Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

Whinging About Skepchick

A critique of a talk by Rebecca Watson is very likely heavily influenced by the critiquer’s membership in one group or another as defined by The Great Sorting. This not because Rebecca is a polarizing person. It is because she has been outspoken on issues that tend to polarize people, like feminism. This polarization is enhanced by the fact that a break-off group of skeptics have chosen to join the haters rather than the thinkers and doers. Also, she leads a group of women who have tried to open up the Skeptical Community to having more female participants and to more frequently address women’s issues, and this has led to significant push back. As you listen to Rebecca’s recent talk on Evolutionary Psychology or read critiques of it, especially those that specifically call her talk “science denialism” or “creationism” or some other absurd thing, keep that in mind.

(Because it isn’t science denialism.)

I’ve been asked by numerous people to read a blog post called Science denialism at a skeptic conference addressing Rebecca’s talk, written by some guy named “Clint,” but when I notice the blog network it is on, one created specifically to support the opposition to Atheism+, “Free Thought Bullies,” and Skepchicks, I find it hard to convince myself to spend the time on it. When I read the title of the post, which makes use of the inappropriate and absurd hyperbole just mentioned, I find it hard to convince myself to spend time on it. There may well be useful ideas in that post, perhaps it is even brilliant, and I’m not saying I’ll never read it. But I’m very busy and the chance of that post being informative or useful, and not overly annoying, is very slim. In other words, Clique Membership is more important, in many instances, than any honest attempt to engage in a conversation, for most of the people who respond publicly to anything Rebecca Watson says. For now I’m guessing that Clint is a Cliqueist.

This post-Great Sorting bias is evident in a recent comment by blog reader “bks” on my earlier post pointing to Rebecca’s talk. “bks” refers to Clint’s post and says “Now I’m really glad I didn’t waste 48 minutes..” Perhaps Clint was very convincing, but given the qualities I see in Rebecca’s talk, I don’t se how he could have been both convincing (of the talk not being worth listening to) and honest or thorough at the same time. Here are the facts surrounding the comment:

1) I am a behavioral biologist with expertise in the area of Rebecca’s talk, and I said I liked the talk although it had some flaws.

2) Clint is (probably) a politically motivated Rebecca Watson Hater, though he might also be a student of psychology or something, and he claims, apparently, that Rebecca’s talk is totally wrong (correct me if he’s saying her talk is good, but that is what I understand to be the case).

3) On the strength of those two assertions, “bks” decided to not bother listening to Rebecca’s talk because it must be bad, rather than judging it only after reading it.

That is a great example of the sorted sorting sordidly. “bks” could certainly have done what I’ve done … decided to not read it for some indirect heuristic reason. But that does not seem to be what he’s done. He seems to have judged it without seeing it.

Here’s what I like about Rebecca Watson’s talk

Much science is misrepresented or mistranslated as it reaches the public arena. For instance, say some cellular biologist unravels a small but important detail of the S Phase of cell division in eukaryotes. She writes a peer reviewed paper on it. During the process of developing the press report of that paper at her institution, some public relations expert pries the word “cancer” out of a lab assistant who is nineteenth author on the paper. Yes, yes, technically cell division is related to cancer, so the more we know about cell division the better, probably. So, now the press report says “New Finding at MRU may lead to cancer cure.” You know the drill.

Skeptics, including the special variety of Skeptic known as Skepchick, founded by Rebecca Watson, sometimes tackle this kind of misrepresentation or other misunderstandings of science. Many skeptics do not do so from the point of view of trained scientists. Even the trained scientists write about things that are not their own field of expertise. But skeptics, including Rebecca, generally have special insight (from skeptical philosophy and experience) which allows us to write useful essays, or give useful talks, that critique either woo and bullshit (homeopathy, Bigfoot, etc.) or the misrepresentation of science (Mono Lake aliens, some paper being misrepresented in the press as leading to a cure for cancer, etc.) There is a risk, though, of getting some if it wrong or contradicting oneself or making another error. For such a sin, we should not be carrying out summary executions. If we are sincere about our goals, we should be doing something different.

Evolutionary psychology is a bit different from other areas of science. In some ways, I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist, in that I am totally on board with the idea of identifying evolution based descriptions and explanations for features of human psychology. Some of my best friends are evolutionary psychologists. In fact, I’m pretty sure there is one using my bathroom right now, as I write this.

But there is a lot of what I consider inadequate science and bad reasoning being done within this field. There are two key features that I have critiqued: 1) The assumption, without evidence, that higher level psychological functioning in the cerebrum operates as behavior specific and distinct modules that are shaped by Natural Selection to do specific things … which develop to a significant level of specificity primarily by genetic programming; and 2) That the modern human is essentially a Ju/’hoansi person in a technologically and culturally different world, and that the Ju/’hoansi person represents a single physical and behavioral phenotype of human shaped by 2 million years of the same kind of selection operating on a single human ancestral population, and that this Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptiveness resembles the Serengeti.

So, when an evolutionary psychology paper gets out into the public arena, it may well be misrepresented by the media. If you work your way backwards from a misrepresented paper to the source in cell biology, physiology, endocrinology, and many other fields you’ll generally find good research when you get to the original published work, but, when you work your way backwards from the Major Media representation of evolutionary psychology, you often find that the paper itself is highly problematic. This is probably true for other areas of psychology as well (and sociology) for a variety of reasons.

Rebecca pointed this problem out in her talk and gave several examples, and, essentially, informed her audience that when they see certain things in the public press reports about human sexuality, sex differences, and related topics, the basic research in those areas may itself be highly suspect.

She is correct.

Here’s what I did not like about Rebecca Watson’s talk.

We know more about early hominid behavior than Rebecca indicated, but not at the scale needed for many of the assertions made in evolutionary psychology. So she’s right but I would say it differently. My critique is not that we don’t know about the Pleistocene, it is that there is a lot more to know than “it looks like the Serengeti” which would also imply that the amount of information we still seek much greater than often assumed by evolutionary psychology researchers.

Rebecca claimed that the idea that men hunt and women gather is highly questionable and cited a number of examples that contradict this. She’s got that mostly wrong; those examples don’t contradict the fact that the vast majority of mammal (and reptile) meat that ends up in forager meals is from male hunting. Having said that, “men hunt animals” and “women gather plants” is an oversimplification. In various societies men gather quite a bit, and often, much of the men’s diet is foraged plant food they eat while hunting. In some societies women do most of the fishing (but not in all cases). And, there are a few cases where women engage in mammal hunting, but that is rare and exceptional and the nature of that engagement often underscores rather than obviates the commonly asserted sex difference in foraging behavior, for reasons beyond what I can cover here.

Almost everything you ever hear about foragers, by the way, is an oversimplification, and I’m afraid that most people who talk about foragers, especially Evolutionary Psychologists, are happy to keep them simple despite the fact that they are not.

What next?

But otherwise Rebecca Watson’s talk was an informative and entertaining approach to bringing a valid critique of evolutionary psychology to a public audience, with humor and in fun and in all the other ways Rebecca is so good at. The Guild of Haters, however, care less about advancing skepticism than about plying their trade in snark and drek, so of course, they will not claim to see any of that. It would ruin their fun.

I would like to work with Rebecca on some of the details of this talk. It would not take much to fix up some errors that I see as important, but tangential to her main point. Maybe we’ll go up to the cabin next July and spend a couple of days on it. There may be hunting and gathering opportunities.

Update: Now I don’t have to read Clint because Mark did. Thanks Mark.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn

40 thoughts on “Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

  1. The problem with claiming her dismissal of Evo psych as being anti-science is that Evo psych doesn’t really entail a whole lot of science. There probably is good work out there, but much of it appears to be just so stories.

  2. Greg, the Rebecca haters started LONG before ‘elevatorgate’. It began around the time she joined the SGU. They have an episode when they discuss the bags full of hate mail she received while they received fan mail. If I remember correctly, her piles of hate mail outweighed(s) their fan mail, even from the beginning.

  3. You’re right, it did start earlier. I view the ear,y hate as ate Pawtuckett water ill sdpnd elevator gate as the introduction of the Francus turbine in Lowell, using the industrial revolution as a metaphor.

  4. I wonder if Mark is aware of Clint’s record as a Hater. Not that that would influence what one might say about one’s post, but it is enough of a record to make one feel dirty referencing his blog at all.

  5. The first half of this piece is possibly one of the most insane things i have ever read. That is, unless the rate at which you can formulate and type out your blog entries is greater than the rate at which you can read.
    My mind is really boggled beyond measure to wonder why you would even consider the purpose of critiquing someone’s blog, in this case Ed Clint’s, without bothering to read it. Worse: you weren’t even sufficiently shame-faced to keep that detail to yourself, instead you proudly wear this badge of ignorance, furnishing us with myriad layers of circumstance surrounding your non-reading of the work . I really haven’t imbibed sufficient alcohol yet tonight to prepare me for something like this.
    Then i read at the end that you won’t even bother reading it at all now, become someone else has read it instead.

    Last of the criticisms is what i have to suggest as a touch of hypocrisy on your part. You say of Ed’s title it “makes use of the inappropriate and absurd hyperbole”, yet you label your own blog “Haters gonna hate” and continually label everyone who has an issue with RW or any of the associated baggage (we could throw in Ftb, Skepchick, atheism+, PZ Myers etc etc as a ‘hater’. I can tell you, as someone you have labelled a ‘hater’ here that ‘hate’ is a very strong word and there is no individual involved in any of this – including the guys on FtB who have described how they would like me to die – that I hate; in fact no individual I probably wouldn’t happily share a drink and discuss the issues with. I suggest that your references to ‘haters’ is your own contribution to the growing mountain of hyperbole and overblown rhetoric that further polarises opinions and helps to gather its own momentum.

    Lastly Greg, I found the rest of this blog very interesting and informative reading, so at odds, in fact, with the opening third that in two thousand years time some kind of source critics of the future could well erroneously apply some kind of documentary hypothesis whereby they hypothesise that this entry was the result of two seperate authors, perhaps centuries apart 🙂
    Seriously though, I enjoyed reading your take on the speech and on evo psych.


  6. You are right about the mad part Greg – but as far as I know, the madness is continuous 🙂

    Nice to see someone with a sense of humour!

  7. I would especially agree with your critique #1. There are no consistent criteria for even identifying what “a” behavior is in the first place. I would have a #3, myself: motivated reasoning. Every researcher has his own idea of what human behavior ought to be like, and so much EP research I see seems to be an attempt to justify the preconception.

    Rebecca’s talk was fine as far as it went, but I would be more impressed if skeptics also went after wretched science that actually supported their normative values. Lord knows there is enough of that to go around.

  8. I saw Rebecca give her talk in Wellington last night. All in all an enjoyable and interesting evening. She mentioned that you, Greg, were going to do a post about it but that she hadn’t had a chance to see if it had happened yet.


  9. Here’s what I think the problem is (well, one of the problems) with evolutionary psychology:

    While there are seemingly plausible ultimate theories (mainly adaptationist) of human sex differences in brain and behavior as well as purported empirical differences in behavior what’s missing are good proximate causation models for them. Sure, there’s handwaving about corpus callosum anatomy, cortical imaging, sex steroids etc. but overall it’s pretty shaky when applied as explanations for statistical differences in behavior. Not a whole lot better than the four humors, phrenology and somatyping.

    I used to be really impressed by apparently ironclad ultimate causation models (optimal foraging, life history, trade-offs…) but I no longer am. Demonstrate the proximate causation pathways or you’ve got nothing.

    And that goes for a lot more than sex differences. It doesn’t matter how much we know about lifestyles in the Pleistocene. BTW, I don’t believe that we know as much as we think. For example, not long ago (the 90s) a lot of professionals thought that neandertals were pretty much idiots, a scenario which has since been demolished.

    However, I do concur that if you’re going to refute an argument it behooves one to actually read it rather than simply note the affiliation of the arguer. (Hell, I’ve been guilty of that too.)

  10. Batrachomyomachia in a teacup! There are warring networks of skeptic blogs? As I pointed out in the former incarnation of Greg’s blog (and thanks for not kicking me out, Greg [yet?]) human psychology is all about sex. Nothing even comes in a close second in fitness landscapes where food and water are readily available. (I guess if the CO2 thing gets much, much worse I’ll have to add oxygen to the list.)

    There is an interesting epistemological question bubbling beneath the surface here about the nature of skepticism. Watson is “skeptical” of evolutionary psychology, Clint is skeptical of Watson’s case against evo-psych. Greg is skeptical of Clint’s affiliation, I’m skeptical of Greg’s rationale. Who has the best grasp of “reality”?

    Certainly psychology evolved (unless you’re skeptical about evolution!) so if Watson is saying evolutionary psychology is bogus, she’s wrong, but if she’s saying that certain ideas in evo-psych are jejune or plain wrong, she’s probably right. But all scientific endeavors are filled with wrong ideas (e.g. Newton gave the mass of the moon to five decimal places, but missed the true mass by a power of two!).

    To bring it all back home, I think we can show that women do enjoy shopping more than men (just walk into any department store Sunday at 2pm and count) and men enjoy hunting more than women (walk into any Minnesota store that sell ELS lottery hunting licenses and count the applicants). I would contend that there *is* a psychological component which is a product of evolution. I am highly skeptical of anyone who believes that there is no evolutionary factor involved.


  11. “human psychology is all about sex”

    Which has more to do with the irrational hatred directed against Watson than you think, but probably not in the way that you think.

  12. HP, I am confused about this “irrational hatred” and also about Greg’s use of “haters.” Perhaps you could explain what you mean in some more detail and thus correct my flawed thinking? For example, is Clint’s article an example of “irrational hatred?” (It doesn’t read that way to me.)


  13. bks, are you familiar with Ed Clint’s side project? Would you describe it, even just the part directed at Skepchick, as rational? Do you think it’s motivated by the spirit of constructive criticism?

  14. I have some vague knowledge of why everyone makes a fuss over Watson, but I have managed to remain ignorant about all but the most general details due to my busyness of late, and would like to remain so. I don’t know Watson or Clint, and don’t really have opinions about any of them other than what I express in my post. If anyone tries to tell me any details or pull me to any given side I promise to cover my ears and yell, “Mary had a little lamb” until they go away.

  15. Stephanie, never seen it before. I don’t see which part is a parody of skepchick. Could you give me a direct link to that part? The parts I did read don’t seem to be examples of “irrational hatred” but rather “extremely unfunny parody”.


  16. Thanks for asking the $64 question, Greg. I wanted to ask but I assumed that Stephanie would not make stuff up on your blog. I am not familiar with the great skeptic schism (skeptischism?) and I honestly did not recognize skeptichunt (now that I’ve subvocalized it, I get it) in the same way I recognized what Strangula was. It’s possible that all that drivel means something to the skeptic cognoscenti, but to me it seems pretty lame.

    Having spent the last 24 hours investigating this corner of the Internet, I’m surprised y’all have time for anything besides trolling one another’s blogs and getting in a snit about the latest tweets. I was going to respond to Mark’s response to Clint using the Pharmaceutical industry as a stand-in for evo-psych, but what’s the point?

    Too bad all this energy can’t be directed at flipping the House of Representatives.


  17. What a childish title. It is quite possible to believe Ms. Watson is full of crap without being a hater. It is quite possible to believe Ms. Watson is correct without being a fawning sycophant.

    But classifying people who find her ideas silly and misguided as ‘haters.’

    Goodbye Greg it’s been a great number of years reading your column, but I’m tired of the Rebecca Watson bullcrap and the people who keep throwing gas on the idiotic fire she started.

  18. Greg, Clint trusted that others would share his hatred. They did not. Because I was one of the people he considered targeting, I heard about it from very good sources.

    So, technically, you don’t know. You get to decide how much you trust me to be sure before I put my reputation on the line.

  19. MosesZD, I’m not classifying people who disagree with her as haters. I’m simply noting the activity of known haters.

    Stephanie, actually, I now see that he links to his site on his twitter home page. In all the confusion, I had forgotten I’d heard about it from you, then I became incredulous that a graduate student in Anthropology who might some day want a job at an Anthropology department would be so blatantly and obnoxiously anti-feminist. But holy crap, that’s seems to be the way it is!

  20. Rebecca has the temerity to speak without being given permission, by a man, to speak and does not wear a burka . How dare she turn down an innocent invitation in an elevator at 3 am from a man she didn’t know. That poor man is scarred for life now. How dare she stand up in front of a bunch of rational men and talk about sex roles and how scientists get it wrong sometimes – why she’s not even a scientist so there. Oh look she got something wrong, well, obviously she’s just a dumb female who has no business bursting men’s bubbles. Damn Feminazis.

    (I don’t do that anywhere near as well as you do Greg 🙂 ) – the hatred in the comments on her video on YouTube is sickening in the extreme – pure misogyny.

  21. I’m not finding the hearsay evidence about Clint being the author of the parody site convincing, though I concede that *if* he is the author, it is evidence of a hidden agenda.


  22. Oh, right. bks, I forgot to mention that I found out about it before it went up. In fact, I warned a few people it was coming.

  23. I don’t think that “hidden” is a very accurate description of the agenda of the freethoughtblahgs page—or am I being hypersensitive here?

  24. Greg and Steph,
    Had a look at that parody site. How is that not funny? I read the McCreight and Thunderf00t parodies and was rocking in my seat.
    I will admit, I didn’t get the skeptichun part as well. I assume that is a parody of Skepchick maybe? I have never read Skepchick (I kind of assume it isn’t meant for men, given the title) so maybe that was why i missed that one, parodies tend to work that way.
    I really think you need to lighten up a bit, we all get parodied and you just have to take it on the chin and not be quite so insufferably stiff:

    “In fact, I warned a few people it was coming.”

    Warned them? WARNED THEM? FFS Steph, this was a parody of your blogs not an incoming thermonuclear missile. Your comment here is a parody on equal footing with the bloody link itself.


  25. Stephanie, that doesn’t add to the credibility of your claim. I don’t know you, I don’t know Ed Clint, I don’t know Greg and I certainly don’t know what you mean by “very good sources”. In fact, I now doubt your claim more than I did the first time around. What’s the big secret?

    Pieter, I mean hidden agenda behind Ed Clint’s essay about Watson’s attack on evo-Psych. It’s pretty clear that Stephanie has a “hidden” agenda (she may have grounds for it, but it’s certainly hidden).


  26. “To bring it all back home, I think we can show that women do enjoy shopping more than men (just walk into any department store Sunday at 2pm and count) ”
    Hey, bks, have you ever walked into an REI or Home Depot? Lotsa men, apparently NOT shopping ……..
    I hate shopping. But I have to do it. My husband asks for deodorant, my son needs underwear, we all need groceries. Amazing how much shopping I have to do FOR OTHER PEOPLE and not because I am getting some atavistic thrill from the experience.
    bkks, it is from such stupid generalizations as yours we get some of the more stupid premises in gender psychology.

  27. I still say it’s susceptible to simple counting. Let’s add Walmart and Target to the list. I do go to REI (reluctantly) and I’d say the one in Berkeley is 50-50. Home Depot and Ace Hardware I’ll concede have more men. There is an important element in what you’re saying though: there are massive contradictions in the way the left (and I’m well to the left of, say, Greg) talks about sex and gender and evolution and culture.


    p.s. That’s not to say that the right doesn’t suffer problems in the way they talk about sex and gender and culture and evolution, just that they reject evolution which is even stupider.

  28. This is the new methodology of critique. Let’s take an informal talk, or in the case of SkepchiCON last year, panel discussion, and hold the language to the standard of the written word, and while we are at it, to the written word in edited and reviewed publications.

    I doubt, Dave, that anyone in that room did not realize that Rebecca was quoting from the newspaper article she was showing on the screen and referring to.

    If anything, perhaps Rebecca should be more explicit and redundant in making that sort of thing clear for folks who are willing to overlook the obvious in order to manufacture a criticism.

  29. I didn’t realise that claims made in speech were somehow different to claims made in writing. If I make a claim in speech that a scientist said what a journalist actually wrote, how is that different to writing that a scientist said what a journalist wrote?

    Nor do I feel that I am overlooking the obvious when pointing out that her rhetoric is, at best, irrelevent to the subject she pretends criticism of and, at worst, simply misleading.

    So yes, we agree that she should have prefixed her talk with “hey, I’m just riffing here, don’t take me seriously”. That might have spared me the effort. As is, she did not, and people have hailed her talk as saying something pertinent on the subject – which it does not.

  30. Dave, on some other day you would be demanding that a remark made in passing be replaced with a peer reviewed journal article, therefore your argument is invalid.

    Her rhetoric is in fact not all that relevant to the overall field of evolutoinary psychology, if that is what you mean. But that is not what her talk is about and that is not whom she was speaking to.

    No, do take her seriously. But be a little smarter about what it is … what this talk is and why she gave it.

  31. It’s so interesting the “sorting” being done here. I don’t like Rebecca Watson and didn’t long before the elevator incident. It was because of the content of her contributions on SGU. It’s easily detectable that she really never studied science. By this point she apes the pose, but really, her content and insights and commentary were never that interesting.

    She also would introduce her politics into the discourse rather regularly, in a biased way. She wouldn’t say, “Hey, this is my political view” but would rather engage in the kind of weak polemic one finds on say HuffPo. She did do some interesting activism stuff, particularly on anti-vax and drumming up more women skeptics. But there are other women skeptics. And I never heard another one that I didn’t like. Just her because of lack of knowledge and politicization.

    I made this complaint to Steve Novella intensely via email and I bet that I’m part of the “hate” you talk about. But I didn’t hate her, rather I simply didn’t enjoy her low quality skeptical work and overt politicization of topics

    And then the elevator thing happened. And she’s revealed herself to be thuggish, willing to cause hysteria in others for now reason, to be very deceptive and divisive, and I’m not surprised. That’s all she’s got, don’t you understand? Without her “feminist” identity, she never gets on a skeptic panel to discuss anything.

    And anyone who thinks her “talk” on evo psych approaches scientific or serious is truly stupid. Get a grip, you’ve lost your mind.

    1. Funny how your comments starts out as a straight forward and reasonable (though I dont’ agree with it) opinion. Then you mention that you went out of your way to silence Rebecca. Then as your comment continues it starts to get more and more hateful and finally you are telling me, the host of your attack-comment, that I’ve lost my mind.

      So yeah, you’re an example of the hate, Glen. You almost held it in there for a while but it ate its way through your rather weak facade and spilled right out there onto your keyboard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.