Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology

By Ken Perrott 05/12/2012 12


“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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12 Responses to “Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology”

    • Sometimes ridicule is the only constructive response when rubbish is spouted.
      But, granted, some people use ridicule far too readily thereby prevented a good discussion.
      Time and place.

  • You may be right. I’m never quite sure where to draw the line on that one. I sometimes worry when we engage in things online that we wouldn’t do with people face-to-face.

  • I have been a Skeptic for 15 years and when I watched her video, even before the criticism began, she reminded me of the tactics I had seen in panels or debates where global warming deniers and creationist participated. When I read your post I realized why I had that feeling.

    A very well reasoned post. On the issue of the use of Ridicule, however, only has short-term benefits and even backfire, I think.

  • She’s exactly the sort of thing that we, as skeptics, are supposed to “expose.” BTW, Myers now has another response, and my blog has a response to him.

  • I find PZs responses disappointing.

    From this distance it seems so obvious most people are taking sides and using motivated reasoning – some of it blatantly.

    There’s a lot of ego and defensiveness in the comments – and the sort of ridicule which just should not be involved in this debate.

    It’s distressing that some people feel so strongly they are prepared to dump on a whole area of science irrespective of the quality of the research.

    Pop psychology and poor research common in the “soft science” does give theses sciences a bad name. But for scientists and sceptics to be so prepared to wipe the whole field is bad. I looks a bit like a witch hunt.

    And basically the idea of studying life, including the psychology/emotions of humans and other animal in the context of their evolution seems so obviously correct. Surely people like PZ are not going to promote rejection of this idea? That would be a real step backwards.

    Unfortunately there a quite a few philosophers with attitudes who are probably rubbing their hands in glee at the moment.

  • Very interesting post Ken. Rebecca is due to be interviewed on Kim Hill’s program tomorrow morning at 1105 am I think. You should check that. 
    This debate goes back to the early attacks on Sociobiology, Ethology and Evolutionary Psychology which attempted to apply biological and evolutionary explanations to social behaviour. The writings of E. O. Wilson, Lorenz and Tinbergen were condemned and even proscribed on some campuses on the grounds that it was fascist which I think means hostile to purely cultural explanations and solutions.  Gould and Lewontin and co, scientists with Marxist commitments were particularly active against what they termed genetic determinism. The  criticism sometimes amounted to physical harassment. I’m sure many of you are better informed than me on the subject. David Stove the philosopher at the Univ. of Sydney suffered the same kind of harassment. It was related to the general war against scientific realism that political and religious considerations can resort to. 
    During the turmoil, issues around group selection and cultural influences on phenotype were neglected in the political free for all. 
    One can understand feminist hostility toward spurious appeals to biology. But this is an empirical matter, difficult though it is to generalise over populations, particularly human populations. It depends on how superficial the generalisations are. 
    Fortunately, thanks to a new generation of evolutionary psychologists,primatologists and  philosophers, people like David Sloan Wilson, Martin Nowak, Christopher Boehm, Frans de Waal and Elliot Sober, the relationship between biology, culture and group dynamics is starting to emerge. 
    This has implications for religion and morality as the new synthesis is predicated on naturalistic explanations. 
    Psychological motivation is easily explained but justification is the big problem as David Hume and G. E. Moore showed. This is a fascinating subject.

  • Thanks for the info Stuart. I had gathered Rebecca was on Kim’s programme tomorrow but had no idea of the time. I’ll be interested to see to what extent she is prepared to withdraw her blanket criticisms. Kim may well be up with the play too so could ask the right questions. Here’s hoping.

    It’s a pity that Rebecca didn’t keep to criticism of the specific studies relevant to feminism.

    I am somewhat disappointed in the defensive reactions of some sceptics in the US. Seems that some people who should no better see this whole issue as a continuation of old attacks on Rebecca. I am also shocked to see how willing many people are to jump on an anti-evolutionary psychology witch hunt. One blogger even equated it to homeopathy! On the other hand there have been some good analyses by some of Rebecca’s critics.

    Personally I am getting a lot from my reading of current scientific approaches to morality and religion so my perspective is different to Rebecca’s. Still, I would have thought that she would have been aware of that side of evolutionary psychology.

  • Rebecca Watson.
    Yes: Girls go shopping. 1105am, Sat Morn. Kim Hill Nat Radio.
    An excellent extensive account of the sociobiological (evolutionary psychology) controversy can be found in
    Ullica Segerstrale’s “defenders of the Truth: The Sociological Debate” (OUP., 2000).
    E. O. Wilson’s latest book “The Social Conquest of Earth” has aroused Richard Dawkin’s wrath.
    Wilson has included Group Selection to account for normative practices such as morality which maximises the synergistic advantages of social cooperation. Harking back to Darwin’s speculations. Dawkins of course has much invested in the selfish gene thesis which suits the temper of our times but has difficulty explaining the reality of reciprocal altruism. They are like a couple of old stags squaring off! Watch this space.

  • I just realised, Michael Shermer has excellent review of Ullica’s book and account of the evolutionary wars on the skeptic web site.

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