Saving the World, One Silly Dance at a Time

I think I get Bill Nye’s plan.

Currently he’s caping around Netflix, promising to “save the world.” One of the two episodes I watched was on nutrition, and it was unceasingly awful. Over and over again, he hammered home the point that fad diets were useless: problem is, he didn’t explain why. He didn’t bring up the shady practices and lousy science, he didn’t give a lecture on human physiology; he did burn food with a blowtorch, interview a cave person, and host a deliberately awkward school play over nutrition. His “expert panel” consisted of a comedian, a personal trainer, and a psychologist. As someone who prefers the process and facts, I was left deeply unsatisfied. How exactly was this saving the world?

In this paper, we report the results of two rounds of experiments investigating the extent to which corrective information embedded in realistic news reports succeeds in reducing prominent misperceptions about contemporary politics. In each of the four experiments, which were conducted in fall 2005 and spring 2006, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.[1]

Enter the Backfire Effect. I’m not yet convinced it exists, thanks to the current replication crisis, but I do know it is widely believed in the skeptic circles Nye is familiar with. Let’s say it does exist; how then do we dispel myths?

A common explanation for the Backfire Effect is competing arguments.[2] The idea is that when someone hears a refutation of a myth they hold dear, they work hard to swat it down. In doing so, they bring up their prior knowledge and remind themselves of its strength. Weighing the (supposedly) defused refutation and the (supposedly) iron-clad evidence for the myth in their minds, people chalk in more evidence in favor of the myth. In hindsight, they’ll remember the evidence in favor of the myth rather than the evidence opposed.

If true, then one approach is to avoid bringing evidence against the myth, as that will cause people to work less to refute it and thus dredge up less counter-argument. Never bring up evidence in favor of it either, as you’ll remind people it exists. In fact, why bring up evidence at all when you can use peer pressure and mockery to exploit our social tendencies? Another two approaches are repetition and entertainment; make sure people remember your talking points, instead of the evidence against them.

Bill Nye did all of that.

He’s not trying to engage people like me, who already know fad diets are bogus, he’s trying to convince the people who think fad diets are legit. By tackling the harder problem he is indeed trying to save the world, by carefully refuting the myths people hold. This is not science or the discovery of novel truths, it’s the spread of those truths to the masses and the battle against misinformation.

Alas, some people didn’t get the memo. Like Jerry Coyne.

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”.

Spoken like someone who’s never read Bill Nye’s CV. I’m sure the current CEO of The Planetary Society, who’s designed sundials for Mars landers and took Obama to the Florida Everglades to discuss climate change and education, is consumed by a need for fame.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science. Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty.

Or a memorable way to drive home the point that how you have sex doesn’t matter, nor what body parts you use or how they’re shaped. One that will be shared far and wide by people who argue the contrary, who seem genuinely frightened of what Nye is saying.

Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science …

Social justice is the promotion of a fair and just society. It is universal health care, progressive taxation, international trade policy, and discounted tuition. It is eliminating discrimination based on sex or race. If you consider mass misinformation as a social injustice, then yes, educating people on the best science is a form of social justice, but that’s a more tenuous form than guaranteed minimum income programs.

And yes, studying sex is science. Coyne himself agrees on this.

I think the size dimorphism of humans is more likely a result of male “battling” for dominance and access to females than simply female preference for large males, though of course both factors can be involved. […]

I also adduced four other bits of evidence predicted by the sexual selection hypothesis, which you can see at my earlier post. Those predictions were made before the data were collected, and they were confirmed.

That’s got all the basic trappings of science: hypotheses, evidence, and a methodology for combining the two. Next, we have to establish if the scientific consensus is that sex is a spectrum instead of a binary.

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. […]

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs [differences of sex development], and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs. “Biologically, it’s a spectrum,” says [Eric] Vilain, [a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles].[3]

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.[4]

Sex determination exists on a spectrum, with genitals, chromosomes, gonads, and hormones all playing a role. Most fit into the male or female category, but about one in a hundred may fall in between.[5]

Easy peasy. Even Adam Savage is aware that science promotes a sex spectrum. But Coyne offers up a weak counter-argument against the scientific consensus.

… not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.”

Riiiiiiight, so we should ditch the idea of a spectrum because people don’t fall along it in a uniform fashion. Does this mean I can declare all prime numbers to be odd? Most of them are, after all. Or maybe we should dispense with the visual spectrum, since our eyes tend to lump colours into discrete categories?

As always, I wonder what Coyne thinks of people who don’t fall into the binary. Are they “defects” in need of “correction?” Should we trim the clitoris of a newborn baby if it is longer than we feel comfortable with? Should a baby with a micropenis have it lengthened? I know Coyne is vocal over the mutilation of genitals for religious reasons, so I’m curious if he’s fine with “correcting” them for social ones.

On April 18, 2006, when M was 16 months old, Dr. Ian Aaronson operated on him at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He reduced M’s penis to look more like a clitoris, cut up his scrotum to form labia, and removed his internal testicle tissue. Two other specialists also treated M: Dr. Yaw Appiagyei-Dankah, who worked at MUSC, and Dr. James Amrhein from Greenville Hospital.

In a letter to M’s pediatrician, Dr. Amrhein wrote that initially, M’s condition was “confusing.” He had been identified as a boy at birth because of his “rather large” penis. Routine blood tests showed his testosterone levels were extremely elevated. However, he had a small vaginal opening beneath his penis and both ovarian and testicular tissue. “Surgical correction” was necessary, the doctors noted in medical records. [6]

Let’s do the math: roughly 1 in 2,000 children are born with an ambiguous sex. Surgical “correction” has been a common response since the 1950’s. Between 1960 and 2009, about 175 million Americans were born. If all those figures are accurate, roughly 87,000 Americans had their genitals “corrected” by doctors to fit into the binary.

Now, we have no way of getting accurate numbers here. No-one tracks the number of intersex children born (how can we, when we can’t even define “intersex?”), doctors rarely if ever publicly discussed the practice (so as to preserve the social taboo), and they usually told parents to never discuss these surgeries with their kids (and sometimes never informed the parents at all). But even with the fuzzy math it’s obvious that our society’s binary view of sex carries a terrible cost.

Try telling that to Coyne, though.

I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny, […]

Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology.

The irony is that Coyne is fine with the science of sex within the context of Evolutionary Psychology, he’s fine with social justice when it comes to separation of church and state, and he’s fine with eliminating unnecessary surgeries prompted by religion. Shift the context slightly and suddenly these topics are “ideologies” that he can safely ignore, even if the variations are well grounded in science and of benefit to everyone.

Lighten up, Coyne, and try talking to a vagina. You might learn something from the experience.


[1] Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. “When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32.2 (2010): 303-330.

[2] Trevors, Gregory J., et al. “Identity and epistemic emotions during knowledge revision: A potential account for the backfire effect.” Discourse Processes 53.5-6 (2016): 339-370.
[3] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature 518, no. 7539 (February 18, 2015): 288–91. doi:10.1038/518288a.
[4] Ian Steadman. “Sex Isn’t Chromosomes: The Story of a Century of Misconceptions about X & Y.” New Statesman, February 23, 2015.
[5] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/how-science-helps-us-understand-gender-identity/

Ignorance and Social Justice

“Why are you a feminist?”

Because it lets me sleep at night. Think about it: let’s say it’s true that over half the human population is burdened with a systematic disadvantage compared to the rest. Having learned of that, can you honestly shrug your shoulders and ignore the problem? I certainly can’t, so I’ll do what little I can to correct this injustice.

You may not agree, which is fine. But the corrolary of this view is that you cannot be opposed to feminism without also misunderstanding it. This sets up a prediction we can test: people who oppose feminism and other forms of social justice must be ignorant of it, must invoke straw-people, and must be resistant to learning or understanding it, if my stance has some truth to it.

The evidence suggests it has more than a little.

For instance, after offering to debate Martin Hughes, TJ Kirk cowardly backed out. Stephanie Zvan has an excellent blog post up pointing out that this is a common theme: people opposed to social justice aren’t keen on actually debating the subject.

That’s the real function of “You don’t want to debate” in this context. It isn’t to get you to debate. It’s there to say there’s something wrong with you. That’s why the offer disappears once you drag the argument into the reality of terms and conditions and making sure no one profits from the debate. It wasn’t real to begin with.

To do well in a debate, you really have to know the other side in depth. If you do that homework, though, you might learn the other side’s arguments are correct. So if you are hoping to sleep well at night, you don’t debates. I popped into the comment section to point out an exception to this:

Some of the hardcore haters would disagree, and say they’re perfectly fine with a debate. They have a very peculiar definition of “debate” in mind, though, where both sides shout slogans into the night without critically appraising their merits. It’s an extension of what I’ve called the “treadmill of lies:” By endlessly cycling from myth to lie, they avoid having to consider any one in detail and thus can convince themselves they’re just a bunch of skeptical satirists.

When this actually happens during a debate, we call it a “Gish Gallop.” This technique is a big problem with traditional, in-person debates, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that TJ Kirk was pushing for this format instead of a more leisurely exchange of blog posts. He knew he had nothing but slogans against Hughes’ arguments, and he knew those wouldn’t convince anyone but those already convinced. Unless there was some sort of reward involved, like cash or a raised profile, there was no point in “debating” Hughes.

I go into a little more detail on the treadmill here. But as luck would have it, this data point was followed by yet another. Possibly in response to the controversy kicked off by Kirk, a number of atheist YouTubers joined with him to fire back a challenge: “QUESTIONS WHITE MEN HAVE FOR SJWs!

Others in the atheo/skeptic community have been responding back, in between bouts of muffled laughter and obvious eyerolls. I’ll add my two cents at some point, but for now I’d like to point out a common theme in the questions.

3. Do you want women to be equal or do you want women to be a protected class? You can’t have both.

Protected class: “A group of people with a common characteristic who are legally protected from employment discrimination on the basis of that characteristic. Protected classes are created by both federal and state law. … Federal protected classes include: Race. Color. Religion or creed. National origin or ancestry. Sex.

4. What are you afraid will happen when you leave your “safe space”?

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.

5. How can you possibly justify the idea that it’s somehow racist to disagree with black lives matter?

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.  We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.

6. Are you aware the present is not the past? Are you familiar with the concept of linear time? Because you seem incredibly comfortable traveling back through time by talking about how bad things were for women, or black people, or whomever. And then by using some form of SJW magic, you then claim or imply that those problems in the past exist today. Are you aware that this trick that you’re doing is not working? Why do you think that would work?

Results: In the United States, an estimated 19.3% of women and 1.7% of men have been raped during their lifetimes; an estimated 1.6% of women reported that they were raped in the 12 months preceding the survey. The case count for men reporting rape in the preceding 12 months was too small to produce a statistically reliable prevalence estimate. An estimated 43.9% of women and 23.4% of men experienced other forms of sexual violence during their lifetimes, including being made to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences. The percentages of women and men who experienced these other forms of sexual violence victimization in the 12 months preceding the survey were an estimated 5.5% and 5.1%, respectively.

8. Did you know there are 13% more women in college right now than men? So if the whole goal of feminism is “equality,” shouldn’t we have some men-only scholarships in order to equal everything out?

The strength of this unconscious bias is quite astonishing – even for a relatively objective measure such as promptness, students rated a “female” professor 3.55 out of 5 and a “male” professor 4.35, despite the fact that they handed work back at the same time.

The implications are serious. In the competitive world of academia, student evaluations are often used as a tool in the process of hiring and promotion. That the evaluations may be biased against female professors is particularly problematic in light of existing gender imbalance, particularly at the highest echelons of academia. According to the American Association of University Professors, in 2012, 62% of men in academia in the US were tenured compared to only 44% of women, while women were far more likely to be in non-tenure track positions than men (32% of women in academia compared to just 19% of men).

When there are answers to the questions those YouTubers fired off, it only takes a few minutes of Googling to get an answer. Want scientific studies? They’ve been done by the hundreds, on nearly all the topics pushed by “social justice warriors.” Decades of research have been done, untold thousands of words have been spilled, and yet these people opposed to social justice are completely ignorant of it all. Had they put in the time to educate themselves, like some others have, they’d become social justice warriors too.

But as Zvan would have predicted, some of those questions aren’t actually questions.

7. Why do you think that you can spend your entire life in a state of perpetual emotional immaturity? Do you actually imagine that you’ll be able to stretch out your adolescence for your entire existence?

10. What do you hope to gain by bringing back racial segregation?

12. Why do you think every cis white male is born racist?

14. Would you rather be right, or popular? It seems like your primary objective is to score social points and get public validation.

These questions were never meant to be answered, they’re just empty talking points that form the treadmill’s belt. They’re meant to protect you from educating yourself, from breaking the wall of ignorance.

Because you might not sleep well, once you find out what’s on the other side.

When Secularism Is A Lie

In 1990, Gregg Cunningham thought the anti-choice movement was losing the battle for reproductive rights. In response, he formed the Center for Bioethical Reform, then spent years brainstorming how he could reinvent the movement. His answer: secularize it. This allowed anti-choice messaging to dodge past religious disagreement over abortion (Christian denominations are evenly divided over support for abortion) by pretending to be above it all, and get into places a religious approach was barred from entering.

… this is very carefully targeted. When we do this on a university campus there is actually an enormous amount of preparation, and we do a great deal of follow-up. We start pro-life organizations on the campus where none had existed previously, we greatly strengthen currently existing pro-life groups by increasing the size of their membership, by donating to them all kinds of educational resources they can use, we help recruit students to volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy centers. We do a myriad of things of that sort. The same is true of churches. […]

The Genocide Awareness Project is one of a myriad of projects which we are doing, but they are all aimed at the same thing: how can we engage a reluctant culture and educate it over its own objections? It all starts with a willingness to take the heat. We lack moral authority if we are not willing to take the heat.

It signaled that lies and half-truths were perfectly acceptable, since Cunningham’s organization was secular in name only.

We are a secular organization, we’re not a Christian organization, but we are an organization comprised of Christians, and the thing that motivates us personally is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While Cunningham is an extremist, his ideas have been very influential. The moderates in the anti-choice movement have since noted the failure of religious arguments, and have embraced trojan secularism. Emphasis mine:

the strenuous efforts of abolitionists have yielded very little in terms of measurable progress in reducing abortion, so it’s time to try a more fruitful strategy.

I have my own beliefs about the sanctity and rights of an unborn baby, but I don’t think we’ll change many minds by arguing about that. The proliferation of 3D ultrasound machines, new research about fetal awareness and pain, and the increasing viability of extremely premature babies will continue to make an impression on some people, but for those who are heavily invested in the moral neutrality of abortion on demand, and who see the concession of any status to the fetus as in direct conflict with the rights of the mother, this won’t make a lot of difference.

We need more discussion, then, of abortion as a women’s issue. Abortion damages women. It does them physical and psychological harm, which is multiplied by the fact that very few women seeking abortions give their informed consent (meaning consent even after being advised of the risks.) Those of us who take such things seriously tend to agree that it does them spiritual harm. More broadly, a culture in which abortion is seen as essentially harmless wreaks profound changes to our collective understanding of motherhood, sexuality, the obligations of mothers and fathers to each other and their children, and adulthood.

It’s been embraced so much by extremists and moderates alike, Kelly Gordon found that only 1.9% of anti-choice messages contained a religious element.[1]

The latest variation of this that I’ve heard of this comes from Crisis Pregnancy Centres. Cunningham called them “Ministries,” which is more accurate than I realized.

In a conference room at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurie Steinfeld stood behind a podium speaking to an audience of about 50 people. Steinfeld is a counselor at a pregnancy center in Mission Hills, California, and she was leading a session at the annual Heartbeat International conference, a gathering of roughly 1,000 crisis pregnancy center staff and anti-abortion leaders from across the country. Her talk focused on how to help women seeking abortions understand Jesus’s plan for them and their babies, and she described how her center’s signage attracts women.

“Right across the street from us is Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’re across the street and it [their sign] says ‘Pregnancy Counseling Center,’ but these girls aren’t — they just look and see ‘Pregnancy’ and think, Oh, that’s it! So some of them coming in thinking they’re going to their abortion appointments.” […]

In her workshop, “How to Reach and Inspire the Heart of a Client,” Steinfeld told her audience about her mission to convert clients: “If you hear nothing today, I want you to hear this one thing,” she said. “We might be the very first face of Christ that these girls ever see.”

When someone’s salvation is on the line, anything is justified. Exploiting the desperation of someone in order to bring them into a relationship with Christ is completely justified, so long as you don’t use the word “exploit.”

Multiple women told me it was their job to protect women from abortion as “an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove.” Another oft-repeated catchphrase was, “Save the mother, save the baby,” shorthand for many pregnancy center workers’ belief that the most effective way to prevent abortion is to convert women. In keeping with Evangelicalism’s central tenets, many pregnancy center staff believe that those living “without Christ”— including Christians having premarital sex — must accept Christ to be born again, redeem their sins, and escape spiritual pain. Carrying a pregnancy to term “redeems” a “broken” woman, multiple staff people told me.

And here again, we find they deliberately avoid the “G” or “J” words until they’ve sealed a connection.

The website for Heartbeat International’s call center, Option Line, offers to connect women with a pregnancy center that “provides many services for free.” It encourages women who are curious about emergency contraception to call its hotline to speak to a representative about “information on all your options.” On the Option Line website, there is no mention of Christ, no religious imagery, no talk of being saved. But visit the website of Heartbeat itself and you’ll find very different language. “Heartbeat International does promote God’s Plan for our sexuality: marriage between one man and one woman, sexual intimacy, children, unconditional/unselfish love, and relationship with God must go together,” it says. […]

In her session, “Do I Really Need Two Sites?” Chenoweth explained that, yes, in fact, pregnancy centers do. She recommended that centers operate one that describes an anti-abortion mission to secure donors and another that lists medical information to attract women seeking contraception, counseling, or abortion. […]

Johnson … emphasized that waiting rooms should feel like “professional environments” instead of “grandma’s house,” and discouraged crucifixes, fake flowers, and mauve paint before showing slides of Planned Parenthood waiting rooms and encouraging staff to make their centers look just as “beautiful and up-to-date,” especially if they have a “medical model,” meaning they offer sonograms and other medical services. Johnson also said pregnancy center staff should mirror Planned Parenthood’s language.

Lies are an integral part of the anti-choice movement. Lies about what abortion does to you, and lies about what they stand for and believe in. Anyone hoping to promote secularism and humanist values should be wary of religion in secular clothing.

 

[1] Gordon, Kelly. “‘Think About the Women!’: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in English Canada,” 2011. pg. 42.

EvoPsych, the PoMo-iest of them all

One last thing.

Feminism comes under fire for being “post-modernist,” a sort of loosy-goosy subject which allows for all sorts of contradictions and disconnects from reality. Evolutionary Psychology is held up as being on much firmer ground, in contrast. What is EvoPsych, exactly? Let’s ask David Buss, the most-cited researcher in the field:

  1. Manifest behavior depends on underlying psychological mechanisms, information processing devices housed in the brain, in conjunction with the external and internal inputs — social, cultural, ecological, physiological — that interact with them to produce manifest behavior;
  2. Evolution by selection is the only known causal process capable of creating such complex organic mechanisms (adaptations);
  3. Evolved psychological mechanisms are often functionally specialized to solve adaptive problems that recurred for humans over deep evolutionary time;
  4. Selection designed the information processing of many evolved psychological mechanisms to be adaptively influenced by specific classes of information from the environment;
  5. Human psychology consists of a large number of functionally specialized evolved mechanisms, each sensitive to particular forms of contextual input, that get combined, coordinated, and integrated with each other and with external and internal variables to produce manifest behavior tailored to solving an array
    of adaptive problems.

This is already off to a bad start, as Myers has pointed out in another context.

complex traits are the product of selection? Come on, John [Wilkins], you know better than that. Even the creationists get this one right when they argue that there may not be adaptive paths that take you step by step to complex innovations, especially not paths where fitness doesn’t increase incrementally at each step. Their problem is that they don’t understand any other mechanisms at all well (and they don’t understand selection that well, either), so they think it’s an evolution-stopper — but you should know better.

But I’m not really here to push back on that line. It’s these bits further on that intrigue me:

These basic tenets render it necessary to distinguish between “evolutionary psychology” as a meta-theory for psychological science and “specific evolutionary hypotheses” about particular phenomena, such as conceptual proposals about aggression, resource control, or particular strategies of human mating. Just as the bulk of scientific research in the field of non-human behavioral ecology tests specific hypotheses about evolved mechanisms in animals, the bulk of scientific research in evolutionary psychology tests specific hypotheses about evolved psychological mechanisms in humans, hypotheses about byproducts of adaptations, and occasionally hypotheses about noise (e.g., mutations). […]

Evolutionary psychology is a meta-theoretical paradigm that provides a synthesis of modern principles of evolutionary biology with modern understandings of psychological mechanisms as information processing devices (Buss 1995b; Tooby and Cosmides 1992). Within this meta-theoretical paradigm, there are at least four distinct levels of analysis — general evolutionary theory, middle-level evolutionary theories, specific evolutionary hypotheses, and specific predictions derived from those hypotheses (Buss 1995b). In short, there is no such thing as “evolutionary psychology theory,” nor is there “the” evolutionary psychological hypothesis about any particular phenomenon.

Wait, EvoPsych is a “meta-theoretical paradigm?” That would place it above theories like Quantum Chromodynamics, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Logotherapy. Buss appears to consider EvoPsych more like Physics or Psychology, categories that we’ve drawn around certain sets of theories. But “Physics” the category makes no claim about how the world works. You can’t derive General Relativity from Physics, photons from “the way material and energy evolve.” Categories are just labels. The fact that Buss could list five assertions of EvoPsych means it is not a label, though, but a theory after all.

Buss is speaking in word salad! But he’s a major figure in EvoPsych, oft-cited and with decades of experience.

I’ve already explained how Evolutionary Psychology is based on a deep misunderstanding of evolution, but it really has nothing to do with psychology, either: where do they reference contemporary psychoanalysis? Scan over Buss’ deep summary, and you won’t see any mention of Behaviorism, Kohiberg’s Moral Development, or Attachment Theory. EvoPsych was not created by psychologists, nor does it draw from their theories; instead, it was created by biologists like Robert Trivers or E.O. Wilson, working with simplified mathematical models and personal observation. It doesn’t consider what people are thinking, and despite claiming otherwise Buss will go on to show his true colours:

Three articles in this special issue attempt to provide empirical evidence, some new and some extracted from the existing empirical literature, pertaining to one of the nine hypotheses of Sexual Strategies Theory — that gender differences in minimal levels of obligate parental investment should lead short-term mating to represent a larger component of men’s than women’s sexual strategies. This hypothesis derives straightforwardly from Trivers’s (1972) theory of parental investment, which proposed that the sex that invested less in offspring (typically, but not always males), tends to evolve adaptations to be more competitive with members of their own sex for sexual access to the more valuable members of the opposite sex.

So EvoPsych is a biology theory that doesn’t understand basic biology, and a psychological theory developed independent of psychology.

The lack of coherency bleeds through the entire project: an EvoPsych textbook is a parade of tiny “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” disconnected from one another. This makes them easily discarded and interchanged, like chess pawns protecting the king. David Buss once said aggression in women did not exist, and wasn’t worthy of study, but two decades on was studying it and argued they were equally aggressive but differed in the kinds of aggression they showed. Buss will flatly assert hunting requires mental rotation skill, gathering requires spatial memory skill, and therefore the sex differences in those skills are due to sexual selection over time. Consider this theory instead:

It’s probable humans typically hunted small game, since setting up snares is easy and cheap, as is killing a pinned animal. Effectively capturing a lot of food required not only setting out many traps, though, but remembering where they were.

In contrast, plant food tends to stay in one place, and over time well-worn foot paths would develop between food spots. This made navigation easy, so long as you could memorize and rotate angles effectively to remember which path you came from. As plants tend to bloom seasonally, you’d also need to keep track of time. Star calendars and constellations were the obvious choice, but in order to read them you had to be able to cope with rotated shapes.

Based on the observed sex differences, and assuming they were the result of sexual selection, women must have been the hunters in prehistoric societies, while men were delegated to do the gathering.

The conclusion is completely at odds with what most EvoPsych researchers propose, yet it uses their exact same methods. Merely by shifting the focus around, I can easily come up with theories that contradict EvoPsych claims. As EvoPsych is a “meta-theory,” though, falsifying every single “specific evolutionary hypothesis” would fail to falsify it. EvoPsych is thus unfalsifiable, even though it makes empirically-testable assertions about human evolution!

Feminism, in contrast, is much more like Physics. It too is a category, defined as the study and removal of sexism.

But what constitutes sexism? Early theorists proposed Patriarchy theory, that society is structured to disproportionately favor men. Starting the 1970’s, though, a number of people began arguing for a role-based or performative view: society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality. This might seem to contradict the prior view, as men can now be the victim of sexism, but it’s no worse than what you see in harder sciences. Aristotle thought everything was attracted to the centre of the universe; Newton thought objects had mass, which attracted other objects with mass through an all-pervasive force; Einstein thought everything traveled in straight lines, it’s just that mass bends space and gives the appearance of a force. All three are radically different in detail, but they all give the same general prediction: things fall to Earth. Likewise, both Patriarchy and role-based theories differ in detail, but agree in general. This makes Feminism-the-category coherent, as there’s substantial overlap between all the theories it contains. There’s something tangible there, which no amount of theory-churn removes.

EvoPsych is a theory masquerading as a “meta-theory,” making specific assertions about the world yet denying it is falsifiable. Practitioners propose an endless stream of “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” which are only coherent with each other because they’re heavily influenced by the cultural experience of the people making them. It is far more post-modern than feminism, but because it goes easy on the jargon it doesn’t appear that way at first blush.

[HJH 2015/03/25: Added the following]

Hmmm, having mulled this over for a day, I think those last few paragraphs were grasping at something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. I think I have it securely pinned now.

Simple question: can you describe performative theory without referring to feminism? Sure, I’ve done it already: “society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality.” Categories are simplifications; if we were to recursively define “the study and removal of sexism” to ever-greater degrees, at some level we’d start describing performative theory.

Now, can you describe Sexual Strategies Theory without referring to EvoPsych’s five core tenants? Nope, because it depends on mind modules, hyper-adaptationalism, and the rest of Buss’ list to make any sense. EvoPsych isn’t a meta-theory to SST, it’s a sub-theory, a lemma. It’s not a simplification or over-arching category, because even if we clarified all the core parts to an arbitrary degree, SST wouldn’t pop out.

Even more confusingly, Parental Investment theory is neither a category containing EvoPsych (as there’s no mind modules buried in there) nor a sub-theory of EvoPsych (because it doesn’t depend on mind modules to make sense). It’s not part of the paradigm at all, even though it helped spawn the field via a paper of Robert Trivers and is frequently cited by researchers.

Buss could make a better case for SST being a “meta-theoretical paradigm,” yet he thinks it’s a part of EvoPsych. It’s more evidence the guy has no clue what he’s saying.

It’s About Ethics in Biomedical Research

I’m a bit surprised this didn’t get more play. From what I hear, Pinker has some beef with bioethics.

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.

This path leads to very dark places. I’ll quote a summary I wrote of Blumenthal (2004).[1]

Booker T. Washington had an ambitious plan around the turn of the century, of rapidly advancing the health and welfare of African Americans in that city. His Tuskegee Institute revived agriculture in the South, build schools and business alliances, created a self-sustaining architectural program, and developed a Black-owned-and-operated hospital.

It also took a keen interest in health issues, and after World War I it faced a major crisis in syphilis. Soldiers returning home led to a dramatic spike in cases, and as of 1926 as many as 36% of everyone within the surrounding Macon County were infected. The best cure, at the time, was a six-week regimen of toxic drugs with a depressing 30% success rate. Something had to be done.

A short study of six to eight months was proposed, the idea being to track the progression of the disease in African-Americans and learn more about it, then administer treatment. It got full approval of the government, health officials, and local leaders in the African-American community. Substantial outreach was done to bring in patients, explain what the disease was, and even give them free rides to reach the clinic.

But then… circumstances changed. The newly appointed leader of the project, Dr. Raymond Vonderlehr, became fascinated with how syphilis changed people’s bodies. The Great Depression hit, and as of 1933 there wasn’t a lot of money available for treatment. So Vonderlehr decided to make the study longer, and provide less than the recommended treatment. He also faced the problem of getting subjects to agree to the toxic treatments and painful diagnostic tools, but that was easily solved: stretch the truth, just a bit. Those spinal taps they used to diagnose syphilis spread to the neural system became “free special treatment,” even though no actual treatment was done. Disaster struck when other scientists discovered the first effective cure, penicillin; elaborate “procedures” were developed to keep the patients from getting their hands on the drug, even if other infectious diseases threatened their lives.

And the entire time, the project had the full support of the government, and published their results openly.

After the entire incident exploded in the press, a commission of experts were formed to advise the US government on bioethical legislation. The result was the Belmont Report, and one of the three core principals it rested on was

Justice. — Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens? This is a question of justice, in the sense of “fairness in distribution” or “what is deserved.” […]

Questions of justice have long been associated with social practices such as punishment, taxation and political representation. Until recently these questions have not generally been associated with scientific research. However, they are foreshadowed even in the earliest reflections on the ethics of research involving human subjects. For example, during the 19th and early 20th centuries the burdens of serving as research subjects fell largely upon poor ward patients, while the benefits of improved medical care flowed primarily to private patients. […]

Against this historical background, it can be seen how conceptions of justice are relevant to research involving human subjects. For example, the selection of research subjects needs to be scrutinized in order to determine whether some classes (e.g., welfare patients, particular racial and ethnic minorities, or persons confined to institutions) are being systematically selected simply because of their easy availability, their compromised position, or their manipulability, rather than for reasons directly related to the problem being studied. Finally, whenever research supported by public funds leads to the development of therapeutic devices and procedures, justice demands both that these not provide advantages only to those who can afford them and that such research should not unduly involve persons from groups unlikely to be among the beneficiaries of subsequent applications of the research.

Ignoring social justice concerns in biomedical research led to things like the Tuskegee experiment. The scientific establishment has since tried to correct that by making it a critical part. Pinker would be wise to study the history a bit more carefully, here.

But don’t just take my word for it. Others have also called him out, like Matthew Beard

Let’s put aside the fact that one paragraph later Pinker casts doubt on our ability to make accurate predictions at all. Because there is an interesting question here.

Let’s assume that hand-wringing ethicists slow progress that cures diseases. As a result, animals aren’t subjected to painful experiments, patients’ autonomy is respected, and “justice” is upheld. At the same time, lots of people died who could otherwise have been saved. Surely, Pinker suggests, this is unethical.

Only under a certain framework, known as utilitarianism, in which the right action is the one that does the most good. And even then, only under certain conditions. For instance, although some research might have saved more lives without ethical constraints, Pinker wants all oversight removed.

Thus, even bad research will operate without ethical restraint. For each pioneering piece of research that saves lives there will be much more insignificant research. And each of these insignificant items will also entail ethical breaches. This makes Pinker’s utilitarian matrix much harder to compute.

… and Wesley J. Smith.

These general principles [than Pinker excludes] are essential to maintaining a moral medical research sector! Indeed, without them, we would easily slouch into a crass utilitarianism that would blatantly treat some human beings as objects instead of subjects.

Bioethics is actually rife with such proposals. For example, one research paper published in a respected journal proposed using unconscious patients as “living cadavers” to test the safety of pig-to-human organ xenotransplantation.

The best defences of Pinker I’ve seen ignored the bit where he dismissed “social justice” and pretended he was discussing less basic things. It doesn’t reflect well on Pinker.


[1] Blumenthal, Daniel S., and Ralph J. DiClemente, eds. Community-based health research: issues and methods. Springer publishing company, 2004. pg. 48-53