The Blank #Slatepitch

by Henry on June 4, 2011

Via the ICCI blog, some sixty-odd evolutionary psychologists have published a collective letter, disassociating themselves from Satoshi Kanazawa.

We have previously pursued the usual scientific channels open to us to counteract what in our view is Kanazawa’s poor quality science by reviewing and rejecting his papers from scientific journals, and by publishing critiques of his papers in the scientific literature. This has not stopped him from continuing to produce poor quality science and promoting it directly to the public. We have therefore taken the unusual step of making this statement to counteract the damage we believe he is doing to the perception of our discipline in the media and among the public. … Many of these critiques completely undermine the work: the statistician Andrew Gelman, for example, has re-analysed the data Kanazawa used in 2007 to suggest that “Beautiful people have more daughters” and has demonstrated that Kanazawa’s conclusions are simply not supported by the data. Despite this, Kanazawa has not withdrawn the critiqued paper nor published a correction. … The peer review process is not perfect and appears to have failed when dealing with Kanazawa’s poor quality work.Those of us who have reviewed his papers have had experiences where we have rejected papers of his for certain journals on scientific grounds, only to see the papers appear virtually unaltered in print in other journals, despite the detailed critiques of the papers given to Kanazawa by the reviewers and editors of the journals that rejected his papers.

I’ve no doubt that Kanazawa’s work is bad by the commonly accepted standards of evolutionary psychology. But as the ICCI blog politely suggests, there is a broader problem with the field that the collective letter doesn’t address as directly as it should. Evolutionary psychology has benefited from media attention, but also been distorted by it – there are significant incentives to produce ‘shocking’ and ‘contrarian’ findings. I saw this first hand a few years ago when I got involved in an email discussion with the co-editor of an evolutionary psychology journal which had published one of Kanazawa’s more egregious stinkers. When I pushed the person in question on how obviously bad the piece was, the response was that:

I happen to think it is a great thought provoking document, and one of the few in the last ten years that have actually gotten people to talk about issues. … I would rather have an article that causes people to think and talk and yes, argue and criticize than to publish an article that is one more facet of the same old thing.

There’s something to be said for stirring it up every once in a while. But there’s also something to be said for trying to get things right. Typically, academic journals are supposed to emphasize the latter rather than the former. It’s beyond dispute that Kanazawa can produce “thought provoking”1 articles that get people to “argue and criticize.”2 But the peer review process is supposed to do a bit more than to verify that your ideas are daring and controversial. That at least one journal editor (and surely more than one, given Kanazawa’s publication record) in the field don’t seem to understand this suggests that there is a problem.

1 If “thoughts” can be taken to encompass internal queries-to-self along the lines of ‘how the fuck did this ever get published?’

2 The joint letter mentions some 24 critiques of his papers by 59 social and natural scientists. If Satoshi Kanazawa did not exist, theorists and methodologists would have to invent him as a cautionary example.

Update: I should probably link manually to Cosma’s webpost responding to this since, you know, that whole Trackback thing doesn’t work so well anymore. I should also say that while I am no very great fan of Stephen Pinker’s work, the title of this post should not be read in any way as implying that it’s on a level with Kanazawa’s ( I just don’t think of halfway decent puns often enough that I can easily junk them).

{ 46 comments }

1

Timothy Scriven 06.04.11 at 2:18 am

Satoshi Kanazawa is contemptible- almost unbelievably dumb and immoral. Just one paragraph from his abominable oveure:

“Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that, on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, the President of the United States was not George W. Bush, but Ann Coulter. What would have happened then? On September 12, President Coulter would have ordered the US military forces to drop 35 nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East, killing all of our actual and potential enemy combatants, and their wives and children. On September 13, the war would have been over and won, without a single American life lost.

Yes, we need a woman in the White House, but not the one who’s running.”

To be clear THERE IS NO REDEEMING CONTEXT. This is exactly what it looks like.

Let’s grant, the awful and immoral value system on display here it’s core premise, that only saving American lives matters. I can promise that even in the short term, following this lunatic course of action, the oil price spike, and the high probability of nuclear war, would cost countless American lives. Domestic violence/riots (heck, I know I’d revolt in the circumstances) would kill innumerable. In fact, even putting those geopolitical considerations aside, literally hundreds of thousands of Americans (tourists, bussiness people, American soldiers in their bases) would be killed by the nuclear blasts themselves.

The monumental disgrace, that someone could call themselves an academic, be hired by a prestigious university, and say something so ethically unreflective and mindshatteringly stupid is just awful.

2

onymous 06.04.11 at 2:39 am

As for:

Those of us who have reviewed his papers have had experiences where we have rejected papers of his for certain journals on scientific grounds, only to see the papers appear virtually unaltered in print in other journals, despite the detailed critiques of the papers given to Kanazawa by the reviewers and editors of the journals that rejected his papers.

Are there fields where this isn’t true? Every paper I’ve rejected for a journal has shortly thereafter turned up in another journal, often of equal or even higher quality than the one I rejected it from, usually with no changes. Even the most minimal changes I asked for — e.g., citing previous work on the same topic, or even adding a sentence or two to remark on how their work differs from related work — are usually not complied with.

I’ve basically given up on peer review as fundamentally useless.

3

Zhylaw the Last, Lord Marshall of the Necromongers 06.04.11 at 4:19 am

The Kanazawa Doctrine works for me!

4

John Quiggin 06.04.11 at 4:39 am

@onymous I thought the whole point of sending your paper to a good journal was to get free editorial comments to use before going to the place that might really publish you. In fact, IIRC, the late Harry Johnson (Chicago trade economist, famed as a prodigious drinker and even more prodigious publisher) was supposed to have used this as a way of getting published in the world’s 17th best journal – you send any old rubbish to the top journal, take on the referee comments and iterate until the quality of the paper matches that of the target journal

5

John Quiggin 06.04.11 at 4:42 am

Coming back to the Kanazawa letter, its pretty much unprecedented, I think. It’s not so unusual to have a group letter rejecting the claims in some particular publication of a fell0w academic (particularly a political provocation in a non-academic journal). And Kanezawa was obviously hoping for something of the kind.

But to have 60 of your colleagues say straight out that you are an unprincipled and incompetent hack who doesn’t deserve to be published anywhere would have to pierce even the thickest academic skin.

6

LFC 06.04.11 at 4:45 am

According to the first paragraph of the linked ICCI post, Kanazawa’s blog at Psychology Today has been shut down, apparently as a result of a furor-creating post he wrote arguing that black women are less attractive than other women. On the other hand, the post Kanazawa wrote about dropping nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East, quoted @1 above, which also appeared I believe at his Psychology Today blog, did not result in its closure. I guess the rationale, if there is one, would be that the nuke post was merely utterly outrageous, as opposed to being bad science.

On another point, I don’t understand Kanazawa’s apparent interest in or obsession with physical appearance, possibly b/c I don’t really understand ev. psych. But to me it seems trivial: “Beautiful people have more daughters”? Who cares? I personally don’t care whether beautiful people have more daughters, more sons, or no children at all. If he’s interested in perpetuating physical beauty, why doesn’t he become an advocate of cloning and turn his attention to cloning his favorite movie stars, instead of publishing all this trivial garbage? (Rhetorical question.)

7

Timothy Scriven 06.04.11 at 4:56 am

““Beautiful people have more daughters”? Who cares? I personally don’t care whether beautiful people have more daughters, more sons, or no children at all.”

To give him his (limited) credit, this would be an extremely important result if it turned out to be true. Not so much because beauty was the prime factor, but because something was influencing sex ratios in humans. If my understanding is correct, it would force a massive rethink of a lot of things taken for granted in human reproductive biology.

8

LFC 06.04.11 at 4:58 am

@7:
I see. Thanks.

9

onymous 06.04.11 at 5:05 am

In an ideal world, I agree that people would use editorial comments to improve their manuscript. And this has happened with manuscripts I’ve approved. But the ones I’ve rejected usually seem to ignore the comments and resubmit somewhere else without changes. Probably because there’s a correlation between writing the sort of papers that get rejected outright to begin with, and being too lazy to fix problems.

Also, I find that reviews of my own papers tend to either be one-line approvals that offer no useful commentary, or vicious screeds that willfully misread everything I wrote and use it as an excuse to harp on some personal obsession. This is anecdata, of course, but it leaves me with a bad impression of the average quality of peer review.

10

sg 06.04.11 at 5:15 am

onymous, I think what you’ve identified here is a problem of the level of quality of the scientific publishing world generally, i.e. that there are lots of low-grade journals. It’s not a problem of peer review. If there were only one journal in each field, peer review would be extremely effective.

I think the ev-psych people need to think long and hard about the scientific validity of their field if they think that a statement like “I would rather have an article that causes people to think and talk and yes, argue and criticize than to publish an article that is one more facet of the same old thing” is not immediately laughable. Imagine if public health, physics or medical journals worked in this way? And doesn’t this statement suggest an implicit acceptance of bad science having some rhetorical value? You can’t sustain a field of rigorous inquiry if you take that approach.

11

Timothy Scriven 06.04.11 at 5:51 am

“I think the ev-psych people need to think long and hard about the scientific validity of their field if they think that a statement like “I would rather have an article that causes people to think and talk and yes, argue and criticize than to publish an article that is one more facet of the same old thing” is not immediately laughable. Imagine if public health, physics or medical journals worked in this way? And doesn’t this statement suggest an implicit acceptance of bad science having some rhetorical value? You can’t sustain a field of rigorous inquiry if you take that approach.”

And to that I’d add psychology more generally. Psychologists focus far too much on novelty, as opposed to replication or rigour IME.

12

Metatone 06.04.11 at 7:53 am

Part of the problem is that you need diversity of journals so that you can avoid certain peers when getting reviewed. It’s happened to me, and separately to a friend, that the paper I wrote showing evidence in contradiction to someone with good status in the field was passed by the first journal to that person for review. They weren’t in the mood to have stuff published that appears to contradict their preferred theory, so back came a rejection with a screed of random accusations, that all but reveals their identity. So, you need another journal who might send it to someone different.

On the other end of the scale, as we’ve seen in economics (and perhaps ev. psy.?) whole ranks of journals can subscribe to a consensus about what is acceptable to look into and what kind of methods can be used and what kind of results are acceptable. Part of that is right and proper – methods are important, but it can become misguided…

13

sg 06.04.11 at 8:13 am

I actually think that ICCI blog post is a bit self-serving. It blames the problem of dubious results on the media and doesn’t take ev psych itself to task much at all. The problem with ev psych isn’t just that the media misreport their results: it that ev psych people treat questions like “do beautiful people have more daughters” as a serious area of intellectual inquiry, and are lazy in their assessment of the political and social biases of their own field. Maybe they should talk about the shortcomings of their own field (and of psychology more generally) before they blame everything on the shortcomings in other people’s representations of their field.

14

Barry 06.04.11 at 12:47 pm

Speaking of flogging (in another thread), there are certain statements which I’ve come to consider to be confessions of guilt, and justifications for the lash. The one applicable to this thread is the old ‘well, it made people think’ (variations – ‘it was controversial, so we printed it’, etc.).

15

Fr. 06.04.11 at 2:01 pm

I really, really hope that “the peer review process is supposed to do a bit more than to verify that your ideas are daring and controversial”.

A lot of peer reviewing also seems to be driven by the exact opposite force, which is also a mistake in my view, but that is probably off-topic here.

16

SB 06.04.11 at 2:30 pm

Is this sort of slap dash reviewing truly typical of the social sciences? It most certainly does not match my experience with the hard sciences, where comments are lengthy and attended to by the paper authors before resubmission to the same journal. There is little or no value to publishing in an obscure journal and, thus, great effort is made to meet the standards of the best known journals in any field.

17

matthias 06.04.11 at 2:50 pm

I actually think that ICCI blog post is a bit self-serving. It blames the problem of dubious results on the media and doesn’t take ev psych itself to task much at all. The problem with ev psych isn’t just that the media misreport their results: it that ev psych people treat questions like “do beautiful people have more daughters” as a serious area of intellectual inquiry, and are lazy in their assessment of the political and social biases of their own field. Maybe they should talk about the shortcomings of their own field (and of psychology more generally) before they blame everything on the shortcomings in other people’s representations of their field.

There absolutely are methodological problems with the field – deep enough ones, I’d say, to be fatal until we have a much better understanding of genetics – but as noted above, if beautiful people actually did have more daughters that would in fact be a very important result. Of course, as best we can tell, they don’t – and so this goes into the huge category of things that, if true, would be extremely interesting but as a matter of fact are not. And that’s fine – any discipline is going to investigate a bunch of claims that would be important and turn out to be false. Just the nature of science (and things that put any effort into looking like it.)

18

Minor nonsense 06.04.11 at 3:01 pm

“when I got involved in an email discussion with the co-editor of an evolutionary psychology journal”

I wander all over the web. I have found way too many distorting articles that are refuted by peer reviews but that are published and not rescinded.

I would suggest strongly that you check on the funding of the “evolutionary psychology journal” that you reference.

Pete Peterson and the Koch Brothers have established significant beachheads in several formerly reliable institutions and journals for publishing their tame climate deniers and other fraudulent “science.”

For instance, check the funding of Center for American Progress, which used to be progressive.

19

Lemuel Pitkin 06.04.11 at 6:17 pm

there are significant incentives to produce ‘shocking’ and ‘contrarian’ findings

You clearly realize this isn’t quite right, since you’re using scare quotes. But let’s avoid euphemism.

The institutional incentives of evolutionary psychology — if not the field’s whole reason for being — is to justify existing racial and sexual hierarchies. You wouldn’t have to twist the data any more than Kanazawa does to “prove” that people of African desceent are more intelligent than people of European descent, or that women make better soldiers than men do. Those claims would seem plenty contrarian — but somehow no one makes them, even in Slate.

20

ScentOfViolets 06.04.11 at 6:31 pm

You wouldn’t have to twist the data any more than Kanazawa does to “prove” that people of African desceent are more intelligent than people of European descent, or that women make better soldiers than men do. Those claims would seem plenty contrarian—but somehow no one makes them, even in Slate.

Anything like those bold economic plans that go against conventional wisdom, make hard choices, speak truth to power and rattle a few sacred boughs by . . . cutting taxes on rich people and cutting spending on social programs ;-)

About the only time I see the thought that women are physically superior to men trotted out is in science fiction, say, Rocket Girls.

More generally speaking, I’m guessing that the abysmal state of research in disciplines like psychology is that a) most researchers don’t seem to really understand statistics (significance at p=0.05 is the classic biggie), and b) doing good psychological research is expensive. Congress will fund Big Physics – after all, it gave us the Bomb – but the tangible rewards of good social science don’t seem to be that readily apparent to high government officials.

21

Lemuel Pitkin 06.04.11 at 8:08 pm

Anything like those bold economic plans that go against conventional wisdom, make hard choices, speak truth to power and rattle a few sacred boughs by . . . cutting taxes on rich people and cutting spending on social programs

Yes. Very much like that.

I’m guessing that the abysmal state of research in disciplines like psychology is that a) most researchers don’t seem to really understand statistics (significance at p=0.05 is the classic biggie), and b) doing good psychological research is expensive.

I’m sure both those are problems. But the bigger one is identified by matthias at 17: the underlying fields of genetics and brain science just aren’t nearly advanced enough to answer the kinds of questions evolutionary psychology is interested in. It’s sort of like asking, In what proportion of extrasolar ecosystems is chlorophyll an important pathway for photosynthesis? It’s a perfectly valid scientific question, and presumably someday we’ll have the tools to answer it, but right now anyone who makes any claims about it is engaged in pure speculation, or fantasy.

22

herr doktor bimler 06.04.11 at 10:01 pm

the title of this post should not be read in any way as implying that it’s on a level with Kanazawa’s

Consider this a request for a “Bash Stephen Pinker’s junk-science” thread.

23

Witt 06.04.11 at 10:25 pm

“I think the ev-psych people need to think long and hard about the scientific validity of their field if they think that a statement like “I would rather have an article that causes people to think and talk and yes, argue and criticize than to publish an article that is one more facet of the same old thing” is not immediately laughable.

Amen. What I find especially boggling about that editor’s statement is the sheer contempt it evinces for the subjects of the article. Who cares how much of your pain or grief or suffering is caused by our faux-controversial paper, at least we got people talking!

It’s almost as though they think their research is all a grand game, with no real consequences at the end of the day for human beings.

I often think about what kinds of structual safeguards could help people pause and reframe before firing off research (or “research”) likely to have profoundly hurtful consequences. All of the mechanisms I’ve been able to think of ultimately depend on some kind of informed empathy. Maybe what we really need is to help people feel more compassion for themselves, so that they might not seek to turn the knives of contempt and aggression on their fellow creatures.

Barring that, at least a way to contain the hatefulness rather than publishing it would be nice.

24

bh 06.05.11 at 12:07 am

My first exposure to evolutionary psychology was through popular media, and I assumed — as the letter-writers would like us to believe — that meaningful research was being distorted and simplified on its way to the public.

But when I had to actually read the some of the source articles, I came to think that was far too kind. The puffed-up stereotypes, just-so stories, unjustified assertions, etc. are right there in the originals.

I’m sure not all the work is quite as bad as Kanazawa’s, but if he helps discredit the field a bit, that strikes me as both useful and fair.

I happen to think […]

This construction is always, always followed by idiocy.

25

Henry 06.05.11 at 12:08 am

sg – I actually thought the ICCI blogpost was fine. I didn’t read it as implying that the problem was one of how media read ev. psych – rather, I thought it was suggesting that there was some kind of feedback loop between Sunday supplement journalism and a certain strain of ev. psych, which it was not seeking to absolve from blame.

Lemuel – the statement that “The institutional incentives of evolutionary psychology—if not the field’s whole reason for being—is to justify existing racial and sexual hierarchies. ” seems rather harsh to me. If you look at Boyd and Richerson, for example, who are far from obscure in the field, they seem to be suggesting just the opposite – and that is not to get into e.g. Sam Bowles’ work (which is not ev. psych as such, but certainly engaged in a sustained dialogue with it).

26

Lemuel Pitkin 06.05.11 at 12:12 am

OK, Henry. So, if you were going to characterize the biases of ev-psych without scare-quotes, how would you do it?

Sam Bowles was a professor of mine. Brilliant guy, and total mensch. But I think his engagement with this stuff is very much to be regretted.

27

Antisthenes IV 06.05.11 at 12:49 am

And no one’s even mentioned psychiatry!!!

28

Antisthenes IV 06.05.11 at 12:50 am

And no one’s even mentioned psychiatry!

29

sg 06.05.11 at 5:07 am

Henry, the part I thought was self-serving was in the quote from the 2009 post, where they say that ev psych’s success in the media was

based not so much on an interest for scientific progress and for a genuinely naturalistic understanding of human affairs, as on a taste for sweeping generalizations with hints of political and moral relevance, in particular about sexual relationships, violence, domination, and so on

but they say this as if it’s the media’s interest only, and just purely an accident that the ev psych world just happens to be producing lots of findings that can be construed this way. Of course it’s not an accident – ev psychologists choose to pursue these controversial fields and they very often end up reproducing, as LP said, justifications for the current state of social and sexual relations. Rather than questioning the media’s motivations in reporting what ev psychologists are doing, they could make some good headway by inquiring into why it is that so many ev psychologists seem to be pursuing the lines of inquiry they are.

It’s not as if ev psychologists would be having to create a new field of social inquiry if they decided to question the motivations and hidden biases of their own field – there’s a wealth of feminist critics of science, the social sciences, and ev psych that they could access if they were genuinely concerned about how come they end up being sooooo misrepresented by the media.

30

herr doktor bimler 06.05.11 at 8:50 am

When so many researchers spend their time pursuing just-so stories and flawed lines of inquiry that inevitably correlate with justifying the status quo, I can only conclude that there is an evolutionary reason that selected for this kind of behaviour in the past.

31

Kaveh 06.05.11 at 2:27 pm

@26 I think the scare quotes are irreplaceable, because I take them to mean “called X even though it is the exact opposite of X”.

32

Lemuel Pitkin 06.05.11 at 3:32 pm

Well, ok, but I’d still like to hear what Henry thinks the systemic biases of ev-psych are, if they are not legitimizing existing racial and gender hierarchies.

33

Henry 06.05.11 at 3:51 pm

Lemuel – am running around with kids but v. quickly. I think that the systemic biases are

* bias towards functionalist and ‘just so’ explanation.
* bias towards mental module type explanations which can sometimes reduce to ‘dormitive tendency’ type results.
* bias against exploring variations between societies
* bias against evolutionary accounts which do not stem from biological evolution, but instead look to sources of variation, selection etc which stem from within society.

Not all work in the field is subject to any or all of these biases, but much of it is.

I think that the more specific political bias that you see is true of a _lot of_ ev.psych, but is by no means baked in the cake. Have you read Boyd and Richerson, who are undeniably two of the major figures in the field? They suggest a reading of early conditions which is quite at variance with the hierarchical one – suggesting indeed that hierarchy is a somewhat unnatural imposition on top of more egalitarian norms. I do not know that I buy their claims either – but they clearly point in a very different direction than the one that you seem to think is more or less systemic. And it is this body of work that Sam B. is trying to contribute to I think. I have my doubts about many of the results so far – but I think it is a very important line of research to pursue. After all, our cognitive and social capacities do by definition build on evolved features, and excluding _a priori_ all evolutionary influences from possible explanations of human behavior seems to me to be just as wrongheaded as the alternative.

34

Lemuel Pitkin 06.05.11 at 4:03 pm

Henry,

Thanks for the reply. Your list of biases looks right to me.

Have you read Boyd and Richerson

You mean Not By Genes Alone? No, but I jsut downloaded it from library.nu. Hopefully I’ll get to it at some point….

our cognitive and social capacities do by definition build on evolved features, and excluding a priori all evolutionary influences from possible explanations of human behavior seems to me to be just as wrongheaded as the alternative.

Right, of course. But that doesn’t get you very far. My comment @21 was supposed to be a preemptive reply to this argument. There are lots of questions that are in principle amenable to a scientific explanation, but where the current state of science is very far from being able to give one. Seems to me that the evolution of specific human cognitive traits is one. (To begin with, we really have no idea which the cognitive traits are. Lots of things that look like traits, are spandrels. Indeed, it’s axiomatically true that of the vast number of characteristics we can describe an organism as having — everything in Borges encyclopedia — only a very small proportion are traits for the purpose of evolution.) The more I read in evolutionary biology — and it’s a field I’m very interested in — the more convinced I am that if you can’t describe the specific developmental pathway through which a trait arises, it’s very hard to say much about its evolution.

35

Bloix 06.05.11 at 5:02 pm

Kanazawa has published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (Elsivier, US$5290 for 12 issues) and the Journal of Research in Personality (Elsevier, US$785 for 6 issues).

Elsevier is a for-profit and very profitable company which makes its money from university library subscriptions. Why do professors at these same universities donate their time to Elsevier? Why don’t you organize your own free web-based university publications and donate your time to them, while charging Elsevier a healthy per-article charge for peer review?

36

Cosma Shalizi 06.05.11 at 5:40 pm

Elsevier is a for-profit and very profitable company which makes its money from university library subscriptions. Why do professors at these same universities donate their time to Elsevier?

I refuse to referee for (or submit to) Elsevier journals for just this reason.

37

JP Stormcrow 06.05.11 at 5:49 pm

LP@34: has there ever been a scientific discipline or field of inquiry that did not start with laughable overstretch? Not meaning to excuse the excesses and I think the real challenge for serious practitioners then is to work on basic, foundational elements (as non-sexy as that may be).

Henry@33: Do not fields like anthropology and sociology have “biases” which pretty much go in exactly the opposite direction. (I do understand they are not really even looking for those type of explanations.)

38

bh 06.05.11 at 6:33 pm

#37 Rhetorical questions -and- scare quotes? I’d reply (my tentative answer to both of those is ‘no’), but it seems only fair that you actually make a point and defend it first.

39

herr doktor bimler 06.05.11 at 9:09 pm

They suggest a reading of early conditions which is quite at variance with the hierarchical one

Has anyone tried the falsifiable approach, of looking at modern human psychology and working backwards to predict what archeologists will eventually discover about the conditions that prevailed through early human development?
At the moment we don’t know much about those conditions; it’s all conjecture. The conjectures change from decade to decade, and as they change, the evolutionary psychologists change their theories about how modern psychology is adapted for whatever those early social & environmental conditions are currently believed to be.

40

Henry 06.06.11 at 1:03 am

bq. At the moment we don’t know much about those conditions; it’s all conjecture. The conjectures change from decade to decade, and as they change, the evolutionary psychologists change their theories about how modern psychology is adapted for whatever those early social & environmental conditions are currently believed to be.

Read Ernest Gellner, Chapter Six, “Which Way Will the Stone Age Vote Swing,” _Plough, Sword, Book_ on this (and in fairness, it is certainly not only ev psych people who are guilty of this – it has been an intellectual cottage industry for going on a couple of centuries).

sg – the ” Still another part of the price is paid within the field itself which has, to some extent, come to imitate its own media image.” seems to me to clearly lay the blame on ev psych researchers giving in to temptation rather than on media misrepresentation of their work.

41

Henry 06.06.11 at 1:10 am

JP Stormcrow – certainly, these fields have their prejudices too, and it would be interesting to list them out. That said, they are not the reverse image of ev.psych – e.g. there is quite a lot of implicit functionalism in sociology, economics and political science too, even if the underlying theories of the functions being fulfilled are quite different. And the misrepresentation of these biases by e.g. Pinker and Cosmides/Tooby is quite egregious – Cosmides/Tooby’s purported Standard Social Science Model is, as I’ve noted a few times, neither standard, nor social scientific, nor for that matter a model. The only large group of people who subscribe to anything resembling it are an assortment of anthropologists, who if the recent kerfuffle over the American Anthropological Association’s self definition is anything to go by, do not actually consider themselves to be social scientists. I think that actually-existing social-science-ism can very fairly be accused of having neglected evolution and biology, but not of the strong and universal anti-evolutionary prejudice that it has been accused of. And, to the extent that the social sciences have become more hostile to evolutionary accounts over the last few decades, pig-ignorant ev.psych calls-to-arms have been a significant exacerbating factor.

42

Lurker Grad Student 06.06.11 at 3:18 am

Why does everybody forget about biological anthropology which includes biocultural approaches to examine humans or for that matter, cultural anthropologists focused on medical and ecological anthropology? In the US, many anthropology undergraduate and graduate programs require that grad students take courses in all of the four American subfields of anthropology (cultural, biological, archaeology and linguistic) so we are aware of the importance of anthropology. It’s not that we anthropologists do not take into account biology, it’s that certain evolutionary psychologists, biologists and practitioners of other fields assume that certain forms of human behavior are universal when there is clear ethnographic evidence that they are not. Anthropologists get irritated when people cannot be bothered to do basic research about human behavior or at minimum test their data cross-culturally.

(It should also be noted that the post-modernists of the late 1980’s to approximately late 1990’s who are now senior anthropologists do not speak for the entire field.)

43

Henry 06.06.11 at 3:26 am

Lurker Grad Student – that is why I said “an assortment of anthropologists” rather than “anthropologists” – I recognize that not all anthropologists are cultural anthropologists, not all cultural anthropologists buy into this etc etc. Originally I had “congeries of anthropologists” but that sounded cod-specific – maybe “a significant number of anthropologists” might have been better. And on your specific complaint, I agree – see the third point in #33 above – although I also really like the work of Dan Sperber, who straddles the divide in some interesting ways.

44

sg 06.06.11 at 11:25 am

Henry, I think the quote you refer to is a weak attempt at nuance. It still refers to temptation, implying that the researchers are responding to a lure rather than creating the environment for this sort of controversy. I think they should take a harder look at the criticisms of their own field from within other parts of academia, rather than attempting blame even their own biases on the media.

45

Henry 06.07.11 at 2:29 pm

sg – we’ll just have to disagree on the interpretation then.

46

ScentOfViolets 06.07.11 at 5:50 pm

Has anyone tried the falsifiable approach, of looking at modern human psychology and working backwards to predict what archeologists will eventually discover about the conditions that prevailed through early human development?

Spoken like a physical scientist!

Right, of course. But that doesn’t get you very far. My comment @21 was supposed to be a preemptive reply to this argument. There are lots of questions that are in principle amenable to a scientific explanation, but where the current state of science is very far from being able to give one. Seems to me that the evolution of specific human cognitive traits is one.

But whether the connection is obvious and immediate, or subtle and mediated through several layers of structure, you still can’t really tell unless you have the tools. Sorry for the emphasis there, but really you can’t emphasize this stuff enough. People like to say that the soft and social sciences haven’t been mathematized because they’re much, much harder than physics. And there is a lot of truth to that. But more fundamental imho is the fact that certain physical attributes are more easily measured than others. Look in the front of any physics book today and you’ll see that the first few fundamental units are length, time, and mass. You can do quite a lot with just those – velocity, acceleration, energy, power, etc., iow, just about all of classical physics and a bit more besides (depending on where you draw the line.)

By contrast, stuff you’re talking about is very, very, very hard to measure, even with modern techniques. Moreover, those measurements are expensive. Galileo could time the swing of a chandelier with his pulse at negligible cost. How much does it cost to image a single synaptic vesicle in all it’s living glory, with all the ions and cations neatly tagged? A work in progress, costing millions a shot.

Otoh, some of this stuff is coming into it’s own. You see new techniques for analyzing multi-dimensional data popping up all the time. Something I’m working on, for example, is using homological techniques on simplexes to get stuff like the topological persistence of data. What a lot of this stuff comes down to is looking at really big matrices with significant off-diagonal entries; iow, you burn up lots of computing resources. But it’s a good time to believe alive, in that respect and insofar as data analysis is concerned. Lots of computing power is available on the relative cheap, and lots of really big data sets being accumulated over time.

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