Backlash isn’t really the right word.
Evolutionary Psychology Bingo.
I fully expect to see this linked-to, emailed, and generally be the object of a bit of discussion online. On the one hand, I’m all for the satirisation of poor science (a more biting example appeared last week), especially poor science that uses the tools (evolutionary thinking) that I do. We must, after all, stringently promote the self-correcting aspect of the scientific method. And there is some poor “evolutionary psychology” research around.
On the other hand: seeing that bingo card just makes my stomach sink into the floor.
There are plenty of people who are attempting to rehabilitate the term “evolutionary psychology” into an umbrella concept covering all research in the human evolutionary behavioural sciences (EP is much shorter and catchier, for one thing). This encompasses things like evolutionary economics, behavioural ecology, cultural evolution, evolutionary archaeology, etc, i.e. things that I do.
I am not actually in favour of this rehabilitation anymore. A couple of years ago I was, but I do think that the public perception of evolutionary psychology as catastrophically simplistic, sexist, privileged and daft is (sadly) firmly entrenched. We (the academic we) might be able to rehabilitate it within academic circles, but it is badly damaged in public discourse.
I’m not wanting to discuss in detail why EP has a bad name, as that’s a really nuanced and important set of problems that I can’t do justice to today. Part of it is poor science, sure. But there is poor science everywhere, just like there is poor customer service, poor computer hardware, and poor music in the Top 40: all examples where is supposedly a quality filter somewhere along the line. Part of it is bad science reporting. Evolution is a technical subject, and terms such as “nature”, “culture”, and “development” do not have the same meanings to people reading a news report as they do to people writing a research paper. It is also a subject dealing with trends and probabilities and on-averages: not with predictions about individual behaviour.
That last point cannot be stressed enough, as some of the cells in the bingo card seem to stem from a mis-reading from the population level to the individual. For example:
“I can rotate three-dimensional objects in my mind and you can’t.”
If I remember second-year perceptual psychology well enough, men are, on average, better at mental rotation tasks than women are. There are population bell-curves of ability, and they overlap a lot, but the mean of men’s mental rotation ability is some value higher than the mean value of women’s. This does not mean men can and women can’t. This does not mean an individual man will always do better than a woman.
These subtleties are really. Really. Important. And seeing the bingo card does not give me hope that these subtleties have been or can be communicated easily. I think it is the responsibility of scientists to communicate the exact nature of those important messages to journalists and the public. I also think that journalists and the public have a responsibility to want to hear them and not dismiss them as “quibbles” or “difficult statistics”, and simply latch on to the sensational. Especially if it is controversial, as is the case with gender issues.
I can’t cover everything in one blog post, but the other thing that saddens me about the bingo card is the conflation of “evolutionary” with “natural”, “genetic”, “permanent”, and “unchangeable”. A lot of very smart people (Patrick Bateson springs to mind) have written about how this conflation is central to the wearisome “nature-nurture debate”, but this has also not been communicated well beyond academic journals.
I’m not sure how to remedy this. I don’t feel I have any new insights, but perhaps I should start on a couple of posts detailing the ways in which the term “human nature” should be employed with utmost caution. Not because it doesn’t exist, but because we all need to know what exactly we’re referring to.
Anyhow, satire is always useful for stimulating debate. At the very least it’s a clever discussion aid for a seminar on evolutionary psychology.