Sunday, December 02, 2012

He Blindsided Her With Science

Edward Clint:

Watson’s talk is peppered with snark and sarcasm. Also, it should be clear by now she seems to have spent very little time researching the topic. She doesn’t treat the topic seriously. I do not merely mean that she does not take evolutionary psychology seriously— but the entire topic, including her own contentions, is more performance art than education lecture.

Watson sees evolutionary psychology as being on par with creationism (she makes this comparison at  8:28) and therefore finds it fit for ridicule. She even says mocking it “never gets old”. Even so, what about the impact evolutionary psychology might have? That seems less than amusing. For the sake of argument, let us imagine everything Watson believes is correct: Those who conduct research in the field are mostly misogynists who are dedicating many years to the pursuit of justifying harmful stereotypes and oppressing women. They’ve succeeded in compromising peer review, and the professional journals which publish them are mouthpieces of the patriarchy and scientific rigor is gone. They’ve infiltrated the top universities in the world- UCLA, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Yale, and so on. They’ve established growing departments at said locales and have their own conferences and ever-larger presences at others. They’ve even succeeded in having much of their literature and research perspective accepted by mainstream social science.

If I believed that all of this were true, I would be horrified. The potential harm to society and to behavioral science would be almost incalculable. Were I to give a talk on it or write about it, I would dig deep. I would cite mainstream sources so that no one could dismiss me as cherry-picking. I would conduct or locate reviews of dozens or hundreds of studies, instead of citing one or two in tabloid newspapers easily dismissed as outliers, or taking the word of an author trying to sell books. I would read full published papers and foundational literature, not blurbs from the Telegraph about unpublished studies so that my understanding would become robust and accurate. I wouldn’t make an unserious, sarcastic tone my main presentational style because the stakes would be so high, the human cost so tragic.

Watson wants us to believe this great dark power is working, inhibiting social justice, hurting real people and the advancement of science, and that it is entertaining to talk about. She says (for example) that it is working to justify rape. To make rape OK.  …But hey, no big deal, right? Not big enough to research properly or to stop making jokes about for two minutes. This flip attitude lacks empathy, and I find it ethically repugnant. If even close to true, her claim isn’t funny. It deserves real skeptical inquiry and serious investigation and she gave it none of this.

...So, I formally criticized a theory in evolutionary psychology that has stood for years. I did it, in part, because I love evolutionary psychology. I know that it’s a good science and that a good science gets better with robust criticism. I am excited to be able to play a tiny part in that, if I can. It was also an exercise in skepticism toward something I cared about. We need to engage in this kind of skepticism because as we try to figure out how the world works and how it got to be the way it is, commitments to ego and politics tend to get in the way. All of her skep-nomenclature trappings to the contrary, I do not think that Rebecca Watson understands this.

Oof. If this were a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it long before this point.

Snark, sarcasm, performance art, ego and politics. Coincidentally enough, those are the very things that often make reading the blogosphere such an unenlightening, unrewarding chore.

5 comments:

Brian M said...

bensix tears Rebecca Watson apart over at his blog as well.

noel said...

But Free Thought Blogs has circled the wagons. They often seem more about defending their friends/positions than careful thinking.

The Vile Scribbler said...

It has been amusing, watching the Keystone Kops efforts at damage control. They couldn't seem to decide on whether to argue that she was only attempting to criticize the popular conception of EP (in which case she apparently failed as a communicator to make that clear), or to argue instead that no, the entire field of EP is so utterly devoid of value that even an attention-deficient dilettante can dismiss it based on a superficial grasp obtained through mainstream media blurbs without being inaccurate or unfair (The Peez seemed to hint in that direction, though he later seemed to backtrack).

As someone who was interested in the idea of EP long before I ever started reading blogs, I was mildly taken aback to discover the almost-uniformly antagonistic attitude toward it throughout the progressive blogosphere. My repeated impression was that it was only ever referenced as a sneering punchline, to be casually dismissed as a pseudoscience designed to provide cover for sexism and racism. My impression here was that Watson basically presented a compendium of such distilled blogospheric conventional wisdom.

There shouldn't be any skin off anyone else's nose in admitting that, yes, she gave a lazy, slipshod presentation and got called on it, skepticism and science are working as they should, let's move along. But when you're part of an identity movement, you have to defend any members of your tribe from the enemy, no matter how absurd you look in the process. I believe the trendy phrase among the cool kids these days is "doubling down".

noel said...

I'm glad I'm not like that. I'd throw you guys over for a pittance. :)

The Vile Scribbler said...

As it should be. I have contingency plans for selling all of you down the river if necessary.