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.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Bleakly Topical and Possibly Exploitative Moan

Well, this might come across as a bit "won't they please think of the children", but this is one of my favourite examples of the media consulting a psychologist and then wilfully continuing on as if they were ignorant of such input.

A friend of mine posted this to her Facebook wall in light of the latest mass shooting. I don't know if the media will ever be able to resist the boost to ratings that sensationalist coverage obviously inspires. I think the psychologist interviewed in the section talks sense and there may be a link between the style of reporting and the motive behind such events.

And it gels in with what I was talking about yesterday I suppose, that whilst the media may well like to provide itself with a veneer of respectability by consulting psychologists this does not mean they accurately report, or embody, the advice they are given. And that therefore criticism of the resulting reports needs to be aimed at the right targets - the media and the consumers.

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.

What's this all about?

Hi, I'm Dave and I am a psychology student living in Northern Ireland.

My main motivation in starting this blog was a desire to have my voice heard on recent exchanges about controversies in evolutionary psychology. So this blog is part exercise in attention seeking, and part genuine attempt to learn and share information about the subject.

As time goes on I hope to log essays and ideas here, but I will also be indulging in a bit of infotainment when the mood takes me.