Friday, February 01, 2013

How Dare You Attack Science? The Usual Response From Evolutionary Psychologists

Because I'm working on some evolutionary psychology stuff you are getting extra doses of all that makes me thunder about it.  Aren't you the lucky duckies!

Today I'm frustrated by the great difficulty of criticizing evolutionary psychology in the following sense:  The responses to any criticism, however careful, tend to be:  "How Dare You Attack Science?"

Helena Cronin, one of the mothers of evolutionary psychology makes the point here:

Generally, the public reception of a scientific theory concurs by and large with the judgement of the objective world of ideas. Not, however, in the case of the scientific understanding of our evolved human nature and, above all, male and female natures. If the arguments against the evolutionary science of human nature were conducted in the world of the objective content of ideas, there would be no contest; evolutionary theory would win hands down. But, as a sociological fact, in the public market-place it loses disastrously against its vociferous critics.
How? Because, in a complete reversal of the objective relationship between the science and these critics, all the asymmetries are reversed.
First, the burden of 'proof', the burden of argument, is transferred from the criticisms onto the science; it is Darwinism that's on trial. Meanwhile, anti-Darwinian attitudes don't have to defend themselves—they are accepted uncritically; the standards for judgement of these views involve all-too-ready credibility and suspensions of disbelief.
Second, adding insult to injury, a plethora of home-made alternatives is conjured up to fill the gap where the real science should be. This DIY-science includes: pseudo-methodological denunciations, where mere name-callings suffice—essentialist, reductivist, teleological, Panglossian (all very bad) and politically incorrect (very bad indeed); the immutable 'entanglement' of nature and nurture, which renders nature impenetrable—thereby freeing 'pure nurture' to be discussed at length; a cavalier disregard for hard-won empirical evidence—though with a penchant for bits of brains lighting up (no; I don't know either); the magical potency of 'stereotyping' (bad) and 'role models' (good); a logic-defying power to work miracles on tabula-rasa psychologies, as in 'socialisation' (bad) and 'empowerment' (good); made-up mechanisms, even though discredited—multi-tasking, self-esteem, stereotype threat; complaints of 'controversial' and 'tendentious' – which are true sociologically but false scientifically (a case of raising the dust and then complaining they cannot see). The science-free policy that this generates is epitomised by the 'women into science' lobby, which is posited on a 'bias and barriers' assumption and an a priori rejection of—yes, the science of sex differences.
This mish-mash is low on scientific merit. But it is not treated as opinion versus science. On the contrary, psychologically and sociologically, it has a voice far more influential and persuasive than its objective status warrants.

She views what she does as science, what the critics do as opinions.  And of course there are critiques of evolutionary psychology which are based on opinions or on the political harm it can accomplish.  But there are loads and loads of studies and scientific critiques of the field, pointing out its methodological stumbling stones and, indeed, its arrogance, the religion-like anger any criticism elicits*.  The latter is notable by the fact that the criticisms are almost never acknowledged or responded to, except in the terms of that quote.

It's a type of kidnapping of the term "science" which makes me angry.  Even poor research is viewed as science if it is within evolutionary psychology, as evidenced by Cronin herself when she quotes the Baron-Cohen study about one-day-old children in a different context.  Given that one-day-old children have very little ability to move their heads unassisted and that it's unclear what one-day-old children actually see, the assertion that girls already at this age look more at human faces and boys at mobiles should certainly be open to questioning without making the questioner just someone with an opinion.

I see this closing-in among evolutionary psychologists over and over, a reaction so defensive that it's hard to interpret as a scientific one.  Most scientists I know love to debate their science, love to address criticisms and ponder them.  The common evolutionary psychology response is such a strongly emotional one that it really makes me think of religions and their responses to those who question the basic dogmas.  Anathema!

Take the bit in the above quote where Cronin says that
The science-free policy that this generates is epitomised by the 'women into science' lobby, which is posited on a 'bias and barriers' assumption and an a priori rejection of—yes, the science of sex differences.
So analyzing and discussing the biases and barriers women might face in the STEM fields and making theories about them and testing those theories  is not science?  Refusing to simply accept the idea that men's greater participation in those fields is caused by an (unproved) evolutionary adaptation which is unchangeable is the same as an a priori rejection of the science of sex differences?   And might it not be the case that the "women into science" lobby consists of at least some researchers who are, indeed, very well versed in the science of sex differences AND in the science of sex similarities?

What that above example shows is something I've met often from evolutionary psychologists:  If you don't accept our specific theories, then you are not scientific.

And if you don't accept our specific theories, then you are a denier of evolution, a creationist or something worse.  As I've written before, this is like arguing that I must not believe in our ability to predict anything about the future if I don't accept astrology as a valid method of future prediction.

Another common response is that anyone who criticizes evolutionary psychology must believe in human beings as "empty slates" (tabula rasa) on which the environment rights everything that matters.  That doesn't follow, of course.  One might, for instance, believe in evolution of the human mind but not in the particular stories evolutionary psychology has invented about it, or all parts of those stories.

The human mind has plasticity.  To assume that whatever is might be so in an immutable and rigid sense and as an evolutionary adaptation to some assumed stone age circumstances is not the only story we can tell about psychological evolution.  It is also a story, if false, which has very harmful consequences in terms of the support it gives to gender prejudices and which might seriously hamper future improvements in the fairness of human societies.  After all, if whatever exists is supposed to be immutable, why bother?  Imagine if the educators of the past had decided that it is not worth sending girls to school because education is clearly something that is only of value to male humans with their competitive instincts and external orientation,  or if politicians of the past decided that democracy is impossible, what with humans being hierarchical creatures.

These are also fairly good reasons for insisting that the proof must be provided by evolutionary psychologists.  Cronin laments that demand in the above quote, but anyone who argues that evolutionary psychology should be used to guide actual social policies (as she does) certainly should provide extensive and generally accepted evidence for those arguments.

Why all that ire at the critics?  In my opinion, thinking about the criticism and either incorporating it or countering it effectively is what makes a field of research advance.  Ignoring the criticism or attacking the critics does not.

Indeed, I can see some improvements in evolutionary psychology already, when I compare the early cartoonish models to the later slightly more realistic ones, and much of that is the consequence of external criticism, I believe.

Prehistoric women,  for instance, are now seldom treated in evolutionary psychology as if they had the agency of barrels of beer or ham hocks, objects to be competed over by virile men.  Yet that was the case in the very first evolutionary psychology paper I came across in the 1990s.

And the field has moved from using the old " Higgamous hoggamous Women are monogamous; Hoggamous Higgamous Men are polygamous!" saw to acknowledging that both men and women can be promiscuous.  Perhaps one day the field advances to a point where it doesn't regard all women as attracted to only the resources of men, given that anything like "resources" in the prehistoric nomadic small tribe must have been embedded, and thus equal to youth, strength and skills, not that different from the current assumption that men are drawn to youth and beauty in the search for a mate.**  

On the other hand, criticizing any part of the whole is often seen as a nuclear attack on the field, causing not discussion and reconsideration but denial without real explanations.  This defensiveness and inflexibility is especially odd, given that evolutionary psychology is a baby as research fields go. There's no way that its current state can somehow be the last word on evolution in human psychology.  Indeed, given the almost-total lack of actual evidence on our prehistory, we are in for many more decades of these types of debates.
*The links here go to largely popular articles, because I can't find my academic file right now.  But there are also several books which address the problems within evolutionary psychology. such as  Susan McKinnon,  Neo-Liberal Genetics: Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology,
Robert C. Richardson,  Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology, David J. Buller,  Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature, Anne Innis Dagg, Love of Shopping Is Not A Gene: Problems with Darwinian Psychology and so on.  The point is that the critics of evolutionary psychology are not just feminists or laypeople with opinions.

**I'm not presenting this as a support of the sexual selection theories in evolutionary psychology but simply pointing out that internal consistency would require that the proponents of the women-dig-money school explain exactly how resources were carried by those nomadic prehistoric forefathers in the small hunter-gatherer groups.