John Cook, of Skeptical Science fame, has created an online course through the University of Queensland and edX, on denialism and climate change. Easy to access and free to take, I found it simple to join from their facebook page, and if you don’t want to join you can still see the lectures from their Youtube channel.
Also I think he has done a great job of making clear that the problem isn’t one of education, facts or knowledge. The problem is the way we think, and how our ideology skews what we are willing to believe, setting us up to fall for denialist arguments. That combined with the series of high-quality experts from Oreskes to Mann makes for a really excellent introduction to the problem from real experts in the field.
Still, some journalists have raised questions about the story. Richard Bradley, who as an editor at George magazine was duped by the former New Republic writer and fabulist Stephen Glass, said in an essay that he had since learned to be skeptical of articles that confirm existing public narratives. “This story contains a lot of apocryphal tropes,” he wrote. Others, including Jonah Goldberg, a Los Angeles Times columnist, compared the case to rape accusations in 2006 against three lacrosse players at Duke University who were subsequently cleared and speculated that the Virginia story might be a hoax.
First, I’ll give you Richard Bradley might be legitimate, but his argument is completely speculative. He says it merely sounds odd to him. Hardly newsworthy. But then Jonah Goldberg? Author of “Liberal Fascism”? Who gives a damn what he thinks about anything? On the basis of basically one credible reporter’s feeling, they feel this deserves an article suggesting Jackie was not a credible source. Not on any independent investigation, sourcing or facts, they’re smearing this victim. And their argument about Rolling Stone’s reporting being adequate is highly debatable.
The subject of the article, who was identified by only her first name, had requested that her assailants not be contacted, and Rolling Stone decided that her situation was too delicate to risk going against her wishes, according to people familiar with the reporting process who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
News media critics questioned the article’s reliance on a single source. “For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation,” said Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, “Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character.”
So, the story should be rejected because they didn’t contact the rapist for his take on the story? Let’s predict how that would go. The guy would either say, “no comment”, “it never happened”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, or “talk to my lawyer.” If he was stupid he would admit some culpability or suggest it was consensual, thereby giving a future prosecutor an edge in establishing the fact of the crime. There, I filled in the blanks. Do they really think that would add anything to this story, or result in it not being reported? This is total nonsense.
Worse, it ignores the focus of the story, which isn’t about the facts of the victims allegations but in how my Alma Mater handles such allegations which is clearly sourced from discussions with several school administrators including the president Teresa Sullivan.
Can we call this anything but typical victim smearing? How dare the New York Times thoughtlessly promote this unethical critique of Rolling Stones reporting and this rape victim. This isn’t based on independent investigation, sourcing or facts, but on the feeling of one reporter, the reliable victim-bashing of a right-wing ideologue, and a misplaced argument about the value of obtaining “balance” by talking to an alleged rapist who (if he was smart) would undoubtedly be completely unhelpful or silent.
The point of Rolling Stone’s article was not to investigate a gang rape, but to expose how this University (and other universities as we discussed) similarly use internal rape boards to sweep crimes like these under the rug and avoid Clery Act reporting. NYT does a disservice to this victim, and other victims, by smearing Rolling Stone and Jackie in this fashion, without any real independent investigation or reporting. Maybe it’s time we write a letter to their ombudsman. I suggest you join me. Write to their public editor Margaret Sullivan at email@example.com.
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):
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.
Matt Springer has written a post Against the gun control that won’t work, and he correctly points out that previous gun control efforts have been little more than shameless demagoguery, including the totally-worthless assault weapons ban. People must understand that the previous major legislation the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was an atrociously-stupid piece of legislation. The weapons that fell under the ban were not banned because of function. As Springer points out, the ban focused on cosmetic elements of weapons so that lawmakers could put them on a table and describe how they banned scary guns, but in no way prevented the sale of similar semi-automatic weapons that could accept large capacity magazines and drop lots of rounds, only without folding stocks or flash suppressors.
However, I disagree with his summation that none of the control efforts previously tried has value, or that things like registration and other barriers to ownership won’t work. Let’s address some of these common arguments and why while they sound appealing, they’re an example of “letting the perfect destroy the good”.
Starting Gun registration: The shooting was carried out using firearms which were stolen from a person who legally purchased them, had a background check, and filed and was granted a purchase permit. The mass shooter in Norway acquired his weapons under a regulatory regime of full registration, as did the perpetrators of the two infamous school massacres in Germany in the 2000s. Registration of firearms prevents mass shootings in the same sense that automobile registration prevents DUI – they don’t, they can’t, and they’re not intended to.
Well, a highly-motivated individual may accomplish a lot, but that doesn’t suggest registration has no role whatsoever in preventing mass shootings. Yes, in these massacres in other countries, the laws were obeyed, as in Connecticut. But creating obstacles to ownership probably decreases the frequency of such incidents, as the differences in gun violence between these countries demonstrate. We have had 4 mass shootings during Obama’s presidency, not to mention, our yearly toll of some 30,000 people a year killed by guns. Our per-capita death rate is about 4 times higher than our next door neighbor, Canada, or any of these countries mentioned with death rates in the tens or hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands.
When you make it harder to get guns, it makes it harder for people who are deranged, angry or otherwise dangerous to own them, and you’re going to decrease your rates of gun violence. Just because it isn’t perfect, and doesn’t prevent a highly-motivated individual from doing all the work, doesn’t mean that you can’t deter dozens of other would-be shooters from mass violence.
Finally the DUI analogy is poor if you point out that some weapons are like giving someone a tank to commit their DUI. A DUI on a tricycle (read black-powder musket), is different from a DUI in 18 wheel tanker truck (your AR-15 might be a good example). Really significant barriers should be put in place to prevent civilian ownership of clip-fed semi-automatic weapons.
Assault weapons ban: Connecticut has one, and the weapon was legal under it. The reason is simple, and common to all versions of the assault weapons ban – “assault weapon” is an inherently meaningless concept whose legal definition is essentially cosmetic.
Agreed, assault weapons bans as they exist are totally useless. However, that doesn’t mean an intelligent ban couldn’t be designed. I think the sale or ownership of magazine-fed weapons should probably be prohibited or severely restricted for civilians. The ownership of extended magazines such as those used by the shooter in Aurora should be a federal crime. They should cease to exist outside of military use. Allowing ownership of revolvers, bolt and breech-fed rifles and shotguns, would satisfy legitimate home-safety, sporting, and hunting applications that can and should be protected by any gun control regulation. The problem is clip-fed semi-automatic rifles and handguns. These are the guns that do the most damage-per-second, with easy reloading, and the ability to bring and use hundreds or even thousands of rounds by a single person. It would be far more difficult (but still not impossible), for similar events to take place if we severely restricted weapons available to pump, bolt, an breech weapons that do not have the capacity to drop as many rounds per minute. And I would still be able to go skeet shooting, hunt deer, duck, or target shoot to my heart’s content.
Total prohibition of firearms: In a country with well over two hundred million firearms, it is logistically impossible. But if it weren’t, there is not much reason to believe it would do any good. Guns can be acquired illegally and are not required for mass murder in the first place. The worst school massacre in US history was carried out by a bomber in Michigan. The Oklahoma City bombing killed nineteen children and a hundred and fifty adults. The Columbine shooters attempted to go down in infamy as the Columbine bombers and would have killed many more people had their improvised propane bombs not mercifully failed. While bombs require a modicum of effort, more lethal than any single mass shooting was the 1990 Happy Land arson, the perpetrator of which killed 87 people with a gallon of gasoline. The most lethal mass shooting prior to the shooting in Norway was carried out by a South Korean police officer in a country where civilian possession of firearms is prohibited. Norway itself does not completely prohibit firearms ownership but the restrictions are extremely tight. Prohibition has a terrible track record at preventing dedicated psychopaths from mass murder. For that matter, is has a terrible track record at preventing violent crime of the more mundane sort.
While I agree prohibition is logistically-impossible, the reason isn’t that if we ban guns the loons will just build bombs or burn people alive. Again, a motivated, deranged human is extremely dangerous as long as anything combustible, and anyone vulnerable is in reach. That doesn’t mean that forbidding the sale of compact, high-capacity killing machines over the counter won’t have an effect. Just because there are alternatives to guns, doesn’t mean gun access should be so easy. Take the example of the crazy guy that stabbed 20 kids in China last week at about the same time. Yes, a deranged person just needs a kitchen knife to wreak havoc in a school. However, the difference in death count was significant. No one died. It’s actually quite difficult to kill people with a knife, and very difficult to kill lots of people. Just making mass violence more difficult, while not stopping mass violence, will make it less deadly.
We’re not talking about perfection here. We’re talking about progress. Making it harder, making the violence rarer, will decrease the amount of gun violence, as almost every country besides the US demonstrates every year with their gun violence deaths at a tiny fraction of our own.
Improvement of NICS: If you buy a gun, you have to fill out paperwork and undergo a background check. These checks have been very good at preventing purchase by people who are disqualified by criminal records. But while adjudication as mentally incompetent is also disqualifying, such records are only poorly integrated into the system. This flaw was the source of the Virginia Tech shooter’s weapons.
It’s dangerous to create databases of people tied to conditions like mental illness or other discriminatory conditions. The difficulty of making such databases effective will persist because of issues with individual’s privacy rights.
Repair of the catastrophically bad US mental health apparatus: There’s a dire article in Gawker making the rounds, a first person account of a mother trying to raise an extremely troubled kid. They have basically two options – prison or muddling through alone. There is almost no systematic way of helping the helpable deranged, and almost no systematic way of containing the non-helpable deranged until they commit a violent crime and get sent to prison. This must be changed, and changed immediately.
I agree, mental health parity should be a focus of this presidency and Obamacare. Mental illness should be treated, insured, paid for and taken care of just like any other illness. Our continued inability to deal with mental illness is a national shame. However, in general, the mentally ill are less likely to be violent and more likely to be victims.
Secure schools: If you’re determined to herd children into buildings with no law enforcement or other responsible armed adults (mass shootings almost exclusively happen in areas that are both 1) “gun free” and 2) don’t have law enforcement presence), at least build the buildings in a safe way.
But then won’t the criminals just pick the locks or bring bolt cutters? Interesting how in this instance the suggestion that increasing the difficulty of access works when applied to door access, but not when applied to gun access. You see the flaw there? I also think it’s sad that rather than dealing with the threat the suggestion is to continue to fortify our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods. Safety shouldn’t mean having to live behind fences and barbed wire.
The flaw in most of his reasoning is to say that because something doesn’t work perfectly, means that it has no value. Stringent registration and background checks will fail, but they create a larger obstacle for many who otherwise can just walk into a gun store and buy an incredibly dangerous gun with no questions asked. A prohibition on new sales would not do anything about the existing guns, such as used in this case, but it would, again, make it much harder for those like Cho that had to purchase their own to carry out their crime.
In particular a ban on certain functional aspects of guns could reduce mass violence. Ban extended clips such as were used in aurora, make it a federal crime to own one. Make them nonexistent. Do not allow civilian purchase of weapons that are magazine-fed. Bolt action hunting rifles, guns with a breech, revolvers, shotguns etc, are still deadly, but they have legitimate sport and personal defense uses. There is also no constitutional amendment protecting ownership of magazines or clips, so make it against the law to own one larger than 5 rounds, or to own more than a limited number. That would be completely adequate for sporting uses. Finally, place limits on ammunition purchases and stockpiling. The second amendment says we have the right to keep and bear arms, but says nothing about restrictions on industrially-produced cartridges that feed some of these more deadly weapons. Such cartridges, after all, didn’t even exist when the constitution was written, coming almost 100 years later. Make it against the law to own or carry more than 100 rounds of a given ammunition. You could still go to the range, buy and dump lots of rounds in practice, but given the bag limits for deer in any given state, do you really need to keep thousands of rounds at home? What exactly are you preparing for? I realize, bulk purchase of ammo is economically-sensible, and convenient for people who over the years will likely use that ammunition in target practice and hunting. Allow unlimited shotgun rounds of buck or birdshot, and maybe .22 caliber rifle rounds etc., but strongly consider round limitations on 9mm, .357, .223, .45, .50, 7.62mm etc. The more power, speed, and range of the bullet, as well as it’s use in clip-fed semi-automatic weapons, the more care we should take to prevent bulk ownership.
There are ways to sensibly and effectively regulate firearms and ammunition. We should engage in this debate though, with adequate information on the function of these firearms, their applications for legitimate sport, and their capacity for rapid fire and reloading. The mass violence problem is one of ready-access to semi-automatic weapons that are magazine fed. Limitations on their access, or outright restriction, while not-perfect, would make mass violence much more difficult, and more unlikely to see the death counts we have seen in recent years.
Disclaimer – I am a gun owner and enthusiast who target and skeet shoots. Weapons I own would become illegal under my suggestions, but I think that’s a reasonable sacrifice to prevent the extremes of gun violence. I would happily trade my magazine-fed weapons for a revolver and maybe an over-under shotgun I could use for target and skeet respectively.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are lots of instances of this. Consider sports fans who genuinely see contentious officiating calls as correct or incorrect depending on whether those calls go for or against their favorite team.
The cultural cognition thesis posits that many contested issues of risk—from climate change to nuclear power, from gun control to the HPV vaccine—involve this same dynamic. The “teams,” in this setting, are the groups that subscribe to one or another of the cultural worldviews associated with “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism.”
CCP has performed many studies to test this hypothesis. In one, we examined perceptions of scientific consensus. Like fans who see the disputed calls of a referree as correct depending on whether they favor their team or its opponent, the subjects in our study perceived scientists as credible experts depending on whether the scientists’conclusions supported the position favored by members of the subjects’cultural group or the one favored by the members of a rival one on climate change, nuclear power, and gun control.
Does anyone else think that maybe they’re unnecessarily complicating this? First, denialism is not an explanation for the science communication problem. It is a description of tactics used by those promoting bogus theories. Denialism is the symptom, ideology is the cause, and what we consider ideology seems more or less synonymous with this “identity-protective cognition”, while being less of a mouthful.
Call it what you will, when you have ideology, or religion, or politics, or other deeply held beliefs which define your existence and your concept of “truth”, conflicts with this central belief are not just upsetting, they create an existential crisis. When science conflicts with your ideology, it conflicts with who you are as person, how you believe you should live your life, what you’ve been raised to believe. And, almost no matter what ideology you subscribe to, eventually science will come in conflict with it, because no ideology, religion, or political philosophy is perfect. Eventually, they will all jar with reality. And what do most people do when science creates such a conflict? Do they change who they are, fundamentally, as a person? Of course not. They just deny the science.
Denialism is the symptom of these conflicts, and this is where the problem with the term “anti-science” comes in. Most denialists and pseudoscientists aren’t against science as the term suggests. I think of “anti-science” as being in conflict with established, verifiable science, without good cause. But most people read it as being against science as some kind of belief system or philosophy, which it usually isn’t. And while some people do promote the “other ways of knowing” nonsense, for the most part, even among denialists, there is acceptance that the scientific method (which is all science is) is superior at determining what is real versus what is not real. That is why they are pseudoscientists. They try to make their arguments sound as if they are scientifically valid by cherry-picking papers from the literature, by using science jargon (even if they don’t understand it), or by pointing to fake experts that they think confer additional scientific strength to their arguments. They crave the validity that science confers on facts, and everyone craves scientific validation (or at least consistency) with their ideology or religious beliefs. It sucks when science conflicts with whatever nonsense you believe in because science is just so damn good at figuring stuff out, not to mention providing you with neat things like longer life expectancy, sterile surgery, computers, cell phones, satellites, and effective and fun pharmaceuticals. This is why (most) pseudoscientists and denialists insist that the science is really on their side, not that science isn’t real, or that it doesn’t work. We know it works, the evidence is all around us, you are using a computer, after all, to read this. Anti-science as a term is too-frequently misunderstood, or inaccurate.
Pseudoscientists and denialists don’t hate science, that’s not why they’re anti-science. They crave the validity that science confers, and want it to apply to their nonsense as well. Sadly, for about 99.9% of us, at some point, science will likely conflict with something we really, really want to be true. What I hope to accomplish with this blog is to communicate what it looks like when people are so tested, and fail. And I suspect the majority of people fail, because in my experience almost everyone has at least one cranky belief, or bizarre political theory. Hopefully when people learn to recognize denialist arguments as fundamentally inferior, they will then be less likely to accept them, and when it’s their turn to be tested, hopefully they will do better.
Today’s denial of inconvenient science comes from partisans on both ends of the political spectrum. Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment. Common examples include the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible) or that vaccines cause autism (science has shown no link whatsoever). Republican science denialism tends to be motivated by antiregulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle. Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact) or that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years (scientists agree evolution is real). Of these two forms of science denialism, the Republican version is more dangerous because the party has taken to attacking the validity of science itself as a basis for public policy when science disagrees with its ideology.
I agree. We’ve debated on this site the prevalence of denialism on the left vs. the right, but I think it’s a distraction from the central point which I think is being argued most effectively by Jonathan Haidt. That is, humans are not rational beings and most uses of reason are to rationalize positions that we arrived at by intuitive means. That means all ideology is going to strain your relationship with science. Humans tend to hold positions based on shortcuts, or heuristics, that lead them to what feels right, then they use reason to dig in to those positions. It is extremely difficult, and uncommon, for people to change their minds based on reason and evidence. So, any time you have political ideology as the source of people’s positions, you will encounter anti-science when those ideologies conflict with the science. Just like right-wingers have a big problem with climate change and evolution, left-wingers have a big problem with a kind of food religion, GMO and toxin paranoia, and other health and environmental denialism. I think the author here, Shawn Otto, has it exactly right.
His argument to tie the problem into encroaching authoritarianism might be more of a stretch:
By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.
I don’t know if authoritarianism is the destiny of a population that rejects science. Surely we are at greater risk of manipulation by those that control the message most effectively. More likely, we would be easily manipulated into supporting an oligarchy or plutocracy of those at the top of society who can manage media and politicians through money and influence, or at worst we might get a kakistocracy if the likes of the tea party come to power. Otto is right, however, when empiricism and facts are no longer important, the likelihood that the unqualified, the unprincipled, and the ignorant coming to power will increase.
Take a look around key committees of the House and you’ll find a governing body stocked with crackpots whose views on major issues are as removed from reality as Missouri’s Representative Todd Akin’s take on the sperm-killing powers of a woman who’s been raped.
On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.
He then goes on to cite multiple examples of what should be career-fatal stupidity that has been routinely ignored and inadequately mocked in the media. My favorite?
Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines. Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.” Clean energy, he said, “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter. You never know.
“You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.
I think we need to thank Akin again. He managed to say something so grotesquely stupid, so insanely backwards in terms of its scientific validity and misogyny that we’re actually seeing dialogue about scientific illiteracy in congress again. Perhaps his comments were the straw that broke the camel’s back?
He had to realize Nisbett’s framing was worthless and write a whole book on defective Republican reasoning to realize it but it sounds like Chris Mooney has come around to the right way to confront denialism:
The only solution, then, is to make organized climate denial simply beyond the pale. It has to be the case that taking such a stand is tantamount to asserting that smoking is completely safe, no big deal, go ahead and have two packs a day.
Sounds a little bit like what I wrote in 2007 when I pointed out denialists should not even be debated:
The goal instead must be to enforce standards of scientific debate, to delimit sharply what kind of evidence and argument is worthy of being listened to, to educate people about the form of pseudoscientific arguments, and when these arguments are proffered, to refuse to engage on the grounds they aren’t even worthy of consideration.
Don’t mistake denialism for debate…
The whole goal of denialists is to create the appearance of a legitimate debate when there is in fact no legitimate scientific debate to be had. What is the point of arguing with someone who denies the moon landing? Or evolution? Or that HIV causes AIDS? Or the holocaust? They get real angry when you mention that one as they feel it creates a moral equivalence between the types of denial. But the operative word is “denial” which is totally unrelated to whatever specific topic one denies. It’s just another helpful distracting strategy, to try to prevent critics from using the legitimate word to describe their pathology – denial – by suggesting it’s a wrongful comparison to one specific type of denial.
The solution to these problems is not in confrontations or debates or even necessarily careful fisking of their arguments every time they appear in the blogosphere. For one, it’s somewhat futile. They’re cranks. They will just go on and on, immune to any new data, scientific findings, or any evidence the real world can present. Worse, evidence suggests that repetition of false claims reinforces them even if you are debunking the claim. So debating them to supposedly educate those around you is not a legitimate reason because it’s probably making things worse, not to mention legitimizing the denialist. It’s a constant struggle I have to try to write about things in such a way as to reinforce positive true claims rather than repeat false claims with correction. It’s natural, but it doesn’t work.
Chris is right, the only way to address denialism is to call it what it is and ridicule it. People have to understand the difference between denialism and debate, and when they encounter denialism expose and attack the tactics. Denialism is an established strategy, likely ancient, honed to a science by tobacco companies, and now used by those attacking everything from global warming to evolution. Some of the same fake experts for the tobacco companies are now working for the global warming denialists. The way to win is to remember the way tobacco science was eventually beaten, and that was with exposure of their deceptive techniques, and public ridicule for denial of the obvious reality.
About a month ago I asked if denialism is truly more frequent on the right or is it that the issues of the day are ones that are more likely to be targets of right wing denialism? After all, one can think of slightly more left wing sources of denialism like GMO paranoia, 9/11 conspiracies, altie-meds, and toxin fear-mongering. The mental heuristics that cause people to believe, and then entrench themselves, in nonsense seem generalizable to humanity rather than just those attracted to conservative politics. Why should those who identify as liberal be any different? Wouldn’t they just believe in nonsense with a liberal bias?
First of all, it’s not a matter of education. Whenever people complain that disbelief in evolution or climate change or whatever is a matter of education, they’re simply wrong. We can not educate our way out of this mess, and the problem isn’t that the Republicans arguing this nonsense are any less educated. Chris agrees and cites evidence:
Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.
For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science–among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.
And it’s not specifically education on or awareness of the specific topic, as self-reported knowledge of the topic resulted in opinions among conservatives more likely to be aligned against the scientific mainstream. Orac points out this is not an old phenomenon and maybe the Dunning-Kruger effect which we incorporated into our unified theory of the crank. This is the “incompetent but unaware of it” phenomenon, that the more incompetent people are, the more likely they are to be falsely confident of their own abilities and unable to recognize competence in others..
But the most fascinating part of this article is when Mooney mentions a study to see if liberals were comparatively incompetent in judging the science in an area of high liberal bias – Nuclear power. This would seem to provide an answer to the question from my earlier post, that is, are we missing an equivalent liberal tendency towards denialism because we’re not asking the right questions?