Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology


“We should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics.”*

I came across the quote above in Michael Shermer’s article remembering Paul Kurtz, one of the founders of the modern US skeptical movement (see “Paul Kurtz & the Virtue of Skepticism“). It struck a chord – I have been thinking about this for a while. It strikes me that self-declared sceptics can sometimes be far from sceptical in the own beliefs and declarations.

No, I am not adopting the position of some of the targets of scepticism. I am not saying “sceptics’ are biased or arrogant because they criticise superstition, pseudoscience and religion. Nor that their ridicule of religious and superstitious ideas is somehow unwarranted. Within reason, ridicule is sometimes the most effective form of criticism. No way am I defending superstition and religion.

No, the arrogance I refer to is the claim that we are on the side of reason, simply by declaring that we are on the side of reason. To a limited extent I agree with the religious critics of the Reason Rally held a few months back in Washington, DC. At the time I did raise my concern about how ideological groups co-opt words for their own purposes (see Co-opting “Truth”). Perhaps the atheist rally was slightly disingenuous to label itself the Reason Rally, as a contrast to faith. But how much more disingenuous was the religious response when it launched a small group called “True Reason.”

A sort of ideological poker game: “see your reason and up you with Truth (with a capital T).” Well, what did we expect?

Rational or rationalising?

I have a thing about this word “reason” because if modern psychology and cognitive science tells us anything it is that we are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. Often (very often) our reasoning is motivated. We are justifying actions or attitudes which may be more driven by emotion and feeling than by logic and reasoning.

I am not saying that as a criticism – just as a fact about the human species. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Emotions and feelings are often a more efficient (and humane) way of making decisions than logic. And individuals find careful reasoning difficult. It’s best done in groups.

So yes, support reason and logic against faith and prejudice. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is enough to make sure that our own positions and proclamations are always based completely on reason and logic. They aren’t. And sometimes this becomes obvious.

I think if we are conscious of current understanding in psychology and cognitive science we would not fall into the trap of arrogance. We would seriously take on board another quote from Paul Kurtz: “No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue.” Maybe then sceptics would avoid such co-option of words by self-proclamation. And we might have the humility to temper the criticism of groups and people we disagree with.

Rebecca Watson’s talk

My current reason for commenting on sceptical arrogance is a video I watched of Rebecca Watson’s talk at a recent Scepticon conference in the US. This is relevant in NZ because Rebecca is currently here after attending an Australian Skeptics’ conference. She has delivered the same talk down under as she delivered in the US.

For those who have not see the talk – its titled How Girls Evolved to Shop and other ways to insult women with “science” and I have embedded it below.

Now, I realise this talk has become controversial in the US. And because of recent ructions over Rebecca Watson, “elevatorgate,”  feminism and misogynism in the atheist movement, and formation of Atheist+ groups this controversy inevitably involves other issues. Personalities and strong feelings are involved. Positions are being strongly defended. None of that interests me. Here I am commenting only on sceptical arrogance and Rebecca’s sweeping rejection of evolutionary psychology – with which I strongly disagree.

However, if you wish to follow the US debate have a look at Edward Clint’s Science denialism at a skeptic conference which criticises Rebecca’s presentation, and Stephanie Zvan’s Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism and PZ Myer’s Oh gob, evo psych again? which defend the presentation.

Is her sarcasm justified?

First, let’s get Rebecca’s sarcasm out of the way. Maybe some of it was justified in commenting on the media presentation of research and on examples of poor science but personally I found her extension of sarcasm to a whole scientific discipline childish, arrogant and unwarranted. Problems and difficulties in an entire scientific discipline require a far more serious consideration than Rebecca gave. In my mind her sarcasm appeared was her way of compensating for her own lack of knowledge of the subject – in much the same way that climate change deniers/contrarians/sceptics use sarcasm when they discuss climate science and scientists.

Sarcasm as a substitute for reason and evidence.

But what about evolutionary psychology? Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology. Her slides show this and her shonky definition of evolutionary psychology in one of her slides supports that interpretation.

Is evolutionary psychology a science?

Criticism of evolutionary psychology in not new or unique to Rebecca. Philosopher Massimo Pigluicci even asks the question “Is Evolutionary Psychology a Pseudoscience?” in his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. He sees problems related to historical investigations and the small number of species closely related to humans but concludes these do “not make evolutionary psychology a typical example of pseudo-science, like astrology or parapsychology, but it certainly moves it away from mainstream evolutionary biology . . .” However, “the overarching idea that behaviours (and therefore cognitive traits) can evolve, and sometimes do so as the result of natural selection, is completely uncontroversial amongst scientists, and so to should be.”

So, there are problems in this field. But would we expect otherwise? Evolutionary psychology is a “soft science” rather like psychology and sociology. We should not expect the precision, or epistemic confidence, of the “hard sciences” of physics and chemistry. There is therefore room for a quite a bit of tentative and speculative hypothesising. I don’t see speculation as a bad thing in science – in fact it’s essential. As long as we are conscious that speculative ideas don’t equate to verified knowledge. And we do make room for speculative ideas in even the hard sciences – string “theory” and multiverses for example.

Yes, I know, the difficulties of verification and testing in the soft sciences provides advantages for those wanting to promote pet ideas and fancies. Maybe even advantages for the unscrupulous “researcher.” And the subject lends itself easily to media interested more in scandal and sexual innuendo than real knowledge. Plenty of scope for misrepresentation of even the more genuine research. Rebecca was right to criticise this.

Let’s be realistic

But come off it. Even the hard sciences are not completely immune to such problems. Just have a look at some of the popular writing on quantum physics.

It’s easy to play up, as Rebecca does, the media treatment, the pop psychology and the unscrupulous “researchers” willing to sell themselves to commercial interests. But that ignores the far more honest research that is also going on in evolutionary psychology. Research on the continuity from species to species of emotions. Similarities in the brain. The evolution of morality, society and religion. And I could go on.

Sure, we will have less epistemic confidence in many of the findings and resulting theories. There is plenty of room of mistakes and blind allies. But I believe we are making progress and our current understanding in these areas is much better than when we were informed only by folk psychology and religion.

Yes, evolutionary psychology is a mixed bag. To some extent this is true of all the “soft sciences.” But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

*The quotation is from The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal by Paul Kurtz. Here it is in context:

“The skeptic is not passionately intent on converting mankind to his or her point of view and surely is not interested in imposing it on others, though he may be deeply concerned with raising the level of education and critical inquiry in society. Still, if there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world—if only his path to clarity and truth is followed. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to temper the intemperate and to tame the perverse temptation that lurks within.”

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13 responses to “Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology

  1. Ev Psych today, as a “soft science,” is about at the same level of rigor as (non-evolutionary) psychology was at the peak of Freudianism 75 years ago. And, I’m talking about “legit ev psych,” not even mentioning Pop Ev Psych. Frankly, if it’s a Hobson’s choice between Rebecca Watson and Ed Clint, I want the deck reshuffled. My thoughts on that and more here:


  2. I don’t agree, SocraticGadfly. I think that, despite some frustrations and variability, we are making some progress. We can now even talk of a science of morality. This has become a real challenge to the old power that religion had (and often still claims) on such issues. That’s important.

    An intelligent reader can usually differentiate between the genuine science and the rubbish. Just like in physics when we read stuff about “quantum ideas..”


  3. Pingback: Evolving skeptic psychology | Incredulous

  4. Pingback: Sceptical humility and peer review in science | Open Parachute

  5. (I’ll say up front that I have not watched the whole video. I’m short on time at the moment. Anything I say is only tentative. Yet I’ve read quotes and watched excerpts and read positive and negative reviews)

    Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology.

    This seems to be the crux of the issue.
    What was Rebecca “really” talking about?

    But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    But was she?
    Rebecca’s examples were only of pop psychology.
    She made it clear in her first slide that she was talking about “science” as opposed to science.
    At the very end of her talk she said that there was probably good evo-psych out there. Not a ringing endorsement, I’d agree but, to be fair, that’s not what she was focusing on. I think she was only trashing the media-based version of “evo-psych” that makes it into the public imagination.


  6. I honestly don’t understand how one can reject EP without rejecting evolution as a whole. If humans evolved, then obviously our minds evolved too. So what exactly are Watson and Myers saying? That the human mind didn’t evolve? That science cannot ever understand the mind’s origins? That EP has a toxic effect on society’s values?

    Because all three of those sound like creationism to me.


  7. Yes, that is the crux of the issue, Cedric, and Rebecca’s use of media and pop psychology examples does offer her a sort of disingenuous deniability which her supporters are using. But she also did use example of published research – selected to support her case – bad research. She also, fairly early on, presented a slide with her definition of evolutionary psychology – a straw man version which is very misleading. I have reproduced the slide in my post I can’t see how she could honestly describe the whole field, which amounts to an investigation of human and other animal psychology and emotions using an evolutionary perspective, in this way. Her ignorance of the field is my most charitable conclusion.

    I find this particularly disturbing because I am aware of valuable research on the evolutionary origins and basis of morality and religion. I hate to see sceptics being turned away from such a scientific understanding of these areas.

    Her “probably” comment was part of her reply to the only question asked by the audience – along the lines of “Surely there are some good research done in evolutionary psychology?” The question itself suggests that at least part of the audience saw Rebecca was including the whole research area in her criticisms and ridicule.

    And we need to see that reply in context of what she actually said and the tone she used. Her reply was actually:

    “proooooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring.. because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything.

    From the “prooooobably” you can guess the tone – but go to the end of her talk to check it out.

    The tone is disturbing – it reminds me of the way climate change deniers attempt to discredit climate science – I think a number of critics find this the most disturbing aspect of Rebecca’s talk. I think most of us can accept a bit of ridicule where it is due but Rebecca’s use of ridicule was constant and widely applied. I hate to see sceptics resorting to this sort of arrogance..

    I recognise that Rebecca is, for one reason or another, in the midst of a lot of controversy. I have seen such controversy before and it doesn’t interest me at all. But, yes some of those critical of this talk may well have residue agendas.

    However, I am generally impressed with the criticisms of the talk I have read. Rebecca would do herself and the movement a favour by taking some if these comments on board, acknowledging her mistake and actually referring to some of the really good evolutionary psychology research (which is far from boring).

    A true sceptic would be capable of learning from such a mistake and putting things right. Unfortunately, as I try to say in my post, just because we call ourselves sceptics and reasonable doesn’t mean we are being rational. Defensiveness is a perfectly human reaction.

    Surely, though a sceptic’s ethos should be similar to a scientist’s ethos? We should try to listen to others and attempt to be objective.


  8. Pingback: Sense on evolutionary psychology. | Open Parachute

  9. “A true sceptic would be capable of learning from such a mistake and putting things right. ”

    And using her platform to encourage skeptical conferences to invite real, prominent evolutionary psychologists as speakers. This scientific illiteracy and science denialism is a gaping wound in the skeptic and atheist movements.


  10. AliceInWonderland

    @jbrisby I guess that although we can agree that of course the brain, and so mind, was evolving too, how are you going to go about getting evidence for such a thing? With evolutionary biology at least we have fossils.

    @Ken I think at question time when she was saying that any good EP would be boring, she was referring to the fact that it wouldn’t make it into the media and hence the public domain.

    My husband and I are both from ‘hard’ science backgrounds. We quite enjoy poking fun at all the ‘soft’ sciences from time to time: EP does seem softer than most. Yes, it would be nice for “scientists” (it’s a family joke, when my husband and I agree on something we can precede it with “scientists say”) to come along with evidence that morality preceded religion, or that it has a biological basis. However, we all need to ensure we don’t hold EP in a higher regard than it should be due to what it can give us. Perhaps if you can point us in the direction of a few good quality EP papers…

    I watched the video after reading the blog and was surprised to find most (I did not say all, there were slippages) of the stuff on EP was quite clearly pointed towards what was in the media, and so what was accessible to the general public. This was a lay audience, not an audience of scientists, spoken to by a layperson, not a scientist: @Ken, I would go with your most charitable conclusion.

    The general feel of the talk was pretty light-hearted, but yes, agreed that this sort of thing can do damage (unknowingly) to all science and so the criticism is warranted, although I’d say on a completely toned-down level.


  11. Alice, most of science is “boring” in that way and doesn’t make it into the media – or if it does it is in a bastardised form. Rebecca would not get away with calling physics boring and she shouldn’t get away with calling other science boring. I personally found the comment disparaging.

    My background is in the hard sciences, but my partner’s is in the “soft”. So I have learned from experience not to be disparaging about sociology. I have learned that it is a simple matter of respect. And, after all, it is silly to criticise the soft sciences when in many ways they are doing the best they can do with their extreme,y difficult subjects. It’s childish to expect them to have all the characteristics of the hard sciences.

    It’s easy enough to find equivalent examples of physicists making silly or fanciful claims but we don’t disparage the whole field as a result.

    I don’t think it’s hard to find good quality evolutionary psychology work. Steven Pinker is a great example. I would also include much of Johnathon Haidt’s work – although I think some of the conclusions he draws are unwarranted and he does get criticised for that. I myself am very critical of his political conclusions.

    I am glad you agree that the criticism of Watson is warranted. The problem is that those debating the issue may be lay, although they may be quite intelligent, but they are typical of what goes on in the blogosphere and Internet forums – they tend to be arrogant and rude. Much of the discussion around Watson has been, in my opinion, very childish and pointless. It is the sort of thing I would normally not touch with a barge pole. But in this case Watson made a serious mistake in criticising a whole field of science, not just bad science. And some people who should know better defended her just because they were taking sides.

    One should be able to support a person’s valid claims regarding human rights and still be able to criticise their silly, and damaging, comments about science. Surely that is the adult approach.


  12. JBrisby remarks: “I honestly don’t understand how one can reject EP without rejecting evolution as a whole. If humans evolved, then obviously our minds evolved too.”

    The answer is simple — because of the difficulty in disentangling cultural from genetic influences in something as squishy and hard to quanity as human behavior.

    Darwinian evolution finds itself on solid ground because you can easily quantify parts of a genome and relate them to expressed proteins or organs. Changes in the HOXC8 gene, for example, account for the phylogenetic presence or absence of forelimbs (since the HOXC6 protein is not expressed in the absence of HOXC8, and HOXC6 produces forelimbs. See “Developmental basis of limblessness and axial patterning in snakes,”
    Martin J .Cohn & Cheryll Tickle, Nature, Vol. 399, pp. 474 ff, 3 June 1999). It’s not so easy to quantify behavior, since behavior is subject to interpretation. A forelimb either exists or it doesn’t; but behavior, being something partially socially-constructed, cannot so easily be objectively measured.

    Like the stories of the Bible, there’s no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed by data. If your story doesn’t hold up, simply concoct another story. Of course, there’s no evidence for the alternative stories, either.

    Source: “The women of Slate take on evolutionary psychology”, 20 January 2011.


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