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I am writing this piece in response to a recent exchange that has come to involve a growing number of people in some particular corners of the blogosphere. Most of you who will be reading this will not need me to go into great detail as you will probably have already read the exchanges. This is how, effectively, the process took place.

1)      A blogger called Rebecca Watson (Skepchick) spoke at a prominent skeptics’ conference called Skepticon 5. She spoke on the topic of evolutionary psychology (EP). This can be found here.

2)      Ed Clint, a blogger here at SIN, and an evolutionary psychologist took umbrage to the talk and rebutted its various points here in a lengthy piece. The main thrust of the piece being that she was adopting denialist techniques in dismissing EP, presenting fallacious arguments in the process.

3)      Twitter and blogs sparked up a little. People like PZ Myers got involved. PZ is a prominent and vocal atheist who has done a great deal of good for the atheist cause, often from the confines of his Pharyngula blog. He included comments like “The excesses and devious misrepresentations in that post were painful to read, as was the revelation that Clint is throwing away his career by jumping on the evo psych bandwagon in graduate school.”

4)      Other people have also weighed in (such as Stephanie Zvan against Ed, on FTB here, as well as Justin Griffith for, also on FTB here, and the Incredible Hallq for, on Patheos here).

In effect, the exchange has caused something of a minor storm. I want to just throw my tuppence worth into the mix; but in doing so, I want to attempt to be as objective as possible whilst at the same time trying to communicate my, what I perceive to be, somewhat lack of bias.

Now, I know Ed. Sort of. I write on the same network as him. I communicate with him fairly regularly. However, in saying that, this is pretty much what we do – we communicate on a writing and network basis. I don’t go round to his for beers and he doesn’t come round to mine (there is a pond in the way). I know next to nothing about him, in all honesty. I like him, as much as I can do without knowing an awful lot about him. He is friendly to me, and I to him. Hi Ed.

Now, believe it or not, as far as Rebecca Watson is concerned, I don’t know who she is. I really don’t. I don’t mean this in any critical way. She is evidently far more famous and noticed than I probably ever will be. I believe she is something to do with the Elevatorgate scandal. And before you accuse me of pretending not to know about that, I simply don’t. It was not on my radar and still isn’t. I know it has a lot to do with someone coming on to someone else in an elevator and this causing a shitstorm involving feminist issues. I am fairly sure Watson was the one come on to in the elevator, but she might equally have been the person who reacted against or for this in the aftermath. I simply don’t know enough about it. I do not keep up with such politics at conferences, for no other reason than that I spend too much time writing, working, looking after twins, writing more, reading, researching and so on. I was given a link to a really good synopsis of the whole affair. I read it, and thought “so that’s what happened” but have since learnt many more things which have pushed those nuggets out of my all-too-small memory. Hi Rebecca.

The point here is that I am in no position to claim a presuppositional bias for or against either protagonist in this exchange. I know Ed a little more than Rebecca Watson, but have no opinion of her prior to the Skepticon talk. This may bias me intuitively to Ed, but I like to think of myself as rational enough to realise that and mitigate for this, concentrating on content.

However, I have watched the video of her talk, and I do have issues with what she said, or more the manner in which she went about presenting her case. Now some defendants of her talk suggest she was presenting a case against pop psychology in the media (such as the Zvan link above). However, this is clearly not the case. It seems fairly obvious, to me at any rate, that Watson was having a concerted go at evolutionary psychology.

To make matters worse, and given the context of a public speech, she got things empirically wrong.

“[Evolutionary psychology is] a field of study based on belief that the human brain as it exists today evolved completely during the Pleistocene era when humans lived as hunter-gatherers”

Of course, many features of our brains evolved far longer ago. The so-called “reptilian brain”  is 500 million years old. The limbic system is 50 million years old. The neocortex is 2.6 million years old-  600k years before the Pleistocene. This is a bizarre thing to have claimed.

She also claimed that VS Ramachandran got his satirical EP paper published. Every part of this claim seems to be a little wrong. His “satirical paper” was actually categorically a hypothesis – a falsifiable explanation about an observed feature of people (although it’s a poor one). So it isn’t strictly satire. Second, the journal Medical Hypotheses was not peer-reviewed in the 90’s when he submitted. It was NOT peer reviewed then. In no scientific sense can his paper be said to have been “published”. He may as well have posted it on a blog.

It is not a case that I am defending EP here. I actually am fairly agnostic on EP. My thoughts are this:

1)      EP must be a valid concept given that psychology doesn’t spontaneously pop into being in a particular form.

2)    We have not had a static psychology in the last 200,000 years or through hominid development, that would be unrealistic to assert.

3)      Therefore, present human psychology must have developed over time.

4)    However, isolating particular causal factors in such a development is understandably a tricky business and can present many problems, many of which are being thrown around the forums at present, to which many people are replying. Whether these criticisms hold is another question.

With this in mind, listening to a renowned skeptic (hence her invitation to speak) critique an entire discipline in such a way is disappointing. What is a shame here is that, for all we know, Watson may be ultimately correct, or she may not. In other words, the methodology and findings of the vast core of EP could be false or problematic. But the way that Watson arrived at the apparent conclusion that this is so is unwarranted. It is about justified beliefs, to get philosophical.

So, firstly, are these Watson’s beliefs and, secondly, does Watson justify her beliefs appropriately?

On the first question, it certainly appears that one of the core aims of her talk was to undermine the discipline of EP. This is evidenced in several points. Bert Russell, commenting over at Rock Beyond Belief, stated this:

“What I had hoped to point out in my comment was that I think it is a stretch to argue Rebecca Watson was only criticizing evolutionary psychology in the media and not as a whole given her response to a question at the very end of her presentation. She was asked if there was any “good evolutionary psychology,” to which she responded with a protracted “Prooooooooooooooooooooobably.” She even said that you can only have “good” evolutionary psychology if you just “make it up.” That is not something anyone could ever reasonably expect to hear from someone who is merely criticizing evolutionary psychology in the media. It is something we can expect from someone who is criticizing the science wholesale.”

Given this, it does seem that there was a concerted effort to discredit EP as a whole, especially given some of the jokes and ensuing laughter elicited from the audience. It is worth referring to some of Ed Clint’s points here. Again, I must emphasise that ‘debunking’ EP is a fine enough objective if done properly. A thoroughly academic debate could easily be had on this where we would expect to see adequately referenced material being supplied by both sides. However, in Watson’s case, it does appear that her methods were a little lazy and popularist. Perhaps apt in dismissing the very tabloid-style popularist EP works she referenced, but not really good enough to dismiss an entire discipline involving a large number of varied studies.

You see, she is in a position of responsibility and authority here: she is on a podium, speaking to rational people in an assumed rational manner. But when genetic fallacies pop up on a regular basis, one has to be a little concerned. There are many good, well-intentioned  and well-qualified scientists working in the field of EP, and it is concerning to see someone dismiss their work to a skeptical audience in the manner of a science denialist without proper justification.

There is a difference between debunking some pieces of work in a field and debunking an entire field based on a couple of not-so-carefully selected pieces of work. Especially if you have absolutely no expertise in that field. I could dismiss entire scientific fields quite easily with reference to a few problematic papers. Creationists do it all the time. But unless you can show pretty robustly that the work you are critiquing and dismissing truly is representative of the field as a whole, then the practice is not worth an awful lot.

I am disappointed in the reaction of PZ Myers, too. I’m sure he couldn’t give two hoots about what I think, either, and he is probably right there. My opinion really doesn’t count for all that much. But I do get a sense of kneejerk support for ‘one of their own’. And I don’t mean to incite an FTB vs SIN situation – I can’t think of anything that would interest me less. There are some awesome blogs on FTB. I think Reasonable Doubts is quite simply the best podcast on the internet, bar none.

No, I just think PZ is wrong. His comment, as follows, doesn’t help:

“…a competing network (which is fine, of course) which they proceeded to stock almost entirely with writers with an an anti-FtB and strongly anti-Skepchick slant — I’ve had to laugh at the lineup which looks largely drawn from the ranks of the Slymepit, a notorious anti-feminist/anti-Rebecca Watson hate site, and my list of banned commenters. And looking at the people who comment there, again, they seem to be largely driven by hatred of Watson and feminism in general.”

Although I may fit into the excluded portion of the ‘largely’ category (I have never written on any of the topics mentioned, or Atheism+, preferring other topics and have never visited Skepchick’s blog or read any of her work in my life), it is hard not to take some kind of offence. Hey ho, no big deal there, it just seems a shame to throw toys around the room like this.

Because, at the end of the day, whatever Watson said should stand or fall on the merit of what she said. If, within the talk, there was enough to show that her methodology was sound, as expected from skeptical conference speakers, and that her speech didn’t contain numerous errors, and that she didn’t establish a dismissal of an entire discipline based at least partly on fallacy, then all is well, and Ed has wasted a lot of time and effort in barking up the wrong tree.

Myers does seem to think that Ed had a hidden agenda and some kind of past with Watson. Do you know what? That may be. I haven’t got a clue there, I really don’t. And it doesn’t matter (at least, I couldn’t really care for expending energy of such matters). The important thing here, for the neutral, is whether what he says has merit. What he says, like Watson, also stands or falls on its merit. And if it does stand as a valid criticism, then people really don’t have the epistemic right to try to batter Ed with a big blogging stick because they happen to presuppositionally prefer Watson to Clint.

Come on guys, we are all skeptics around here! Let’s act like good skeptics, with good epistemologies. Let’s use the scientific method. Let’s stop the bickering, the poor reasoning, and the in group / out group mentality just for a while.

And by all means, let’s use this to have a mighty big debate as to whether EP is worth the paper it is written on. This is what we are about. Ideas and Knowledge! This is a clarion call to all the intelligent and rational people out there that for the past year have been pissing about shouting at each other, drowning out dissent with invective and more dissent. Yes, let’s disagree. Yes, let’s argue. Yes, let’s even care enough about knowledge to get a little heated. No, let’s not cloud our judgement, and our reasoning with intuitive, kneejerk reactions. How dare we, the so-called ‘rational’ ones, declare that theists and pseudoscientists build their conclusions upon poor epistemology and fallacy when we appear to be no better? And if I make fallacious arguments, and if I dismiss whole disciplines without proper justification, bloody well call me out on it. And make the critique as long as you like. After all, it will make me the better, more knowledgeable person for it.

Next post – IS Evolutionary Psychology a Pseudoscience?…

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...