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Jan 23 2012

Scicurious and Kate Clancy destroy the “deep-thinking hebephile”

Well, what was left of him after Stephanie provided the science that shows that practicing hebephiles actually do, demonstrably, harm the children they victimize, anyway. (Yes, I’m late to this game too. The blogosphere is a busy place and, like I said recently, I’m playing catch-up right now.)

Jesse Bering of Bering In Mind made several mistakes in tackling the subject of hebephilia as presented by a reader. He took a number of things at face value, and did not delve deeper into the quandry presented regarding sexual “moral panics” and whether there’s any good reason to excoriate this writer despite his seeming attempt at honest discourse. There were many red flags in the original letter, and Bering missed them and did not take the opportunity to interrogate those red flags, and for that he got raked over the proverbial coals by the blogosphere. Bering wrote an addendum, which did much to provide us with a mea culpa and put the focus back on the letter-writer and the topic at hand. Which is good, because there were many, MANY loose threads in said letter left by Bering in his original coverage, which really needed to be tugged at. And Bering’s addendum, too, needed further interrogation.

I am especially grateful that Sci, with her usual aplomb, took apart Bering’s claim that a “measurable penile response” to being shown pornographic images is equivalent to being a hebephile in the sense that the “Deep-Thinking Hebephile” who sent the Dear Abby letter to Bering in the first place meant. Stephanie’s original coverage pointed out that DTH cannot merely assert that all men are hebephiles, but that did not strictly define hebephilia as taking an active sexual interest in post-pubescent children, e.g. ages 11-14. This allowed some hebephile apologists that tiny bit of wiggle room, which Sci has so gracefully and surgically nuked from orbit:

All penile reactions to naked bodies were larger than those in response to nature scenes, but by far the biggest response was to adult women, and preference decreased drastically when presented with very young girls. It is clear that pedophilia and hebephilia are very much in the minority.
[...]
I would also like to take a moment to clarify the idea of ‘measurable penile response”, and the idea of “natural”. When you spend a lot of time in one particular field of study (in this case, psychology), phrases and words like these can lose one context (the one used by wider society), and gain another (used by the specialty).

First, to have a ‘measurable penile response’ is NOT to immediately have to hump the nearest item eliciting the response. It is quite clear that the human brain is much stronger than “a measurable penile response” elicited in the laboratory, and a person’s actions in the wider environment are going to take into account not just whether a person is physically developed (which presumably elicits the penile response), but other things, such as the child’s probable age and the person’s relationship with that child. While some men may have a “measurable penile response” to any female that is close to physically developed, they are not attracted to children. The fact that the person in question is a child will negate any motion toward a “measurable penile response” that is elicited in the lab by looking at naked pictures of kids.

You need to click through to see what she had for point number two. Think: angry bear, or botulism.

Kate Clancy also covered the need to further examine the evidence Bering presented and the claim he made that hebephilia would be evolutionarily adaptive.

The third part of natural selection – that the trait must promote reproductive success relative to other strategies – is where the claim breaks down. DTH’s first point, that he thinks most men are heterosexual hebephiles, suggests it is an evolutionarily stable strategy that results in enough reproductive success to continue to succeed among other existing strategies (like, say, a sexual preference for adult women). Perhaps hebephilia couldn’t beat out a preference for adult women (though I am being very generous here, since in a way this is exactly what DTH is trying to argue), but can it at least beat out the other sexual preferences?

I’ve talked about this before, but girls just past menarche (that’s her first period) are usually what’s called “subfecund” – this means that fewer of her cycles, when she does cycle, are ovulatory, compared to an adult woman. In fact, the most consistent ovulatory cycles and highest hormone concentrations are found in women 25-35 years old, shattering the myth that younger women are actually the most fertile (Ellison et al. 1993).*

I’ve noticed that in many of these conversations, scientists espousing the “evolutionarily adaptive” point of view are using it as a magic wand to dodge the question. And it seems that the vast majority of these cases can be dismissed by showing that the situation proffered is in actuality not strongly selected-for because of some complication. Frankly, the whole domain of evo psych appears to be about duelling claims, so I’ve learned to ignore much of it. If there’s anything actually good and scientific about the field, I’m not being exposed to it. All I’m seeing is handwaves and magic wands, and it turns me off of the whole endeavour.

The tag-team duo of Kate Clancy and Scicurious came to fruition at this year’s Science Online convention, which I sadly did not have the opportunity to attend this year. I really wish I had, because their panel looks like it would have been a killer.

Besides, nobody has ever made better dinner conversation over beers and mole poblano than the friends I made at SCIO11.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Scicurious

    Thanks for the link love Jason! I have to say my post is attracting a lot of…interesting debate in the comments. And you wouldn’t BELIEVE the emails. If anyone wants to step in and try your hand at shooting down logical fallacies with a BB gun, please do!

    And I wish you’d been at #scio12! It was a great panel and we would have loved to have you there!

  2. 2
    Quietmarc

    I don’t want to wade into the hebephile thing, but I wanted to comment on evo psych as a field, because this isn’t the first time that I’ve seen someone disparage the field as a whole, and being an outsider, it seems kind of strange.

    It seems obvious to me that a field that studies how certain human psychological traits and behaviours have evolved over time would be a challenging, but useful sort of field to have. Challenging, because there are fewer clues (behaviour doesn’t get fossilized) and more room for bias (if we see an unfamiliar behaviour, we’re more likely to attribute its cause to something we ARE familiar with, even if its wrong), but I don’t think our behaviours and cultures and ideas sprang from a vacuum…they came from somewhere.

    I can get that there is a lot of bad science out there, and that a lot of people like to use evo-psych to explain their own pet ideas without any evidence, but the criticism I read in the blogosphere seems to dismiss the field as a whole.

    Is there any good evo-psych science out there? Where is it and who’s doing it? If there isn’t….why not?

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Here’s the thing, quietmarc: Kate Clancy, by pointing out all the specific needs that a claim about evo psych must meet, was doing good evo psych. I suppose in that respect I am exposed to it.

    The problem is, on reflection, that’s not how it’s being used in general. It seems to me that the folks looking to handwave things away by pointing to evo psych aren’t doing their due dilligence and actually meeting those needs. They’re like the Deepak Chopras of the evo psych word, in the way Chopra points to “quantum” to explain (rather: handwave away) any of his weird claims.

    I’m sure there are good studies about behaviour that don’t try to claim that everything that a lifeform does or might do, must have been selected for. I’d suggest that many behaviours are emergent properties of other things that were selected for, and that not everything needs a reason that runs along the lines of “humans do this, and here’s why that specific behaviour was selected for”. I guess my problem is I’m seeing the woo more than the science.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    Sci, you do in fact attract an interesting clientelle. I’m sure I can provide a bit of mockery this afternoon, after I get back from the doctor’s. I’m going to go get loaded up with vaccines, so I might be a little autistic, but we’ll see.

  5. 5
    peicurmudgeon

    I was away that week, and missed the post as well. As Sci pointed out in her post, the primary issue is the long-term damage to the child. This is where the concepts of hebephilia and paedophilia break down. The concept that one person’s ‘need’ trumps the harm to another is ridiculous. In general society, my physical needs do not allow me to just take another person’s property. Just because I might be homeless, it does not give me the right to take someone’s house without their consent. Just because I am horny, it does not give me the right to have sexual intercourse with someone against their wishes.

    We have established arbitrary ages of consent and personal accountability. In legal matters the age is often 18; for the ability to purchase legal drugs, in my province it is 19; for sexual activity it is 16. It is illegal to act outside these parameters. One may argue that the parameters should be changed, but I believe the onus needs to be on the hebephile to demonstrate that there is no harm to their victim. That is as unlikely as trying to prove that no harm comes to a rape victim.

  6. 6
    Quietmarc

    Thanks Jason. When I -was- a student (back in the stone age) I did psychology and neuroscience, and always got frustrated that psychology was often viewed as either not a science or less of a science than other fields, despite the fact that some of the best tools for skepticism I’ve ever learned were taught in psych classes. A lot of this double-standard came from people using pop psychology and calling it science, which I guess happens every day in just about every field (I bet physicists don’t like it when “quantum” is used to support woo).

    I know that I’m being fussy, but whenever I see the -field- of evo-psych being disparaged, I always wish that people would be more clear about whether they’re criticising the field or the people who use the name “evo-psych” for something that ISN’T evo-psych. It sucks that an interesting avenue of research has to deal with its name being dragged through the mud by people who aren’t doing the research….

  7. 7
    KateClancy

    Thanks for the link love Jason – I too have been dealing with some lovely comment troll-curmudgeons. What I find interesting is that somehow Sci got several of the “but pedophilia is ok” trolls where I got the “hey lady I think your post is teh dumbz!” trolls. Wondering where our posts got linked from to get two different sets of trolls…

    Also, thanks for your perspective on ev psych and for appreciating the way I tried to do it. My issue is that the ev psych I see that I don’t like neglects all the stuff I mentioned — like, you know, evolution. That doesn’t mean the whole field is bad. But unfortunately most people who study human behavior with an evolutionary perspective and do it well DON’T call themselves evolutionary psychologists. That’s how polluted the field is at this point. They are anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, comparative psychologists, behavioral ecologists, etc etc.

  8. 8
    Scicurious

    Yes, I was going to say, I think many people who do really scientifically meritorious evolutionary psychology tend to call themselves things like comparative psychologists or biological anthropologists.

    And thanks everyone who’s engaging in the comments on my blog! It was like calling out the cavalry! :)

  9. 9
    Jason Thibeault

    Truly sad that that name has been so poisoned that it had to be ceded to the fuckwads. :(

  10. 10
    muhr

    it’s been my experience that quite often what a researcher calls them self doesn’t matter, when human behavior is the subject the title evolutionary psychologist gets trotted out especially when the research is disliked.

    i saw a post anthropologist krystal d’costa put up over at sciam get linked at boinboing and it was denigrated as evo psych by a commenter.

    i saw amanda marcotte label social psychologist roy baumeister as an evolutionary psychologist for a paper he did on human sexuality. he didn’t even use evolution in the paper, but rather economics.

  11. 11
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I’m still wondering how it is evolutionary adaptive to fuck girls who are so young and underdeveloped that they have a pretty good chance of dying if they become pregnant.
    That’s where “just so” stories crush heavily with reality. Also, red berries.

  12. 12
    Jadehawk

    it’s been my experience that quite often what a researcher calls them self doesn’t matter, when human behavior is the subject the title evolutionary psychologist gets trotted out especially when the research is disliked.

    not “disliked” but “bullshit”.

    Basically, for the same reason that serious scientists who study evolution and psychology don’t call themselves Evolutionary Psychologists, people who don’t study evolution and psychology but display the sort of deep stupidity, ignorance, hubris, and not uncommonly bigotry are being called Evolutionary Psychologists.

    The term doesn’t describe a field of study anymore, it describes a specific kind of science fail.

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