Feminist Science Criticism

Update 12/6: Here's a vastly more exhaustive response to Watson and Clint than mine. Great stuff.

For your viewing pleasure, I give you a controversial talk by feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson:

A lot of people seem to be impressed with this excoriation of Watson, by one Ed Clint, but I'm not so impressed. In fact, I'm amazed.  If Watson's talk amounts to "science denialism" then there are piles of books and articles that belong in the trash with the classic instances of denialism--holocaust denialism, climate change denialism, and evolution denialism.   If Watson is a denialist, so is Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender --  Fine also subjects a huge pile of science to a withering critique.  If Watson is a denier, so is Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of The Woman that Never Evolved--she also critiques existing science for being biased by prevailing gender norms.

A denialist cheerleader is going to be Jerry Coyne, who writes  "I am a fan of 'feminist science criticism': the idea that women can sometimes point out male biases in research strategies and in the interpretation of scientific results" in a post supporting Slate writers Emily Yoffe and Amanda Schaffer, who had trashed a science article on rape.  And let's not forget people who have critiqued science for its racist biases--if feminist critics of science are denialist, we'd better call Stephen Jay Gould a denialist too. That's a lot of denialists!

Right. None of them are denialists.  Rebecca Watson is not a science denialist.  She's simply engaging in feminist science criticism, with a focus on how media and business interests stoke the fires of sexism. It's a separate question whether she's doing what she's doing well, but the kind of thing she's doing is perfectly legitimate, and in fact valuable.

The other objection we get early in Ed Clint's post is that she has the wrong credentials. "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." (Holds?  Whatever!)  Again, you have to be consistent. If it's a problem that Watson has insufficient science credentials, it's got to be a problem that Emily Yoffe and Amanda Shaffer aren't scientists, and neither are my favorite science journalists, like Robert Wright, Matt Ridley, and Natalie Angier.  Many people make excellent pundits and popularizers, without first getting degrees in the relevant subject. No--come on!--Watson's lack of science training isn't really an appropriate basis for complaint.

I'm afraid I lost interest in the post soon after the bits about denialism and Watson's credentials, so can't tell you what I think about the 50 billion errors Clint claims to have found in the talk. Listen for yourself. It's fun and interesting, and you simply have to love the way Watson's hair and top match the lectern.


David Osorio said...

It doesn't follow that Watson is no denialist just because all of the others are not.

You didn't read a whole post and you criticize it?!? Fail!

So much for 'thorough' analysis!

Anonymous said...

If Watson's talk amounts to "science denialism" then there are piles of books and articles that belong in the trash

Why yes, yes there are. If you're a non-scientist writing about science, or even a scientist writing outside your area of speciality, you can damn well respect the work of the scientists and base yourself on what is written in the peer reviewed literature.

"Oh, I can't be bothered to read all that, it's just too boring, durka durka" is not on. I'm glad that at least you don't go in for that:

I'm afraid I lost interest in the post soon after the bits about denialism and Watson's credentials

Never mind.

Jean Kazez said...

I did skim the rest, but can't take it too seriously. Analogously, if someone called Obama a socialist in paragraph 1, I wouldn't bother much with their critique of his economic policies in the next 25 paragraphs. That's a perfectly reasonable way to budget one's time and energy.

David Osorio said...

There's a difference -huge difference- between being a communist (an ideological and economic philosophy with no clear boundaries, which definition varies from person to person) to being a science denialist. You know - facts, and peer-reviewed papers!

Jean Kazez said...

You can challenge mountains of peer-reviewed papers and not be a science denialist. For example, Cordelia Fine does just that in her book Delusions of Gender. Critics of sociobiology in the 70s and 80s weren't science denialists, but were criticizing peer-reviewed science. The term "denialist" has to be reserved for cases where there really is no serious dispute about the facts--a Holocaust denier, for example. In this instance--all the stuff Watson discusses in her talk--there is definitely an ongoing debate, with respectable scientists on both sides. Calling Watson a science denialist really is as much a deliberate slur, and as distorted, as calling Obama a socialist.

David Osorio said...

Yes. But she didn't challenge "mountains of peer-reviewed papers". For that, she should have actually read peer-reviewed papers - which she didn't.

She focused on bad EPs and media hypes (not even Pop EvoPsy) to discredit an entire field. How is that honest? Or skeptic?

Besides, Cordelia Fine has been criticized for cherry-picking: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_W2c-uzSPBvcng3aGdEWTlGN0E/edit , https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_W2c-uzSPBvZ19YUnFRLXQ0dTQ/edit

So she's a fake expert (science denialist tactic). Don't you have a legit scientific source?

Jean Kazez said...

There are two questions--(1) What is Watson doing? (2) How well is she doing it? We can't move on to (2) before settling on (1). Your criticism turns on what I see as a wrong view about (1). No, she's not trying to discredit all of EP. She's trying to do feminist criticism of science and media, and the way they feed on each other, and the way they both involve gender bias. Given that as the goal, your criticism makes way less sense.

Sure, Cordelia Fine's book can certainly be criticized. Did I say otherwise? The point of mentioning the book was to locate Watson's talk in a certain general territory. It's the territory of feminist science criticism, not the territory of science denialism. There is a major difference.

David Osorio said...

So we can agree Watson is cherry-picking; just like Cordelia Fine. Yes, she is.

And yes, she's trying to discredit all of EP. Did you miss the "Proooobably?!?" she gave when she was asked if there was any good EP? Or the "is just so boring" part?

Let me ask you this: you're critizising Clint's post but you didn't read it. Did you, at least, watch the Watson talk you're defending?

Jean Kazez said...

I kind of think you missed my point. We need to figure out what someone's arguing for before deciding whether they're "cherry picking". Right? Right?

If the claim is "all EP is bad", very different evidence would need to be presented. I don't think that was her claim.

In response to the question at the end about whether there's any good EP, she says basically that the good stuff in EP tends to be very tentative and cautious, so boring. This is rather different than saying there's no good EP.

David Osorio said...

Right! Well, so you won't mind telling me how is it that during Watson's speech (at 15:26), she says "Tons of scientists.. who think that EP is ‘just so stories’".

Not a part of EP, but all EP is 'just-so stories'. Mind explaining that?

Jean Kazez said...

It's my turn to ask questions. Jerry Coyne is generally negative about evolutionary psychology. I get the impression he also thinks most of EP merely involves "just so stories." Do you think he's a "science denialist"?

Adriana said...

Sure Cordelia Fine "cherry-picks"; she takes examples of neuroscience or psychology studies that cherry-picked themselves, or that did not have appropriate controls, or that jumped to conclusions, etc. She started with the hypothesis that a number of scientific studies are invoked by society or interpreted by society, as well as some scientists, as irrefutable proof of inborn gender differences. In order to write her book, she read and analyzed many, many articles that supported her hypothesis; she didn't just pick 2-3 bad papers to prove her hypothesis, she did massive work there. When there are so many examples to support her conclusion, that "neurosexism" creates difference, is it necessary to evaluate EVERY study in the field of neuroscience addressing gender differences? As a scientist, I can tell you NO. Nothing would ever get done if one had to pore through every single study unless there are just a few dozen studies addressing one particular subject. Cordelia Fine never says the whole of neuroscience is to be thrown away, or that the study of gender differences from a neuroscience point of view is invalid or worthless. Hey, she doesn't even say there are NO inborn gender differences in the way the mind or brain works. She simply points out how many bad studies and jumping to conclusions end up creating differences that weren't there to begin with (stereotype threat comes to mind). Her book received praise from the British Neuroscience Association., and from many neuroscientists and psychologists. Sure one can criticize her book, and her findings, by citing 2 articles that criticized her book, but that wouldn't be cherry-picking, would it? How about citing all the good reviews her book got also, from reputable institutions and neuroscientists and psychologists also, before dismissing Cordelia Fine as a "fake expert"? David Osorio is evidently cherry-picking, thus. Should I dismiss him as fake or non-legit? Also, I'm curious to know if David Osorio actually read Fine's book, her entire book, since he criticizes Jean for not reading Ed Clint's article before dismissing it.

David Osorio said...

Jerry Coyne didn't make a conference speech citing junk scientist and hype-able media just to discredit the entire field, so no, I don't regard him to be a "science denialist".

But you raise a good point: let's ask him. I'm confident he will, at least, read Ed Clint's post in its entirety before talking about it or taking sides.

David Osorio said...

Ohh, look at this. Is Watson herself saying she's going after the whole EP science - not just a part of it: http://soundcloud.com/techniskeptic/rebecca-watson

Jean Kazez said...

Soundcloud doesn't work on my computer, so I'll have to miss that.

Her talk was about how media, business, science, and gender bias conspire to make us think some very silly things about rape, ovulation, why people like sex, what hair color men like, etc. True, she focuses a lot on evolutionary psychology, but the topic is as I've just stated. This calls for a different selection of supporting examples than if someone gave a talk the sole purpose of which was to undermine evolutionary psychology. I don't think she gave that sort of a talk.

David Osorio said...

How convenient!

And yet, that's what she said: she has set herself to undermine EP whether it's sound science or BS, and regardless of the evidence!

Jean Kazez said...

Surely you don't think we can find out the thesis and argument of a talk in November by listening to an interview done 6 months earlier. If I thought that made sense I'd try harder to fix the technical problem, but it doesn't.

David Osorio said...

If someone says she's going after the whole EP and six months later gives a crappy lecture on a that subject, and there's no evidence whatsoever she changed/moderated her views, why would anyone think she did?

Jean Kazez said...

Sure, she doesn't like EP. That's clear. But given that, she could give 10 different talks. There are lots of possibilities, starting from that attitude. Depending on what topic and thesis she chooses, she needs to give different types of evidence, make different types of arguments, etc. I think we can tell which topic/thesis she chose by listening to the talk. We can tell she chose NOT to simply give a talk trying to challenge EP. Instead, she gave a talk that's about all the interconnections between science, media, business, and gender bias. (I'd have to rewatch to say for sure, but I don't even think all her science examples involve EP.)
Given that task, her focus on media examples makes sense. Given other tasks she could have adopted instead, her focus on the media wouldn't make sense. If she'd really set herself the goal of demolishing all of EP, she still wouldn't be a "science denialist" in my book, but she would have had to give quite different talk, with much more hard science content. I'm just saying--judge her by the right standard. The right standard depends on what she was trying to accomplish in this particular talk.

Axel said...

There are to many instances of bias against EP documented in the Skepticon 5 Talk, the interview linked here by David Osorio, and other off-the-cuff statements by Rebecca Watson when she has mentioned the subject in the past.

And, comparing Jerry Coyne's valid criticism of EP to Ms. Watson's Hatchet-job which comes across as an indictment of the entire field of EP(intended or not) just magnifies the perception that she used denialists tactics in her talk.

BenSix said...

The problem is not that Rebecca Watson critiqued evolutionary psychology, the problem is that she did so in a manner that obscured the truth. And, yes, Steven Jay Gould, in his criticism of most things sociobiological, often did this as well.

I prefer the term "science obscurantist", though. "Denier" should, I think, be reserved for peculiarly blatant and harmful examples.

David Osorio said...

BenSix, Rebecca Watson *is* a harmful example.

She's determined to label anyone who disagrees with her as a mysoginyst, and to deny facts -inconvenient facts- in order to live off her followers, creating drama where there's none, and dividing the Atheist movement, accusing most of its proponents of being sexists, old, white, cisgendered males who don't care for women's rights - and that's a lie! Dawkins, Hitch, et al. have said it plainly: they're all -we're all- for social justice and religion is the biggest obstacle on the way.

Saying they want to keep their privilege is a nonsensical lie, *and* harmful.

Jean Kazez said...


Torquil maceneil said...

Perhaps the term 'denialist' is inflammatory, but I can see why some people are a bit infalmed by this talk as well, and Watson's defence seems a little dishonest. It is as if someone had stood up to launch an attack on the intellectual bogosity of feminism, basing the entire talk on expamples of 'feminism' drawn from editorials in the daily mail' and then gone all wide eyed with surprise that feminists are upset claiming: 'but I was only critiquing those extreme, misrepresentative versions of feminism that are pounced upon by bits of the popular press and not taken seriously by any mainstream feminists. When, used the words 'feminism' and 'feminists' and suggested that they deserve unrestrained mockery I didn't mean most feminists or feminism, obviously. Why I didn't make it clear that my target was the popular press and not feminism itself is my secret.'

And the analogy is easy to imagine, because it happens all the time. It annoys the hell out of feminists that I know.

Jean Kazez said...

As I keep saying (in the comments), I think you have to be clear about her thesis, before you can assess the argument. Here's how I'd summarize the thesis (or theses)--

1. We are being sent messages about gender differences on the science pages of newspapers

2. But the science is often bad science--it's very often bad "pop evolutionary psychology" (a phrase she uses twice), which just seeks to confirm gender stereotypes.

3. And these supposedly science-supported stereotypes are harming women, because of the phenomenon of stereotype threat. So we need to do something about the problem.

That's the core of the argument. Now, does it make sense to support such an argument with media examples? Of course it does! The media examples are of the essence--they go to steps 1 and 3 of her argument!

Now, I can see fans of EP being upset. She's very rough on EP, but she does say (twice!) that she's talking about "pop evolutionary psychology."

I'm no expert, but I think she makes some good points. For example, I like the point about how EPs often assume we can find out about pre-historic people by studying present-day hunter-gatherer societies. This has always struck me as fraught with problems.

More important, because it's central to her argument, I think she has a point that evolutionary psychology is particularly dangerous as a promoter of stereotypes. The reason for that is because EP explanations are so "cheap". You start off with a stereotype and it's way too easy to come up with a story about how humans evolved to be exactly that way. With other kinds of science, you actually have to do an experiment, and your gender-difference hypothesis could be disconfirmed.

I think she has some great examples of this, like the guy who says women shop and men go to museums, because women were gatherers and men were hunters. What if women preferred to go to museums--surely some pop evolutionary psychologist would say museum-going is like gathering!

So a bit of EP lambasting seems well and good, but does she go too far? By my lights, yes (because I like some EP), but that doesn't detract too much from the talk. After all, it was not about EP in general. It was about the role pop-EP plays in generating gender-difference media stories and thereby putting real women under stereotype threat.

Stephanie Zvan said...

The November interview is actually relevant. It's discussing the same talk given then. I put up a transcript of it here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/12/05/once-you-look-past-the-headlines/

I don't know that it says what David says it says, but I think people should judge for themselves.

Jean Kazez said...

Torquil, That analogy doesn't quite work for me because it ignores the structure of her argument. You are imagining someone who's goal is to refute feminism, and who uses shallow examples of media feminism as ammunition. But RW's goal wasn't to refute EP. She didn't use media examples as ammunition against EP. See my last comment for the way I think her argument goes.

Jean Kazez said...

Stephanie, I don't really see the relevance of the interview, even if it was concurrent with another version of the talk. Analogy: I recently gave a talk about Alex Rosenberg's new book "The Atheist's Guide to Reality." The talk had a certain structure and argument. Prior to the talk, I could easily have said this or that--I could have said, for example, "I hate Alex Rosenberg." (Just an example--I don't!) Would that mean a critic of my talk could complain that I didn't back up my hatred, because I never talked about any of his voluminous work in the philosophy of science? No, of course not. The critic has to focus on the argument that's actually in a talk, not on any of the loose commentary before or after.

Likewise, in the talk, Rebecca does not actually set out to demolish all of evolutionary psychology, but rather discussed the role that "pop evolutionary psychology" (her phrase) plays in promulgating gender stereotypes, with the help of the media and even business interests. That's the argument critics need to focus on--that's what she presented in the talk.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Jean, I agree that this is where the focus needs to be. I find the interview relevant because a number of people appear to be confused while viewing the talk on its own. I suspect that this confusion is due in part to the framing around the talk when they saw it. I think the interview, in which she describes the kind of criticism she thinks needs to be done, provides an alternate framing that may help people step back and reevaluate their own perception of the talk.

As much as I would like for framing to have less of an effect on people's perceptions, I find it very hard to combat directly. Thus, multiple frames.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm, call me suspicious, but I don't really think the interview is what's stopping people from understanding the talk. It's Everything Else!

Anonymous said...

"I'm afraid I lost interest.... you simply have to love the way Watson's hair and top match the lectern."

Well, that's a relief. Here I thought you might condemn Clint with due regard for ensuring that you carefully read his entire critique, or worse yet, endorse Watson's talk because you felt she had academic or professional credibility.

It is encouraging to see you condemn Clint on a scan of his critique, and endorse Watson based on her hair and clothing choices.

Phew. Critical thinking and the skeptical approach for teh win.

-- John Greg

Jean Kazez said...

Getting this only requires 2nd grade reading skills, but OK, I'll explain. The bit about the lectern was a JOKE. See it now?

As I already said, continuing to read Clint after the ridiculous paragraph about science denialism would be like reading an article that starts off calling Obama a socialist. Losing some readers is the price of rhetorical excess.

I'm not going to publish further comments on that subject.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Here's an interesting bit from James Croft's recounting of Watson's Skepticon 5 talk:

"Watson also shone an unflattering light on evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline with a lot of problems. Watson’s recounting of VS Ramachandran's evolutionary psychology article 'Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?' -- a satire which he was able to get published – highlighted some of these problems neatly and with hilarity: the people around me almost fell off their chairs laughing!"

To be fair, Croft does go on to add, "However, I’m not sure her criticism was entirely fair here: evolutionary psychology comes in many forms, not all of which are as simplistic as the examples she was criticizing tonight." However, he was still apparently left with the impression that Ramachandran's article was published in a journal that evolutionary psychologists consider legitimate. Yet as Chris Hallquist (who hasn't been a part of the Rebecca Watson hatedom) pointed out, "Watson’s audience had no way of knowing that VS Ramachandran’s attempt at a Sokal-style hoax only got published in [Medical Hypotheses,] a journal known for its lax standards and not at all representative of evo psych journals." Hallquist highlights other misleading aspects of Watson's talk as well.

Offhand, I'd say that Watson's talk had more in common with Penn & Teller's bit on secondhand smoke a few years ago than anything by Cordelia Fine. To be fair, Penn & Teller owned up to their mistakes. I hope Watson does likewise.

Jean Kazez said...

"The Rebecca Watson hatedom"...ha! I have no problem at all with normal debate--it's just the hatedom that makes me ill.

As for Cordelia Fine...I'm not saying Rebecca is just like Cordelia Fine. Rebecca is more of a science communicator-entertainer and Fine is a researcher-writer with much more academic background. Rather, I'm making a reductio ad absurdum: Clint seems to say that excoriating EP on feminist grounds makes you a science denialist. If that were so it would follow that Cordelia Fine is a science denialist too, since she does excoriate EP on feminist grounds. But obviously she's not a denialist. Nobody in their right mind thinks that (even if they have objections to her book). So we need to reconsider the idea that excoriating EP on feminist grounds makes you a science denialist.

I think Rebecca actually has owned up to some mistakes, but I certainly don't think she needs to retract the entire talk. http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/12/03/science-denialism-the-role-of-criticism/#comment-156490

julian said...

I don't think she has to retract the entire talk either but the few factual corrections she list would probably go further if she took the time to understand how a good EP study would go and where one can find one.

Either way, I enjoyed her talk and would recommend it to anyone curious about EP claims in popular media. Too bad I didn't find it funny. (Probably a personal failing. I'm tld I have a terrible sense of humor.)

Miranda Celeste Hale said...

I think Ed's analysis is informed, thorough, and charitable, but that's not really the reason I'm commenting. I just wanted to point out a couple of factual errors in this section:

"If it's a problem that Watson has insufficient science credentials, it's got to be a problem that Emily Yoffe and Amanda Shaffer aren't scientists, and neither are my favorite science journalists, like Robert Wright, Matt Ridley, and Natalie Angier."

Matt Ridley certainly *is* a scientist and has sufficient "science credentials" (to say the least. Check out his educational background). And, while Natalie Angier isn't a scientist, she does have a degree in physics, which = sufficient "science credentials"

Ridley citation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley & Angier citation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalie_Angier

Jean Kazez said...

The credentials game can be played by lots of different standards. By academic standards, the credentials of those writers don't look so good. Ridley is now a writer, not a practicing scientist. He doesn't do scientific research. Same goes for Wright and Angier--they're writers. Lots of people in academia look down as such people as if they wrote fluff. Same goes for Richard Dawkins, actually. I've heard many philosophers express contempt for him, since he doesn't have the proper credentials to do what he spends so much time doing--essentially, philosophy of religion. Many also have contempt for people like Jerry Coyne, who dabble in philosophy. Wrong credentials! I would imagine over half the speakers at any skeptics convention have credentials that are unimpressive by some standard or other.

As for your assessment of Clint as "charitable"--I can't even being to imagine why you say that. A charitable response to a speaker starts off by trying to really understand what they were trying to accomplish. I honestly think Clint didn't do that. He goes for the interpretation that gives him maximum potential to attack her. In my book that's called "straw man" not "charitable."

No doubt his list of 25 errors has useful material in it--I'm not saying his entire post is useless. I just find the adjective "charitable" ... well, interesting.

julian said...

Back when I first stumbled across skepticism, one the bigger points I saw made in the Evolution Wars (or at least those skirmishes involving Miller and others) is the quick pace at which science changes. Obviously I have no personal knowledge of what's required at the upper echelons, but this seemed to be both key and reasonable point.

The more basic degrees and lack of practice in a field for several years, as was explained, meant this person lacked the credentials to really evaluate the research they were speaking on as a scientist would. That isn't necessarily an issue, though, as I've come to realize. Especially considering the entire reason for the call for "expertise" is to make sure te person can relate information on tha topic reliably.

But even if they can' I don't see how that makes them a denialist.

A. Nobody said...

The Tippling Philosopher

Now some defendants of her talk suggest she was presenting a case against pop psychology in the media (such as the Zvan link above). However, this is clearly not the case. It seems fairly obvious, to me at any rate, that Watson was having a concerted go at evolutionary psychology.


But what about evolutionary psychology? Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology. Her slides show this and her shonky definition of evolutionary psychology in one of her slides supports that interpretation.

Evolving Thoughts

it is not sufficient to accept a bit of exaggeration or cherry picking or equivocation when we do it because it’s entertaining or fun. It is false argument. If it’s wrong to do it when you are anti vaccination, then it’s wrong to do it when you are “skeptical”. This is called tu quoque in reasoning. Rebecca equivocates between a field and reportage or misuse of a field. She is clearly trying to poison the well.
The comments above are from blogposts about Rebecca’s talk from people who do not appear to have a dog in the “sexism in the atheist and skeptic communities” fight, or any animosity towards Rebecca. I have included the links to the posts so you will be able to get a sense of whether my perception of the writers is accurate.

One thing that is clear from these comments is that people are getting the impression that Rebecca was commenting on EvoPsych overall, and not just:

“She's simply engaging in feminist science criticism, with a focus on how media and business interests stoke the fires of sexism. It's a separate question whether she's doing what she's doing well, but the kind of thing she's doing is perfectly legitimate, and in fact valuable.”

If people are getting the impression from her talk that she is commenting on EvoPsych overall, and in doing so, she is using techniques used by those who dismiss evolution or climate science, then it is reasonable for them to point this out.

As for Rebecca’s credentials, the degree she does have is in communications. If so many people are arguing about what the point of her talk was, then perhaps she should work on her communications skills.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Clint seems to say that excoriating EP on feminist grounds makes you a science denialist."

No, he's saying that (1) Watson's talk was full of errors -- a claim that he documents and backs up with cited sources -- and (2) that the sorts of errors that Watson made fit the pattern one sees in science denialism. Feminism is barely mentioned in Clint's piece.

Jean Kazez said...

JJ, You misconstrued that sentence--what I'm saying is that Clint thinks excoriating EP makes you a science denialist. Why do I say that? In the very first paragraph, he decries the way "science is routinely attacked by subsets of the very same group of earthlings ...." So, attacking science is the villain. Then he lists various attackers--people against GMOS, against nuclear power, against vaccines, etc. It's the attacking of science that's announced as the theme, not specific errors. Then we get to Rebecca. She's another attacker of science, he says.

I don't think his argument is that she's a discreditable attacker of science because of her errors. What seems to bother him is her sheer attitude of disdain for EP. In fact, if he'd just said "she makes lots of errors" I wouldn't have even written this post. Errors are errors. They should be pointed out. What I object to is lumping EP critics together with true science denialists. There is a long and noble tradition of EP criticism. I think Watson's trying to be a part of it, and that's all well and good.


To respond to JJ I was forced to reread Clint's post. Under "a brief synopsis" I think he gets her wrong in the second paragraph. He says "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." I think this is a straw man. He construes her that way to set up the attack that's to come.

Watson did not give a talk the main point of which is that EP is not a science. She didn't make that wild charge about researchers deliberately being sexist either. If those were her main points, a different body of evidence would have to have been presented. No--her main point is about us, and how we're bombarded with media stories about gender differences, and how those stories are supported by bad science. If Clint had represented the main point fairly, he wouldn't have been able to make many of his subsequent criticisms.

If the main claim is that EP is all rubbish, then of course he's right that crappy media accounts of bad science don't prove it. If the main claim is about us, and how we're bombarded with bad media/bad science, then of course the right evidence is bad media/bad science.

Clint chooses the reading that gives him the most ammunition. And then he blasts away in a flagrantly ad hominem fashion. He surmises she's never read any research. He speculates that she doesn't even have access to a library. He complains about her credentials.

All in all, he goes too far. Actually, they both go too far. I'll concede Watson is too disrespectful toward EP. I think Cilnt's too disrespectful toward Watson. All in all, I find the skeptical community constantly in a disrespectful, warlike mode that creates endless drama. Disrespect breeds more disrespect, and it goes on and on.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"And then he blasts away in a flagrantly ad hominem fashion."

What examples of flagrant ad hominems do you have in mind? I'm not even sure where you get the idea that he "speculates that she doesn't even have access to a library," since he doesn't even mention the word "library" once. He does say, "It is true that Watson is not an academic and therefore has no ready access to scientific papers (the public generally has to pay publishers to view them ...)" and "we know that Watson is not versed in the literature because she admits this herself," but that's not the same thing.

"I'll concede Watson is too disrespectful toward EP."

Disrespect isn't the problem. Accuracy is the problem. Period.

Jean Kazez said...

Most people get free access to scientific papers through academic libraries. He's worried that her not being an academic prevents her from having that access. Was it really a problem that I just talked about access to libraries and didn't spell that out?

You're guilty of arguing "ad hominem" when you focus on the peron making an argument instead of on the argument itself. He obviously does do that. Focusing on her credentials is ad hominem. Speculating about what she's read is ad hominem. There's a vernacular sense of "ad hominem" where you have to be blatantly abusive to be guilty ("Jane you ignorant slut") but that's not a requirement for "ad hominem" as the term is used by people who teach logic and critical thinking.

Your "period" notwithstanding, I disagree. There are moral issues about the way so-called skeptics treat each other, not just epistemic issues. It's certainly not entirely a question of people not getting their facts right.

David Osorio said...

Well, yes! If you are subjected to see the scientific field you studied being misrepresented and attacked because of an ideological agenda, there should be something wrong with you if you were all hugs and rainbows!

Tone matters - it helps transmit the message! So if you're outraged, it's understandable if you shouted.

BTW, Clint didn't shout or anything. He was as reasonable as is to be expected. I'd have hoped he was harsher towards Watson, he was way too soft!

Jean Kazez said...

I can understand that he was offended--she did treat his field of study like it was (largely) rubbish. I'd be offended if someone gave a talk like that about philosophy. So--OK!--it's unerstandable that he responded (shall we say) vigorously.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"You're guilty of arguing 'ad hominem' when you focus on the person making an argument instead of on the argument itself."

Emphasis added. There's nothing necessarily wrong with pointing out that a speaker lacks the background knowledge needed to make his/her argument -- especially when it comes with actual demonstrations showing how that lack of knowledge compromises the argument, rather than using the issue of expertise as a proxy for argument. Yes, Clint discussed Watson's lack of expertise, but the bulk of his argument was expounding on the errors that Watson actually made.

"There are moral issues about the way so-called skeptics treat each other, not just epistemic issues. It's certainly not entirely a question of people not getting their facts right."

Fair enough. That said, the main problem still isn't that Watson was disrespectful, but that she was inaccurate and misleading. Her tone is arguably a mild issue at best. (I suppose that I could also say that if one strives to be fair and accurate, issues of respect and disrespect should mostly take care of themselves. It's those who go out of their way to be insulting who are at most risk of being slapdash.)

Jean Kazez said...

It's tricky bringing up credentials--very hard to say when it's appropriate and when it's not.

I think that sort of quick trashing of some things would go down just fine--I'm always happy to hear people make fun of scientology and the like. I think she may just have gotten sort of the wrong idea about EP. Though it has its problems and there are legitimate feminist points to make, it ain't scientology!