Evolutionary Psychology Caught in the Cross-Fire

The latest cause for warfare among the atheists seems to be evolutionary psychology. Atheist and grad student Edward Clint posted the following:

The denialism brought to Skepticon was to the field of evolutionary psychology, a thriving social science with roots going back to Charles Darwin himself. The critic was internet pundit and self-described feminist and skeptic Rebecca Watson. Watson is known for her blog website, as co-host of a popular skeptic podcast, and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. But Watson holds no scientific training or experience. The charge of science denialism is a serious one, and I will support the claim with a preponderance of evidence.

He then follows with a detailed critique of her talk.

Along comes PZ Myers, making the argument that you don’t have to be an expert in evolutionary psychology to critique and dismiss evolutionary psychology. Yes, PZ Myers makes that very argument. Excerpts from his argument are below the fold:

What it really is is an authoritarian defense of orthodoxy that dismisses criticism unless it comes from the right kind of person — preferably one comfortably embedded deeply in the orthodox position. It’s a version of the Courtier’s Reply, only in this case it’s used to defend science, or a political position, rather than theology. Shut Up and Sing Syndrome imposes unjustifiable barriers to criticism: you don’t get to criticize the subject at hand unless, for instance, you have a Ph.D. in the relevant subject, or some other lofty credential, even if the criticism is based on obvious and trivial flaws that a layperson can see.

That’s happening to Rebecca Watson right now. She dared to point out that a lot of pop and evolutionary psychology is bad science, and as a reward, the witch hunt is in raging progress. We’ve actually got people declaring that she only has a bachelor’s degree in communications, therefore she wasn’t qualified to talk about a field of evolutionary biology.

Every scientist knows that peer review is not infallible. We spend a good chunk of our training sitting in journal clubs, mercilessly tearing apart papers published in even the most prestigious journals. Peer review helps weed out some of the bad stuff, so it’s a good thing…but it just improves the odds. And when you’ve got some deeply ingrown subfield where all the “peers” buy into the same bullshit, and approve and publish each others’ papers, the garbage can reach toxic levels.
And sometimes it’s really useful to have outsiders look in and make criticisms and suggestions — it can shake you out of the cozy warm easiness of dogma and get you thinking productively.

Rebecca Watson turned over the carcass of evolutionary psychology and exposed a lot of the rot underneath. What she did was talk about a series of published evolutionary psychology work, and research that was touted as legitimate science, that was obviously, patently, ragingly bogus — stuff that was so wrong that you really don’t need an advanced degree in an esoteric field to see it. It was bad science through and through.

Now you could say that maybe those are the exceptions — every field has bad actors in it, and misinterpreted and misleading experiments. Maybe Watson doesn’t have enough depth of understanding to appreciate the good work done in the whole of evolutionary psychology, and her condemnation was too sweeping.
That’s possible.

But here’s that telling reveal: in response to an exposé of shoddy science within the field, the evolutionary psychologists aren’t saying, with some embarrassment, ‘Yeah, we need to clean house a bit, and we should maybe be criticizing the sloppy work ourselves a little more loudly.’ No, instead they’re saying, ‘Kick her off the stage right now.’ She is accused of being a “science denialist”. All the attention is being paid to a biased critique of Watson’s talk that does a damned poor job of defending evolutionary psychology.

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4 Responses to Evolutionary Psychology Caught in the Cross-Fire

  1. Crude says:

    So, we’ve moved from the Cult of Gnu’s leadership being unable to agree on what constitutes evidence, to the Cult of Gnu generally being unable to tell what constitutes science?

  2. Alejandro says:

    I agree partially with Myers that you can answer trivial objections to theology without being a theologian, but evolutionary psychology sounds like a specialized field where you recquire much more knowledge unlike theology which is just a sub category of philosophy where argumentation is much easier. Evolutionary psychology isn’t like debating different interpretations of texts, imagine if I say that astronomy doesn’t make sense because we don’t have the tools to analyze the universe and people will most likely laugh at me. I also have to laugh at Myers saying the following: ” And when you’ve got some deeply ingrown subfield where all the “peers” buy into the same bullshit, and approve and publish each others’ papers, the garbage can reach toxic levels.” First of all, how does he know this? Second of all, couldn’t be this the same with any scientific theory like his cherished theory of evolution (which I happen to accept btw)? After all, ID advocators say this is the exact same thing that is happening and Myers laughs at them all the time. So he not only contradicts himself, he is simply not making any sense.

  3. The Deuce says:

    Myers:

    “But here’s that telling reveal: in response to an exposé of shoddy science within the field, the evolutionary psychologists aren’t saying, with some embarrassment, ‘Yeah, we need to clean house a bit, and we should maybe be criticizing the sloppy work ourselves a little more loudly.’ No, instead they’re saying, ‘Kick her off the stage right now.’”

    Well, at least they haven’t called for doing it with steel-toed boots!

  4. Gregory says:

    Many people are searching for an alternative to ‘evolution(ism)’ in human-social sciences like psychology, economics, politics, sociology and anthropology.

    Do any of you have one on hand by name to seriously consider (Mike Gene, biologist and person, is also addressed in this question)? I didn’t think so. Contemplation of an ‘Intelligent Design’ (of) Psychology is of course laughable and cry-able like Orwell’s 1984.

    Prediction: Early in the 21st century (first quarter) an alternative will ’emerge’ and we won’t have to hold many of the 19th c. based out-dated debates anymore. Check back in a decade, folks!

    Someone tried recently to convince me that he could persuade me to become a Darwinian sociologist. That generated a laugh!

    I attended an eVopsych course for just a few classes, and of course read much more later. But a few sermons by the eVo psych-ist were enough to close that book.

    Is there a new book to open, pushing aside the fantasy-Science of Big-ID (Intelligent Design)?

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