Evolutionary Psychology, yet again

Georges Canguilhem proposed the concept of scientific ideology for certain types of discourse that seem to mimic the trappings of proper science but are, in his words, "hyperbolic with regard to its objects", that is, make unwarranted claims that are not reasonably supported by any scientifically sound procedure.

I am always reminded of this when I read certain claims of the "evolutionary psychologists". In the last few months I collected a number of posts by an evolutionary biologist and a psychologist that tear down the enterprise on the two fronts. The EP folks do provide easy targets a lot of time, though, see the last link below for an example.

That the brain we possess is a result of evolution is, at this point, an indisputable assertion. That we have plenty of examples of innate, inherited behaviour, in many species is also quite unproblematic. That some aspects of human behaviour are probably at least partly inherited is at least quite likely. When specific characteristics of human interactions are attributed to evolutionarily selected, inherited genetic stuff, though, things start to get a little frisky. Little or no support from the neurosciences is offered, and all the work done by cultural anthropologists is practically ignored. It has been said that the "natural human state" described by EP is strikingly similar to American middle class mores of the 1950s…

Anyway, just check what I found:

Critique of Evolutionary Psychology

Yet it is argued here that evolutionary psychology’s assumptions regarding the mind are often inconsistent with the neurobiological evidence; biological constraints may place limits on the kinds of hypotheses that can be made within a theoretical framework that wants to remain true to the known properties and functions of the human nervous system. Evolutionary psychology’s assumptions regarding our innate biology also shape their treatment of culture and learning in ways that may inaccurately reflect true experience–neurodevelopmental interactions.

Evolutionary Psychology and its Defenders

Readers of this blog know my thoughts on evolutionary psychology. Quite frankly, I am getting tired of writing about it. However I think this theory of psychology is important to challenge, so I feel some responsibility to stay involved in the discussions. Aside from Rebecca’s sarcastic tone and her choosing some of the most laughable examples from recent evolutionary psychology research, I see little wrong with her talk. There are no serious errors in her logic, and this more entertaining approach is probably just the kind of discussion that needs to be had for laypersons to begin to understand some of the problems with evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary Psychology Is Neither

And finally, I can’t shake the feeling that the methodologies I have encountered in evolutionary psychology would not meet the standards of any other science. For a notable example, it is apparently a revelation to evolutionary psychology that one cannot readily generalize about the human condition from a sample of humans that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Perhaps this was news in psychology – creationist, evolutionary, or otherwise – but, sad to say, everybody else who works with cultural diversity knew that a really long time ago.

I think I evolved and am hardwired to bang my head against the wall when I read this stuff

Did you know that women might have been driven by evolution to be ‘bitchy’, that is, aggressive, competitive, and insulting towards other women? An article in The Atlantic presents a couple of evo-psych studies — the usual stuff, Western college students given culturally specific choices, and then makes absurd universal conclusions about human nature and evolution. I hated it.

Panadaptationism strikes again!

I suppose it’s typical that male traits are explained by their likelihood of holding a weapon, and female traits by baby handling, but again, it makes no sense. I’ve held babies, and I recall holding them on whatever side was convenient at the time. The tricky part to holding a baby or a spear and unbuttoning your shirt is the unbuttoning bit — that requires a bit more dexterity than holding a bulky objects. So both men and women face the problem of unbuttoning while holding an object, and they get completely reversed solutions to the problem?


Who’s Afraid Of Science Studies?

A very interesting article was published recently on the New England Journal of Medicine, with a historical view of the development and importance of randomized clinical trials in medicine: Bothwell LE, Greene JA, Podolsky SH, Jones DS. Assessing the Gold Standard — Lessons from the History of RCTs. N Engl J Med 2016; 374:2175-2181 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMms1604593

The abstract: “Over the past 70 years, randomized, controlled trials (RCTs) have reshaped medical knowledge and practice. Popularized by mid-20th-century clinical researchers and statisticians aiming to reduce bias and enhance the accuracy of clinical experimentation, RCTs have often functioned well in that role. Yet the past seven decades also bear witness to many limitations of this new ‘gold standard.’ The scientific and political history of RCTs offers lessons regarding the complexity of medicine and disease and the economic and political forces that shape the production and circulation of medical knowledge.

Three of the authors have medical degrees, I know one of them – Greene – who is a young, brilliant historian of medicine (his book Prescribing by Numbers made me rethink my own considerations on the definition of disease in contemporary medicine), who cannot therefore be accused of ignoring the subject matter they write about. In effect, they produced a solid, scholarly review of the subject. The article seems to me as non-controversial as may be, considering past considerations from mainstream authors about the whole enterprise of conducting clinical trials, such as the proposal by Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, of an outright moratorium in publishing their results since they became, in his words, a mere marketing tool for the pharmaceutical industry (see Smith R. Medical journals are an extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies. PLoS Med. 2005;2(5):138. DOI:10.1371/journal. Pmed.0020138).

But this well-founded discussion was met with a conniption in some quarters. A blogger wrote a piece criticizing the NEJM for having published it (The NEJM and Clinical Trials: What’s Going On?), from which I would like to quote just a tiny bit: “That, to me, is the social science worldview in a nutshell – that everything, simply everything, is deeply entangled in social conditions, economics, and politics. Take an NMR spectrum? A political act. Weigh out some copper sulfate? Politics. I sometimes think that that’s my vision of Hell. (…) Behind some of this stuff is a worldview that holds that there isn’t such a thing as ‘knowledge’ at all, just power struggles and wishful thinking.

This is in my opinion as willfuly ignorant as the blogger who stated that she wouldn’t eat anything she could not pronounce. The whole field of science studies is reduced to this ridiculous caricature by someone who clearly refuses to engage seriously with the discussion proposed by those who work in that area. Yes, science does have political and economical underpinnings, and failing to acknowledge that can lead to scientism and excessive medicalization. I really believed that the “Science Wars” of the nineties were over, but apparently not everyone got the memo.

The issue here is not that there is no such a thing as “knowledge”, but that we have to examine what we call “knowledge”, how it is produced, how it circulates among different social groups and what are the consequences of its use. Redefining the threshold for a given clinical parameter, for instance – say, blood cholesterol – is not an act of “pure science” (if that even existed), it is a negotiated process, an idea that seems to give that blogger the heebiejeebies, but that was apparently supported, for instance, even by a relatively conservative author such as Karl Popper, who wrote that “scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method” (“The sociology of knowledge” in Stehr N, Grundmann R. (orgs) Knowledge: critical concepts. Volume V: Sociology of Knowledge and Science. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 68).

And that redefinition has very concrete consequences, like almost tripling the number of candidates to be treated with statins, something with obvious economic and political implications, which are present, even if implicitly, in the process of negotiating the “new normal”. At every corner multiple interests intersect in the path of the production of scientific “knowledge”, especially in Medicine, and ignoring this can be naively dangerous. Examples of how clinical trials have been manipulated over time abound, and even when they are done with the appropriate methodological concerns, they are not Revealed Truth, but a relevant guide for clinical action with important limitations. Acknowledging such limitations and the complex interactions that go into making science, on the other hand, does not mean denying that reliable “knowledge” that can be acted upon does not exist, but quite the contrary. Two exponents of the field that was simplistically panned by the author of that blog post, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, have a position that I subscribe wholeheartedly (I have been using this citation so much – with due credit, of course – that I fear one of this days they will ask me for copyrights…), expressed as follows: “Science may be wrong (…) but this does not make the opposite view right. In the absence of careful research about the opposite view, science is probably the way to bet. This is even more likely to be the case if science is continually put under scrutiny.” in Colins H & Pinch T. Dr. Golem: How To Think About Medicine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005 (p. 202)

And while we are at it, what is “knowledge” anyway? Answering this is in itself a philosophical question of the type clearly despised by our colleague, but I’ll leave that for another day.

POST-SCRIPTUM: After having posted this, I recalled reading a post by PZ Myers that addressed a similar problem, and I found it: Emotionally invested in despising philosophy. He writes “Yet again, people are asking why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy? I have a different answer than you’ll find at that link. It’s because so many smart people are idiots about psychology. I deal with a lot of atheists, and one of the many flaws in that group that have been coming to the fore lately is the obliviousness they have to their own motivations. Atheists are all about the scienceyness. Good people are rational, objective, and unemotional, which whether they are aware of it or not, is a value judgment built on emotion. There is a lot of self-esteem-building going on, centered around who is smarter than who, who can build the most logical argument, and who is best at being aloofly superior. It’s all very annoying.

Very annoying, indeed.

“Health” Lunacy On The Internet

Few things piss me off as much as false “cures” or “treatments”, and the advent of the internet made things much worse. I gave some examples a few days ago (Cancer Quackery), but there is a never ending well of BS in the bowels of the network. A lot of this is related to a antiscience streak that underlies a lot of the misinformation that goes around (see another post, The Worrying Growth Of Antiscience Claims). I don’t see many people shopping around for “alternative airplane pilots” to fly them around or “alternative engineers” to design and supervise construction of their apartment, but that’s beside the point.

The proliferation of “detox” and “natural” remedies on the internet would be a laughing matter if it weren’t the very serious consequences they may bring about, either by being harmful, wasteful or simply delaying the beginning of proper care, and for more often than not making victims among the most vulnerable and/or desperate people. I’ll just give a few examples from some quasi-random stuff I came across.

First, the most unbelievable proposition about “cures” I’ve seen in recent times, the idea that industrial bleach is a panacea, especially for autism. Yes, you read it right: ‘Miracle cure’ exposed as bleach. More about it here: Autism: how unorthodox treatments can exploit the vulnerable. “As a rule of thumb, the more desperate and vulnerable you are the easier you are to exploit, with anything from financial advice to lifestyle tips. A diagnosis of an incurable disease; a child with a serious developmental disorder: these are circumstances that see many people seek unorthodox solutions, either as a way of coming to terms with what has happened, or in an attempt to find a treatment that perhaps the mainstream has not yet embraced, but which will give relief or cure. However, some alternative products and techniques are not merely controversial, they are potentially dangerous. Recently in mainland Ireland, a number of parents have been interviewed by police as part of an on-going investigation with the Health Products Regulatory Authority. These parents are thought to have administered a substance known as MMS to their autistic children. MMS has been known variously as Master Mineral Solution, Miracle Mineral Solution and Miracle Mineral Supplement.

Another favourite is this staple of “natural treatments”, coffee enemas (!). There’s no good reason to squirt coffee up your ass. “Potential side-effects from squirting coffee up your asshole include: ‘electrolyte imbalance, sepsis, colon or rectal perforation, and proctocolitis due to the coffee itself, among others, up to and including death.’ Coffee will not ‘detox’ you because detoxing is bullshit. It wouldn’t matter, except quacks tell cancer patients and other people who are sick and need actual medicine, not coffee enemas, to squirt coffee up their assholes.

This unfortunately applies to some mainstreamed forms of therapy that apparently either don’t know or don’t want to conduct an honest trial: New Study on Homeopathic Cough Syrup for Children Reveals a Lack of Effectiveness and Ethics. “In case you didn’t catch that, they concluded that the homeopathic cough syrup worked in the current study’s pediatric population because the subjects did as well as the adults in the ‘treatment’ arm of their prior study. The prior study, like the overwhelming majority of homeopathy research, was entirely consistent with the much more plausible conclusion that the minimal clinical effect was a mixture of placebo effects and statistical noise. All the subjects in both studies simply followed the expected course of cough symptoms caused by colds when no treatment is provided.

This extends to all sorts of diets and concoctions, perfectly satirized by an actual dietitian: Broccoli is bad for you, like, really toxic bad. “The Internet proliferates with opinion pieces quick to vilify particular foods and nutrients as being ‘the cause’ of many of our health problems by over-cooking (see what I did there?) one side of the research evidence. To show you how this is done, I present for you today a masterclass on this art form. I’ll also give you some practical tips on how to spot when it is being done.

Very dangerous “advice” is being dispensed on the internet, so caveat emptor. In closing, I feel the same way as the author of this post: Distilled nonsense. “Why are ‘health’ sites so full of shit? It’s getting to be the case that when I see ‘health’ (or worse, ‘wellness’) in the title of an article, I have the same aversive reaction I get when I see the word ‘family’. It’s a good word that has been hijacked by loons.

The Worrying Growth Of Antiscience Claims

This is going to be a somewhat lengthy post, based on a lot of interesting notes I collected over some time in my web wanderings.

I am returning to a favourite subject, namely, the extremely dangerous (in my opinion) process of de-legitimization of science undertaken by actors with a variety of political and economic interests (usually hidden) who actively engage in campaigns to undermine the public trust in scientifically generated knowledge.

A blogger has summarized the problem as follows: Are Science And Truth At Odds? Creationism, the anti-vaccine movement, resistance to genetically modified crops, cellphone radio waves, fluoridation, the ongoing global climate change debate, the risk of certain high energy physics experiments (see my post from last week), all point to a curious ‘personalization’ of science. It’s as if scientific issues are simply matters of opinion — and not the product of a very thorough process of consensus-building among technically trained people. The same way that you wouldn’t trust a physicist to perform a root canal treatment on your molar, you shouldn’t trust a dentist’s opinion on the cataclysmic risks of high-energy proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider. But that’s what’s happening, a drive toward a subjective take on science — the polar opposite of what science stands for: A way of extracting universal truths about the natural world through a detailed process of observation and data analysis.

A similar point was made in a recent New Yorker article, originally a commencement address, The Mistrust Of Science, in which the author (Atul Gawande) remarks that “Today, we have multiple factions putting themselves forward as what Gauchat describes as their own cultural domains, ‘generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.’ Some are religious groups (challenging evolution, for instance). Some are industry groups (as with climate skepticism). Others tilt more to the left (such as those that reject the medical establishment). As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question. To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing. You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience.

The of lack of knowledge masquerading as deep insight also hides behind denialism, as aptly defined here: Features of Denialism.I characterized denialism as a subset of pseudoscience, one that tries to cloak itself in the language of skepticism while eschewing the actual process of scientific skepticism. But further, denialism exists on a spectrum with skepticism, without a clear demarcation in between (similar to science and pseudoscience). People also tend to use themselves for calibration – anyone more skeptical than you is a denier, and anyone less skeptical than you is a true believer.

This is not to say that science is above and beyond criticism and reproach; quite the other way. Only by being systematically subjected to organized skepticism can any scientific proposition acquire any credibility. The examples I am about to provide, however, are a totally different enterprise; they are not an attempt to strengthen science through critique, but unduly demolishing it with manipulative and dishonest tactics to make way for something much worse.

First, an example from a systematic study about one subject where science stands in the way of powerful economic interests: Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change.First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue. Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time.

The results of this kind of systematic attack on perfectly legitimate science are made evident in surveys such as this one: Major Gaps Between the Public, Scientists on Key Issues. Despite broadly similar views about the overall place of science in America, there are striking differences between the views of the public and those of the scientific community connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on a host of science-related issues, from whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat to whether the world’s growing population will be a major problem.

Further corroboration comes from a scholar who has been studying tthis kind of deliberate obfuscation of science for economic gain: The Man Who Studies The Spread of Ignorance. Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.

A perfect illustration was provided in a way that is both funny and infuriating by the comedian-slash-critic-slash-reporter John Oliver, as reported in this blog post: Is Science Bullsh*t? As John Oliver explains in his latest episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, there is a seemingly endless barrage of data being thrown at the public and plenty of BS masquerading as science. In his latest entertaining and informative segment on scientific studies, the satirical commentator made some critical points.” (make sure to watch the video the post links to, it’s worth every second)

This is not to say that only big industries with hidden agendas and threatened profits propagate pseudoscience; even some well-meant people disseminate unwarranted misconceptions based on distrust and paranoia that more often than not feed off the same anti-scientific trough as the previous examples. And this benefits on one hand from a weasely attitude with regard to checking information before propagating it, especially over the social networks, has been aiding and abetting this destructive force: Another favorite pseudoscience trope: ‘I’m just providing information’. Yes, it’s the fallacy of ‘I’m just providing an alternative viewpoint.’ Or maybe I should call it an excuse or a dodge, because that’s what it is: a strategy for avoiding taking responsibility for what you say and write.” And on the other, by a lack of knowledge about even the most basic scientific facts, as illustrated quite humorously by this post, just consider the first item, which I cite here: 5 simple chemistry facts that everyone should understand before talking about science. 1). Everything is made of chemicals

People fear things like cellphones, for instance, which have been exonerated by several studies including a very thorough, recently published research: 11 Years of Research Found Zero Evidence Mobile Phones Cause Cancer. Of course, despite the lengthy research, there’ll no doubt still be people who think mobile phones are the cause of all society’s ills. We’re naturally—and perhaps wisely—suspicious of things that are new, which means technology often becomes the fall guy. Then there’s the fact that it’s basically impossible to prove something isn’t true—‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ and all that.” Or certain herbicides, demonized by people with the wrong kind of academic credentials: Glyphosate – The New Bogeyman. “Dr. Seneff gives every indication of being an anti-GMO ideologue. She is not a biologist, but rather is a computer scientist, and yet she is being presented as an expert. She has also not conducted any original research, but is spreading fears about glyphosate based on pure speculation, bad science and bad logic.

It should be noted that sometimes scientists and scientific institutions are sometimes to blame, when they add to the general confusion by making unwarranted, exaggerate claims about their own research: It’s not just stem cell research that’s overhyped— medical science spin is a widespread problem. ‘There is essentially an industry already out there that is marketing unproven therapies directly to patients.’ -George Daley, Harvard Medical School

How to navigate among such diverse claims without getting lost? There is no quick response to that, and in order to minimally understand what is going on on a given field some investment in time and reading is necessary. But there are some guidelines, and this two-part post about this problem provides very sound advice on how to deal with supposed scientific controversies:

Settled science part 1: Is science ever actually settled? If there is still significant debate about an issue, then you should find lots of high quality, peer-reviewed studies which supply evidence in support of the minority view. If, however, the only studies that you find are of low quality and are published in minor or questionable journals, then you can fairly safely conclude that there isn’t a significant debate.

Settled science part 2: Creating the illusion of a debate There is really only one criteria that matters for determining whether or not there is significant scientific debate about an issue, and that criteria is the peer-reviewed literature. If there is significant debate, you will find it there. Media debates, Youtube videos, petitions, personal opinions, etc. are all irrelevant and frequently fabricate conflicts where none exist.

Closing, I would like to cite a very interesting blog by a person who made a long journey from rejecting to embracing science, who makes a very compelling observation that summarizes what I am trying to say. Why Trust Vaccines if Pluto Isn’t a Planet?And that’s why so many people, like me, fall for it when people question science. We know it’s been wrong before. We know it can be wrong again. But here’s what it comes down to, and what turned me from a ‘fence-sitter’ who bought into pseudoscience, to a skeptic and rational thinker. When science has been proven wrong, it has always—every single time, with no exceptions—been proven wrong by more science. Every time there has been a mistake or misunderstanding within the scientific community, it was found out by brilliant researchers working together using the scientific method. It has never once been proven wrong by a spiritual vision, a surprise visit from a deity, or an act of magic.