The response of commentators sympathetic to Rebecca Watson has been interesting. More interesting, indeed, than her actual talk.
Stephanie Zvan denied that Watson was criticising the entire field of evolutionary psychology and implied that she was being “targeted”. Clint and others have responded to the former point but to appreciate its oddity imagine someone giving a speech in which they defamed atheist writers; misrepresented atheistic scholarship; imputed intellectual and moral failings to “atheists” and referenced Conservapedia. I suspect that Zvan would not leap to defend them from the charge of having an agenda against atheism.
PZ Myers started his defence by maligning Clint’s intentions. His motives are less important than his arguments and beginning by questioning them was a case of well-poisoning. He proceeded to begin a trend of apologists making true but irrelevant points by debunking the implication that one should not criticise a field one has no credentials in. This is true, and people who have argued otherwise are wrong, but one should not criticise a field one is so ignorant of and biased against that one’s criticisms are falsehoods. Jean Kazez also observes that other people have criticised evolutionary psychology and faced no such opprobrium. This is true, but the objection was not that she was criticising evo psych but that she used bogus ones.
Yes, she did. She asserted that evo psych is based on the view that the human brain evolved completely during the Pleistocene. It is not. She claimed that evo psych theories tend to be unfalsifiable. They don’t. She accused two researchers of restricting their data collection to “white, middle-class women”. This was false. She claimed that a researcher had done to evo psych what Alan Sokal did to postmodern cultural studies. Untrue. Watson, then, both misrepresented the field and defamed its researchers. (She has admitted to being mistaken over the “white, middle-class woman point” but failed to apologise.) None of her defenders have so much as mentioned this. It is as if someone had screamed that there was an African elephant in the room and they had launched into an explanation as to the difference between the African and Asian elephants.
Myers, it seems, is about to launch an intellectual assault on evolutionary psychology. This is fine. I hope it will be more substantive. Yet beginning with the implication that falsehoods about the field and its researchers are too unimportant to be mentioned does not inspire confidence. Scepticism, above all, is the defence of the truth and the indifference towards Watson’s obscuring of it is proof that it has been severely compromised.
That sceptics can be as dogmatic as anyone should come as no surprise. The extent to which their faults can go unnoticed is largely due to their obscurantism being in the service of opposing unfashionable opinions: conspiracy theories, paranormal research and religion. (Myers, for example, with regards to the latter, claimed this year that Aquinas and Duns Scotus are “not at all relevant to the fundamental question of whether a god exists or not”, which raised the question of whether he knows them from Iniesta and Dani Alves.) The elision, in some quarters, of scepticism with “social justice” ideologies introduces a new raft of biases and a new array of unfashionable opponents. It is clear that sociobiology, and its inconvenient deterministic implications, are doomed to a hostile rather than critical reception. Subsequent falsehoods, it seems, will be viewed with insouciance if they are in a good cause. This is their decision but it makes them activists more than sceptics and their work should be considered in this light.