Friday 14 December 2012

Why I think Rebecca Watson seriously misleads - Part 1.

My main reason for starting this blog is to satisfy a sense of frustration at the following presentation given by Rebecca Watson at Skepticon V.

The presentation has received approval in some quarters and opprobrium in others. According to PZ Myers the talk "thoroughly ridiculed pop evo psych" whilst Stephanie Zvan called it "a brief, entertaining look into some of the ways evolutionary psychologists abuse science when it comes to gender essentialism". On the other hand Ed Clint's opinion was that, at least in parts, it amounted to science denial, and other commentators have also voiced their criticisms of the talk.

As someone with an interest in the topic I am moved to support those who take issue with Rebecca's presentation. In fact I spotted a few things I hadn't seen other commentators pick up on, and so I thought I'd transcribe sections of the talk for the purposes of criticism. This has proved an issue, because the talk from start to finish is, as far as I have come to see, a catalogue of errors and explaining them all will take me weeks.

As such I am only going to closely examine the first few minutes of her presentation and explain where I think she goes wrong. I hope that by doing so it will demonstrate to those defending Rebecca just how seriously sloppy her talk is. Whilst the first five minutes contains an awful lot of material that I find objectionable, just because I don't criticise the rest of her talk it doesn't mean it gets any better. As "Part 1" indicates, I think this could make quite a series, which is something I may go on to do depending on the response this blog gets.

At the same time, I am aware that Rebecca does receive a deal of criticism online, and that a lot of it is motivated merely by the fact that she is a prominent feminist. I'm not out to get her for that, and I realise in advance I may succour some of those who do by criticising her talk. I apologise for advance for that, but I really think she needs to seriously raise her game here and that those who have stood in her corner over this issue need to think about what sort of standards they encourage.

In this post then, I examine the talk from 1:17 to 4:48.

I’m going to talk about the scientific fact that girls evolved to shop. Fact. I know that this is a scientific fact because…

The image displayed is a picture of Telegraph story titled “Shopping is throwback to days of Cavewomen

…this is a science story that has appeared in the science section of major newspapers around the world, not once but several times. Here’s the first time I noticed it, this was in February 2009. This article describes a ‘study’ done by Dr David Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University who said that women love to shop because, and I quote: “skills that were learned as cavemen and women were now being used in shops. Gatherers sifted the useful from things that offered them no sustenance, warmth or comfort with a skill that would eventually lead to comfortable shopping malls and credit cards. In our evolutionary past, we gathered in caves with fires at the entrance. We repeat this in warm shopping centres where we can flit from store to store without braving the icy winds.”

Here is where the presentation begins to mislead through sloppiness. The "quote" is not from Dr Holmes, it is a mixture of Dr Holmes' words and those of Telegraph journalist Ben Leach, so when Rebecca states that Dr Holmes' said "skills that were learned as cavemen and women were now being used in shops" she misattributes the journalist's paraphrasing to the scientist.

This becomes a further issue when she goes on to say:

Now I’m no scientist like Dr Holmes but I found a few problems with his line of reasoning.

As an interjection here, and just out of curiosity, given some of the events of the past year, I do wonder if Rebecca might have liked to have seen any of these presentations by Dr Holmes:
  • Holmes D.A. 2007. "Stalking & domestic violence" at: Policy Spotlight Conference: Risk-assessment and stalking in domestic violence, Millennium Hotel, London.
  • Holmes D.A. 2007. "Stalking: A means to no end" at: Aggression & Violence: New Approaches New Directions Conference, University of Central Lancashire. Preston, UK.
  • Holmes D.A., McFarlane L. 2006. "Cyberstalking" at: Forensic Research Group Conference, Technology & Crime, MMU Manchester. BPS Proceedings v No 2006/7.
I mean is that work more befitting of a (say it like Rebecca - with heavy sarcasm) "scientist"?

For instance you don’t generally inherit traits that are learned behaviours. For instance my father is very good at playing the drums, I cannot play the drums. It’s weird that I wasn’t born playing the drums.

But the bit about learned behaviours isn't Dr Holmes' line of reasoning. It's a tabloid journalist's reported understanding of his reasoning. Some of the problems Rebecca has with the scientist's reasoning aren't mentioned by the scientist, and others aren't even mentioned in the newspaper article.

Also if I inherited the useful ability to sift things I need from things I do not need whilst shopping then why do I own a fire-breathing nun wind-up toy? I dunno.

But Dr Holmes didn't say that everything people foraged for was a matter of need. I take the point that the toy's use is trivial in comparison to food, but if it entertains Rebecca then it surely falls within a category of "things that bring her comfort".

Number three, you don’t gather in the cave. If you only gather in the cave all you eat is stalactite mushroom soup, you have to leave the cave to gather things.

Look, nitpicking I know, but in context he may well mean "congregate in shelters" rather than "forage in tunnels" when he talks about gathering in caves. I mean, that would be the common sense interpretation right?

So if we actually inherited that learned behaviour of leaving the cave to shop this is what our shopping malls would look like…

The overhead projection shows a cartoon of products placed on bushes.

Gets a bit of a laugh I suppose, but only from those audience members who presumably think that there is something pertinent about the suggestion that if we developed an instinct at a given time in the past we would necessarily be stuck with the tools we used to satisfy that instinct at that time.

Which is silly. At some point in the past we probably developed an instinct for putting ourselves at some distance from our excrement. This does not mean that we should still be using middens.

Problem number four. If women have been the ones who have been most interested in fashion since the Pleistocene…

The overhead projection shows a portrait of a French monarch.

…then was King Louis the Fourteenth just some fabulous outlier?

More nitpicking, but I think the picture is of Louis the Sixteenth. Yes, yes, cheap shot. I bring it up in part to show off, but also to highlight the overarching sloppiness of this whole thing.

But anyway - the answer to Rebecca's rhetorical query is an emphatic "Yes!" Being a fabulous outlier is The Whole Point of being a king. If a psychologist were to perform a study into whether or not men were more interested in fashion than women it would be a significant confounding variable if the male participants were monarchs.

This is apparently "problem number four" with Dr Holmes' "line of reasoning", and it isn't something he has mentioned. It isn't even something that the article mentions.

In fact, aside from the fact that a Telegraph editor has chosen a misleading headline and strapline, and a photograph of a female shopper - what has anything in the article do to with science (or even "science") being used to support the notion that women evolved to shop. Ben Leach's copy is gender neutral ("skills used by cavemen and women") and so are the words attributed to Dr Holmes' study (he talks about "gatherers" and "we").

In the end though this doesn’t matter because this isn’t actually science (surprise!). The end of the article did actually helpfully explain “the study was commissioned by Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre in a response to a rise in January visitors.” All of the best studies I find are commissioned by shopping centres. This is actually marketing disguised as science.

But “science” and “studies commissioned by shopping centres” are not mutually exclusive. If you want to criticise the study then why not do so by showing why the study is wrong, rather than taking the bowdlerised account of a very short, very fluffy article from a newspaper?

All Dr Holmes is guilty of is stating the bloody obvious really:

  • We need stuff.
  • Shopping centres provide a way of collecting stuff.
  • It’s kind of like the foraging we did in the past, but made much easier.
Now as a gut reaction I’d share cynicism as to whether this study was a serious matter of understanding why shopping patterns changed in relation to recession as the paper claims, or just a sneaky excuse for cheap advertorials for the Arndale Centre. But without criticising the actual study who is to say?

Aside from a headline, photo and strapline (over which Dr Holmes has no control), what is there here to suggest that science (or even “science”) is being used to shore up stereotypes?

So by all means have a go at those who write Telegraph headlines, I will cheer you on. But why drag the scientist in?

Anyway - that's it for now. I will probably do more next weekend.


  1. Wow. And this chick calls herself a scientist? Call me skeptical.

  2. Those types of commercially commissioned studies are quite common and are often bunk. However, I agree that she should critique the actual content and conclusions of the study rather than the pseudo-journalism that describes it.

    This is how people like Rebecca operate when it comes to anything that might paint women in what she perceives to be a negative light:

    1. Make a conclusion: there are no psychological differences between men and women and, if there are some, the only differences are where women are better.

    2. Reject any evidence that doesn't support said conclusion and accept any evidence that does.

    I have often suspected that even the most otherwise "rational" people still respond emotionally to one thing or another; and for career feminists like Rebecca Watson that thing is her gender. She is like a religious person when it comes to that. She just believes, on faith, that anything that she perceives as showing that women tend to behave negatively in some way compared to men is automatically bullshit. Of course, like a true femtheist, it never works the other way around (except for, perhaps, from time to time in order to keep up the appearance that she is being truly unbiased--she isn't).

  3. Hi Chemoluminescent and thanks for the response.

    I personally feel that feminism is better understood as a political perspective than a religious one. The rubbish (like the notion that to examine sex difference is to demean a sex) that is packaged with the worthwhile (like the notion that small statistical differences should not justify discrimination) is often overlooked because both the rubbish and the worthwhile both "serve the cause".

    In this it has much in common with all other political perspectives. The rubbish can even be said to be useful because it tends to spark more debate (being as it inherently more debateable) and helps illuminate the worthwhile. Even really stupid rubbish such as "why won't men talk about rape" works on a political level - because it provokes discussion about rape, but on a scientific level it's just nonsense.

    The problem with this is that when the perspective claims to be consistent with the values of scepticism and science, the rubbish comes under assault from those who are very good at assaulting rubbish, and those who hold the perspective feel under attack.

    That's what I reckon anyway.