What is at the root of denial? A Must Read from Chris Mooney in Mother Jones

Chris Mooney has been exploring the basic underpinnings of denialism lately, with this latest article a good summary of the basic problems:

In a recent study of climate blog readers, Lewandowksy and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free market world view. Or as Lewandowsky put it in our interview, “the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their worldview or their ideology.” This naturally lends support to the “motivated reasoning” theory—a conservative view about the efficiency of markets impels rejection of climate science because if climate science were true, markets would very clearly have failed in an very important instance.

But separately, the same study also found a second factor that was a weaker, but still real, predictor of climate change denial—and also of the denial of other scientific findings such as the proven link between HIV and AIDS. And that factor was conspiracy theorizing. Thus, people who think, say, that the Moon landings were staged by Hollywood, or that Lee Harvey Oswald had help, are also more likely to be climate deniers and HIV-AIDS deniers.

This is similar to what we’ve been saying for years. Ideology is at the heart of antiscience, (yes even liberal ideology) and when in conflict with science will render the ideologue incapable of rational evaluation of facts. The more extreme the ideology, the more likely and more severe the divergence from science. Then there is the separate issue of cranks who have a generalized defect in their reasoning abilities, are generally incompetent at recognizing bad ideas, often believing conflicting theories simultaneously, and are given to support any other crank who they feel is showing science is somehow fundamentally wrong. This is the “paranoid style”, it’s well-described, and likely, irreversible. However, more run-of-the-mill denialism should be preventable.

We’ve discussed this extensively in regards to research by Dan Kahan, although I have disagreed with this jargon of motivated reasoning. Chris, however, knows what they’re referring to with their fancified science-speak, ideology is at the root of denial.

Recognizing that the problem of anti-science is not one of a lack of information, or of education, or of framing is of paramount concern. This is a problem with humans. This is the way we think by default. People tend to arrive at their beliefs based on things like their upbringing, their religion, their politics, and other unreliable sources. When opinions are formed based on these deeply-held beliefs or heuristics, all information subsequently encountered is either used to reinforce this belief, or is ignored. This is why studies showing education doesn’t work, the more educated the partisan is on a topic, the more entrenched they become. You can’t inform or argue your way out of this problem, you have to fundamentally change the way people reason before they form these fixed beliefs.

Scientific reasoning and pragmatism is fundamentally unnatural and extremely difficult. Even scientists, when engaged in a particular nasty internal ideological conflict, have been known to deny the science. This is because when one’s ideology is challenged by the facts you are in essence creating an existential crisis. The facts become an assault on the person themselves, their deepest beliefs, and how they perceive and understand the world. What is done in this situation? Does the typical individual suck it up, and change, fundamentally, who they are as a person? Of course not! They invent a conspiracy theory as to why the facts have to be wrong. They cherry pick the evidence that supports them, believe any fake expert that espouses the same nonsense and will always demand more and more evidence, never being satisfied that their core beliefs might be wrong. This is where “motivated reasoning” comes from. It’s a defense of self from the onslaught of uncomfortable facts. Think of the creationist confronted with a fossil record, molecular biology, geology, physics, and half a dozen other scientific fields, are they ever convinced? No, because it’s all an atheist conspiracy to make them lose their religion.

How do we solve this problem?

First we have to recognize it for what it is, as Mooney and others have done here. The problem is one of human nature. Engaging in denialism doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad person, or even being purposefully deceptive (although there are those that have that trait), the comparison to holocaust denial, always a favorite straw man of the denialist, is not apt. Denialism in most people is a defense mechanism that protects their core values from being undermined by reality. And no matter what your ideology, at some point, you will have a conflict with the facts because no ideology perfectly describes or models all of reality. You are going to come into conflict with the facts at some point in your life no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. The question is, what will you do when that conflict arises? Will you entrench behind a barrier of rhetoric, or will you accept that all of us are flawed, and our beliefs at best can only provide an approximation of reality – a handy guide but never an infallible one?

Second, we have to develop strategies towards preventing ideological reaction to science and recognize when people are reacting in an irrational fashion to an ideological conflict with science. One of my commenters pointed me to this paper, which describes an effective method to inoculate people against conspiratorial thinking. Basically, if you warn people ahead of time about conspiratorial craziness, they will be more likely to evaluate the claims of conspiracists with higher skepticism. We should encourage skeptical thinking from an early age, and specifically educate against conspiratorial thinking, which is a defective mode of thinking designed to convince others to act irrationally (and often hatefully). When we do see conspiracy, we shouldn’t dismiss it as harmless, the claims need to be debunked, and the purveyors of conspiracy theories opposed and mocked. Before anyone ever reads a line of Alex Jones, or Mike Adams, a training in skepticism could provide protection, and with time, the paranoid style will hold less and less sway. People primed to expect conspiratorial arguments will be resistant, and more skeptical in general. The Joneses, Moranos, and the Adamses of the world don’t have the answers, they know nothing, and their mode of thought isn’t just wrong, but actively poisonous against rational thought. As skeptical writers we should educate people in a way that protects them from their inevitable encounter with such crankery. This is why writers like Carl Sagan are so important with his (albeit incomplete) Baloney Detection Kit. He knew that you have to prepare people for their encounters with those with an ideological agenda, that others will bend the truth and deny the science for selfish reasons.

This is what is at the heart of true skepticism. First, understanding that you can be wrong, in fact you will often be wrong, and all you can do is follow the best evidence that you have. It’s not about rejecting all evidence, or inaction from the constantly-moved goalposts of the fake skeptics. It’s about pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and above all humility towards the fact that none of us has all the answers. Second, it’s understanding not all evidence is created equal. Judging evidence and arguments requires training and preparation as recognizing high-quality evidence and rational argument is not easy. In fact, most people are woefully under-prepared by their education to do things like read and evaluate scientific papers or even to just judge scientific claims from media sources.

Thus I propose a new tactic. Let’s get Carl Sagan’s Baloney detection kit in every child’s hands by the time they’re ten. Hell, it should be part of the elementary school curriculum. Lets hand out books on skepticism like the Gideons hand out Bibles. Let’s inoculate people against the bullshit they’ll invariably contract by the time they’re adults. We can even do tests to see what type of skeptical inoculation works best at protecting people from anti-science. It’s a way forward to make some progress against the paranoid style, and the nonsense beliefs purveyed by all ideological extremes. There is no simple cure, but we can inoculate the young, and maybe control the spread of the existing disease.

Psychics like Sylvia Brown are immoral frauds

In the wake of the dramatic events surrounding the discovery of three women including Amanda Berry, being held captive for a decade by a monster, it’s important not to forget another sociopath played a role in this drama. That sociopath is the psychic who told Amanda Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead:

Her mother, Louwana Miller, never gave up hope that the girl known as Mandy was still alive, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The case attracted national attention when Miller went on Montel Williams’s nationally syndicated television show in 2004 and consulted a psychic.

“She’s not alive, honey,” the psychic said. “Your daughter’s not the kind who wouldn’t call.”

After Berry’s mother died in 2006, there were occasional clues in the search for Berry, and police have conducted a number of searches over the years. All proved fruitless — until Monday night, when Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued from the house in Cleveland.

As Ben Goldacre reminds us, that psychic was Sylvia Brown, speaking out of her ass, surely “just for entertainment purposes” when she told Louwana Miller her daughter was dead. As the Wiki shows, her predictions aren’t reliable, and not surprisingly, she has a history of criminal behavior, including indictments and convictions for fraud and grand theft.

Psychics are by definition frauds. They don’t have magic powers. No human has the ability to read minds or see into the future. If you then take money under such known false pretenses that is the definition of fraud. If they truly do think they have magic powers, they should submit themselves to James Randi’s 1 million dollar paranormal challenge to determine if they can perform in a blinded, controlled test (which none of these frauds has ever come close to passing). Not surprisingly, Sylvia Brown has refused, many times, to take this challenge. This is because psychics know they’re frauds. Worse, Brown has even been previously convicted of fraud but sadly not for giving psychic readings. As a criminal, I guess she smartened up since 1992, the question is, why don’t we treat all psychics as criminals all the time? The burden of proof should be on them to prove they have this exceptional ability under controlled circumstances. Until then, we should simply arrest people that take money from others on the basis of such lies.

New homebirth statistics show it's way too dangerous, and Mike Shermer on liberal denialism

Two links today for denialism blog readers, both are pretty thought provoking. The first, from Amy Tuteur, on the newly-released statistics on homebirth in Oregon. It seems that her crusade to have the midwives share their mortality data is justified, as when they were forced to release this data in Oregon, planned homebirth was about 7-10 times more likely to result in neonatal mortality than planned hospital birth.

I’m sure Tuteur won’t mind me stealing her figure and showing it here (original source of data is Judith Rooks testimony):

Oregon homebirth neonatal mortality statistics, from the Skeptical OB.

Armed with data such as these, it needs to become a point of discussion for both obstetricians and midwives that out of hospital births have a dramatically-higher neonatal mortality, and this is worse for midwives without nursing training (the DEM or direct-entry-midwives). It’s their body and their decision, but this information should be crucial to informing women as to whether or not they should take this risk. It also is only a reflection of neonatal mortality, one could also assume it speaks to higher rates of morbidity as well, as longer distances and poorer recognition of fetal distress and complications will lead to worse outcomes when the child survives. It should be noted this data is also consistent with nationwide CDC data on homebirth DEMs, and actually better than midwife data for some states like Colorado.

The second article worth pointing out today (even though it’s old) is from Michael Shermer in Scientific American on the liberal war on science. Regular readers know that I’m of the belief there isn’t really a difference between left and right-wing ideology on acceptance of science, it just means they just reject different findings that collide with their ideology.

The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book. In addition, consider “cognitive creationists”—whom I define as those who accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

There is more, and recent, antiscience fare from far-left progressives, documented in the 2012 book Science Left Behind (PublicAffairs) by science journalists Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, who note that “if it is true that conservatives have declared a war on science, then progressives have declared Armageddon.” On energy issues, for example, the authors contend that progressive liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food.

I’m worried that Shermer has confused liberal Luddism with denialism, and I would argue some anti-technology skepticism is healthy and warranted. While I agree that the anti-GMO movement does delve into denialist waters with regularity, these are not good examples he has chosen. One needs to be cautious with technology, and it’s a faith-based assumption that technology can solve all ills. I’m with Evgeny Morozov on this one, the assumption there is (or should be) a technological fix for every problem has become almost a religious belief system. Appropriately including the potential perils of a technology in its cost-benefit analysis is not a sign of being anti-science. Even overblowing specific risks because of individual values isn’t really anti-science either. It might be anti-human to put birds before human needs as with wind turbines, but no one is denying that wind turbines generate electricity. And while liberals may be overestimating the risk of say, nuclear waste generation over carbon waste generation (guess which is a planet-wide problem!), it doesn’t mean they don’t think nuclear power works or is real. They just have an arguably-skewed risk perception, which is an established problem in cases of ideological conflict with science or technology. There is also reasonable debate to be had over the business-practices of corporations (Monsanto in his example), which need and deserve strong citizen push-back and regulation to prevent anti-competitive or abusive behavior.

Anti-science requires the specific rejection of data, the scientific method, or strongly-supported scientific theory due to an ideological conflict, not because one possesses superior data or new information. I don’t think Shermer actually listed very good examples of this among liberals. If you’re going to talk about GMO denialism, don’t complain about people fighting with Monsanto, talk about how anti-GMO advocates make up crazy claims about the foods (see natural news for example) such as that they cause autism, or cancer. And even then it’s difficult to truly say this is a completely liberal form of denialism as Kahan’s work shows again, there is a pretty split ideological divide on GMO.

I agree that liberals are susceptible to anti-science and the mechanism is the same – ideological conflict with scientific results. However, the liberal tendency towards skepticism of technology is healthy in moderation, and anti-corporatism is not automatically anti-science. In an essay that was striving to say we must be less ideological and more pragmatic, Shermer has wrongly lumped in technological skepticism, and anti-corporatism with science denial.

Rebecca Watson's Skepticon talk is NOT an example of science denialism

I was recently pointed to this post by Edward Clint which purports to show Rebecca Watson using the 5 tactics of science denialism during her talk “How Girls Evolved to Shop” which was critical of evolutionary psychology at Skepticon.

I watched her talk, found it entertaining, informative, wondered why I haven’t been invited to Skepticon, and I found I agreed with many of her examples of really bad pop psychology nonsense that’s filtered into the media through both scientists, press-release journalism, and marketing disguised as science. In particular the “pink is for girls” idiocy, which when I wrote about it at the time I came to the same conclusions as Watson that it was a stupid interpretation of the data, and the researcher who was actually promoting this glib, incorrect, and historically-bogus interpretation was a fool. It was unusual in that it was an example of the scientist herself, not even the media, disastrously misinterpreting the data to make it meld with a specific societal bias about females.

The problem with this talk was that Watson used specific examples, especially those made prominent by the media, as indicative of the entire field of evolutionary psychology, and thus may have over-generalized about the field as a whole. Even though at the end when asked if there are any good evolutionary biology papers, she suggests there likely are but that’s not what makes it into the media because they’re probably boring (lies are often more entertaining), it was too late. The thrust of her talk probably was too one-sided, and suggested the nonsense that idiot journalists latch onto, and some of the more oddball researchers are indicative of an entire field, which is unfair. Edward Clint takes this as a sign of science denialism, however, and tries to fit the 5 tactics to her talk. While I agree that Watson may have over-generalized, this isn’t denialism. Let’s go over his points and discuss why I don’t think her talk crosses this line.

Clint states:

The denialism brought to Skepticon was to the field of evolutionary psychology, a thriving social science with roots going back to Charles Darwin himself. The critic was internet pundit and self-described feminist and skeptic Rebecca Watson. Watson is known for her blog website, as co-host of a popular skeptic podcast, and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. But Watson holds no scientific training or experience. The charge of science denialism is a serious one, and I will support the claim with a preponderance of evidence.

Ok, first of all, you don’t need to be a scientist or an expert in a particular field to be critical of it. At no point does Watson suggest she’s an expert, which would have been the only reason why such a critique is relevant. A layperson is perfectly entitled to research a field, and then give a talk such as this critical of a systematic bias towards women present in the field. I think she actually makes a compelling argument that there is a bias problem in the interpretation of the data coming out of these papers, and a big PR problem for evolutionary psych in that it’s especially the biased, stupid, and inane studies the media latches onto and amplifies for lay consumption. She doesn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how I interpreted her talk.

He continues:

The main points Watson wants to drive home are that evolutionary psychology isn’t science (as indicated by the quotes in the subtitle), and that researchers involved in it work deliberately to reinforce stereotypes and to oppress women. Watson frequently makes overly broad claims about the “they” or “it” of evolutionary psychology without further specificity, leading her audience to assume she simply refers to the entirety of the field, or to a large majority of it.

This is an unfair evaluation of her talk. I don’t think at any point Watson indicates this behavior is deliberate, malicious, or dishonest. It’s clear that she’s exposing a systematic bias in the interpretation of the data from these studies. She is not suggesting fabrication, tweaking, or dishonesty, just stupid conclusions, and flawed study designs, and I agree with her that in these examples, she makes the case, these particular researchers are either idiots or blind to bias.

Now we may ask, how would an (apparently) expert skeptic investigate the domain of evolutionary psychology to reach and support the conclusions that Watson has? The first step should be having a firm grasp on what evolutionary psychology is, and to have a working familiarity with the subject. Since we are talking about a scientific field, this at least would mean reading some papers, or maybe at a minimum, some scholarly reviews and meta-analyses. And they should be typical of the field, meaning from reputable journals and mainstream researchers. It would be silly to call biologists creationists and religiously motivated while pointing to Michael Behe and Francis Collins as examples of biologists as a whole.

As far as Watson’s over-generalization of her findings to the field I agree with this criticism, however, my interpretation of the talk as a whole was about how when it came to ascribing differences in behavior due to sex that evolutionary psych has some big problems with systematic bias towards affirming societal stereotypes about women. I think she makes a compelling case for this, but it is possible, of course, that the cases she listed are the glaring exceptions. Clearly with regard to Kanazawa, the guy is a crackpot, but she also had some pretty deadly critiques of other more legitimate researcher’s conclusions.

However, Watson seems to have only the most superficial understanding of evolutionary psychology and it isn’t clear that she’s read even one paper in the field.

This is unfair and disproven by the talk in which she provides specific critiques and interpretations of data where they conflict with the author’s conclusions. It’s very hard to do this without reading the paper.

There are many reasons to think this. She cited no sources during her 48-minute talk beyond what is mentioned in newspapers and other media or publicly available abstracts. While she derided media distortion in one part of the talk, she implicitly trusted media reports for the bulk of it, and rather uncritically.

I don’t understand this because it’s clear from the video that her slides actually have several of the papers up and clearly visible. I also don’t think she blindly trusted media reports either, as she cites specific instances, like the “pink is for girls” study, in which the media cooverage, and the author’s own conclusions differed from the data.

At the end of her talk, an audience member asks Watson if there is any “good evolutionary psychology”. Watson throws up her hands while saying “prooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring.. because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. […] if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media[…]” (see index 47:30)

Setting aside the striking anti-science attitude that only media-hypable science can be interesting, as well as the jarring ignorance that a scientific field composed of thousands of researchers working for decades and publishing in numerous reputable science journals only “probably” has some good work being done, Watson clearly reveals that she is only familiar with evolutionary psychology in the “media,” having moments before shown incontrovertibly how unreliable the media is.

I don’t think she expresses the attitude that media hype is only sign of interesting science. I think her talk should have been narrowed, however, to specifically address how evolutionary psychology has major bias problems when it attempts to explain differences between male and female behavior.

The first work she mentions in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cites a Telegraph article referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist paid for by a business to help them sell things better. This has no relevance to Watson’s thesis, unless it’s also true that Colgate’s “9 out of 10 dentists recommend you give us your toothpaste money” studies prove that dental science is bunk.

Again this is an unfair criticism, because she specifically addressed that this was marketing disguised as science. Watson states:

“all of the best studies I think are commissioned by shopping centers, so no this is actually marketing disguised as science, which is a trend that is becoming more and more popular as mainstream new outlets phase out any and all support for actual journalists that understand science.”

The strength of her point was how she moved from the obvious, BS, marketing-driven science and compared it directly to actual academic evolutionary psych purporting to show the exact same thing.

Supporting the extraordinary claims that a large scientific domain is sexist in general and methodologically bereft requires extraordinary evidence. It should entail a very serious, careful look at the nuts and bolts. How is peer-review accomplished? How well does it function? Are many awful studies passing it? How many? How easily? How is it that thousands of people, women and men, in dozens of countries across decades of time are all morally compromised in the same way? Did she speak to even one person who actually does evolutionary psychology?

I agree with Clint here that she needs more evidence before she castigates the entire field, however, I do think that she makes a compelling argument that (1) evolutionary psych has issues with injecting societal bias towards women into its conclusions – and this is actually not an extraordinary idea given the long history of psych and bias towards women, non-whites, immigrants etc (I would suggest a read of “Mismeasure of Man”) . If it been completely eradicated, I’d be shocked. Her failing was she generalized this flaw to evolutionary psych as a whole, and not just this subset of papers dealing with sex differences in behavior in which the findings always seem to conform with the most recent societal biases. (2) I think she shows, and this is not in dispute, that findings which reinforce a stereotype about women are widely circulated in a credulous media, and this is harmful.

Finally, let’s address Clint’s critiques that this actually represents the 5 tactics.

Clint Writes:

In 2007 Scienceblogs writer Mark Hoofnagle wrote an oft-cited essay about 5 general tactics used by denialists to sow confusion. John Cook distilled these a bit for an article in 2010 which discusses climate science denial.

It is useful to cite Hoofnagle here because Rebecca Watson demonstrates all five of these in a single presentation and because climate science and evolutionary psychology have a lot in common.

Watson’s denialist tactics

1. Conspiracy theories
Watson frequently spoke of a shadowy, diffuse “they” of evolutionary psychology. When she cited researchers by name, they were held as examples of the they, and not distinguished as a subclass. She also often spoke to their devious, immoral intentions. Not just that they’re mistaken about their claim or that their method is flawed, but that they actively wanted to oppress women and reinforce harmful stereotypes. Thousands of people in dozens of countries, women and men all working together toward goals such as defending rape as “natural” and therefore good (see video indices 20:07, 22:43, 23:41, 35:40, 36:08, 38:40). No evidence was presented which could establish these ulterior motives in such a large group, and as I shall explain, they are entirely false. Mark Hoofnagle wrote the following on Scienceblogs about conspiracy theories; not Watson’s, but his words fit equally well here:

[…] But how could it be possible, for instance, for every nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline.

The problem with Clint’s analysis is that at no point does Watson ascribe conspiratorial behavior to these scientists typical of a denialist argument. I think she’s ascribing a systematic bias towards women, and given the issues that science has had in the past with systematic bias towards less-valued groups in society, this is not either out of the realm of possibility or even surprising that it’s still persistent in psychology. This is where a reading of SJ Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” would come in handy to understand how these biases are propagated. What was amazing was how Gould, in his description of the science behind alleged-differences in races, showed that the researchers weren’t fabricating or being outright deceptive, but were led by bias into over-interpreting data, throwing out inconsistent data, and methodological errors that would affirm their prior conclusions. Conspiracy in science is frankly absurd, but bias in science is a constant struggle, and one should, if anything, suspect its presence until proven otherwise. Contrast this to the global warming conspiracism of cranks such as Inhofe, who describe the entire field as a “hoax”, which suggests active deception for an alterior motive.

Denialist conspiracy theories are non-parsimonious. That is they raise more questions than they answer, because they’re generally being used to explain the absence of data, rather than fit together existing data into an explanation of reality. This is why it’s so absurd when denialists talk about actual conspiracies, like criminal conspiracies, or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Those are not “conspiracy theories” in the modern parlance, because they provide an explanation that fits the data, the results of investigation, motives, etc. They don’t create more questions, like, “how could all those thousands of people keep quiet.” The answer is they can’t. Just ask Lance Armstrong, the tobacco companies, or any gangster that’s had their operation undone by a snitch. Secrets are pretty hard to keep.

Watson is not proposing a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory here, instead she’s demonstrating examples in which authors are clearly overinterpreting their data to conform to societal assumptions about women. This is far from an extraordinary claim about psychology, it’s been demonstrated in the past, and is something psychologists should be on constant guard against, because it is more likely than not that at some point bias will enter their interpretation of data. Watson’s case is pretty solid, in regards to these examples, that the bias is plain to see.

Next:

Fake experts are not featured prominently in Watson’s talk. However, at the end Watson cites several fake experts whose opinions on the science are inconsistent with established, uncontroversial knowledge. She implores the audience to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a book seeking to justify a radical social constructionist view of gender differences. While Fine makes some reasonable points about some flawed studies, scholarly reviews have criticized Fine for cherry-picking studies as examples which are amenable to her conclusion and ignoring the rest

Watson goes on to suggest Greg Laden’s blog. Laden is a bioanthropologist who is on record uttering unscientific opinions such as that men are testosterone-damaged women.

Clint acknowledges these examples are weak, and in particular picking on Greg is really just a smear. I think it’s hard to interpret his post on “men as testosterone-damaged women” as serious, as he himself says:

e. Or whatever. Other people were more thoughtful about it and objected to the statement because it is wrong. Well, that’s good, because it is in a way wrong, because it is an oversimplification. But it was not meant to be a description of the biological and cultural processes associated with the development of individual personality, culture, and society. I am a little surprised that people thought it was such a statement, because it is so obviously a remark designed to poke certain men in the eye.

It was a shock-statement, not a serious statement of scientific fact, and it’s unfair of Clint to be dismissive of Laden over such a triviality. Only the MRAs seem to take that statement seriously, and they, as a group, should be ignored whenever possible. As far as Cordelia Fine, I have a great deal of trouble speaking with any confidence on her position in the field as a non-expert myself. However, reading Diane Halpern’s review in Science (no denialist rag) I find it to be more-nuanced that Clint’s quote suggested. Halpern writes:

Cleverly written with engaging prose, Delusions of Gender and Brain Storm contain enough citations and end notes to signal that they are also serious academic books. Fine and Jordan-Young ferret out exaggerated, unreplicated claims and other silliness regarding research on sex differences. The books are strongest in exposing research conclusions that are closer to fiction than science. They are weakest in failing to also point out differences that are supported by a body of carefully conducted and well-replicated research.

I think a book described by an expert reviewer as a “serious academic book” but flawed in one regard shouldn’t be so easily dismissed, as this reviewer in Science, while critical, was mostly positive about her book. I think the fake expert moniker should not be applied to either of these two, and frankly, considering true fake experts out there like Monckton, the assertion is somewhat laughable.

Next:

3. Cherry picking
As outlined in part II, Watson restricted her citations to stories that appear in the general media and critical popular science books. She focused on some of the worst possible examples that could be found, such as the interviews (not publications) with the disgraced Satoshi Kanazawa, instead of focusing on mainstream, reputable researchers. She also limited her citations to the sub-topic of sex and gender differences. While it is understandable that she may choose a narrow topic to present to a conference, she frequently makes her claims about the field in general, not merely as it pertains to sex and gender differences. For example, she rehashes Stephen Jay Gould’s “just so stories” criticism, (long debunked by biologists and others), but then uses as examples only sex and gender claims.

Now here I agree with Clint, Watson should have limited her remarks to evolutionary psych and the “sub-topic” of sex gender differences, as it’s clear that there is more to evolutionary psych than this idiotic “girls like pink” crap. But I’m also going to disagree with him that Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism has been “debunked” based on his provided link I actually agree more with Gould than I do the author. While Gould was clearly proven wrong in a few instances, I think his criticism of “just-so stories” is actually quite-compelling, and is an attempt to try to avoid a biased understanding of evolutionary mechanisms to try to find a purpose to every behavior, or every evolutionary modification. This criticism reads truer to me than many of the post-hoc explanations I’ve seen in evolutionary biology, and if anything should be internalized by researchers in this field. To reject the possibility that one is telling a “just-so story” without adequate evidence is to reject the null hypothesis prematurely. While it is clear from the essay that this evolutionary psych can have its hypotheses tested, and even that Gould was wrong in one instance, doesn’t mean that it’s a tendency in the field and one that needs to be addressed.

4. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver
Some of Watson’s criticisms would un-make many sciences were we to take them seriously. For example she says (13:27) “they never tell us what genes” as if this is a grand indictment of evolutionary psychology. There are scientists making in-roads in this area, but tracing the path from genes to structures to behavior is difficult-to-impossible, except in the case of disease and disorder. Further, we certainly don’t hold any other sciences to that standard, even the ones for which genes and adaptation are critical. Does anyone know precisely which genes make a cheetah fast, and exactly how they accomplish that? The peacock’s feathers, the fish’s gills? Shall we toss out all the evolutionary biology for which we do not have genetic bases identified? I should think not. Cognitive science also focuses on models divorced from physical stuff like genes and even neurons, but no one doubts that genes and neurons make cognitive capabilities possible (which is why genetic illnesses can severely impact them).

While it’s true that it would be unreasonable to posit a genetic explanation for each trait since so many traits are polygenic, and we have a very incomplete understanding of the function of much of the genome, this criticism shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Eventually this field will have to incorporate genome-wide analysis into our understanding of human behavior, although Clint is right, not every finding in biology that’s important or worth publishing about needs to be explained down to the last atom.

At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.

Yes, but the real criticism here is the absence of testing the null hypothesis, as I explained above. This should be a critical component of hypothesis testing. She also has a point that if there are too many explanations for the data, all of them consistent, the finding isn’t of particular value.

At 13:39 Watson says that we can’t know enough about the distant past to make assessments of what might have been adaptive. She refers to variation in climate and “environment” and that the lives of our ancestors also “varied”. In other words, evolutionary psychologists can’t make any assumptions. We can’t assume women got pregnant and men didn’t, or that predators needed to be avoided, or that sustenance needed to be secured through hunting or foraging; these are real assumptions evolutionary psychologists use. If we were to toss out evolutionary psychology for this reason, we must also toss out much of biology, archaeology as well as paleoanthropology. Much care must be used in deciding what can and can’t be assumed about the past, but archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists know this quite well.

This is a valid point.

Last but not least:

5. Misrepresentations and logical fallacies
Please see section V. 25 False and misleading statements made by Watson. In that list, items 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, 19, 20 and 25 are misleading statements. This is not a comprehensive list. Watson makes liberal use of logical fallacies. I will describe just one for the sake of brevity.

The naturalistic fallacy. One can hardly find a more pristine example of this fallacy than in criticism of evolutionary psychology, and Watson’s remarks were no exception. She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an absurdity of course; it’s every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.

Yes, but Watson was describing it as a natural fallacy herself! You two are actually agreeing with each other.

I also think that his list of false or misleading claims by Watson is worth reading and it really should have been the starting point for the discussion about Watson’s talk. They actually have a lot of common ground between them, and frankly evolutionary psych needs a wake up call to its public image problem. Instead Clint clumsily tries to fit the tactics of denialism to her talk, and in my opinion, fails. Yes there are problems here, and he raises valid points. But the presence of denialism is not one of them.

Psychic Sent to Prison for 5 years for Fraud – So can we jail them all now?

Via Ed I find out about a Psychic in Colorado sentenced to 5 years for fraud.

BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4)- A woman claiming to be a psychic has been sentenced to five years behind bars for stealing more than $300,000 from her clients.

Nancy Marks told her victims she needed their cash and credit card numbers to “draw out bad energy.”

In Dec. 2010, a jury in Boulder found Marks guilty on 14 counts of fraud and tax evasion.

Now here is what I find confusing. How is this woman different (other than the tax evasion) from other psychics who claim to be able to predict the future, talk to ghosts, or otherwise lie in order to extract money from their victims?

“One of our victims had a son who was thought to be dying within less than a year. All of them were desperate. She in particular was desperate to find some way to save him,” said Deputy District Attorney Mike Foote.

Foote said Marks’ fraud was deliberate. She groomed their victims, he said, and then ruined their lives. She convinced them to turn over cash, bank account numbers and credit cards so she could “scare the evil out of them.”

Foote told the judge the only way to protect the community from Marks was to put her in prison.

I agree, the only way to protect the community from fraud is to imprison the fraudsters, but I’m still confused. How is this different from 1-900 numbers? Palm readers? Tarot readers? etc? Her victims were just more gullible? She took more money under false pretenses than is standard? Isn’t this really just a matter of degree?

Her lawyer’s defense seems particularly poor:

Marks’ attorney believes the sentence is too harsh and that the victims the jury believes she scammed, kept returning to her for advice.

“I think the sentence is over the top because I really think that the victims in this case were complicit,” said Defense Attorney Stanley Marks.

Marks said the victims may have been duped but no one held a gun to their head. He argued for probation in exchange for restitution.

This is a weak argument. Fraud, simply, is lying to someone in order to extract money or otherwise take advantage of or harm the victim. Just because it doesn’t involve guns doesn’t make it any less criminal, or any less wrong.

I know inevitably people will show up in the comments and say the victims deserved it, or that it’s Darwinism in action. But blaming the victim of fraud is pretty low. Just because someone is stupid, or gullible, does not make it OK to steal their money. And it isn’t Darwinism unless it prevents them from passing on their genetic material. No one has demonstrated to me that the stupid are any less fecund than the smart. If anything the opposite is the case.

The 111th Skeptics’ circle, featuring that creepy Sham-Wow guy

I have no idea what possessed Action Skeptics to use the Sham Wow guy to present this week’s entries, but it’s amusing. Check it!

In particular I like ICBS everywhere on this thermography nonsense, and Living better skeptically on yet another cancer quack. It’s very upsetting when quack modalities defraud people of hard-earned money. It’s even more upsetting when people encourage quackery to replace an legitimate and important screening procedure such as mammography or effective treatments for cancer. These people are the most dangerous kind of quack, if they continue unchallenged they will be responsible for the death of their victims.

I was also interested to see Tech Skeptics’ discussion of lazy journalism exposed. Apparently, journalism these days begins and ends at Wikipedia.

So stop by and say high to ShamWow Vince over at Action Skeptics.

Angels and Demons – Feeding our love of conspiracies

Tomorrow Angels and Demons comes to theaters across the country. One in a long series of movies that profits from the idea that underneath our regular, ordinary world, there are powerful forces controlling the scenes. I understand the appeal of these movies, it’s an entertaining concept. A fictional conspiracy engages your intellect, creates a mystery, makes you think about the world and who is in control. But we have to remember when we see these films that these are works of fiction for entertainment. The Illuminati are not real, this sadly ludicrous belief still persists for some people but fortunately for most of us has become a joke. The Priory of Sion was conclusively demonstrated to be a hoax decades ago. These groups are, of course, not real because such conspiratorial groups and actions could never be kept secret or hidden in the real world.

The reality of conspiracy theories is very different. These don’t represent any kind of healthy thought process at all. They require one to reach a conclusion, then ignore any information that contradicts it. They attempt to explain, but only create more questions. I like to say they are non-parsimonious. And worse, rather than make people think, they tend only to enforce bigotry and ideology. It is the intellectual equivalent of self-lobotomy.

Films often seem to reinforce non-skeptical thought. We like to be entertained, or scared, or shocked. Hence, every time someone is introduced as an atheist or “skeptic” in a film they’re inevitably exposed to ghosts, or aliens, or whatever unlikely boogeyman serves the script. The skeptic never turns out to be right, as they are in real life. What would be the fun in that? Every movie would turn into an episode of Scooby Doo. It was just old man Withers with a flashlight after all, and a multi-million dollar CGI budget.

So the question is, do films like these make the situation worse? Do they encourage conspiratorial thought or are they recognized by film goers appropriately as entertainment?

I suspect that to some degree our fascination with, and desire to be entertained by conspiracies is encouraged by these films, but for most of us, seeing 1408 or the X-files is just entertainment and that’s OK. I read Angels and Demons and I gotta tell you, it’s a pretty silly, unbelievable book. But that never precludes it from being a good movie.

If instead you want to spend this weekend watching an entertaining movie that deals with conspiracies in a realistic way, those exist too. I can highly recommend Burn After Reading which is the antidote to government conspiracy theories. In a hysterical way it mocks how little we are in control of anything. Or if you like the murder-mystery types, try Blood Simple. Really, anything by Joel and Ethan Coen will be highly entertaining while keeping your skeptic’s circuits sharp. Any other skeptical suggestions for entertainment? Leave them in the comments.

Skeptics’ Circle 102 at Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes

Please check out this week’s skeptics’ circle at Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes.

Of note, I liked Dr Austs’ post on the human toll of HIV/AIDS denialism, it is stirring. I also found the Skeptic’s field guide particularly interesting. I would have two suggestions. One would be to prioritize by frequency of use or rhetorical appeal rather than alphabetical, and second would be to include a section on conspiracy (like the ones the Lay Scientist and Dubito Ergo Sum describe in this issue ), which I believe is the hallmark of all denialist arguments. If you need a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory to explain your beliefs, well, you should re-think your beliefs.

And speaking of conspiracies, I forgot to blog the hysterical interchange between Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi – author of The Great Derangement, and David Ray Griffin, 9/11 truther crank. The whole thing is instructive in the lesson of not arguing with cranks, but it doesn’t get interesting until part II when Taibbi starts to figure this out for himself.

As you’ve noticed, I struggled for quite some time with the question of how to answer your responses. Mainly this was because I was unsure of whether to treat this exercise like a comedy (because it’s certainly hard to take seriously any “debate” with a person who believes that Rudy Giuliani would conspire to blow up the densest slice of taxpaying real estate in the world, the New York City financial district, in order to save his city the cost of an asbestos cleanup) or whether to aim higher and treat it like a serious political argument. I tried it both ways and neither way seemed to fit. Treating this like an absurdist comedy, I realized, I’m making it hard for readers to see how monstrous and offensive your arguments are — but then again, when I take you seriously, spending paragraph after crazed paragraph grandstanding against you and your book, suddenly I’m the one who looks ridiculous.

Then it hit me, and probably far too late: the correct play here is to ignore you and your arguments entirely. There are many things about your work that are outrageous and offensive, but the very worst thing about you and other 9/11 conspiracists — and, I guess, lately anyway, me — is that you’re/we’re a distraction from the real problem.

It gets better. Taibbi really nails the fundamental problem with all of the false-flag arguments the truthers always lay out against reality:

This same public — the same public that stood meekly by when its manufacturing economy was exported overseas, that cheered when our government pledged to “get tough” with China by demanding that it allow us to weaken our currency vis a vis the Yuan, that twiddled its thumbs when Wall Street played Keno with the nation’s homeowner savings, that has consistently voted overwhelmingly to deprive itself of its right to litigate against powerful companies — this is the public you think George Bush and Dick Cheney needed to blow up downtown Manhattan for, in order to get them on board with a war against Iraq, the Patriot Act, and whatever else.

All of this 9/11 Truther stuff, it’s a silly distraction. A country whose economy is about to go down the shitter, to the brink of depression, thanks to three-plus decades of routinely-ignored Wall Street deregulation just can’t afford to be wasting its time arguing about thermite reactions and “morphing technology.” Captivated by the comic possibilities of Truther literature, I realized this too late. As you’ll see below, I even spent a lot of time pulling what’s left of my hair out over your answers to questions that even I admit now go beyond inane. I admit in advance to looking silly for doing so, and hereby make a promise to God that I won’t do it again, at least not as long as we have other things to worry about. All the same, some of the stuff you came up with, Professor sheesh! And I thought I was loony!

Freaking awesome. I’m sorry I didn’t write about it when it came out. His final diagnosis of Griffin’s writing was beautiful:

In the end it all comes down to what you believe. If you believe that events in life tend to have simple explanations, then you’re not going to be very impressed by Griffin’s arguments. If on the other hand you think that the people running this country spend their days plotting to create phantom civilian jet-liner flights, disappearing whole fuselages full of passengers, and then shooting missiles into the Pentagon in broad daylight in order to cover up embezzlement schemes if you think, in other words, that our government is run by the same people who cook up second-rate French spy movies or your mind instantly produces the word “crossbow” when asked to produce A MURDER WEAPON by a Mad Libs script well, then, you’re probably going to enjoy Griffin’s books.

Ha!

Atheists Advertise!

I never thought I’d see this. But here it is in all its glory. When I used to live in Georgia and drive past huge billboards that read “I heard that! — God,” or “You’re Welcome –God,” I imagined the day when atheist billboards would appear. I always wanted to buy a billboard that simply read, “God is Dead.” in part, to see whether Clear Channel would put it up, and in part, to hear the standard rejoinder said in Georgia–“Nietzsche is dead!” How profound!

Today’s Journal covers atheists’ efforts in reaching out, and concludes with this astute observation:

Still, leading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of organized atheism as they are of organized religion — making it tough to pull together a cohesive movement.

“A pastor can say to his flock, ‘All rise,’ and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting,” said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. “A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing….That’s why it’s hard to say where we’re going as a movement.”

Don’t Let Him Defecate!

This will be Orac’s new favorite show, perhaps the best reality show ever made.

Meet Shirley Ghostman. The UK’s premier psychic who is mounting a search for the UK’s next psychic superstar.

Watch his students cry as he channels Lady Di!

Watch as he brings forth a evil serial killer in the presence of his students:

Shirley even takes on the skeptics!

This guy is a genius, I just about plotzed, and the narration by Patrick Stewart is awesome. I also love it in terms of what denialism blog has always talked about. The problem with the people who believe this stuff is that they simply have no gauge of reality, no ability to judge what evidence makes sense or not. Shirley beats them over the head with this fact for hours at a time and they just can’t figure it out. True, it’s sad, but damn is it funny.