Science lesson: What you want to be true ain’t necessarily so


How can a criticism of evolutionary psychology come off sounding like apologetics? I found this article annoying because of its lack of awareness.

One of the more intriguing findings in the field of evolutionary psychology over the past two decades has been that ovulating women are more strongly attracted to men with faces that have pronounced masculine characteristics, such as wide jaws and heavy brows, than to men who do not have such traits. Other research suggests men with highly masculinised faces have strong immune systems, a desirable trait in children, but also tend to form weaker long-term bonds with romantic partners, and are thus more likely to desert and leave the mother, both literally and metaphorically, holding the baby. Logic therefore suggests that a woman’s ideal evolutionary strategy is to mate with such men in secrecy, while duping less masculine (but better bonded) males into believing that the resultant offspring are their own—thus garnering reliable help in raising them.

That is not intriguing. That’s actually a fundamental obsession of evolutionary psychology: there are so many tedious studies that try to map women’s sexual preferences onto some aspect of their endocrinology. There is no continuity of thought, they’re just flighty creatures who make decisions based on their menstrual cycle, and their entire life history involves cycling through hormonally dictated associations with men with chins vs. men without chins. And all of that is built on the premise that Natural Selection is so powerful that it oscillates irresistibly on a monthly basis.

There is something wrong with you if you can only think of women as bags containing varying titers of estrogen. Not intriguing, except that it does say something about the men who believe in that crap.

So this article gets into a moderately large study (584 women) that actually controlled for many of the problems that plague other EP studies. They actually measured hormone levels directly, rather than going by self-reporting. They did multiple sessions for each woman. They had a larger sample size to possibly overcome some of the statistical weakness of previous work.

Unfortunately, it still uses the same superficial sorts of criteria other studies have used. They show the subjects pairs of photos of digitally manipulated male faces, some “feminized”, others “masculinized”, and ask the subjects which they’d rather fuck, and which they’d rather marry (they missed an opportunity to include a third option, “kill”). That’s it. It’s a predictably shallow approach to complex life decisions, but hey, bags of estrogen don’t worry their pretty little heads with thoughtful interactions with other human beings.

The only surprise here is that they got a negative result — there was no correlation between the women’s choices and their menstrual cycle — and that it got published. At least that last bit surprised me. These kinds of studies are usually exercises in the file drawer effect, or p value fishing.

But the popular press summary still manages to polish up this turd in an aggravating way.

All told, Dr Jones found that women’s masculinity-preference scores were not related to their reproductive cycle. Specifically, he and his colleagues could not find any statistically significant relationship between the levels of any hormones and preferences for more masculine faces. The idea that evolution encourages women to engage in cyclical cuckoldry was certainly an intriguing one. But, as Benjamin Franklin put it, one of the greatest tragedies in life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts.

“Intriguing”. “Beautiful”. No, the premise was a heap of garbage that was sustained by years of sloppy studies and wishful thinking, and there was nothing beautiful about it. I’d like to imagine that some bad science was literally murdered, but I just know it’s going to be resurrected over and over again by evolutionary psychologists whose research is guided more by what they want to be true than any kind of valid understanding of evolution, or psychology, or human beings.

Comments

  1. lotharloo says

    Other research suggests men with highly masculinised faces have strong immune systems

    This line is also wildly ringing my bullshit-detector. Is this a legitimate research or is it basically a “green jelly beans” (https://xkcd.com/882/) discovery where they tried to find something “significant” with respect to males with “highly masculinized faces”?

  2. Mark Dowd says

    As a non-scientist, I hereby nominate that “green jellybean” become the official term for a paper that goes fishing for significance, or for any fact resulting from said fishing.

    Make it so!

    “Did you know that men are more likely than women to get prostate cancer?”
    “Nah, that’s just a green jellybean.”

  3. speedofsound says

    I have never been a fan of studies in psychology and have been a bit put off by just-so theories. Still, PZ, I sense a bit of hostility to the idea of finding out whether or not we have deep limbic guides to our mating and thinking, based on your politics. Any way we could tone it down and find out what it is we want to and can, find out?

    Suppose we wanted to know to what extent men are led by the penis rather than the PFC? Or if men are led by the shape of the butt vs the structure of the eye?

  4. says

    Unfortunately, it still uses the same superficial sorts of criteria other studies have used. They show the subjects pairs of photos of digitally manipulated male faces, some “feminized”, others “masculinized”, and ask the subjects which they’d rather fuck, and which they’d rather marry (they missed an opportunity to include a third option, “kill”).

    Where did they find 584 women who weren’t raised in a culture that permanently tells us that the manly man guys are good in bed but interpersonal assholes while the feminised softies are bad in bed but good husband material?

  5. says

    “I’m going with this scientific theory, because it would be so keen if it were true!”

    This was one of the reasons I didn’t sign on to Religion—seeing that people tended to choose a religion based on how much they liked what it offered, rather than on how truthful and verifiable its claims were.

  6. blf says

    Where did they find 584 women who weren’t raised in a culture that permanently tells us…

    The mildly deranged penguin points out there are two possibilities here: (1) The “study” wasn’t done on Earth; or (2) The “study” subjects were alien androids. Or the lizard people in disguise.

  7. Erp says

    The quoted article also got its historical citation wrong.

    But, as Benjamin Franklin put it, one of the greatest tragedies in life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts

    I doubt Benjamin Franklin wrote this. It is quoted all over the place but with no source ever given (and I also did a search of the digital collection of Franklin’s papers [though that is probably not complete])

    Thomas Huxley wrote what is perhaps the origin “The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” in 1870 (https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE8/B-Ab.html)

  8. KG says

    I have never been a fan of studies in psychology – speedofsound@3

    Oh dear. Looks like another ignoramus who thinks that what appears as “psychology” in the click-baiting media is a fair sample of actual research in psychology.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 8 KG
    There may be something to evolutionary psychology. I have not done any serious reading in the area but the few studies seem to use a Post hoc, propter hoc explanation of behaviour so I must admit I tend to be wary of them.

  10. blf says

    Thomas Huxley wrote what is perhaps the origin “The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” in 1870

    And people also get that citation wrong. For instance, Quotes Uncovered: Who Said Data Kills?, claims:

    The [Yale Book of Quotations] credits this to Thomas H Huxley, who wrote in “The Study of Zoology” (1861): “The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

    I have no idea what any edition of YBQ actually says. However, based on the Project Gutenburg version, On the Study of Zoology, the quote is not in that text. It is clearly in the Biogenesis and Abiogenesis text cited by Erp@7.

  11. says

    They show the subjects pairs of photos of digitally manipulated male faces, some “feminized”, others “masculinized”, and ask the subjects which they’d rather fuck, and which they’d rather marry

    There isn’t enough eyeroll. How in the hell can someone make such a decision based off a photo? It would all be wishful thinking.

  12. Holms says

    The premise is essentially ‘bitchez fuck alphas’ plus a dash of ‘won’t someone think of the nice guys!’ In other words, it is the view of women held by arseholes.

  13. unclefrogy says

    all the studies I hear about sound more like cultural anthropology than psychology though they do not seem to know it. this one is a good example.
    uncle frogy

  14. petesh says

    @12 Caine: Sounds like porn to me, and old-fashioned porn at that, which was usually aimed at het men.

    I am guessing that the many authors of this paper were happy to disprove this rubbish but the PR person tried to, as they tend to say, “sex up” the results. That happens a lot, and some of the journals are culprits.

  15. says

    rietpluim:

    I don’t want to fuck a photo, nor do I want to marry one.

    Yeah, this. You can’t tell one damn thing from a photo; might as well go back to the days where this was considered valid.

  16. chrislawson says

    Mark Dowd@2–

    Great idea — I like calling significance fishing hits “green jellybeans” — but that’s a bad example. Men having more prostate cancer than women is NOT a case of significance fishing.

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