In a Violent Context

In light of the discussion on Kate’s post about assuming mental illness in the case of a mass murder, this post and, particularly, Daniel’s are extremely relevant again. It really shouldn’t be that hard to think about why people who are not mentally ill might do terrible things. It happens all the time. Shootings like these are just one of the less typical ways it happens.

When the incomprehensible happens, we are much happier if we can reduce the event to a single cause, put it in its little pigeon hole where it can’t disturb us as much. Attributing mass violence like the shooting in Aurora, CO to mental illness fits this bias of ours very comfortably. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mental illness really is the answer–or the only answer.

Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology started a discussion on this topic when Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords and several others. With this new act of mass violence that we are attempting to explain away instead of understanding in all its dimensions, he’s focused his thoughts more. The questions he prompts are fascinating, particularly for those familiar with how much cultural context–what we collectively accept and reject as civilized behavior–determines diagnoses of mental illness.

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Chivalry Versus Civilization

I will give Emily Esfahani Smith this: She’s got a much lighter touch than anyone in the Schlafly family. After that, the comparisons start to get more even.

Phyllis Schlafly herself has long been arguing for a return to “traditional” gender relations. She’s also long been known for making rather bizarre claims in support of that argument. A couple of weeks ago, her niece, Suzanne Venker received lots of attention–and derision–for doing the same.

Then, yesterday, Esfahani Smith had a piece published in The Atlantic calling for a return to chivalry. Yes, chivalry. Yes, The Atlantic. Not only that, but people I would normally expect to react to appeals to tradition with at least suspicion weren’t incredulous.

So, well played Esfahani Smith. Well played. That said, let’s look at what you’re actually proposing.
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Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis

There is a tendency in discussing evolutionary psychology toward confusion over what should be the proper null hypothesis. To put it simply, what do we assume* in the absence of evidence for an hypothesis?

This confusion is not specific to evolutionary psychology. It is a problem whenever we talk about studying topics in which many of us already consider ourselves experts. Being human, we are, of course, all experts on what that means. Or we think we are. So we think we know what base assumptions about humanity we should use absent any evidence to the contrary.

Picture of graffito by Banksy: caveman with fast food burger, fries, and shake

Detail of photo by Lord Jim of Banksy’s caveman. Some rights reserved.

The fact of the matter is, however, that we are not experts, not most of us. We haven’t studied the huge bodies of literature coming out of anthropology, psychology, and sociology that would be required to have to the first clue what kind of assumptions are warranted. Our assumptions are based on “Everybody knows” and some very simplified understanding of biology and living in a world in which variability is to a large degree defined as dysfunction. They are rarely nuanced or complex.

This means that when we hear someone arguing against a particular interpretation of data, when we hear someone say that a hypothesis was not supported, we tend to think that person is arguing for a null hypothesis that is…well, somewhat out there. Someone tells us that the data is insufficient to determine whether a particular difference observed between two groups is genetic, and far too many of us hear that person assert that there is no genetic influence on behavior. Genetic influence is treated as an all-or-nothing proposition.

I know. When I put it like that, it sounds a bit silly, but it happens with amazing regularity.
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Once You Look Past the Headlines

If you read blog comments or follow discussions on Facebook or Twitter, you probably know by now that a few people are relatively desperate for everyone to know about this interview that Rebecca Watson did with Swedish Skepchick back when she was in Europe for the Berlin World Skeptics Congress. There are various parts of it they would like you to pay attention to, but, well, we’ve already discussed priming once this go ’round.

Still, since this is apparently now an important interview, it will be good if everyone has full access to the whole thing. In order to facilitate that, and to keep the utility of quote mining to a minimum, I’ve produced a transcript.

You will find the occasional [?], which indicates this is my best guess at what was said. You will also find the occasional number in brackets. That refers to text that follows the transcript. However, I still suggest you read the entire thing (or listen to the full interview) before reading any of my take on things. [Read more…]

Everyone Expects the Naturalistic Fallacy

There is an odd line of argument that comes from evolutionary psychologists when people object to poor quality research on rape coming out of their discipline. A form of this argument is in Ed Clint’s post on Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk.

Portait of a man built up from trees, rainbow, sun, and birds.

Some natural things are quite nice.

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.

Well, no, but before I get into discussing why this is wrong, here’s another example of the argument in the wild, provided by Clint. Buss & Schmitt argue:

More generally, we believe that proponents of all theoretical perspectives should keep an open mind about the scientific hypothesis (and it is only that, a hypothesis), that men may have evolved adaptations for sexual coercion. It should go without saying that rape is illegal, immoral, and terribly destructive to women, and should in no way be condoned, whatever the ultimate causes turn out to be. Unfortunately, what should go without saying has to be repeated over and over, since those who advance evolutionary psychological hypotheses are unjustly accused of somehow condoning or excusing rape. The naturalistic fallacy, mistakenly inferring an ought from an is, seems to be a particularly stubborn error committed by critics of evolutionary psychology, despite the many published descriptions of this error (e.g., Confer et al. 2010).

As Vandermassen (2010) points out, the two central contenders for explaining sexual coercion are (1) adaptations for rape, (2) byproducts of adaptations that evolved in non-rape contexts (e.g., desire for sexual variety; male use of aggression for other instrumental goals), or some combination of the two. We concur with Symons’s 1979 summary that the then-available evidence was not “even close to sufficient to warrant the conclusion that rape itself is a facultative adaptation in the human male” (Symons 1979, p. 284). We believe that his conclusion is as apt today as it was then. Nonetheless, absence of evidence does not qualify as evidence of absence. Scientists from all theoretical perspectives have a responsibility to uncover the actual underlying causes of rape, even if they turn out to be unpalatable or repugnant. Whatever the flaws inherent in the Thornhill-Palmer book, it is perfectly reasonable for them to advance their two competing scientific hypotheses. It is a gross disservice to current and future victims of rape to prematurely discard either of them.

I’ll mostly be talking about this example, as it indulges less in telling us what someone is thinking and is closer to the primary source. It also contains a glaring error that should tell you what critics are actually objecting to. I’ll save that for a little later though. First, the problem with just saying, “naturalistic fallacy”. [Read more…]

Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism

Have you seen Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk yet? You should. It’s a brief, entertaining look into some of the ways evolutionary psychologists abuse science when it comes to gender essentialism. Just a word of warning, though, that Rebecca* repeats some ugly arguments about things like rape and sexual harassment. She’s using a good deal of sarcasm, but when you’ve heard enough of them, sometimes you’ve just heard enough.

One good reason to watch the talk now is that Ed Clint has posted a criticism of sorts of the talk. [Read more…]

Whatever Google Image Search You Did

By now you’ve probably heard of Tony Harris, sexist asshole artist.

Before now, there was a good chance you admired his work without knowing who he was. The comic book industry can be thankless that way. Lots of people like what they like without paying close attention to who produced it for them. This is extra true for artists, weirdly. A comic book writer creates a story for you, but the artist brings it to life. Still, plenty of people don’t know who draws what they read.

We’ll just pretend, because it is an actual unfair thing that happens, that Tony Harris was tapping into a well of bitterness over that when he went off on a sexist tirade about why “real” geeks don’t like women cosplaying at cons. It doesn’t make it the tiniest bit better, but we’ll pretend anyway. After all, the original rant has been fisked, countered with cosplay love, and put in its appropriate social context.

There’s still one thing about it though, something I really only noticed reading PZ’s post on the rant:


I read that, and my only thought is: Dude, you know squat about Google, and I can prove it. [Read more…]

The Ethical Use of Irrationality

Friday morning at Skepticon, James Croft and I ran a workshop on the ethical use of irrationality. When I first proposed the session to James, I had in mind a discussion of story and persuasion. We tend to focus so strongly on rationality that we sometimes neglect to look at the rest of our lives in any kind of structured way. I thought we should fix that.

Demonstrating both that this is a much larger subject than can be discussed in an hour and that audience-focused sessions end up going unexpected but useful places, we spent most of the hour talking about the ethics of the emotional appeal.

We started by asking people to give examples of things they thought were both entirely irrational and entirely unethical. We ended up with an interesting list. It included war, capitalism, consumerism, and political advertising, to name just a few.

If that list makes you want to raise objections, that was exactly the point. While the person who added war to that list was quite adamant, most of the room appeared to believe self-defense is both rational and ethical.

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The Origin of the Magic Wand

No, not that kind of Magic Wand. This kind of magic wand.

Basic black wand with white tips for stage magic.I ended up sitting with the Skeptics Guide to the Universe crew at lunch on the Saturday of CSICon. I’d only met Rebecca before, and it was a treat to meet the guys, along with various significant others and Italian skeptic Massimo Polidoro, whose “Paul’s dead” presentation literally rocked.

The best podcasts work because what you’re hearing is very similar to how the hosts interact in person. SGU is no exception. There was a lot of teasing at that table and a lot of interest in odd knowledge and behavior.

At one point, Evan pointed to the table beside him and suggested that the hotel had supplied Steve with cutlery to bend. Steve picked up a spoon and waggled it between his thumb and forefinger, invoking the illusion of bending.

Rebecca laughed and told us a story.
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Doing Social Science Skepticism Right

I’ve said before that presenting social science in a way that encourages skepticism and gives a sense of the complexity of the science involved is very difficult. The situations are complex. The number of variables is enormous. The research is of varying quality, not easily spotted from the outside. We all have biases that make it difficult to sort through the mountains of data that have been collected.

This is one of the reasons that CSICon made me so happy. They did it right, in two different sessions. The first was on gender differences, and the second was on the interaction of political positions and scientific denialism. Either one of these could have gone badly. Each would have been difficult for a single presenter to remain impartial about over the course of a talk and Q&A.

So the schedule never had just one presenter on this sort of topic. They had multiple presenters with multiple, competing viewpoints whose presentations directly addressed each other’s. I suppose it’s possible that topics like these could be addressed better from a skeptical point of view, but I don’t know how, and I’ve never seen it done this well.

To give you a sense of how this worked, I’ll give you some of the live-tweeting of the session on gender. Ron Lindsay moderated the session. Richard Lippa and Carol Tavris spoke. Lippa, who researches gender differences, spoke first.
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