evolutionary psychologists should be falsifiable, or it should be easy to find examples and point out why they aren’t falsifiable. One would think if the field was as shoddy as Rebecca seems to suggest she would be able to provide some examples.

And also we just don’t know what our Pleistocene ancestors were up to, it’s shocking actually how little we know about our ancestors, we have some guesses, but two million years that made up that era were incredibly varied in terms of climate and environment and most likely the lives led by our Pleistocene ancestors was just as varied.

Right so, but what would any of that have to do with the notion that since then the human mind – as a general subject - hasn’t undergone any significant change?

We don’t know much about the family structure we don’t know much about the culture and a lot of what we assume about them is actually taken from present day hunter gatherer cultures which vary wildly.

A bit of an aside here because Rebecca’s point is presumably to do with the problems of finding universal behaviour, but - this is just as we should expect, surely? If the modern city dweller has the same psychological capacities as ancient man and is capable of great cultural diversity then it stands that modern hunter gatherer communities should enjoy great cultural diversity and that early man could have done so too.

So it seems strange to suggest that the Pleistocene was a varied place, and then point out that modern hunter-gatherers are a varied lot, as if that casts aspersions on the notion that Pleistocene man had the same sort of psychological faculties as modern man.

Anyway, to tackle her main point, which is that it is hard to find universalities in hunter-gatherer tribes. It’s a problem when it comes to determining what behaviours are truly universal I suppose. Most evolutionary psychologists suppose so as well. This is why studies in evolutionary psychology (or any particular psychology) are generally considered less significant if they only draw participants from one population, and more so if they draw from varied populations, and more so still if they are meta analyses and so on.

However, Rebecca doesn’t provide any evidence of a culture in which men hunt less than women, she merely mentions some in which women hunt to a relatively greater degree than others. No mention is made of the relative proportion in which such women hunt relative to men and there is no attempt at meta analysis.

Her strongest example are the Aeta people of the Phillipines in which 85% of women hunt. But how many men in the tribe hunt and what sort of environment does the tribe exist within that might explain any atypicality? I’m not sure. The information Rebecca gives seems to be solely drawn from the Wikipedia page on hunter-gatherers. Other sources somewhat contradict her account, for example this study claims that they are not hunter-gatherers as typically understood, but practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture:

In the case of the Aeta, migrations often occur every 2 to 3 years when land used to grow basic food crops is depleted of nutrients. The Aeta practice of slash-and-burn farming, called kaingin, has been in use for millennia. Although sustainable over long periods of time, it can support only the low population densities characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies.

By criticising Rebecca on the details I don’t wish to lose sight of her bigger picture, which I also think is wrong. Her whole notion that evolutionary psychology supports a division of labour in the general and technical senses is misleading. At its most bald it suggests that, as a matter of tendency and overlapping distribution, habits in foraging and hunting may have left their mark.

I will skip her bit about “tonnes of people particularly scientists” thinking about evolutionary psychology along the lines of Steven Gould’s “nothing more than just so stories”. Again I recommend Ed Clint’s article.

The accusation they make is that evolutionary psychology researchers first identify a behaviour, like shopping. They assume it has evolved, as a response to environmental pressures, they don’t need evidence for that. And then they find anything in our ancient past that might be relevant to that.

Well, sort of. It’s a bit of a strawman again. I’d replace “anything in our ancient past” with “anything that marries with our understanding of evolution”. If that change were made then I would agree that this seems a fair summary, yes … is this meant to be a criticism?

I mean, psychologists working in the sociocultural perspective first identify a behaviour, like shopping. They assume it is down to social and/or cultural influence, they don’t need evidence for that. And then they find anything pertinent about society and/or culture that might be relevant to that.

And psychologists working in the biological perspective first identify a behaviour, like shopping. They assume it is down to the structure of the brain, they don’t need evidence for that. And then they find anything pertinent about the brain that might be relevant to that.

Psychoanalytical types identify a behaviour, like shopping. They assume it is down to subjective experience, they don’t need evidence for that. And then they find anything pertinent about subjective experience that might be relevant to that.

You don’t need evidence to form a hypothesis (it's best if they are educated guesses of course). You need evidence to show that your hypothesis, one articulated, can withstand testing. The only other problem would be if someone working in one perspective presumed that said perspective told the whole story. In reality most evolutionary psychologists (I’d be tempted to say “all evolutionary psychologists” but I allow that zealous lunatic fringe elements might exist within any field) realise that there are subjective, sociocultural and neurological influences on behaviour, they just stress that the evolutionary legacy we inherit also plays a part and look to find what it might be.

Rebecca then talks about V S Ramachandran and his success in getting a parody study in evolutionary psychology published. As others have noted the journal in which he got the study published is renowned for its liberal attitude as to what constitutes a rigorous study.

I’d also point out that lazy or hoax studies do occur in other fields, and get published. Presumably Rebecca isn’t willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to lapses of vigilance in other fields.

I’m going to take Rebecca up on her criticisms of Satoshi Kanazawa, which isn’t something I really want to do because I reckon Satoshi deserves a lot of the opprobrium that comes his way. You wouldn’t need to misrepresent Satoshi in order to make him look foolish, because he says a great deal of foolish things. Nevertheless, I think Rebecca does misrepresent him.

And I swear I’m not making this up, his argument is that in Africa they don’t need blondes to tell which women are young and healthy because they’re all naked.

I can’t find a single place where he claims that people in Africa eschew clothing. I’ve got to hand it to Rebecca, I think it takes some brass balls to get up on stage and tell porkies whilst insisting “I’m not making this up”. I put it to you, Ms Watson, that you are making this particular detail up.

EDIT: Turns out he did say something a bit like that. See comment and partial retraction here.

They are all naked and so you can see how much women’s breasts sag, and he goes on to say that this is also why men prefer women with large breasts, because if they are perky and large she is young and if they are saggy then she is old. I am not making this up.

Not quite, but she is misrepresenting him and misattributing another scientist’s theory to him.

Her source seems to be this article from the Psychology Today blog in which Satoshi talks about why men might be attracted to large breasts. He does mention that breasts might be an indicator of age, but it’s not his idea, he attributes it to an anthropologist from Harvard - Frank Marlowe. Satoshi mentions a competing theory (also not his own), that large breasts might juxtapose with waist size so as to suggest fecundity, and then says:

“Further empirical evidence is necessary to evaluate which of these two competing evolutionary psychological explanations is more accurate. This is just one of many areas where there are competing hypotheses in evolutionary psychology -- a sign of active, healthy science and clear evidence that critics of evolutionary psychology who claim that it consists of empirically untestable “just-so stories” are simply ignorant of the field.”

Now please don’t get me wrong, I in no way wish to endorse Satoshi Kanazawa, but in this he isn't wrong. The idea may turn out to be a load of shallow nonsense but the argument isn’t actually his, he merely offers it some qualified approval within the context of gossiping on a blog about why the Barbie look is so popular.


  1. I'm not surprised Watson is relying on wiki and not reading sources carefully; when you're cherry-picking data to fit a priori conclusions, you might as well go for the low-hanging fruit.

    I'd be curious as to Watson's thoughts on a "gay gene", since, though plausible, none had yet been identified.

    My guess is, the underlying motivation for the gen-fem/A+ crusade against evo psych is that if true, evo psych would belie the po-mo social constructs at the core of gen-fem.

  2. Thanks for the comment, it's nice to know someone took the time to read and respond.

    I don't have much in the way of strong opinions myself on the matters you mention. I do think it's fair to suggest that there is certainly a sociocultural influence on pretty much all the phenomena she mentions in the talk. I think the reason the confusion over whether evolutionary notions and sociocultural notions trump one another is based on the idea that they be mutually exclusive and that evidence for one rules the other out (not to mention that there are other perspectives in psychology besides EP and sociocultural ideas).

    So feminists on the whole are surely aware of the influence sociocultural factors have - given that the movement has been able to alter so many common perceptions relating to women and women's issues through arguments for cultural shifts.

    And it shouldn't necessarily be a shock that many of them eschew EP - because evolutionary ideas are sometimes misconstrued so as to lazily justify the status quo.

    So I understand there is a sense of threat, though I do not think it is justified and the notion that sociocultural influence excludes evolutionary influence (or vice versa) is fallacious.

    And quite beside fortifying that fallacy, she is wrong in dozens of other ways and unfairly besmirches most of the scientists and studies she chooses to critique. I think the only person she mentions who is deserving of any opprobrium is Satoshi Kanazawa, and she even gets facts about him very badly wrong. I find myself particularly irked by her notion that somehow Dr Holmes "insults women", given that his input was entirely gender neutral and that his life's work as a forensic psychologist seems devoted to understanding crimes of particular concern to many women.