Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Comparison of Intellectual and Popular Repute, Evo-Psy vs. Psi [Anthony McCarthy]

Maybe it’s best to start off with admitting, yet again, where my problems with evolutionary psychology (EP) start. And that problem is two fold, political and philosophical.

The source of my political objections are probably as close as any back issue of most popular magazines or newspapers, the assertion of “science” which promotes inequality, especially gender inequality and even down to old line racism and antisemitism, on the basis of "genes". In short, the assumptions of biological determinism. The invasion of psychology into biology, asserting the discovery of a genetic and deterministic basis for, quite literally, every aspect of our individual and social behavior. It is of enormous political and legal effect, constituting a roadblock to progress that, even when it is eventually overcome, causes harm. The history of the political use of biological determinism is indisputable, it was and is explicitly stated by the proponents of that use. In its most popular manifestation, EP hinders progress.

As a matter of personal observation, it influences the thinking of enough people who automatically assert huge and entirely unsupported differences in potential, ability and behavior between women and “guys” to influence child rearing and other observable behaviors, which is disturbing. The increasing acculturation of children into those beliefs, is very dangerous. EP has played the same kind of role in today’s backlash against feminism that race science did in the civil rights struggles from the 18th century up until today. In some of its worst manifestations, this belief in biological determinism also promotes racial stereotyping of the most malignant kind.

My philosophical problems are in its methodologies. The creation of “behaviors” in prehistoric times, entirely undocumentable, unobservable, “behaviors” which start, not in observation of any kind but in the dogmatic beliefs of EP. They continue in the alleged survival of those “behaviors” due to their constituting an adaptive advantage and their current, largely uncontrollable determination of social and even personal behavior. As a social phenomenon evolutionary psychology is taken as a limit to how much we can change things for the better. In some of its most extreme believers, the way it asserts things are, are what defines what is “good”. In short, since the entire theory rests on those undocumentable (and I’d assert not reliably unverifiable) behaviors and the entire evolutionary plot lines including them, are not knowable, none of the rest of it is anything but unconfirmable supposition of an ideological nature. They are a modern equivalent of creation myths. And this is all asserted to be science.


I took a big risk here last May in a critique of Martin Gardner and organized “skepticism”. In that post, I pointed to the controlled experiments that have been published in the area of Psi, to compare it with the standards of the science in which a large number of the vocational debunkers of Psi work, psychology. I said, and still assert, that when you honestly look at the body of evidence published in reviewed journals that, in just about every way, Psi is far more careful in its practices than much of conventionally accepted psychology is. It is much, much more rigorous, it holds itself and is held to far higher standards than psychology is.

The reason for using Psi was specific to the case of the “skeptics”. To Gardner, in particular and the mostly ethical Ray Hyman, who is the most credible of the well known skeptical external critics of that science.* I used it to point out the double standards that these self-styled advocates of scientific and logical rigor regularly apply on the basis of personal preference. Asserting personal preference to be either science or logic is extremely troubling and, I believe, very dangerous. That and other assertions by organized “skepticism”, are also extremely annoying.

What made that use of the topic risky is that acknowledging so much as in interest in the subject of Psi, or even a casual perusal of reviewed Psi research, is to hand a weapon to your adversaries. Thanks to the likes of CSICOP, just the assertion of neutrality on the topic will be enough, with many people, to impeach your credibility on any topic, as desired**. The “skeptics” are nothing if not dirty fighters.

The link with EP is the position of many of the prominent adherents of that field hold in today’s organized, “skeptics”. With many citations in their publications, on and off line, EP is taken as a validation of their reductionist, ideologically materialist, faith. I think that materialism is the ideological prerequisite for the EP establishment and so its being regarded as “confirmation” of its own starting point isn’t any surprise. When you start out looking for things, if you allow yourself great flexibility in your methods, in your standards, in your review, you’ll tend to “find” what you’re looking for. Its basis in the standards of psychology, gives EP that self-imposed leeway in its practices. I’m sure there are various motivations for legitimate biologists to adopt the methods of EP. I don’t think any of those motives negate the problems with it as an intellectual enterprise. I think they should ask themselves if they really want to replicate the history of psychology in their discipline, if it is worth that price.

Today’s newspaper carries a very troubling, though, for many of us not particularly surprising, item about some very influential work which has come into doubt.

Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser - a well-known scientist and author of the book "Moral Minds'' - is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory.

The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. "MH accepts responsibility for the error,'' says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.

Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.

It is unusual for a scientist as prominent as Hauser - a popular professor and eloquent communicator of science whose work has often been featured on television and in newspapers - to be named in an investigation of scientific misconduct. His research focuses on the evolutionary roots of the human mind.

This is hardly the first time that EP research, published in journals with a reputation has been, later, found to be less than sound. That isn't unusual in science, especially in the social sciences. Though this is a particularly troubling example for a number of reasons.

The most important, to me at least, is the impact of it in the general intellectual atmosphere where it can have an actual and continuing effect independent of its debunking. As with a lot of psychological publication of the past, it sometimes gets retracted by the profession but, having already gone on to become a fixture in the general culture, it lives on in the popular and journalistic imagination. A large number of dubious looking EP studies, reported on in the reputable and, also, the ideologically driven media as reliable science, as cited here and elsewhere, seem to constitute the popular consensus that we are “hard wired” in gender roles, and on the basis of a large number of other criteria, in ways that determine out social and political choices.

So, getting back to double standards.

The often cited reason for the ever escalating requirements placed on very rigorously controlled Psi experiments is that line about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. I don’t especially think that’s valid. If the ordinary methods of science aren’t enough to deal with these reported “extraordinary” phenomena then they are unreliable for “ordinary” phenomena. But that's beside the point here. I’m wondering why the assertions of EP aren’t recognized to be extremely extraordinary.

It is because the claims of EP are asserted to be entirely material. In fact, they purport to support an entirely material definition and explanation of “behaviors” which are anything but material in their actual existence. “Behaviors” are not the same kinds of “things” as atoms, molecules, or genes, they aren’t seen through a microscope. The existence of a “behavior” isn’t confirmable by means known to be as reliable, as are the methods confirming material objects. But, in its processes, EP has to go even farther than that, claiming the existence of “behaviors” which have absolutely no confirmable existence, not in the lost past, not across many tangled lineages of different extinct species, and not even in contemporary “behaviors” which at times may have their “existence” based on nothing but the desires of those conducting the research. Often those “behaviors” are identified on the basis of nothing except a word used to bunch together hugely disparate, changing, variable “behaviors”, often on the basis of the self-reports of people experiencing them (beliefs, convictions, etc).

Perhaps the most currently famous of those is that “religious faith” which is asserted to be the products of genes which have imparted a survival advantage and so which, it is often asserted, remain as a “plague” on the species today. Given Hauser's publication record, it is certainly relevant to this post.

A minute’s thought about what “religion” is would show that “it” probably doesn’t really exist in any terms that science can process. The huge numbers of formal bodies constituting “religion” hold enormously varied, often contradictory, often conflicting, formal assertions of belief. So, just there, the "expression" of "religion" is the opposite of a uniform manifestation. To make matters worse, those formally defined codes of belief change though time and are variably understood and defined within the formal bodies themselves. Believe it or not, the Catholic Church does change its dogmatic holdings and within Catholicism there are different understandings of those beliefs, up to and even rejection of them by people who identify themselves as Catholics and who are accepted as such by the Catholic church. And what you say for Catholicism, you can say for just about every other church. And we haven’t gotten down to the actual unit on which evolution would act, the individual Catholic. Individual Catholics often don’t even know the dogmatic holdings of their church, if they do they hold vastly variant understandings of them and the range of acceptance is even wider than is tolerated in the official, written record.

To hold that there is a complex of “religion genes” which lead to the production of “religion proteins" which constitute the “genetic basis of religion”, which gave our remote ancestors a survival advantage and so lives on as a definable phenomenon today, is a very, very extraordinary claim. The tenuousness of its evidentiary basis, the asserted existence of the “behaviors”, the entirely theoretical “religion genes”, the “adaptive advantage” and a host of other, necessary components to this alleged science make it far more elaborate and extraordinary than most of the phenomena that the reviewed experiments of Psi investigates. And, not least of all, there are the even more outlandish claims of EP, that their understanding of the situation constitutes a far more extraordinary claim than is made, by the researchers, for Psi***. Indeed, EP started with that conclusion and "found" the "data" to support it.

Consider this from the story in today’s Globe:

Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, questioned the results and requested videotapes that Hauser had made of the experiment.

“When I played the videotapes, there was not a thread of compelling evidence, scientific or otherwise, that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves,” Gallup said in an interview.

I won’t be so "skeptical" as to assume that Hauser was being consciously dishonest in this instance. I will note that when it’s a question of “behaviors” which become a part of science only on the basis of observation by researchers, that those researchers aren’t generally without motives, expectations or ideological assumptions. When the “behavior” in question is complex, it is inescapable that the identification of the “behavior” is up to that researcher. I think that the suspicion that people with motives are likely to see what they want to be there can lead to problems, is prudent. In this case, the problem wasn’t discovered until after the paper was reviewed and published. The two biologists who I asked about this today, tell me that this is typical of science, they havetake it on faith that the observation is reliable, that the data they are presented is an accurate assessment based on that observation. Or as it says in the same story:

“This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,” Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in an e-mail. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.”

Journalists are even more at the mercy of this faith in the reliability of the whole process. I don’t think they should be. One of the most troubling aspects of this story is, exactly, that the “science” is inserted into news reporting on that faith [See relevant footnote below].

I think that the repute that EP is held in among establishment journalists, especially columnists, and others is, ultimately, due to its habits of reinforcing the status quo assumptions about gender roles and other repressive general assumptions that are actively used to disadvantage those who have traditionally disadvantaged. The “findings” reported from the “science” which refute those roles are far outnumbered by those lending them support. That those stereotypes are also shared by the worst of dogmatic religion is an irony that should be more acknowledge. Indeed, they constitute a large part of the war on religion waged by some of the most famous figures in EP. The bias in journalism, as in most other areas of life, are for the status quo, it is unusual and risky to violate the status quo.

I think that the enormously overblown influence EP has among today’s intellectuals is exactly in its confirmation of their preferred materialist faith. Though the tendency of intellectuals to want to retain their position also tends towards the common, received consensus.

I have commented here on my skepticism about the ultimate effect that both of these aspects of contemporary culture will have on the lives of women, lesbians and gay men, members of other minorities and, ultimately, on the entire population. I don’t think the results are going to be good. I think they are already having an oppressive effect, endangering past progress in civil rights. When you look at evolutionary psychology and other forms of biological determinism critically, skeptically, it’s hard to come away with the idea that there’s any good reason for it.

* The hugely famous James Randi is another case entirely, and since I’m talking about science and actual evidence, instead of show business, I’m not going to go into him at all.

** You might want to watch this analysis by Dean Radin of another news story in the Boston Globe by Carey Goldberg who has also cited Marc Hauser’s research in the past. Radin’s analysis of it, pointing out that the story, a prime example of upholding the taboo on Psi, is, itself, full of the confirmation of the taboo, misstating the research in the eagerness of the reporter to support the taboo. The part of the lecture dealing with this begins at about 05:20

Carolyn Johnson, the reporter in the story about Hauser’s ethical problems, has also cited him , specifically, his research that is now in question in other stories in the past.

If, in these circumstances, the present day standards of journalistic practice don’t require some kind of acknowledgment that the reporters and publications have lent researchers credibility in the past by citing them as reliable , then they risk their own reliability as a source of information.

Especially troubling, from the stand of journalistic ethics is this part of today’s story:

It is unusual for a scientist as prominent as Hauser - a popular professor and eloquent communicator of science whose work has often been featured on television and in newspapers - to be named in an investigation of scientific misconduct. His research focuses on the evolutionary roots of the human mind.

In a letter Hauser wrote this year to some Harvard colleagues, he described the inquiry as painful. The letter, which was shown to the Globe, said that his lab has been under investigation for three years by a Harvard committee, and that evidence of misconduct was found. He alluded to unspecified mistakes and oversights that he had made, and said he will be on leave for the upcoming academic year.

In an e-mail yesterday, Hauser, 50, referred questions to Harvard. Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal declined to comment on Hauser's case, saying in an e-mail, "Reviews of faculty conduct are considered confidential.''

"Speaking in general,'' he wrote, "we follow a well defined and extensive review process. In cases where we find misconduct has occurred, we report, as appropriate, to external agencies (e.g., government funding agencies) and correct any affected scholarly record.''

Much remains unclear, including why the investigation took so long, the specifics of the misconduct, and whether Hauser's leave is a punishment for his actions.

That period would seem to contain, or be uncomfortably close to the period of these past citations and, I’d guess, many others. For Harvard to allow its internal investigation to remain unknown, as Hauser’s questionable research was continued to be cited in the press, is unconscionable.

*** Not the difference the difference here in the cited rigor of Psi research and the acknowledgment that the mechanisms or meaning of the documented phenomena are far less extraordinary than those claimed by the proponents of EP.

It is clear to this author that anomalous cognition is possible and has been demonstrated. This conclusion is not based on belief, but rather on commonly accepted scientific criteria. The phenomenon has been replicated in a number of forms across laboratories and cultures. The various experiments in which it has been observed have been different enough that if some subtle methodological problems can explain the results, then there would have to be a different explanation for each type of experiment, yet the impact would have to be similar across experiments and laboratories. If fraud were responsible, similarly, it would require an equivalent amount of fraud on the part of a large number of experimenters or an even larger number of subjects.

What is not so clear is that we have progressed very far in understanding the mechanism for anomalous cognition. Senders do not appear to be necessary at all; feedback of the correct answer may or may not be necessary. Distance in time and space do not seem to be an impediment. Beyond those conclusions, we know very little.