I am leery about the elision, in some quarters, of scepticism with Liberal politics. To be sure, I endorse people approaching their politics, whatever they might be, from a sceptical perspective. What is troubling is when ideology masquerades as something more objective. Rebecca Watson, a progressive commentator, gave a speech at a popular conference named Skepticon that smeared the field of evolutionary psychology. A gentleman named Edward Clint has taken it upon himself to thoroughly refute Ms. Watson’s errors and simplifications.
There is a great deal of legitimate criticism to be made of evolutionary psychology and its practionitioners, and still more to be made of the opportunistic media hacks who leap upon research that can be sensationalised. What make Watson such an obscurantist on the subject, then, is not the fact that she criticised the field but the manner in which she criticised it. She numerous errors of fact and logic, and several of them are revealing.
Watson name-dropped Stephen Jay Gould, who was disdainful of the claims of evolutionary psychologists. Ideologues of all stripes have particular scholars they will trot out to bolster the factual presumptions underpinning their ideas, and we must be careful that we reference people because we have reason to believe they are correct and not because we think their views agreeable. Liberals reference Stephen Jay Gould to dismiss inconveniently deterministic biological and psychological theories. Yet Professor Gould’s critiques were more respected in the popular press than academic circles. Indeed, it appears that he misunderstood and even misrepresented research he disliked. We can bring up arguments if we find them compelling but should take care not to invoke scientists like saints.
People like to laugh at academics, which is why the Sokal hoax is so renowned. It is hard to engage experts on their level, whether or not their ideas are sound, so we enjoy seeing them fall upon their bottoms. Sadly, though, scientific researchers are rarely mistaken in amusing ways, and, thus, there is a danger that the lulz that are had at their expense are on dubious premises. Watson, f0r example, described the success of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran in writing a bogus paper on the supposed male preference for blondes. “He got it published,” she laughs. Clint observes, however, that it was not published in a psychological or even biological journal but a medical one, and a medical journal that explicitly welcomes “novel, radical new ideas and speculations…which would be rejected by most conventional journals.” I don’t see why evolutionary psychologists should take the blame for this any more than Bloomsbury should take responsibility for Barry Trotter.
Some of Watson’s comments are, it seems, not merely wrong but defamatory. She speaks of a book by researchers who interviewed women as to what drives them to have sex. It does sound like the kind of thing that could be very, very bad but Watson’s treatment of it seems disgraceful. She claims the researchers “bravely went and interviewed a thousand white, middle-class women”. The eye-rolling implication is that they were narrow-minded and incompetent at best and downright bigoted at worst. Her audience gave an appreciative chuckle. Well, I have the book open before me and it clearly states that “the women identified…as American Indian, Asian, black, white (non-Hispanic), and Latino”. Almost half of them earned below $50,000. Unless Watson knows something that does not appear to be written she has propagated a lousy and libellous mistruth.
Watson, it seems, was not regarding politics from a sceptical perspective but science through the blinkers of ideology. Considering how broad and dense its fields are this can offer no more than a slanted, narrow viewpoint. It is a lesson to would-be sceptics of every shade that no one political view monopolises rationality, and that the fact that something appeals to your heart does not mean it should be accepted by your head.