f Humanisticus: Why The Defence of Rebecca Watson's EP Talk Have Been Off The Mark

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Why The Defence of Rebecca Watson's EP Talk Have Been Off The Mark

I would first like to say that I have been criticised for my tone being a bit ranty, preachy, and slightly aggressive. It is not something I intend, so trust me when I say that the below article is meant in the nicest and honest way possible. It is meant to be presented in good faith and I hope it is taken in good faith.

I'm sure we are well aware by now of Rebecca Watson's evolutionary psychology (EP) talk at Skepticon 5 and its subsequent aftermath. Ed Clint of Skepticink wrote a rather scathing critique of her talk and even went as far as accusing her of science denialism (not something I would agree with). Others, of course, have come to her defence, namely Stephanie Zvan and PZ Myers; however, they seemed to have missed the point altogether. I just don't think PZ and Zvan have fully understood what many people are annoyed with. Yes Clint, as someone involved in EP, is annoyed with his field being misrepresented. However, what about us lay-sceptics who have no science background, why do they think we are complaining about Rebecca's talk? We have no stake in EP or bias for or against it. Now I can't speak for anybody else so I will have to speak from a more personal note form now on. 

I watched Rebecca's talk and quite enjoyed it, the only criticism I had about it was that it was not clear whether she was critiquing pop-EP solely or EP as a whole. The argument seemed to be framed around pop-EP but Rebecca delved into EP intermittently enough to cause confusion. By the end of it I did get the impression she was trashing EP overall and not just pop-EP, and it seems I am not the only one. However, it was only later after reading a few reactionary posts (not just Clint's), did I learn about the amount misrepresentative and misleading information that was contained in the talk. I will not list them here, please see Clint's highly detailed posts which is linked above. Now these misrepresentations may not all be true, however, the few I did look up seemed to be. For instance, two stood out the most for me. The first being the assertion made by Rebecca that EP scientists claim that the human brain stopped evolving after the Pleistocene, which according to the links provided by Clint, is untrue. The second is more a misleading implication than anything else. Rebecca discusses V.S. Ramachandran, a man who wrote a satirical EP paper on "Why Men Prefer Blondes" and got it published. Rebecca does not furnish us with any information about the journal/magazine it was published in. Obviously the logical leap would be to assume it was published in a peer-reviewed EP journal, especially given Rebecca's shocked tone and the resulting laughter, as passing-off a satirical paper as a genuine study would be quite funny. However, this was not the case, Ramachandran's paper was published in Medical Hypotheses, a journal that publishes radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific ideas. Not so funny now is it, yet the audience laughed so they clearly understood Rebecca as I did. Now I am not saying Rebecca did this intentionally, but she either withheld it or was unaware of this information, neither should be condoned at a sceptic conference. So as a lay person with no scientific background I expect that speakers at conferences are well versed in the topics they will be presenting. Obviously I was not in the attendance myself but people spend good money to travel to these conferences and Rebecca's trips are financed; so the minimum expectation is that the speakers are somewhat knowledgeable about what they are discussing and they do not misinform the audience.

Now this finally brings me to PZ, and to a lesser extent Zvan. They have begun to write rebuttals to Clint's and other people's criticisms, but they are way of the mark of what is required of a rebuttal. Zvan simply stated that Rebecca wasn't discussing EP as a whole and was merely talking about pop-EP. To be blunt, this excuse is nonsense, Rebecca delved into EP in general way too often for that excuse to fly. In fact it is when she is discussing EP as whole when she declares that EP scientists claim the human brain has not evolved since the Pleistocene. So for Zvan to claim Rebecca was only talking about pop-EP is simply disingenuous, especially given the 20+ other points Clint mentions. PZ has also stepped in, at first attacking Clint with an ad hominem and claiming Clint has "cloaked his bias in the pretence of objectivity". Again this a nonsense excuse. It may be completely true, Clint may despise Rebecca, I don't care, why? Because Clint presented facts, and demonstrably showed where Rebecca had misrepresented the field of EP, so his biases become irrelevant as we were able to view the video and read the articles independently, Clint merely pointed us in the right direction so his bias becomes null and void. And I find it ironic that PZ accuses a man of being biased by writing a biased piece himself, except PZ's contained nothing substantial, just the bias. PZ then went and wrote another piece, this time arguing that qualifications are not needed for somebody to be capable of being involved in a given topic, as Rebecca was accused of not being qualified to talk about EP as she was just a "marketing major". PZ gives several examples of people who work rather successfully in their fields without official credentials: Bill Nye, David Attenborough, Adam Savage and Bill Bryson. I am in total agreement with PZ here, official qualifications are not required for somebody to engage in a topic. But do you know what is required for somebody to engage in a topic, adequate knowledge. The people PZ has given as examples have shown they are well versed in their fields despite their lack of qualifications; Rebecca has shown that she is not well versed as regards to EP. That is what matters, I personally don't care what qualifications a person has as long as they demonstrate proficiency in their subject matter; Rebecca did not.

PZ's next move (according to his blog) is to begin to criticise EP. I am assuming this is in defence of Rebecca, he does not say so, but the timing is coincidental and he does highlight his intention in his ╬▒EP: Shut Up and Sing post which defends Rebecca quite a bit. So for now I will assume these critiques of EP are related to Rebecca's talk, and (assuming he ever actually reads this) he can correct me if I am wrong. Well PZ can rip EP apart for all I care, he can show it to be the worst psuedoscience since phrenology, it would not change a thing. The dispute is not whether EP is a credible science or not, the dispute is about a sceptic being invited to a talk and feeding misinformation to a crowd, it is irrelevant if her conclusions are correct. Let me postulate an alternative scenario. We all know creationism is bollox and evolution is a scientific fact. However, if I was invited to discuss these topics I would be wholly ill-equipped. I would stand on stage and give a pretty bad talk, my conclusions may be 100% accurate but my argument would be garbage. Should I not be criticised for such, of course, same goes for Rebecca Watson here, except here the conclusion is far from certain so it is even more contentious.

So I reiterate, as a sceptic with no scientific background, my issue is the practice of a speaker attending sceptic conferences  and presenting on a topic she has inadequate knowledge in. Now it may be the case that Rebecca does indeed have adequate knowledge, and in fact did not mislead the audience or misrepresent facts. However, no compelling counter argument has been presented. Zvan's "that's not what she was talking about" post is simply nonsense and blatantly inaccurate. And PZ has only presented us with an ad hominem and another post which states the obvious but misses the point. The only response which I feel that would be adequate would be a substantive post which directly tackles the points Clint has brought up and demonstrates that what he has said is untrue, or better yet, providing sufficient evidence that the details of Rebecca's talk were in fact accurate and she does possess sufficient expertise in EP. Otherwise, Rebecca should own up to her mistakes and amend her talk. Only one of those three options would suffice to put this issue at rest, (unless of course I'm missing something obvious which could well be the case).

Being a sceptic does not just mean being sceptical of others, but being sceptical of ourselves. Listening and receiving the criticism of others is the best way to grow and learn. As far as I am concerned, the ability to admit you are wrong is one of the most important aspects of scepticism. However, it is something I feel is lacking in the sceptic community far too often.

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11 comments:

  1. I've been following your blog for several months, and I respectfully disagree with those who label your writing as "ranty, preachy, and slightly aggressive". You have something important to say. The truth is sometimes hard to hear, so all they can do is throw stones at how you say it. You can not sugar coat the topics you address. You must be aggressive, that's what makes your writings so powerful. You give a voice to those feelings that many of us feel but can't quite articulate. I'm a big fan, please don't change a thing.

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    1. Appreciate the comment (and the compliments of course :)). I thought it would be best to put that in as there is an awful of hostility revolving around Rebecca Watson, so I wanted to be clear that I was being objective and non-hostile.

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  2. You just got a new follower. This is a very well written explanation.

    One of the whole points about the concept of science is that it is a pure meritocracy. (Maybe that's why PZ has moved to agitation...) Anyone can get involved and report, even do experiments. Now, most work is done by experts in the field because they have access to materials and equipment, but anyone could theoretically get involved.

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    1. Cheers. I also think that they forget there are many sceptics out there who are not scientists and don't have the time to be involved in the atheist/sceptic community. The information presented at conferences must be accurate, this isn't about FTB and their "detractors", this is about what is good for conferences and what is good for scepticism.

      Keep up the good work at Skeptic Ink. I really enjoy the content and the the personalities that are over there.

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  3. You are just as bad as a mass-murderer.

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    1. Can you link to what this is referencing?

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    2. I think he's referencing this:
      http://skepticink.com/justinvacula/2012/12/09/conflation-of-criticism-with-mass-murder-freethought-blogs/

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  4. She is still getting more press and attention than her abilities and talents merit. Please stop commenting about her.

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  5. David Attenborough has a degree in Natural Sciences obtained at Cambridge University where he studied zoology and geology. I think this pretty much qualify as official credentials.

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