Sunday, 30 December 2012

Why I Think Rebecca Watson Seriously Misleads - Part 2.

This post takes in those mistakes made in Rebecca's Skepticon V talk from 4:48 to 12:57.

To recap on her errors so far:

  1. Misattributes the words of journalist Ben Leach to the psychologist Dr Holmes.
  2. Provides four "problems" with Dr Holmes' line of reasoning, only two of which have anything to do with what he is actually quoted as authoring.
  3. Assumes that the fact that we have developed modern tools to satisfy certain impulses undermines the notion that we developed such impulses evolutionarily.
  4. Misquotes Dr Holmes as saying we only gather stuff we “need”, rather than things we find useful in regard to warmth, food and comfort.
  5. Doesn't know her French monarchs.
  6. Fails to realise that kings are, in fact, outliers.
  7. Presents a false case of mutual exclusivity in assuming that scientific studies cannot be commissioned by shopping centres.
From 4:48 to 5:50 Rebecca talks about a fictitious study about whether or not ice cream increases a person’s happiness more than sloths, which has nothing to do with anything. It’s an argument attempting to cast more ridicule on the Arndale study which she apparently hasn’t looked at beyond the Telegraph article she cited earlier.

So fair enough, we get the point that it is good to be cynical about studies commissioned by people with an agenda (that being … everyone) but seeing as the Arndale Centre have a vested interest in a proper understanding of shopping habits is it not a strawman to compare their study to (a ludicrous cartoon of) “in our survey 99% of cat owners said their cat preferred Whiskers cat food” type claims?

I skip forward here a bit because I want to focus on what she says about psychologists and evolutionary psychology. She talks a bit about how some marketers will approach scientists in the hope that they will add an authoritative gloss to the claims made for the product. She also mentions that Ben Goldacre (who I agree does a lot of good work) was approached by a PR company scouting for a scientist who would help back up a survey designed to help sell beauty products. Rebecca quotes Ben Goldacre as saying that the company were offering 500 dollars for:

…an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk with theory behind it. We would like help from a doctor of psychology, or someone similar, who could come up with equations to back up our findings as we feel that having an expert comment on our equation will give our story more weight. We haven’t done the survey yet but we know what results we want to achieve. We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs…

Rebecca then claims:

No scientist with an ounce of morality would fall for this, but somebody did.

The overhead projection shows a picture of a Telegraph story “Jessica Alba has the Perfect Wiggle”.

The issue I have here is that the Telegraph story has nothing to do with the Ben Goldacre anecdote. It isn’t about the shape of people’s legs. Beyonce doesn’t come out on top. It’s about waist-to-hip ratios and the apparent fact that of popular celebrities Jessica Alba’s measurements fit the median ratio people tend to judge as most attractive.

Shallow stuff, you may say. I wouldn’t disagree, but it is a far cry from someone accepting 500 dollars simply to agree with the predetermined notions of people selling beauty products.

As a bit of an aside here – I suspect that the people in charge of PR for beauty products are already well aware of average notions of what is beautiful, and so even the guys behind the study mentioned by Ben Goldacre probably aren’t as naïve as they seem. The point is that Rebecca seems to be suggesting someone was venal enough to simply take money from a PR company and come up with bullshit science to support it. I don’t doubt such things happen, but the waist-to-hip ratio story isn’t a clear example of such.

At this point Rebecca starts to criticise a study by Dr Kruger and evolutionary psychology. Some of the mistakes she goes on to make have already been discussed by Ed Clint on his blog, I include the same criticisms here for the sake of completion but I recommend anyone interested read his article.

In fact researchers at Chicago also came up with the theory that women evolved to shop, the scientific theory, and I’m using “scientific theory” in the same way as Creationists use scientific theory, which is not scientific theory.

As Ed points out, Dr Kruger is from the University of Michigan, not Chicago. Also, like her criticism of Dr Holmes, Rebecca projects this “women evolved to shop” slur. I admit that she doesn’t do it quite so bluntly in this case, because some of Dr Kruger’s remarks in an ABC interview Rebecca goes on to quote do strike me as chauvinistic. However nowhere in his study does he suggest women are “evolved to shop”, or that men are not. Instead he notes differences in the manner in which women and men shop and supposes some explanation into why this might be.

This time the research in question was performed by evolutionary psychologists. So, briefly, let me tell you what evolutionary psychology is all about. It’s a field of study that’s based on belief that the human brain as it exists today evolved completely during the Pleistocene era when humans lived as hunter-gatherers. And for many pop evolutionary psychologists this means that there is one overall human nature that transcends any culture. So we can explain many of our behaviours today by looking at what our ancient ancestors were up to.

Use of “completely” is nonsense. Much of the evolution of the human brain occurred long before there were humans, or even primates. As for subsequent evolution, it is not ruled out by evolutionary psychologists but there are good reasons as to why it isn’t broadly supposed. The notion is that, psychologically speaking, an individual from the period would be no different to one alive today.

The contention is that there would be no reason to assume that if we could (ignoring the British Psychological Society’s code of ethics in this case) go back in time, kidnap a Pleistocene newborn and raise it in the present that it would be psychologically distinct from a typical modern human being. All else being equal of course.

So in this case the evolutionary psychologists came up with the idea that women evolved to shop, not because the caves were warm like shopping malls but because Pleistocene men were hunters and women were gatherers.

The display shows another Telegraph article.

And visiting museums was like hunting and shopping was like gathering. Should I back it up? It’s very complex.

So back in the day men were hunters and women were gatherers, and now men like museums were women prefer shopping because the researcher in question noticed this on a trip to Prague. He went with some friends and all the men in the group wanted to go and see cultural attractions and all the women wanted to go shopping. So he is determined that visiting museums is like hunting and shopping is like gathering, ergo – SCIENCE.

Well, not really. Ergo hypotheses maybe. He had an experience, he feels he spotted a pattern, he now wishes to do studies or whatever based on the observation.It is what is in his study that makes his case. Let’s say for the sake of debate that he really is an irredeemable chauvinist, the unfortunate fact of that on his ability to craft an unbiased hypothesis is clear, but his study might yet yield something of worth.

The Miller Experiments are arguably the most famous psychological studies ever conducted. I recently read that the initial hypotheses behind them was that Americans would be far less susceptible to authority than Russians or Germans. Perhaps there is some xenophobia behind such a notion, but if so should the studies themselves be set aside?

The biggest problem with the study are the same problems that are levelled at Evolutionary Psychology as a whole. I’ll just go over some of those points. For starters whilst the brain is a product of evolution the brain is also highly adaptable.

Sure, but in its relative adaptability does the brain of modern humans possess any particular feature or capacity unavailable to our Pleistocene ancestors aside from environmental factors? If the answer is “I don’t know” then why is an assumption of no notable change since our distant past a naïve notion?

Evolutionary psychology requires that our brains evolved 12,000 – 1,000,000 years ago and hasn’t changed since. Which doesn’t really fit in with what we understand about evolution.

Why not? Some things are more gradual than others. The brain certainly isn’t a living fossil, but when considering the human brain as a gestalt it isn’t likely to have arrived yesterday. Since our departure from Africa what selective pressures, leading to what changes in the mind, can be said to have affected the human species as a whole? Are contemporary humans psychologically equivalent to those of 1500? I think so, and the reason why is the dearth of contrary evidence. It’s only when you get back as far as the Pleistocene that contrary evidence begins to mount to the point of concluding that, OK, they probably did have a somewhat different mind.


  1. I find it laughable that pop culture feminists reject evopsych completely, while most of the archeologists, scientists and historians I know believe it's a fairly accurate description of human brain development.

    I mean, the first thing you learn in study of ancient cultures is that ancient people were just as intelligent as you or I. Access to knowledge is not intelligence. Intelligence is intelligence. It's common for pseudo-intellectuals to believe that people who lived thousands of years ago were less intelligent because living conditions were worse.

    The leading ancient greco-roman archeologist in my city has told me that human brains appear to be fully mature by at the very least, 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. I know, I know, argument from authority, but at least my authority isn't a feminist blogger. The first step in criticizing evopsych is to read the goddamn primary sources. Not shitty telegraph articles.

  2. Well, I obviously sympathise with most of that.

    I think the human brain became structurally modern about 100,000 years ago. A book by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy - Mothers and Others - is a good source for the debate about when emotionally modern or socially modern brains developed. I think it's likely that some changes in propensity (though not capacity) occurred since 100,000 BC. However we can be pretty confident that not much has happened to our innate psychologies for ~40,000 years, for various reasons.

    As for ancients being as intelligent as us - yes, that's a really important point that I think a lot of people miss. In fact I think the rigours of ancient life probably called for more agile minds than ... as a quick example ... idly using Google and Wikipedia to improperly research a talk on an interesting field of social science.