• Science Denialism at a Skeptic Conference Redux

    title pageAlmost exactly two years ago I posted a critical analysis of a talk given by Rebecca Watson at a skeptic conference on the topic of evolutionary psychology, which has been the most-read post on this network. About a year ago I revised, updated, and extended that writing for inclusion in 13 Reasons to Doubt, Skeptic Ink’s first book, because it is the best story I know that illustrates how easy it is for critical thinking and skepticism to fail. Now I am publishing that updated version here, as I have been meaning to for some time, but have been busy with more pressing matters.

    Update 12/27/14: As of Today, Rebecca Watson is no longer part of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and apparently is no longer blogging for Popular Science either.

    Update 4/5/15 This writing has been translated into Spanish by Ðavid Osorio.

    Watson’s talk criticising evolutionary psychology, “How Girls Evolved to Shop”

     About this version & what’s new

    The update is necessary because people are still reading and referencing the original post, and there are substantial corrections, additions, and revisions. Frankly, I did not do nearly so good a job as I might have. I made mistakes that my academic colleagues subsequently pointed out; for example, I was somewhat, but unduly, dismissive about some published work that I was not well-acquainted with, such as Martie Haselton’s, and that of Anya Hurlburt and Yazhu Ling. It’s important to admit when we make mistakes, and correct the record (As I have recently had to do over at Healthy Skepticism). Watson’s talk has many more incontrovertible mistakes, confusions, and misrepresentations than I previously reported. I unreservedly stand by my claims. Substantive changes in this version include:

    • Source video re-analyzed; Appendix of errors & defects expanded from 25 to 90
    • Added section addressing Rebecca Watson’s response to the original essay
    • Many edits for length, clarity, accuracy, and completeness
    • Prose edited for book chapter format (tone, style, length)

    Ninety may seem high, but it is actually a conservative count. For example, in the last half of the talk Watson referred to several studies without any identifying details. I suspect there are more issues in such cases, but it is not possible to conclusively investigate. It is a curiosity that a talk could average near to two errors/defects per minute (many of them quite stunning), and yet continue to be defended as a solid and important talk by some opponents of evolutionary psychology. Such opponents are at odds with the evidence, with consensus views broadly held by a global, diverse cast of experts, and even with their own claims. Watson has never acknowledged, addressed, or apologized for the misleading and error-ridden talk (with 3 exceptions, out of 90). Those who defended and promoted the talk, even after my criticism, such as PZ Myers, have also never retracted those remarks, apologized, or, conversely, rebutted the substance and facts at hand.

    The critics who declare evolutionary psychology such an easy target, so rife with folly and hubris, are the same ones who make criticizing it seem very difficult indeed. They seem not to want to engage with evolutionary psychologists, opting to take shots at other academics and lay persons. For example, ten days ago, PZ Myers rather uncharitably criticized Jerry Coyne regarding evolutionary psychology, but has been silent about my offer to debate precisely the same topic:

    Myers does have me blocked, but more than 900 people saw this tweet. I do not mean to single him out; the same is largely true of many such critics, including Rebecca Watson, Amanda Marcotte, and Greg Laden, among others. I would gladly debate any of them at a neutral venue. The reader is not encouraged to hold their breath.

    Highlights in this version

    I. Watson appeared to be unfamiliar with her own sources

    1. She seemed not to know what section of The Telegraph was displayed in her Powerpoint (she indicated it was “Science”, it wasn’t) see appendix 1.
    2. She said Dr. Holmes referred to fashion; Holmes never mentioned fashion, at all 9.
    3. At point 15 she is paraphrasing Ben Goldacre, but Goldacre’s own account clearly rebuts her own claims.
    4. Displayed the wrong King. Confusing XIV with XVI is an understandable error, except that Louis XIV paintings feature the red heels he is famous for, and the Louis XVI image she used does not. The point she was attempting to make was that men sometimes dress in elaborate, colorful costumery. Louis XIV’s fabulous footwear would have made a great visual. Here is a side-by-side of the correct painting versus the one Watson chose See 9-11.kings
    5. She called a 2006 paper “recent” which is a stretch when said a couple months away from 2013 30 .
    6. She got important study details wrong in almost every instance where she mentioned details about participants, locations, etc: 17, 26, 31, 42, 70, 71, 72, 74, 77

    II. Potentially sexist and racist choices

    Just to be clear, I do not believe Rebecca Watson is either of those. However, if one is to make credible allegations of sexism and racism, they should demonstrate a depth of sensitivity and awareness. Some of her choices might be misconstrued as sexist or racist.

    1. Named talk “How Girls Evolved to Shop” then refers to girls and adult women.
    2. Cited paper by Steven Kuhn using his name, does not credit study’s female coauthor, Mary Stiner. As an academic, I would never refer to a two-party paper by either author alone.
    3. Denigrated a psych book about female sexuality for focusing exclusively on women. Exactly why can’t a study or book focus on women? Surely female sexuality as a topic merits some specialized analysis? 39.
    4. Said that a study run by Clark & Hatfield “didn’t figure women into it at all”. A strange remark considering Elaine Hatfield is a woman. Is Watson saying she designed an experiment without regard to her own gender and sensibilities? That a trained female social psychologist isn’t informed about gender? Possible, but based on what evidence?
    5. Watson ridiculed men for accepting the idea they might be sexually propositioned in public, reinforcing harmful stereotypes that woman would never be so brazen. Could be construed as slut shaming (VI 27:00).
    6. Ridiculed a study aimed at understanding both racism and sexual coercion better; told her audience the two follow-up studies replicating the effect don’t exist. 69,71.
    7. Watson cited a survey from Self magazine, a Cosmo-clone in which every cover features a rail-thin white woman and promises advice on how to lose weight NOW, you cows!; she fails to tell her audience the source was Self magazine. 55.
    8. Watson casually denigrated highly accomplished and educated women in science as sexist, in spite of their being women 73.
    9. Watson implied Chinese-born researcher Yazhu Ling, who has worked and lived in UK and USA and made a great career studying color perception, doesn’t understand cultural differences in color perception (specifically re: China) as well as she does. 80

    III. Watson’s scientific illiteracy

    1. Watson did not appear to understand what an outlier is 11.
    2. She declared a paper she has not read to be “not science” 12.
    3. Watson appeared unfamiliar with how scientific hypothesis generation happens. 1933, 41.
    4. Watson seemed not to know much about scientists presumed to educate others about (Ramachandran: 34,35; Steven Kuhn: 30, 83; Satoshi Kanazawa, 36)
    5. Watson did not seem to care about scientific evidence. 48, 82
    6. Watson did not seem to understand how published scientific papers are written. 64, 67, 81: doesn’t know that discussion sections normally feature speculation about results; Nor that negative results, unexpected results, and differeing opinions among researchers is completely normal in new research areas.
    7. Watson mistakes a speculative conclusion for a paper’s central thesis 78-81.
    8. Watson appeared not to know what hypotheses about biological bases of behavior mean, commented anyway. 76.
    9. Watson invited AIDS denialist and 9/11 Truther Lynn Margulis to do Q&A on her website; Margulis denied HIV-AIDS on said post, which was never removed or corrected.

    As before, I will provide links to the sections for your convenience in this very long post.

    I. Introduction

    II. Rebecca Watson Uses All 5 Tactics of Science Denialists

    III. Science Denialism: A Losing Strategy

    IV. Lingering Questions for Watson

    V. Rebecca Watson Responds

    VI. Conclusion

    VII. Appendix: 90 Self-contradictions, errors, misleading claims, & misrepresentations 

    VIII. References13 Reasons to Doubt

    If you like this essay, you might like the other chapters in 13 Reasons to Doubt, which I highly recommend (none of them are published online). It’s not only an engaging anthology of skeptical writing, it’s a great way to support Skeptic Ink.

    Science Denialism at a Skeptic Conference: A Cautionary Tale

    On Mars right now, a human-built mechanical spider-scientist is driving around and learning the secrets of our sister world after a months-long journey, remote controlled by people many million miles away. Only a few months ago, particle scientists discovered the Higgs boson, which actually explains why anything in the universe has mass. We are fortunate to be alive in this astonishing time.

    This makes it all the more jarring to see how science is routinely attacked by subsets of the same group of humans who can harness its power to accomplish such amazing feats. It is easy to recall recent attacks on science and science education: creationist trespasses on biology classes in Tennessee and Louisiana [1], climate change denial, and attacks on the safety and usefulness of vaccinations [2].

    Among scientists and skeptics, many of us have grown to expect this sort of attack on science from certain conservative and religious corners. But science denialism is not confined to the political right, or to religious zealots. Liberal ideology often factors in irrational arguments against genetically modified crops [3], nuclear power [4], vaccines and immunization, and it is the ideology of most people advancing 9/11 conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, if such denialism showed up at a skeptic’s conference, surely there would be outrage. At the very least, one would think that it wouldn’t be met with thunderous applause. However, that is exactly what happened in November of 2012 at a conference called “Skepticon.”

    Skepticon’s denialism targeted evolutionary psychology, a thriving, if sometimes controversial, social science with roots going back to Charles Darwin. Bashing evolutionary psychology is as fashionable among some circles as denying evolution and climate change is among the very conservative. For example, the New York Times published a stinging op-ed called Darwin Was Wrong about Dating by Dan Slater[5].  Slater’s polemic sought to refute a body of evolutionary psychology on sex and dating. At Skepticon, the critic was internet pundit, self-described feminist and skeptic, Rebecca Watson. Watson is known for her blog Skepchick.org, as co-host of the popular skeptic podcast “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. Watson has a degree in communications, and regularly speaks on science. The charge of science denialism is a serious one, and I will support the claim with a preponderance of the evidence. It is important to note that science denialism is different from mere criticism or skepticism, both of which are very healthy. I will show that Watson engaged in each of the five tactics commonly used by science denialists.

    Being conscientiously skeptical is tough. It is easy to be persuaded, often non-consciously, by one’s own biases and interests which can be as mundanely comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Watson’s Skepticon talk is a sobering reminder that it is not enough to know about critical thinking and skepticism. It is no insurance against prejudice to wave the skeptic flag or even to have made it your livelihood. We are all vulnerable, and the single best bulwark against deleterious self-deception we possess is never forgetting about that vulnerability. We must remember it, we must embrace it, and we must accept it as part of our world-view and self-concept. What follows is what may happen when we don’t.

    A Brief Synopsis

    Rebecca Watson’s talk was called “How Girls Evolved to Shop and other ways to insult women with ‘science.’”[6] Watson reviewed a number of purportedly evolutionary psychology claims, generally in the form of their appearance on newspaper websites. Chiefly by way of ridicule and sarcasm, Watson discussed research on sex differences, such as differing tastes between men and women in shopping, casual sex preferences, and in the favoring of the color pink. Watson’s talk began with examples of media distortion – for instance, an incident where a scientific paper was misquoted and otherwise mangled. However, her talk was not merely about the media distortion of science, but about the entire field of evolutionary psychology being bad science or pseudoscience. Her conclusion focused on research demonstrating the demotivational effects of perceptions of stereotypical gender imbalances, which she asserted that evolutionary psychology produces.

    The main points Watson seemed to want to drive home were that evolutionary psychology isn’t science, and that researchers involved in it work deliberately to reinforce stereotypes and to oppress women. Throughout the presentation she made statements like “evolutionary psychologists are trying to…” and “evolutionary psychology requires…” instead of limiting the target to the media or to a subset of the domain. This led much of her audience to assume she was simply referring to the entirety of the field, or to a large majority of it. Some have objected, including Watson herself, that her talk was about “pop” or bad evolutionary psychology only. I will address this objection in the final section “Rebecca Watson responds.”

    Points of Agreement

    Watson correctly pointed out several important things about evolutionary psychology. For example, the media loves to hype and distort the science to sell newspapers, much as it does with other fields such as genetics. Some examples from her introduction are good ones (though she misquotes some of them). Watson also brought up some truly objectionable research. For example, Watson talked about one of the most infamous names in all of contemporary psychology, Satoshi Kanazawa, saying “he’s just the worst.” I agree. He seems to be a person who thrives on attention, something of a scientific shock jock. Fortunately, he has been most severely criticized by evolutionary psychologists themselves.

    Lastly, Watson noted a Stanford social psychology study which shows that “stereotype threat” can be a powerful force in demotivating people. I tend to agree. I have argued for 50% female representation at secularist and skeptical events for this reason and for others. It is important we encourage everyone with an interest in science to pursue it, regardless of gender. I am not sure what this point has to do with evolutionary psychology, however. I am familiar with no research or researcher who maintains that stereotypes aren’t capable of being very harmful to society and to individuals who may be discriminated against. The allegations are made, but the case is not.

    A Peculiar Sort of Skepticism

    Brian Dunning of the website and podcast Skeptoid wrote,

    The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion [7].

    This is surely well understood by Watson, who calls herself and website “Skepchick,” presumably a truncation of “skeptical chick.” Now we may ask, how would a true skeptic investigate evolutionary psychology to reach and support the conclusions that Watson has? Before devising such a talk, the first step should be having a firm grasp on the basics of the subject. Since we are talking about a scientific field, we should expect her speak to at least one expert evolutionary psychologist. She might also read one of any number of reviews or overviews from mainstream researchers. To put Watson’s presentation in a slightly different light, just think of how silly it would be to call biologists religiously-motivated creationists while pointing to Michael Behe [8] and Francis Collins [9] as examples.

    Understanding research methods by reading materials on the subject from authorities and shapers of the field would also be sensible, particularly if commenting directly on research programs, as Watson did. Perhaps most importantly, personal assertions should be limited to the depth of one’s own understanding. Any other assertions require citations or quotations of experts because Watson is neither an expert nor a scientist in a relevant field. Citations of experts should clearly support her points.

    By all appearances Watson failed to do a single one of these things. She seems to have only the most superficial understanding of evolutionary psychology (or the related subjects of anthropology and sociology) and it is not clear that she’s read even one scientific paper. There are many reasons to think this. She quoted no material or information during her 48-minute talk beyond what is mentioned in newspapers and other media or publicly available abstracts. While she derided media distortion in one part of the talk, she implicitly trusted media reports for the bulk of it, even citing a magazine sex survey as evidence against peer-reviewed scientific research[10]. Watson made numerous mistakes in content, misrepresented very basic aspects of researchers’ work, got many citations and quotations wrong, and demonstrated ignorance of contrary findings and of basic scientific ideas. Ninety of these are discussed in the Appendix.

    When professional skeptic investigators like James Randi, Benjamin Radford, or Joe Nickell want to evaluate a claim, even one they probably personally feel is nonsense, such as ghosts or magnet therapy, they talk to the claimant and they bring in expert testimony where relevant. It should be obvious that one needs to listen to a person’s claims to fairly evaluate them. Otherwise, there is a great risk of strawmanning that person’s views. If Rebecca Watson spoke with a single evolutionary psychologist about her criticisms or concerns, she failed to mention it. This is discordant with professional standards of skepticism: uncharitable, inept, and in bad faith.

    Lastly, we know that Watson has no literacy in evolutionary psychology because she admits this herself. At the end of her talk, an audience member asked Watson if there is any “good evolutionary psychology [11].” Watson then threw up her hands in a shrug while saying,

    Proooooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. Because, really, good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene, and we have no evidence for this, but maybe this. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. So if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media, and therefore, it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned.

    Setting aside the strikingly anti-scientific (and incorrect) assumption that only sensationalistic lies about evolutionary psychology can be interesting, as well as the jarring ignorance that a scientific field composed of thousands of researchers working for decades and publishing in numerous reputable science journals only “probably” has some good work being done, Watson clearly revealed that she is only familiar with evolutionary psychology in the media, having just moments before shown how unreliable the media is.

    Watson repeatedly cited outliers, people and publications not involved with evolutionary psychology, and disreputable examples of each (as well as a few reputable sources). The first work she mentioned in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cited a Telegraph article [12] referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist and paid for by a business to help them increase sales, which she nonetheless misquoted, mischaracterized, and ascribed fictional claims to [13]. She spent several minutes on Satoshi Kanazawa, a man widely considered disreputable within evolutionary psychology . Even quoting him, Watson referred only to an interview with a tabloid newspaper. There was no effort to mention peer-reviewed research, or to include what mainstream evolutionary psychologists think.

    Supporting the extraordinary claim that a large scientific domain is both generally sexist and methodologically bereft requires extraordinary evidence. Such a claim should entail very serious and careful examination. The evidence should be obvious in the major, reputable works, and not merely scattered and butchered news fodder.

    Watson produced no evidence that can sustain her outlandish claims. Even if Watson were accurately representing every person, paper, and claim in her talk, she’d have succeeded only in proving that a small handful of people making claims about sex differences are academically and/or ethically compromised. Her set of evidence is simply too limited to say anything more. The problem is not merely that her claims are often faulty, but that she seems not to understand (or not to care?) what a skeptical inquest requires. She does not seem to know how, or perhaps is not willing, to support her own claims. This is a peculiar sort of “skepticism” indeed.

    Rebecca Watson Uses All 5 Tactics of Science Denialists

    Summarizing the work of Mark and Chris Hoofnagle, Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee wrote a paper on science denialism [14], providing criteria and defining it as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” Denialism employs some or all of the following tactics.

    1. Conspiracy theories
      When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes something is true, denialists won’t admit scientists have independently studied the evidence to reach the same conclusion. Instead, they claim scientists are engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. The South African government of Thabo Mbeki was heavily influenced by conspiracy theorists claiming that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. When such fringe groups gain the ear of policy makers who cease to base their decisions on science-based evidence, the impact on human lives can be disastrous.
    1. Fake experts
      These are individuals purporting to be experts but whose views are inconsistent with established knowledge. Fake experts have been used extensively by the tobacco industry, which developed a strategy to recruit scientists who would counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This tactic is often complemented by denigration of established experts and attempts to discredit their work. Tobacco denialists have frequently attacked Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, for his exposure of tobacco industry tactics, labelling his research “junk science.”
    1. Cherry picking
      This involves selectively drawing on isolated papers that challenge the consensus to the neglect of the broader body of research. An example is a paper describing intestinal abnormalities in 12 children with autism, which suggested a possible link with immunization. This has been used extensively by campaigners against immunization, even though 10 of the paper’s 13 authors subsequently retracted the suggestion of an association.
    1. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver
      The tobacco company Philip Morris tried to promote a new standard for the conduct of epidemiological studies. These stricter guidelines would have invalidated in one sweep a large body of research on the health effects of cigarettes.
    1. Misrepresentation and logical fallacies
      Logical fallacies include the use of straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented, making it easier to refute. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined in 1992 that environmental tobacco smoke was carcinogenic. This was attacked as nothing less than a “threat to the very core of democratic values and democratic public policy.”

    Using this pre-existing yardstick hopefully precludes some margin of bias on my part. Note that the authors do not require that all criteria apply to establish one as a denialist, but I will show that Rebecca Watson made use of each of these tactics.

    Watson’s denialist tactics

    1. Conspiracy theories

    Watson frequently spoke of a general, diffuse, “evolutionary psychologists do…” When she cited researchers by name, they were held as examples of the domain, and not distinguished as an exception.  She also often spoke frankly to their devious, immoral intentions. Not just that they’re mistaken about their claim or that their method is flawed, but that they actively wanted to oppress women and reinforce harmful stereotypes. According to Watson, they work together toward goals such as defending rape as “natural” and therefore good or the idea that women do not enjoy sex as much as men (see video indices 20:07, 22:43, 23:41, 35:40, 36:08, 38:40). For example, at minute 36:39: “So now evolutionary psychologists ignore all that [that sex roles changed after the industrial revolution].” So it is “evolutionary psychologists” (note that she did not say “some evolutionary psychologists” and not journalists) are the problem. No evidence was presented that could establish these ulterior motives in such a large group, and as I shall explain, they are entirely false. Mark Hoofnagle wrote the following on ScienceBlogs about conspiracy theories; not Watson’s, but his words fit equally well here [15]:

    But how could it be possible, for instance, for nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline. 

    1. Fake experts

    Fake experts are not featured prominently in Watson’s talk.  However, at the end, Watson cites several fake experts whose opinions on the science are inconsistent with established, uncontroversial knowledge, and some of whom also appear to be sources she used for the talk. She implores the audience to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a book seeking to justify a radical social constructionist view of gender differences. Scholarly reviews have agreed that Fine makes some good points, but have also criticized Fine for cherry-picking studies as examples that are amenable to her conclusion and ignoring the rest:

    Despite the large amount of junk science on the topic that is reported in the popular media and in some academic outlets, there are also consistent findings of sex differences that hold up across studies, across species, and across cultures. Most of these are ignored by Fine. -Diane Halpern, Science (Halpern, 2010)

    However, there is more to the prenatal testosterone research than the few Baron-Cohen studies she mentions and more to the study of clinical populations affected by early testosterone than CAH girls and their play preferences. Fine’s selective approach leaves the reader with the impression that much of research into the organizing effects of prenatal testosterone on the brain is invalid and unreliable. In reality, the research in this area is extensive, complex and, yes, uncertain, but not, for those reasons, worthless. The extent of this literature is evident in a review of this research that incorporated almost 300 studies (Cohen-Bendahan et al. 2005). Included were investigations of four different clinical populations, four different direct measures of prenatal hormones, and six different indirect measures. -Margery Lucas, Society (Lucas, 2012)

    Watson goes on to recommend the blog website of Greg Laden. Laden is a bioanthropologist who is on record uttering unscientific opinions such as the claim that men are testosterone-damaged women [16]:

    The problem with men, as a group…is that at various points along the way on their journey from the female template on which all humans are built biologically, they have been altered in ways that make them dangerous assholes. Even when we try to reduce the male-female difference as a society, men who do not willingly participate in that often end up being fairly nasty, dangerous beasts; they may be rapists, they may be batterers, they may be some other thing. They break our efforts to have an egalitarian peaceful world. In a way, they are broken. They are damaged, if you will. Some of that damage is facilitated by what you may know of as testosterone.

    In July of 2012 Laden articulated the same point, saying, “Just like a male is a broken female, a dog is a broken wolf [17].” Laden’s unique views on sex and gender are not representative of sound scientific understanding.

    Watson recommended blogger Amanda Marcotte to her audience. Marcotte has written that:

    Evo psych evolved to meet the need of the media to have a constant influx of stories justifying sexism through “science.”  Because it’s a whole lot easier to get media attention to your work if your conclusions are that women are (fill in misogynist stereotype) and/or men are slaves to certain sexual signals that make it biologically impossible to treat women as they would someone they considered a full human being. … “Women are born whores,” is quite possibly the favorite sacred belief of evolutionary psychology [18].

    Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban has called Marcotte’s criticism “disgusting,” and “ignorant [19].”

    1. Cherry picking

    Watson spent most of her time referring to stories that appeared in the general media and popular science books. She focused on some of the worst examples she could find, such as the interviews (not publications) with the disgraced Satoshi Kanazawa, instead of focusing on mainstream, reputable researchers. She also generally limited her citations to the sub-topic of sex and gender differences. While it is understandable that she may choose a narrow topic to present to a conference, she frequently made claims about the field in general, not merely as it pertains to sex and gender differences. For example, she cited Stephen Jay Gould’s “just so stories” criticism, (long dismantled by biologists [20] and others [21]), but then used only sex and gender claims as examples.

    In a 2012 interview, after giving the same talk, Watson said “…I just get so tired of seeing women evolved to shop, women evolved to like the color pink, women evolved to be terrible at math and logic … and men evolved to rape [22].” Bearing in mind that Watson has said that evolutionary psychologists are doing what they do in order to oppress women, justify rape, and maintain stereotypes, we must assume Watson can tell us how evolutionary psychology hypotheses in other areas such as coalitional psychology, social exchange, language, nutrition and diet, altruism, belief formation, and others all oppress women and support gender stereotypes. Watson ignored the majority of the content in the field she demeans as “not science.”

    1. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver

    Some of Watson’s criticisms would un-make many sciences were we to take them seriously. For example, she says “[evolutionary psychologists] never tell us what genes” as if this is a grand indictment of evolutionary psychology. There are scientists making in-roads in this area, but tracing the path from genes to structures to behavior is difficult-to-impossible, except in the case of some diseases and disorders. Further, we certainly don’t hold any other sciences to that standard, even the ones for which genes and adaptation are critical. Does anyone know precisely which genes make a cheetah fast, and exactly how they accomplish that? What genes color the peacock’s feathers or give rise to the fish’s gills? Shall we toss out all the evolutionary biology for which we do not have the genetic bases identified? I should hope not. Cognitive science also focuses on models methodologically divorced from physical stuff like genes and even neurons, but no one doubts that genes and neurons make cognitive capabilities possible [23].

    At minute 15:41, Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then finding “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it.  She seemed to be balking that such a hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.

    Similarly, at several points Watson criticized exploratory research into new hypotheses because the results vary as methods and hypotheses become refined. She criticized these authors for speculating about explanations of their findings, and for disagreeing with each other. Evidently, Watson’s scientific standard is that testing a new hypothesis with a new experimental design should immediately work perfectly and deliver incontrovertible conclusions on which all researchers agree.

    At 13:39 Watson said that we can’t know enough about the distant past to make assessments of what evolutionary pressures might have existed. She referred to variation in climate and environment and that the lives of our ancestors also “varied.” In other words, evolutionary psychologists can’t make any assumptions about the past. We can’t assume women got pregnant and men didn’t, or that predators needed to be avoided, or that sustenance needed to be secured through hunting or foraging. Yet these are real and valid assumptions that evolutionary psychologists use. If we were to toss out evolutionary psychology for this reason, we must also toss out much of biology, archaeology and paleoanthropology. Much care must be used in deciding what can and can’t be assumed about the past, but archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists know this well. Watson demonstrably understands this, as she referred to Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner’s hypothesis about the social conditions of the pre-historic Paleolithic at minute 14:48. It seems that Watson was prepared to believe accounts of the past so long as they supported her position.

    1. Misrepresentations and logical fallacies

    Ninety of Watson’s errors, false and misleading claims, and other examples of ideologically compromised rationality are listed in the Appendix. Many are variants of misrepresentation and logical fallacies. For the sake of brevity, I will describe just one here.

    Watson committed the moralistic fallacy by way of accusing others of its inverse twin, the naturalistic fallacy. To presume a priori that what is desirable corresponds with what is found in nature is to commit the moralistic fallacy. For example, “A universe without a lawgiver would have no basis for morality—which would be a ghastly state of affairs—and so God must exist.” In this case, since it would be preferable for rape not to be natural—because people sometimes think what is natural is good—we must conclude that it is not. The middle term is the accusation of the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that people will think what is natural must necessarily be good. Watson asserted that “they” (that shadowy, diffuse they of evolutionary psychology) enthusiastically commit the naturalistic fallacy and, in fact, that research is designed to dupe and mislead by its use.

    She spelled it out at 38:30: “men evolved to rape… it was used as a sort of ‘well it’s natural for men to rape therefore we don’t really need to look into ways that we can change our culture to stop men from raping…’” Who is this they? Who is doing the using? Watson did not say but she asserted that if “they” believe rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an outright absurdity. It is every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.

    Scientists also study murder; it does not mean they wish to morally justify murder. Hurricanes and hemlock are natural, but bad. The evolutionary psychology of rape informs that rape is a more heinous violent crime than other types of assault, not less so. Commenting on Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book on the subject, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides [25] wrote, “Thornhill and Palmer argue that women evolved to deeply value their control over their own sexuality, the terms of their relationships, and the choice of which men are to be fathers of their children. Therefore, they argue, part of the agony that rape victims suffer is because their control over their own sexual choices and relationships was wrested from them.” The conclusion here is that the crime is much more emotionally devastating than the mere violence or trespass indicates; also, it implies that men probably can’t understand the true anguish of the experience for women.

    In their book on rape, Thornhill and Palmer discussed and refuted the fallacy they’re accused of—nine times (Thornhill and Palmer, 2001).

    Many influential figures within evolutionary psychology are unpersuaded by the notion of rape as an adaptation, such as Don Symons, David Buss and David Schmitt (David Michael Buss and Schmitt, 2011). This makes a conspiracy view of the field as monolithic sexists rather unlikely. Lastly, Thornhill and Palmer themselves have said the topic is worth studying to help reduce the rate of rape, not to justify it [26].

    Watson never mentioned Thornhill, Palmer, Tooby, Cosmides, Symons, Buss or Schmitt. In fact, she didn’t mention anyone at all while hurling damning allegations.

    Science Denialism: A Losing Strategy

    Philosopher of biology Elliott Sober wrote in his book, Philosophy of Biology, about the research program of evolutionary biology [27], known as adaptationism:

    Adaptationism is first and foremost a research program. Its core claims will receive support if specific adaptationist hypotheses turn out to be well confirmed. If such explanations fail time after time, eventually scientists will begin to suspect that its core assumptions are defective. Phrenology waxed and waned according to the same dynamic (Section 2.1). Only time and hard work will tell whether adaptationism deserves the same fate.

    The proof of the pudding is in the tasting: creationism, for example, hasn’t passed that test. It hasn’t given us a better understanding of life, and it hasn’t spawned new questions for scientists to explore. Perhaps even more damningly, it has no legitimate body of work to support its own hypotheses. Sober also discussed how the once-scientific phrenology similarly failed as new knowledge was acquired. Science denialists have argued that climate science is akin to the failed phrenology [28], that it is wrong and misguided. This didn’t stop the scientists though, who kept working and discovering more and more. Today, climate science is bigger and better than ever. It has innovated and synthesized methods. We’ve gained incredible new insights about how global climate systems function over time, and especially about the life of polar glacier geo/eco-systems. The original findings that the earth is warming have been replicated and supported by new evidences, even if some early research was flawed.

    Evolutionary psychology has followed a similar trajectory in recent decades. Roundly criticized in the 80s and beyond [29], researchers were not deterred. Although there are always going to be some poorly produced studies, researchers have weeded out failed hypotheses and have refined methodologies. The influence of evolutionary psychology has steadily grown. Some evolutionary psychology theories, once controversial, are now accepted by mainstream psychology. Every college psychology 101 textbook features a bit of evolutionary psychology (of variable quality, granted). New areas of investigation are being explored which may shed important light on critical aspects of the lives of people, including evolutionary medicine. Michael Shermer remarked on the mainstreaming of evolutionary psychology back in 2009 [30]. Despite some real challenges, evolutionary psychology is a science success story. All the nay-saying in the world can’t change that. Denialism is a losing strategy. Good science always wins in the end.

    Lingering Questions for Watson

    When did the sexual division of labor begin [31]?

    Watson said at minute 14:43, “Recent research by anthropologist Steven Kuhn suggests there was no sexual division of labor prior to the Paleolithic” (Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner’s 2006 paper Watson cited, without crediting Mary Stiner, contains the hypothesis that Homo sapiens development of a sexual division of labor 40,000+ years ago allowed them to out-compete Neanderthals). Around 36:08 she remarked, “Prior to the 19th century it was expected that men would retain an equal hand in raising children and helping out around the home… then when the industrial revolution came around men started working the factories leaving women at home.”

    What is the standard of evidence, exactly?

    Watson recounted the story of V.S. Ramachandran’s “hoaxing” of evolutionary psychology around minute 16. In 1997, Ramachandran wrote an article titled Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes offering an evolutionary account explaining why men have a sexual preference for women with blonde hair (note that this was just a speculative essay. There were no experiments, no methods, and no findings). Watson incredulously explained to the audience “and it got published” pausing for laughter. She went on to call Ramachandran the “honey badger” of science because he “don’t give a fuck” implying his move was some sort of coup against evolutionary psychology. She did not mention that the journal in question, Medical Hypotheses, had nothing to do with evolutionary psychology. What’s more, the journal purposely invites “radical, speculative” pieces and at the time was not peer-reviewed [32]. Don Symons commented that if it is peer-reviewed, “it must be by chipmunks.” Watson invited her audience to take seriously what had been published in Medical Hypotheses, a journal that got itself in trouble for publishing an article denying that HIV causes AIDS (Enserink, 2010a; “Guide for authors,” 2012). It could only matter that Ramachandran’s paper was published in the journal if you thought said journal was “legit.”

    Even more bizarrely, Watson denigrated a study by a professional psychologist, Dr. Holmes, because it had been funded by a shopping center. Watson said “This is actually marketing disguised as science.” Some twenty minutes later (around index 27:40) Watson cited a survey to refute published, peer-reviewed studies. That survey was produced entirely by Self magazine for publishing in same and apparently involved no social scientists of any kind [33].

    Are WEIRD subject studies acceptable sources?

    WEIRD stands for “western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic” and refers to common research subjects of social science research which can create an impoverished view of the understanding of human behavior if over-generalized. Watson denigrated three studies she did not approve of as using “white, middle class…” subjects (two of the three times incorrectly [34]). However, Watson favorably cited at least six studies to illustrate her own points, which all had WEIRD participants [35].

    Why so flippant?

    Watson’s talk was peppered with snark and sarcasm. She seems to have spent very little time researching the topicand doesn’t appear to treat the topic seriously. I do not merely mean that she does not take evolutionary psychology seriously—but the entire topic, including her own contentions, is more a comedic performance than an informative presentation.

    Watson sees evolutionary psychology as fit for ridicule. She flippantly says that mocking it “never gets old.” Even so, what about the impact evolutionary psychology might have? That seems less than amusing. For the sake of argument, let us imagine everything Watson believes is correct: Those who conduct research in the field are frequently misogynists who are dedicating many years to the pursuit of justifying harmful stereotypes and oppressing women. They’ve succeeded in compromising peer review, and the professional journals which publish them are mouthpieces of the patriarchy whose scientific rigor is limited, at best. They’ve infiltrated the top universities in the world, and they’ve established growing departments at said locales and have their own conferences [36] and ever-larger presences at others. They’ve even succeeded in having much of their literature and research perspective accepted by mainstream social science.

    If I believed that all of this was true, I would be horrified. The potential harm to society and to behavioral science would be almost incalculable. Thus if I were to give a talk on it or write about it, I would dig deep. I would cite mainstream sources so that no one could dismiss me as cherry-picking. I would locate reviews of dozens or hundreds of studies, instead of citing one or two in tabloid newspapers easily dismissed as outliers, or taking the word of an author trying to sell books. I would read full published papers and foundational literature, not blurbs from the Telegraph about unpublished studies so that my understanding would be robust and accurate. I wouldn’t make an unserious, sarcastic tone my main presentational style because the stakes would be so high.

    Watson wanted us to believe this great dark power is working, inhibiting social justice, hurting real people and the advancement of science, and that it is entertaining to talk about. She said, for example, that it is working to justify rape. To make rape okay. But hey, no big deal, right? Not big enough to research properly or to stop making jokes for two minutes. This flip attitude lacks empathy, and I find it ethically repugnant. If even close to true, her claim isn’t amusing. It deserves real skeptical inquiry and serious investigation and she gave it none of this.

    Rebecca Watson Responds 

    After I originally published a version of this writing in December of 2012, defenders of Rebecca Watson immediately responded by disparaging my character and insinuating that I had compromising ulterior motives [37]. After taking much care to speak to points of substance and to support my criticism with evidence, I was saddened by the petty and unconstructive mode of reply. My aim was not to attack Watson, but to challenge a few of her unnuanced views about science and skepticism with which I have professional experience. Had Watson chosen to use my feedback to produce a sound, more sophisticated criticism of evolutionary psychology (entirely reasonable to do) I would have been very glad for it. My motive is ultimately irrelevant to the validity of my criticisms here. They stand or fall on the evidence alone, as any skeptic ought to know.

    As I write this, it is more than a year from the time I published my critique. Watson’s one and only response was a single paragraph comment on a blogger’s web page defending her against my critique [38]. In it, Watson conceded to three errors which I had pointed out. Namely, that Dr. Kruger was of the University of Michigan, not Chicago; that the color preference study occurred in England, not in China; and finally, that the “Why People Have Sex” study was racially diverse, not merely “white.” Watson also wrote:

    I saw Clint’s post but as I’m traveling, I have no time to write anything up, so I’m very glad that you’ve done a great job of it. I’m actually giving this talk again tomorrow and I’m quite thankful to people who have given me notes and corrections.

    Evidently, she had no time to write anything up after travelling, either, as she never mentioned the matter again in spite of being asked to respond [39]. The counter-argument which Watson vaguely praised is that I misunderstood her thesis. It was asserted that her talk was restricted to “pop” evolutionary psychology and not about evolutionary psychology in general. This is a curious defense for a variety of reasons which I will explain, but first note the immediate implication. Watson is a professional speaker, giving many talks each year. She holds a degree in communications. We are asked to believe that she was unable to make her thesis clear, having had 48 minutes to do so. Clarity is doubly important if a topic is controversial, as evolutionary psychology often is. I would invite the readers to watch her talk and decide how “obvious” it was for themselves[40], but I must say that before I wrote my critique, I read what other people thought the talk was about. Here are some of those comments:

    You do not tear down an entire field of research because a small number of papers released (and not even in respected journals) are offtaste [41]. –discomcomcobulated

    … Some of the studies she cited (particularly the casual sex and gender differences) one [sic] appear in my psych textbooks …and are taught in class. So, no, it’s not just silly media talking about them [42]. –Kate Donovan

    … Watson also shone an unflattering light on evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline with a lot of problems [43]. —James Croft

    The female-to-male ratio seemed really good at this conference …, a sense that was reinforced by the crowd’s enthusiastic response to Rebecca Watson’s speech denouncing the pseudo-science of “evolutionary psychology [44].” —Amanda Marcotte [scare quotes original]

    Rebecca Watson’s humorous talk on the sexist pseudoscience rampant in evolutionary psychology was immensely entertaining and got boisterous applause [45]. —Adam Lee

    All of the above save the first came from supporters or fans of Watson. Here are five more comments that appeared after my critique and in response to my question regarding her actual topic, including ScienceBlogs’s Mark Hoofnagle:

    [Watson] did attribute these findings to evo psych as a whole and that is somewhat unfair [46]. —Mark Hoofnagle

    Although Rebecca’s examples were of pop psychology and the media presentation of research (both genuine and motivated “research”) she was clearly aimed [sic] her criticism at the whole field of evolutionary psychology [47]. —Ken Perrott

    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 [48]. –Peter Ferguson

    Ms. Watson is now claiming she wasn’t trashing evolutionary psychology as a whole, but just the pop aspects. This is not at all clear from the speech she gave and appears contradictory to her comments in the interview above, where she compares evolutionary psychology to Social Darwinism and eugenics, aptly demonstrating that she can’t tell the difference between descriptive and prescriptive claims [49]. –Maria Maltseva

    Imagine at the end of the talk, the speaker declared that “mocking neuroscientists never gets old,” and that when questioned as to whether there’s any good neuroscience, the speaker said “probably?” but then claimed it would have to be totally boring and mainly involve a lot of saying “I don’t know.”

    Would neuroscientists be pissed about such a talk? You betcha. Nobody would buy the “oh, she was just talking about pop neuroscience” defense, or indeed similar arguments about any other branch of science. But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen that defense made about sloppy criticisms of evolutionary psychology [50]. –Chris Hallquist

    It seems that many people got it “wrong” and in precisely the same way, both before I had said anything, and after. In fact, Watson is not as terrible a communicator as has been suggested. She communicated her opinion about evolutionary psychology quite clearly, if clumsily. Here are broad, sweeping comments from Watson on the subject. Note that she is clear that the source is the field and its researchers, not journalists or the media.

    It’s yet another study … and it’s not the first time that an evolutionary psychologist has tried to support a shitty stereotype about women (in relation to two studies and allusion to more, emphasis mine, 34:10).

    Evolutionary psychology theories tend to be unfalsifiable (13:17).

    Evolutionary psychologists want to ignore [recent history] and pretend that women’s place is in the home (36:36).

    Here are a few resources for you, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, particularly in mocking evolutionary psychologists, which never gets old (45:25).

    The biggest problems with the study, though, are the same problems which are leveled against evolutionary psychology as a whole (emphasis mine, 12:25).

    Evolutionary psychology requires that our brains evolved twelve thousand to one million years ago and haven’t changed since (12:46).

    According to the evolutionary psychologists, brains stopped evolving. … Evolutionary psychology theories tend to be unfalsifiable. A lot of times they’ll say these behaviors are written into our genes but they never actually tell us which genes (13:11).

    …these examples seem to be completely ignored when evolutionary psychology proponents use present-day groups as proxies (14:58). [Note in context, “proponent” must mean researcher. No one else can be said to “use” a methodological research proxy]

    The following remarks are from an interview with Watson shortly after she had given the same talk in Berlin [51].

    Watson: Basically I used my talk as an opportunity to slam evolutionary psychology for half an hour. 

    Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit more about evolutionary psychology, what the field actually is?

    Watson: Yeah. Well, evolutionary psychology is the idea that humans evolved during the Pleistocene epoch, which we did. But also that our brains evolved, which they did. But that our brains stopped evolving then, so that we currently have Pleistocene brains inside modern bodies. And they … This isn’t necessarily supported by any evidence. […]

    Interviewer: Also, it seems that they are basically guessing a lot.

    Watson: Yeah, a lot of it does seem to be. Like one of the examples I give in my talk is this “women evolved to shop” idea, in which a researcher says that women gathered while men hunted, so shopping is like gathering and visiting cultural institutions is like hunting. And so he relates all those things together without actually giving any more thought or evidence.

    Note that Watson’s inclusion of Pleistocene centrality as part of the definition of evolutionary psychology, according to her, cannot be supported by the evidence. She is not speaking of pop science here, but about the very definition of the field, in her own words. Next, Watson agrees that “they,” meaning “evolutionary psychologists” are “guessing a lot.” She then gives as an example the first example from her own talk, demonstrating incontrovertibly that, to Watson, there is no distinction between the titular topic of her presentation and general evolutionary psychology. She uses them interchangeably. A moment later, Watson explains that evolutionary psychology was created by bigots and racists to support their bigotry and racism (emphasis mine).

    I think there are people who hold misogynist, racist, bigoted ideas, but they value science, and so they will seek out what they consider science in order to support their prejudice. And it’s been happening since the beginning of time. I mentioned during my Q&A that evolutionary psychology is not a new thing. It’s becoming more and more popular in the last few years, but it’s actually evolved from other things, like Social Darwinism, which, you know, got into a lot of trouble over eugenics and things like that. You know, so they change names and they slightly change their viewpoints. So, it’s not a new thing, and I do think [evolutionary psychology is] a result of people simply trying to use science to call their prejudice natural.

    once you look past the headlines and actually look at the studies, what you see over and over and over again is pseudoscience being passed off as science. You know, they have tons of assumptions that they don’t support with the evidence, and they make up Just-So stories that seem to fit the facts. And it only ends up reinforcing stereotypes, which does harm to all of us.

    Watson needed three overs to drive the point home:  the studies are pseudoscientific. Not the headlines. One has to wonder when Watson “looked past the headlines” since her sources seem to have been newspaper clippings, books, and abstracts. Twice, when asked about “good” or “evidence-based” evolutionary psychology, Watson gave a shrugging speculative reply; in Berlin it was “I’m sure there are…” (but you don’t know?) and in Missouri it was “prooooobably?” Watson is confident in calling the field pseudoscience rooted in racism and not “necessarily in evidence,” but isn’t sure if there is any “good” science there or not. In the case of both the interview and the Skepticon Q&A, she makes it clear that a good researcher could only produce dismissals of the field and negative findings:

    In Berlin: There must be evolutionary psychologists out there who are very careful with their work and who don’t make large pronouncements like one I mentioned in my talk … I’m sure there are researchers who come to a conclusion more like “It’s inconclusive whether such and such occurred.”
    At Skepticon: Good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene and we have no evidence for this but maybe this. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines.

    For what sort of topic could it be true that “good” or “evidence-based” investigation will always produce nothing? Creationism, phrenology, and mental telepathy come to mind. In short, it could only be true for a topic you think is nonsense, in which there is no truth to discover. If all that is not enough, at the end of her talk, Watson directed her audience to learn more from people who are explicit and unashamed deniers of evolutionary psychology. Watson recommended Greg Laden, who once wrote [52]:

    One could think of Evolutionary Psychology as the deformed misguided freakish evil sibling of behavioral biology that should have been smothered at birth. Not that I have strong feelings about it or anything.

    Amanda Marcotte, also recommended by Watson, tweeted [53]:


    Skepticism of evo psych isn’t “anti-science” anymore [sic] than skepticism of phrenology is. Meh.

    And as mentioned in the “fake experts” section, Marcotte authored such gems as “Women are born whores,” is quite possibly the favorite sacred belief of evolutionary psychology.

    Shall we believe that Watson did not intend for her audience to get the idea that general evolutionary psychology is empty and wrong, by telling her audience to go listen to people who say that it is?

    Questions about Watson’s Response

    Perhaps I should say “lack of response.” One vague paragraph aside, Watson has never responded to my criticism. She did not feel it necessary to answer the list of misrepresentations and errors (at the time of original writing there were twenty-five listed). She accepted a total of three corrections. She never addressed the bulk of these, never answered the “lingering questions” I specifically posed, and never refuted the five tactics of denialists which I established that she used. If I am wrong about all of these, then I would like to correct the account, especially because, as of this writing, an estimated fifty thousand people have read it. If I am right about some or most of it, then Watson should accept the criticism and apologize to Skepticon and her fans for misleading them so sharply. A self-respecting professional skeptic should always concede to the evidence and admit to their own mistakes. I can understand that criticism can be difficult to respond to. But that is what you sign up for when you elect to be a vocal critic yourself.


    The main value in this essay is, ideally, not in what it has to say merely about one person’s mistakes or even about evolutionary psychology. Rather, it is one story about how the hard problem of skepticism I discussed in the introduction (to 13 Reasons to Doubt) takes form, even in the seemingly unlikeliest of places. This problem is continuing even now. Rebecca Watson is scheduled to speak at Skepticon once again and, at the time of this writing, has been given a blog at Popular Science [54]. She continues to co-host the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, [55] aimed at communicating science to the public.

    Scientific skepticism is part of the daily life of an academic researcher. I coauthored a critical review of a mainstream hypothesis. I formally criticized a theory in evolutionary psychology that has stood for years. I have served as a peer-reviewer for several journals, penning as effective a critical appraisal as I could to the research of my colleagues in the field. I do these things in part because I love evolutionary psychology. I know that it is a good science and that a good science gets better with robust criticism. I am excited to be able to play a small part in that, if I can. My last publication in particular was also an exercise in skepticism toward something that I cared about. We need to engage in this kind of skepticism because as we try to figure out how the world works and how it got to be the way that it is; commitments to ego and ideology tend to get in the way. Rebecca Watson is a case study in how easily everything can go wrong, even among the smart and literate people so enamored with skepticism that they’ve named themselves after it. Skepticism should not be a cudgel for bashing ideas and people we may not like. It should be a lantern that helps us to find our way and perhaps more importantly, to see ourselves more clearly.

    My kind thanks to contributions from Dave Allen and helpful feedback from Daniel Fessler, Martie Haselton, and Robert Kurzban.


    90 Self-contradictions, errors, false and misleading claims, and misrepresentations made by Rebecca Watson

    This list shows a consistent pattern of confirmation bias, cherry-picking, intellectual dishonesty, self-contradiction, and pretension to unowned scientific literacy. Some items are minor and may appear nit-picky. They are only included because they are numerous and help illustrate a lackadaisical attitude and a consistent pattern of poor research. Video indices referring to the YouTube video of her talk precede each quotation or paraphrasing of her statements. 


    Watson said that she knows about the “scientific fact” that “girls evolved to shop” because “this is a science story that has appeared in the science section of major newspapers around the world not once, but several times. Here’s the first time I noticed it, this is in February 2009” (emphasis mine). An image of a Telegraph web article titled Shopping is ‘throwback to days of cavewomen’ appeared on the screen.

      1  The article has never appeared in the science section of any major newspaper. It has appeared in The Telegraph and the tabloid The Daily Express. The Telegraph and Daily Express filed the story under the sections “Weird” and not “Science” (Barnett, 2009; Leach, 2009). If the story ever appeared in any “major newspaper” after those, I was unable to find it. It was also run in an English-language Chinese newspaper called the Shenzhen Daily, which also filed it as weird (SD-agencies, 2009).

     2  In a talk alleging sexism of others, Watson has curiously chosen to refer to all female persons as “girls” in the title. No article or paper mentioned in her talk uses such sexist language. Watson never explained the usage.


    Watson said the Telegraph article “describes a “study” [Watson made the air quotes gesture] done by Dr. David Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University who said that women love to shop.”

    3  Dr. Holmes is never quoted as saying “women love to shop” or anything near to it. He only used gender-neutral terms. The headline reading “cavewomen” was an editorial choice of the publication, not the assertion of Dr. Holmes, as Watson falsely indicated (Leach, 2009).


    Dr. David Holmes… who said that women love to shop because, and I quote, “skills that were learned as cavemen and women were now being used in shops.”

     4  This is not a quote of Dr. Holmes, but Ben Leach paraphrasing Holmes, in spite of Watson’s misleading use of the phrase “and I quote” (Leach, 2009). The Express, which clearly covered the same story on the same day from the same source, probably parsed Holmes more accurately: Research suggests modern-day Wilma Flintstones are only using the instincts they inherited from their hunter—gatherer forebears. Note,  “instincts” and “inherited,” not “skills” and “learnt” (Barnett, 2009).


    Now I’m no scientist like Dr. Holmes but I found a few problems with his line of reasoning. For instance you don’t generally inherit traits that are learned behaviors. For instance my father is very good at playing the drums, I cannot play the drums. It’s weird that I wasn’t born playing the drums.

     5  Dr. Holmes never said any such thing. Watson is responding to the journalist’s poor phrasing and misattributing it to Dr. Holmes (Leach, 2009).


    Number three, you don’t gather in the cave. If you only gather in the cave all you eat is stalactite mushroom soup, you have to leave the cave to gather things.

     6  This reasoning was falsely attributed to Dr. Holmes, it was not in the article. Caves offered some hominins shelter from the elements, not foraging venues. Watson appeared to misconstrue the phrase “gathered in caves with fires at the entrance” (Leach, 2009).


    So if we actually inherited that learned behavior of leaving the cave to shop this is what our shopping malls would look like. The overhead projection then showed a cartoon of modern consumer products placed on bushes.

     7  “Inherited learned behavior” is a paraphrase of a nonsensical line written by Ben Leach, not by Dr. Holmes (Leach, 2009). As noted, the Express (which the Telegraph cites as a source) used the language “inherited” not “learnt.”

    8  Watson appeared to assert here that heritable psychological traits could only be evidenced if confined to the most superficial features. This is a naive and unscientific understanding of biology. A Bowerbird may construct a nest from plastic bottle caps. This is not because it evolved to locate and use plastic, but because it evolved to produce elaborate and colorful nests and plastic bottle caps that humans happened to have left about are one way to accomplish that for some modern Bowerbirds. Similarly, humans evolved to forage to locate sustenance and to make use of any available shelter against the elements, not to idiotically home in on bushes or caves.


    Problem number four. If women have been the ones who have been most interested in fashion since the Pleistocene was King Louis XIV some fabulous outlier? [Watson showed a painting of an elaborately costumed monarch].

     9  Watson responded to a claim that does not appear in the article. It does not mention fashion or clothing at all. We know she was not speaking more broadly because of the words “Problem number four…” a continuation of a series she began (see 2:26) with “I found a few problems with [Dr. Holmes’s] line of reasoning.” King Louis XIV is utterly irrelevant to this section of the talk about shopping as a 17th century monarch would not have done much of what we call shopping. His clothing and personal effects would have been custom-produced for him.

     10  Watson incorrectly referred to Louis XVI as Louis XIV.

     11  Watson appeared not to understand the scientifically important concept “outlier” as she failed to recognize that the King of France would count as an outlier in most respects, certainly in terms of fashion.


    In the end though this doesn’t matter because this isn’t actually science (surprise!). The end of the article did helpfully explain “the study was commissioned by Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre in a response to a rise in January visitors.” All of the best studies I find are commissioned by shopping centers. This is actually marketing disguised as science.

      12  Funding source alone does not necessarily discredit any particular study. We do not know if Dr. Holmes study is science because it was not published and has not been read by Watson. The Telegraph article may well be described as marketing, but such cannot merely be assumed about a paper that one has not even read. Surely that is necessary before declaring something as not science.

    Twenty-three minutes later Watson cited a dating survey commissioned and produced by the Cosmo-esque Self magazine as evidence about female sexuality as a means of refuting published scientific research (See point 55).
     13  The selfish interest of the Arndale Shopping Centre is to get useful, reliable information. According to the Express, the study was commissioned to determine possible reasons why the center was having record sales during a down economy. Its business manager was quoted as saying, It seems our gatherer instincts are coming to the fore and affecting the way we shop in these testing times. Notable is the phrasing the way we shop, not why women shop. This is just the sort of concern expected from a business owner who wants to make their store more appealing to customers (Barnett, 2009).

     14  Through the above misattributions, Watson paints Dr. Holmes as complicit in sexism, if not outright sexist in his work. Dr. Holmes’s other work includes fourteen presentations at professional conferences on the topics of stalking, domestic violence, and rape. Many of these appear to have been forensic talks designed to help arrest criminal offenders. This may prove nothing definitively, but his presumptive likelihood of sexist attitudes is dubious. Combined with the lack of any evidence for the contrary, Watson’s implications about Holmes are irresponsible (Holmes, 2012).


    Watson paraphrased Ben Goldacre’s account of a public relations company (Clarion Communications) soliciting a scientist to do a study they wished to show a preset result: 

    We’re conducting a survey into the celebrity top ten sexiest walks…. We would like help from a doctor of psychology, or someone similar, who could come up with equations to back up our findings as we feel that having an expert comment on our equation will give our story more weight. We haven’t done the survey yet but we know what results we want to achieve. We want Beyoncé to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs.

    At index 7:13 Watson continued, So you might think like nooo scientist would fall for this; no scientist with an ounce of morality would fall for this. But somebody did. Watson then showed a slide featuring a Telegraph article (Telegraph Media Group, 2007) “Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle, study says,” and continued, 

    The scientist that they ended up quoting was angry because they attributed his research to a whole team at Cambridge and they just ignored who he actually said had the sexiest wiggle.

    15  According to Ben Goldacre, the scientist in question is Prof. Richard Weber of Cambridge. Weber was not angry because they misattributed his work to a team, but because Clarion published the entirely inaccurate release at all. About it, Goldacre quoted Weber as writing,

    The Clarion press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do mathematics here. No such thing has happened. No “team of Cambridge mathematicians” has been involved in producing the results that have been reported. I do not endorse what the press release says. I did not approve it and would not have done so if asked. I have emailed my contact in Clarion Communication to ask for an explanation, but I have had a reply that she is on holiday.
    Clarion asked me to help by analyzing survey data on from 800 men in which they were asked to rank 10 celebrities for “sexiness of walk.” Jessica Alba was 7th on the list, near the bottom. I reported that there was little one could conclude from the data on the 10 names … I suggested that as a bit of fun and nonsense, but no more, that they could say something like the following: “I have studied how 10 celebrities have ranked for “sexiness of walk” in relation to their bust-waist-hip measurements…. I fear that the Clarion press release is an example of disingenuous and perverted use [of] this simple remark, not of any bad science. I trust you will not wish to follow their lead.

    Weber did no research, and after doing statistical analysis, found nothing to support the conclusion Clarion wanted, and told them so. Clarion then disregarded it all and published apparently fabricated results falsely attributing Cambridge without Weber’s consent and against his wishes (Goldacre, 2007).


    [Evolutionary psychology is] a field of study based on belief that the human brain as it exists today evolved completely during the Pleistocene era when humans lived as hunter-gatherers.

     16  Evolutionary psychologists stipulate that change during the Holocene has occurred; it is merely limited because 11,000 years is a relatively short amount of evolutionary time for a species with a 20-year reproductive cycle.

    The study of recent evolution is sometimes avoided for several good reasons. One is that large “big picture” understandings of the evolution of the brain are unanswered, making the asking of many smaller questions impossible. Also, claims about recent evolution are the kind that have been politically abused by genetic supremacists who wish to claim one “race” is superior.

    Our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for a thousand times longer than they lived any other way (Cosmides and Tooby, 1997). During the same period, brain size underwent a massive increase. It is not reasonable to imagine this period did not leave lasting marks on our psychology, regardless of any recent (<11,000 years) evolutionary change.

    Even if our minds evolved in substantial ways in the last 11,000 years, those changes would be based on the substrate mind forged over the previous million years which would leave lasting marks just the way that whales have hip bones, lungs, and move by vertical undulation of the body like land mammals and not like fish, in spite of tens of millions of years in the water and periods of rapid evolution for an aquatic lifestyle.

    8:11, 9:41

    Daniel Kruger and Dreyson Byker’s 2009 study incorrectly cited as “University of Chicago study.”

    17  Dr. Kruger is faculty at the University of Michigan. His study is titled “Evolved foraging psychology underlies sex differences in shopping experiences and behaviors” and was published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology (Kruger and Byker, 2009).


    [R]esearchers at Chicago also came up with the theory that women evolved to shop, the scientific theory, and I’m using “scientific theory” in the same way as Creationists use scientific theory, which is not scientific theory.  

     18  Daniel Kruger and Dreyson Byker’s paper does not assert that “women evolved to shop” but a milder thesis (quoting from the abstract) equally about men and women (Kruger and Byker, 2009):

    These results suggest that shopping experiences and behaviors are influenced by sexually divergent adaptations for gathering and hunting.

    Furthermore, Kruger and Byker demonstrated understanding of the many factors which influence human behavior, including socialization. In the concluding section they wrote, 

    It must be noted that cultural and social norms likely impact on people’s shopping experiences and behaviors, and the authors are not ruling against these influences. For example, with regards to navigation, it is quite possible that girls have fewer opportunities than boys to engage in activities that develop directional skills. Doguand Erkip (2000) propose that women might be encouraged to shop more during their development, and thus, they view stores or malls differently than men and pay particular attention to objects, as stores revolve around the displaying of items.


    So back in the day men were hunters and women were gatherers, and now men like museums where women prefer shopping because the researcher in question noticed this on a trip to Prague. He went with some friends and all the men in the group wanted to go and see cultural attractions and all the women wanted to go shopping. … So he is determined that visiting museums is like hunting and shopping is like gathering, ergo, science!

    19  Watson demonstrated an unfamiliarity with how scientists actually produce research. Hypotheses are guesses that scientists make, usually based on their observations or on existing literature but extending into a new area. Social scientists regularly find inspiration in behaviors they observe in their own lives. What makes a guess scientific or not is whether it is amenable to empirical testing, not how plausible a priori Watson, or anyone else, finds it. 

     20  Watson suggested that Kruger was arbitrarily selecting which behavior seemed more like hunting and which more like gathering. This is a confusion about what inspired a topic of study and what the actual research methods were. Kruger and Byker surveyed opinions, attitudes, and strategies related to shopping. The word “museum” does not even appear in the paper and no one was asked what types of sightseeing activities they prefer. Watson’s opinion of Kruger’s musing in a media piece is not relevant to the validity of the research or findings.

     21  Kruger and Byker’s paper could only be ruled unscientific by consideration of the theoretical basis and methodologies they used in their study, not by the colorful and manipulated quotes that appear in the media. There was no indication that Watson has read it.


    Evolutionary psychology requires that our brains evolved twelve thousand to one million years ago and haven’t changed since, which doesn’t actually fit in with what we understand about evolution. We’re not finished evolving. Watson then gave, as an example of recent evolutionary change, our ability to consume animal milk.

     22  Watson appeared to believe that little change over twelve thousand years is incongruent with evolutionary theory. In fact, species sometimes undergo little change over millions of years. Fossil evidence shows that Pelicans, for example, have changed little over the course of thirty million years. This is 2500 times longer than the duration which Watson finds implausible (Switek, 2010). 

    Evolutionary psychologists state plainly that changes are possible, see point 16 (Hagen, 2004).

     23  The ability to drink (animal) milk throughout the lifespan is a recent change, namely the mutation causing the enzyme lactase to be produced throughout the lifespan and not merely during infancy. However, this observation does not support Watson’s argument because:

    •  Humans have shown virtually no major physiological changes in the last 10,000 years. Lactase is the exception, not the rule. This is evidence the mind is unlikely to have many large recent changes, not the contrary.
    • The mutation in the case of lactase is a simple one, an amendment to an existing enzyme’s production schedule. Evolutionary psychologists largely focus on complex behaviors requiring equally complex genetic changes and thus far more time than the one observed with lactase.
    • Watson’s example relied on many assumptions about the conditions of the Pleistocene. For example, that humans had not yet domesticated cattle to get milk from, and that humans did not normally consume milk beyond childhood. This is inconsistent with her insistence that the Pleistocene is uncertain and unknowable for the purposes of scientific consideration at point 25.


    A lot of times [evolutionary psychologists] say this stuff, these behaviors are written into our genes but they never actually tell us which genes. There’s no evidence to support it.

     24  The implication that gene(s) must be identified before an adaptation is demonstrated is specious. The remark that there is “no evidence to support it” is equally mistaken. To quote Confer et al. 2010,

     Adaptations are typically defined by the complexity, economy, and efficiency of their design and their precision in effecting specific functional outcomes, not by the ability of scientists to identify their complex genetic bases (Williams, 1966). For example, the human eye is indisputably an adaptation designed for vision, based on the design features for solving the particular adaptive problems such as detecting motion, edges, colors, and contrasts. The universal and complex design features of the eyes provide abundant evidence that they are adaptations for specific functions, even though scientists currently lack knowledge of the specific genes and gene interactions involved in the visual system (Confer et al., 2010).

    The founder of genetics, Gregor Mendel, had no idea what genes actually were, let alone which did what. Charles Darwin had no idea what a gene was, as he drafted his theory of evolution based on the observations of apparent adaptations. One does not have to fully understand the mechanism to make valid inferences from observation.


    [A] problem leveled against evolutionary psychology as a whole: … It’s shocking how little we know about our ancestors. We have some guesses, but the 2 million years that made up that era were incredibly varied in terms of climate and in terms of environment and most likely the lives lead by our Pleistocene ancestors were just as varied… a lot of what we assume about them is taken from present day hunter-gatherer cultures. 

    25  Evolutionary psychologists only lean heavily on non-controversial facts about the past. For example, pregnancy involves numerous costs, and we therefore expect that females in many species will be pickier about mating than will males. This prediction has strong empirical support for both humans and other animals (Hagen, 2004).

    The ancestral environment is not restricted to the Pleistocene. Powerful hormones such as testosterone, for example, date back half a billion years. Breast feeding originated in early mammals eons before primates existed. 

     26  Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are presumed, quite sanely, to be more like our ancestors than we are, but not to be exactly like them. Existent small-scale societies are used as a proxy for the past only when the feature under consideration is reasonably expected to have been relevant in the ancient past, such as how pre-state peoples might cope with parasites.


    Evolutionary psychology theories are unfalsifiable [on slide].

    27  At appendix points 29, 50, 55, 58, and video index 24:30, 39:00, Watson cited research which she believed refuted evolutionary psychology hypotheses. Watson declared said hypotheses to be false based on that research, proving conclusively that she knows such hypotheses are falsifiable, despite her claim here.

     28  Confer et al. 2010 thoroughly refuted this claim, citing the theories of domain-specific memory and error management which have produced dozens of testable predictions which have been empirically tested.

    I authored a paper criticizing one particular evolutionary psychology hypothesis, which is to say, it was a test of that hypothesis (Clint et al. 2012).


    There are some contemporary African cultures in which men are the primary gatherers (posed as objection to the notion of a knowable stereotypic Pleistocene environment).

     29  The anthropological record is clear that these cases are the exception, and that these exceptions happen for reasons based in ecology. To quote the study by Dr. Kruger which Watson cited at points 17 and 18:

    These are aggregate tendencies, as men sometimes gather (Halpern, 1980) and women sometimes hunt (Noss, 2001). The sex reversal in activities usually take place under special conditions, such as male gathering when meat is scarce during the dry season, and these men often specialized in carrying heavy loads rather than searching for food (Halpern, 1980). In environments where food is more abundant and less seasonal, males gather proportionally more so than in more scarce and seasonal environments (Marlowe, 2007). Women do not hunt as often as men, and usually hunt more reliable small game when caloric return is relatively high compared to gathering alternatives (Noss, 2001). For example, Agta women in central Africa hunt in groups with nets for small game, and do not hunt when they have infants, a limitation that men do not face (Noss, 2001). It is important to recognize that evolution by selection does not require or imply absolutes; there will often be a few examples that contrast with the general pattern. Therefore, in general men tend to hunt and women tend. [Emphasis mine] (Kruger and Byker, 2009).


    Recent research by anthropologist Steven Kuhn suggests that there was no sexual division of labor prior to the upper Paleolithic.

    30  Watson called Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner’s (Watson did not credit Mary Stiner) paper “recent research” even though it was published in 2006, a bit like saying Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” is a recent hit pop song. This gave the misleading impression the paper was new. In reality, there has been quite a lot of further study and research after it which has largely not supported the hypothesis.

    Kuhn’s hypothesis is just one of several attempting to explain why Homo sapiens out-competed Neanderthals. Viable competing theories include symbol use and the invention of projectile weaponry. Watson may not realize Kuhn was saying the sexual division of labor made Homo sapiens better at surviving than the Neanderthals, which is identical to other arguments for adaptive sex differences that Watson finds so sexist. She made no remark upon it here, when she believed it supported her views.

    Further, there is no consensus among archaeologists that the physical evidence proves upper Paleolithic humans were the first with a sexual division of labor, nor that Neanderthal’s lacked them.

    Subsequent studies of physical evidence have concluded Neanderthal women did not hunt as Kuhn supposed (Villotte et al., 2010).

    Watson cited Kuhn as proof that modern hunter-gatherers are not indicative of the past. Kuhn shares this view, but clarifies that such knowledge is useful in formulating models of the past. He wrote: …models developed from data on recent hunter-gatherers are most informative precisely when they prove to be inadequate predictors of patterns encountered in the Paleolithic record. In using the present hunter-gatherer studies to detect disjunctive predictions about the Paleolithic hominins, he is engaging in the same comparative reasoning as the evolutionary psychologists which Watson criticized at points 25 (13:39) and 29 (14:17) (Kuhn and Stiner, 2006).


    This is why there are tons of people who, particularly scientists, who think that a lot of the pop evolutionary psychology is “just so stories” as Stephen Jay Gould noted. 

     31  It is unclear to whom “tons of scientists” refers. The only one named is Stephen Jay Gould who used the term “just so stories,” 33 years ago, and which is not considered cogent criticism on the grounds of being trite and glib. Scholarly rebuttals to Gould’s criticism have been authored by John Alcock and Steven Pinker (Alcock, 2000; Kalant et al., 1997). 

     32  Watson mischaracterized Gould as “noting” something about “pop evolutionary psychology.” Gould aimed his criticisms at “selectionists” in biology and sociobiology as wholes and not “pop” anything.


    The accusation that [many scientists] make is that evolutionary psychology researchers first identify a behavior, like shopping. They assume it has evolved, as a response to environmental pressures, they don’t need evidence for that. And then they find anything in our ancient past that might be relevant to that. 

     33  No one believes that just any behavior must be an adaptation. Behaviors and features are chosen for testing when they show coherent function which is not explained by existing understanding. Even then, a hypothesis is considered speculative without multiple rounds of testing.

    It is unclear how Watson envisions hypothesis generation in science. All science begins with an observation, and an attempt to account for it, generally using a research paradigm or model, then testing that account. In this regard, evolutionary psychology is standard science. Watson seems to believe we can know what is true or false before we’ve even started. See also point 19.

    An evolutionary hypothesis constrained by the conditions of the past is often easy to test and falsify because that feature leads to some very specific predictions. If people could learn to write as easy as they learn to speak, the notion that language is an adaptation would be in serious trouble because writing is a recent invention. The hypothesis of language as an ancient adaptation is easily falsifiable.


    Watson recounted how neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran published a “satire” study “Why gentlemen prefer blondes.”

     34  Ramachandran published his paper in a non-peer reviewed, non-evolutionary psychology journal Medical Hypotheses. If his “satire” submission was so indistinguishable from “real” evolutionary psychology, why not publish in a mainstream peer-reviewed evolutionary psychology journal?

    Medical Hypotheses defines itself as a space for unfounded and out-there ideas. The journal’s own website reveals: “The journal will consider radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific ideas provided they are coherently expressed.” About the journal Don Symons said, “If Medical Hypotheses is peer reviewed, it must be by chipmunks” (Symons, 2000).


    Watson portrayed V.S. Ramachandran as a rebellious iconoclast, calling him the “honey badger of science,” and saying, “he don’t give a fuck.” One might imagine that Ramachandran would find the publisher (Medical Hypotheses) of his “satire,” the purported “dupee” worthy of derision, having foolishly printed his joke paper. The journal is indeed questionable, having raised eyebrows when it published a paper in 2009 by AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, denying that HIV causes AIDS (Enserink, 2010b). 

     35  Watson failed to tell her audience that Ramachandran has published a total of fifteen times in Medical Hypotheses and sits on their editorial advisory board. In spite of everything, Ramachandran praised the journal as a “unique and excellent venue for airing new and valuable ideas.” Ramachandran’s scientific skepticism is perhaps  unfitting of the fawning praise Watson gave him, to the detriment of her audience (Enserink, 2010b).


    Watson cited Satoshi Kanazawa’s work as an example of evolutionary psychology.

    36  Satoshi Kanazawa is a disgraced outlier, roundly criticized from within evolutionary psychology (BBC news, 2011). To wit:

    Watson cited an interview Kanazawa did for The Sun—a tabloid newspaper. In it, Kanazawa cited no original peer-reviewed research.

    In 2011, he was fired from his job blogging at Psychology Today.

    68 evolutionary psychologists issued a statement condemning his work on the basis of its poor quality and dishonest methods. It is titled ”Kanazawa’s bad science does not represent evolutionary psychology” (Alvergene et al., 2011).

    According to the above statement, 24 critiques involving 59 different scientists have been published in peer-reviewed journals of Kanazawa’s work. Kanazawa has not published a full length reply in an academic journal to the many critiques since 2002, showing his disengagement.

    35 leading minds in psychology, including evolutionary psychology, wrote a total deconstruction of his research model and published it in commentary in American Psychologist (Penke et al., 2011).

    His own employer, the London School of Economics, forbade him (as punishment) from publishing in non-peer reviewed outlets for a full year and distanced themselves from some of his work (BBC News, 2011).


    During the lead-in to the interlude about Cindy Meston and David Buss’s Why Women have Sex Watson said [W]omen hate sex. Science has proven it … women hate sex unless they’re using it to get money or babies. 

    37 During the several minutes Watson spent on the topic, no researcher or paper is ever cited that claims this, and several claim the contrary. On Amazon’s copy about the book, the promo explicitly includes “pleasure” as one reason women like sex. Buss and Meston’s research clearly shows pleasure is important to both sexes. Watson noted that their research shows that both men and women cite pleasure as a reason at minute 21:45. It is baffling why Watson would begin this section [W]omen hate sex. Science has proven it, by citing two researchers whose work demonstrates many stereotypes about men and women are false (Castleman, 2010).

    In discussion of the top 10 reasons men/women have sex, the top for both was that they’re attracted to the person, and there was not much difference between genders according to Cindy Meston in a presentation she and Buss gave (Buss and Meston, 2009).


    Regarding Meston and Buss’s book, Watson remarked, They bravely went and interviewed a thousand white middle class women to figure it out… 

    38 The women polled were diverse in ethnicity, socio-economic status, and came from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, China, and Australia. Again, it is unclear why Watson wished to cast doubt on mainstream research that supports her own positions on gender and sex stereotypes (Meston and Buss, 2007). 


    Apparently only women are the mysterious creatures that need an entire book to figure out why they like sex…

    39  Watson changed the language to a more disparaging characterization “why women like sex” from why women have sex, in spite of it being the title of the book. Those are different questions, and no one wonders why women (or men) like sex.

    Most psychology research has a relatively narrow focus. Researchers chose this topic because it interested them, much the same as any researchers in any field. Trying to understand one particular gender identity, age, race, class, or any other sub-group better is a perfectly legitimate goal unless there is evidence of bias, but no such evidence was presented. Social scientists have often been (rightly) criticized for unduly focusing on men as normative. Surely, we should applaud Buss and Meston for giving much needed focus to female sexuality and doing justice to its complexity and nuance.


    There have been other studies where women didn’t really seem to figure into it at all. [Gendered differences in receptivity to sexual offers] is a particularly fun and horrific one. 

    40 It is unclear in what sense women did not “figure into” this study, or what makes it “horrific.” Equal numbers of the experiment’s subjects and research confederates were male and female. The authors did not favor one gender or the other in the design, discussion, or findings. The paper was co-authored by a woman, Elaine Hatfield.


    There are a number of studies based on this idea men appear to enjoy casual sex way more than women do. And women, of course, again, tend to only want to have sex when they get a husband out of it, or babies or money.  So they take this as a given and they do studies like this [indicates Clark and Hatfield 1989 on the slide] in which they set out to prove it as a fact then make up a story about how our Pleistocene era brains are somehow responsible for this.

     41  The idea that Clark and Hatfield “set out” to establish some evolutionary account could hardly be more mistaken. The purpose of the study was to try to arbitrate between competing theories. They recounted dominant theories of the time, both the evolutionary and the cultural account without praising or disparaging either:

    According to cultural stereotypes, men are eager for sexual intercourse; it is women who set limits on such activity…. No experimental support for this hypothesis exists, however. In this research, we will report an experimental test of this proposition (Clark and Hatfield, 1989).

     42  Clark and Hatfield were social psychologists, not evolutionary psychologists. They showed due consideration of sociological explanations. They wrote in the conclusion: Of course, the sociological interpretation—that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex—is not the only possible interpretation of these data. It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation that did women. … [A]lso the remnants of a double standard may make women afraid to accept the man’s invitation (Clark and Hatfield, 1989). 


    In this particular study, a group of attractive young white people were sent out into the public to invite members of the opposite to have sex with them.

     43  The paper says nothing about the races of the confederates. The research confederates ranged from “slightly unattractive to moderately attractive.” Attractiveness was not a requirement, and the authors concluded that it also had no effect on the results in any case (Clark and Hatfield, 1989).


    …a group …were sent out into public to invite members of the opposite sex to go to bed with them. On the spot. Like, let’s go back to my apartment right now and have sex.

     44  Participants were asked one of three questions, none of which was “will you have sex with me right now?” The questions were: “Would you go out with me tonight?”, “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?”, and “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” The study took place in the daytime between classes so “tonight” meant later, not now (Clark and Hatfield, 1989). 


    Across two studies, 69% and 75% of men accepted the offer and no women did. So obviously, women hate sex.

     45  In the discussion of expected results, it is clear the researchers did not know exactly what to expect. They outlined three possibilities; one in which both sexes were more receptive than expected, another in which one or the other sex was more so, and one matching stereotypical views. From the paper: It may be, however, that men and women are not so different as social stereotypes suggest. Again and again, researchers have found that while men and women expect the sexes to respond in very different ways, when real men and real women find themselves caught up in naturalistic settings, they respond in much the same way (Clark and Hatfield, 1989).

    46  Nowhere in the paper did the authors say or imply that women hate sex.


    Watson suggested an alternate explanation for the conclusion of the sexual offers studies and implied the authors had not considered it: the threat of rape.

    47  The 1989 Clark and Hatfield paper stated as part of its conclusion that the risk of assault is greater for women, and that this could help explain the findings (Clark and Hatfield, 1989).

     48  In a presentation condemning the concoction of untestable “just so stories” Watson asked her audience to disregard the findings of a dozen scientific studies across multiple countries and decades in lieu of her ad hoc story about female psychology for which no evidence is given other than a single assault case from the news.

     49  Her explanation was contradicted by two different papers she cited herself. Guéguen 2011 (see 24:30) found that when propositioned by an attractive male, 57% of women agree to go to their apartment—just the activity Watson said women were too fearful to do (Guéguen, 2011). At point 58 Watson favorably referred to Conley 2011 which also contradicted this point: …perceived danger variables did not predict acceptance of the [sexual offer] for women or for men.


    [O]ne study looked at speed dating. What they found is when they let the women make all of the decisions about who they got to talk to … they were much more likely to be cocky and non-selective as the men … they were slutty. Watson did not provide any details identifying the study. It appears to be “Arbitrary Social Norms Influence Sex Differences in Romantic Selectivity” (Finkel and Eastwick, 2009).

    50  Women did not make any decisions about who they got to talk to. That is not how speed-dating works. Every person of one sex talked to every person of the opposite sex (only heterosexual events were considered). This is why the authors spoke of who was “rotating” and not “selecting.”

     51  By “much more likely” to be “slutty,” Watson meant that the women said yes to a date 45% of the time (when approaching) compared to 43% of the time (when men were the ones approaching) (Finkel and Eastwick, 2009).

    52  The authors’ conclusion is contradicted by their own data. When men were not “rotators” they said yes 50% of the time, compared to women who said yes 45% of the time when not “rotators,” a significant sex difference consistent with the evolutionary perspective.

     53  This speed dating study has as research subjects young, likely mostly white, middle class college undergraduates. Watson vocally criticized this practice several times in her talk (see 38, 43, 70). 

     54  Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker noted that the artificial conditions of the experiment limited the meaningfulness of the results.

    They never acknowledged a crucial point: that they are studying the special situation in which women have already consented (or have been instructed—they give no details about this part of their methods) to approach strangers for possible romantic or sexual opportunities. That is, they ignored the stage in the mating process in which the largest sex differences are predicted to occur, namely whether people are willing to approach strangers for possible romantic opportunities in the first place (Pinker, 2012).


    [I]n a survey of two thousand single women … researchers found 82% agreed to at least one casual sexual encounter. Watson gave no source or means of identifying the survey, but the details match a 2011 article for Self magazine, a clone of Cosmopolitan (Self Magazine, 2011).

     55  Previously Watson criticized The Telegraph for publishing a study conducted by an actual researcher because it was paid for by a business, saying, All of the best studies I find are commissioned by shopping centers. This is actually marketing disguised as science (see point 13). Here, 23 minutes later, she used a survey created by a magazine expressly to market to its readers as legitimate evidence supporting a point she is making—and she intended it as rebuttal of peer-reviewed scientific research.

     56  Self magazine is clearly marketed to young, white Americans. The survey surely skews heavily that way, making it just the sort of demographic sample Watson criticized at points 38, 43, and 70.

    57  The evolutionary psychology theory of differing sexual selectiveness among the sexes does not predict women would not engage in casual sex, but that they would do so under different circumstances than men some statistically significant part of the time. Men, conversely, could not have evolved any preferences for casual sex if there were no one to have casual sex with.


    Citing Conley 2011, Watson said [R]esearchers asked subjects how they viewed the people who were approaching others for sex in that 1989 study. Women and men both agreed that the women proposers in the experiment were intelligent, successful, sexually skilled much more so than the men who were asking for sex. And the researchers are thinking that that’s because we see women as being more passive and shy and so we assume that a woman who is confidently asking for sex is really good at sex.

    58  The authors admitted their finding is far less valid than Clark and Hatfield 1989 because that study was naturalistic, observing actual human behavior. Conley’s method was a written survey asking subjects what they would do or what their opinion is, not observing what they actually do. The subjects know that they are being studied and are biased accordingly (Conley, 2011).

     59  Subjects affirmatively answering the questions about sexual skill is not strong evidence that sexual skill is part of anyone’s decisions about casual sex and is disconfirmed by much evidence (e.g. the lack of discussion with regard to sexual skill indicators in personal ads or dating scenarios). It is also possible that people elevate the expected sexual capabilities of people they choose to have sex with for other reasons.

    60  In the only part of Conley 2011 approaching naturalistic, subjects were asked about real casual sexual encounters of theirs. Here, Conley reported an enormous sex difference: 73% of men versus 40% of women reported accepting offers.

     61  Conley disagreed with a prevailing evolutionary hypothesis, “sexual selection theory,” but favored a different evolutionary hypothesis which also rests on gender differences Watson has attacked. Conley wrote [T]he current findings support a theory with evolutionary foundations (i.e., pleasure theory) in showing the primacy of pleasure in sexual decision making. Conley cited Armstrong et al. 2012’s research on pleasure theory, which includes such findings as [Women] who were interested in a relationship were about a third more likely to orgasm and more than twice as likely to say they enjoyed the hookup (Armstrong, England, and Fogarty, 2012). In other words, Watson used her own citation to argue against evolutionary psychology when that study states plainly that it hypothesizes a theory with “evolutionary foundations.” The theoretical basis of the paper is full of assumptions of gender differences that Watson disclaims as sexist and nonsensical. Whether such differences exist or not, it is unethical to misrepresent the research which, in turn, mislead the audience.


    Watson said that the study (she does not provide any citation, but it could only be (G. Miller, Tybur, and Jordan, 2007)) suggesting strippers make more when they’re ovulating has serious methodological problems. She remarked that there are only 18 participants, data was collected over 60 days, that the strippers only reported data on 27% of days that they were supposed to, that all of them worked in the same club and this would therefore bias the data if there were particularly busy days (such as a convention being in town). Watson also suggested that it is obvious why earnings would decline during menstruation citing the physically unpleasant aspects.

     62  The small sample size limits the generalizability of the study, but small sample sizes are sometimes unavoidable. The fact that the participants did not report data as often as the researchers wanted is only pertinent if the authors did not collect adequate data for each phase of the cycle, or if there was some patterned bias in reporting. Neither possibility could explain the cycle effects observed. The co-location of the participants could only be relevant if the women were cycling together and spikes in business only occurred during the fertile period. One might indeed assume the week of menstruation could affect job performance (the authors said they expected it), but that was not the most important aspect of the data. The study was about ovulation (egg release/fertility) not about menstruation. Strippers made more money during peak fertility than they did any other time, including the non-menstrual phase. Additionally, participants using hormonal birth control made substantially less money during their fertility phase. None of Watson’s objections mentioned or refuted these findings.

    Lastly, Miller et al. built on solid existing research, citing thirteen previous studies documenting apparent detectability of ovulatory cues (Gangestad et al. 2002; Grammer et al. 2004; Haselton and Gangestad, 2006; Haselton et al. 2007; Havlicek et al. 2006; Kirchengast and Gartner, 2002; Krug et al. 1999; Kuukasjarvi, 2004; Manning et al. 1996; Pillsworth and Haselton, 2006; Provost et al. 2008; Roberts et al., 2004; Singh and Bronstad, 2001; Symonds et al. 2004). The basic finding has been supported by subsequent research (Alvergne and Lummaa, 2010; Fink et al. 2012; Haselton and Gildersleeve, 2011).


    Watson cited a 2007 study testing for a link between women’s gait and their ovulatory status (Watson provided no citation, but it could only be Provost et al. 2008) Watson said, the results were no. And so their conclusions was that that must mean women are trying to disguise their fertility to deter unsuitable partners.

     63  Provost et al. did find an effect in one of their two experiments. Men’s gait preferences did change with ovulatory cycle status, just not in the expected direction (men showed a preference for gait of women in non-fertile phase).

     64  Watson misrepresented the authors when she said they concluded what this must mean. She was referring to speculative discussion of what the results might mean in the section of the paper titled “Discussion” not “Results.” They wrote, This finding contradicts the face research … it is possible that faces and gait present different information because of the intimacy with which the stimulus is viewed. For example, faces can only be seen in a fairly close encounter, whereas gait patterns can be seen from a large distance.

    The authors reported the effect, but made no claim that the cause is proven. It is standard practice in any good research publication to attempt to interpret unexpected results. In fact, it is often very important to do so because it can help guide further research to either rule out possibilities or to design improved future studies. Furthermore, Provost et al’s speculation that close-contact signals (facial cues) should differ from wider-rage cues (walking gait) is perfectly possible, whether true or not.

    A subsequent experiment, Fink et al. 2012 did find an effect of fertility phase on perceived attractiveness of gait in a more controlled study building on Provost. Fink et al. found a strong effect of ovulatory phase. Nonetheless, they wrote in the conclusion:

    [I]t is also clear that particularly with regards to the role of body movement in this context, further research is needed before we can confirm or reject the perspective on women’s body movements as being another physiological by-product of the ovulatory cycle and whether or not men are obtaining information regarding fertility from them.

     That’s because these studies are initial forays into a new area. Speculation, guesses, hypothesis refinement, and generally lots of experiments with negative or uncertain results are normal in science. Everyone involved in the research understands the findings are tentative and amount to little yet. It is again unclear what it is that Watson takes science to be.

     65  This is another paper Watson cited which did not find support for a particular evolutionary hypothesis in spite of her insistence that such hypotheses cannot be tested.


    In 2010 researchers [Watson does not identify which, but from the details she gave it could only be Miller and Maner, 2010] found that in a group of 38 men, the men found that a woman they interacted with was least attractive when unbeknownst to them she was ovulating … so that was explained as the men fooling themselves into thinking they weren’t attracted to her so that they could maintain relationships with their girlfriends. This was, according to the researchers, because evolution would favor a man who could stay with a woman long enough to bear children. Which goes against all the other evolutionary psychologists who just think that men are there to spread their magical seed.

    66 Watson failed to mention that the study included both men who identified as single and who identified as “in a committed relationship.” Each group had divergent opinions of the woman (the single men rating her more attractive, the non-single men, less attractive) but only during ovulation, which is quite striking (Miller and Maner, 2010).

     67 The notion that this study “goes against” a prevalent evolutionary psychology staple of male promiscuity is either naïve or a deliberate distortion, as no evolutionary psychologists defend this cartoonish view. To observe that males are comparatively more promiscuous and less discriminating about sexual partners is not to claim that they are incapable of, or do not adaptively benefit from, long term relationships. Humans, male and female, have a diverse array of mating strategies which may be more or less adaptive based on an individual’s characteristics, resources, options, and environment. Among those is pair-bonding, which evolutionary psychologists identify as providing unique and important adaptive benefits for males. See Gonzaga et al. 2008 for discussion.

     68  The Miller and Maner paper does not contradict findings on male promiscuity for other reasons. Some useful context is required: the woman was not permitted any kind of signal of flirting or sexual availability. No make-up, hair always pony-tailed, her clothing was always t-shirt and jeans, and flirting behaviors discouraged and monitored-for. The woman was selected based on her “average” attractiveness and the interaction with each male was a single 20-minute session of “cooperative tasks.” In other words, the situation was very nearly as unsexy and uninviting as it could possibly be. It is entirely consistent with evolutionary psychology theory that context is important and in this situation deliberately removed from any overt sexual cues we should not find it at all strange that committed men were not lured astray. We should also find it all the more astonishing that invisible cues to fertility nonetheless made them down-grade their ratings (and that the single men upgraded them) (Miller and Maner, 2010).

    In this and in the preceding points, Watson has tried to create the impression that disagreements among researchers proved that the field is sexist or dishonorable. In any healthy science, particularly in new research areas such as those quoted above, there are rightly robust disagreements at times.


    In 2009 researchers wanted to know if women were more racist when they were ovulating. … [B]ecause they’re running out of shit to study while women are ovulating.

     69  The punch line of Watson’s joke (which did get laughs) is that the 2009 study about racism is frivolous. Her attitude makes it appear unlikely she knew that Navarrete et al. chose to focus on ovulation because women have been uniquely vulnerable to sexual coercion and assault throughout history, and the effect studied (if real) may represent a coping mechanism. Her flippant dismissal of reputable peer-reviewed research endeavoring to produce new knowledge about the social tragedies of racism and sexual coercion would be appalling even if she had not ridiculed the field as racist and sexist five minutes later (see point 85).

    Her remarks might have made sense if she knew this literature fairly well, and knew it to be empty of validity, but she proved this was not the case as she misconstrued the details and admitted to not knowing about two important papers on the topic (See points 70, 71).


    [A]nd what they found was that women … might be implicitly more racist. And that study involved 77 white psychology students at university and has never been replicated.

     70  Black and white participants were recruited, but only ten black women met the qualifying criteria (non-pregnancy status, not using oral contraceptives, answering all survey items, et cetera) and had to be omitted from the analysis because n = 10 would be too small to have much statistical power. As a first study of this kind, the scope is limited. There is also nothing whatsoever wrong with one study focusing on the racism of white people (or any other one ethnicity) as such findings can be valid and important (Navarrete et al, 2009).

     71  Despite Watson’s very emphatic “…and has never been replicated,” the finding was replicated in four experiments documented in two subsequent papers (McDonald et al., 2011; Navarrete et al., 2010).


    Watson introduced a NewScientist article on color perception by Anya Hurlburt and Yazhu Ling by calling it another example of “evolutionary psychologists trying to support a shitty stereotype about women,” namely the preference for the color pink. (Hurlbert and Ling, 2007; Khamsi, 2007)

     72  Neither author is an evolutionary psychologist, or even a social scientist for that matter. Neither has any academic background in evolution-based behavioral science nor do they publish in such journals.

     73  Neither are men. In a talk about lax regard for evidence and for bias by evolutionary psychologists and/or journalists covering them, Watson is asking her audience to believe these accomplished women are determined to oppress their own gender—because Watson did not like their speculative remarks. Dr. Anya Hurlburt, for example, is director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University and holds a degree in physics, a Master’s in physiology from Cambridge, a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT, and an MD from Harvard. Other than disagreeing with one of her dozens of published papers, Watson offers no evidence to support her deeply insulting claim that Dr. Hurlburt is abusing science in service of self-targeting sexism.


    Here is a study that shows that pink is a girl’s color because women were Pleistocene gatherers who had to be able to tell when berries were ripe.

     74  The study does not show that, nor was it meant to. It was meant to produce objective data about color preferences between cultures and genders, which it did, and those findings are consonant with field literature (Hurlbert and Ling, 2007).


    We have substantial evidence that up until the 40s or so pink was a boy’s color and blue was a girl’s color.

     75  Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope has pointed out that prior to the first half of the 20th century, there simply was no dominant cultural idea of a color “for” boys or girls. Young boys and girls dressed in white or a variety of colors with no apparent sexual connotation whatsoever. The matter seems to have been settled by decades-long debate, but there may have been no consensus at all, ever, that pink was for boys (Adams, 2008).

     76  Watson was confused about what an evolutionary psychology explanation means. To say that an observed psychological feature has some basis in our evolutionary past is not to say that cause has had the same manifestation at all times and in all circumstances. People consume pornography partly because of the evolutionary link between sex and adaptive fitness, not because pornography has always existed and always been available to humans (the opposite would be true, actually). Watson and the researchers she ridiculed could actually both be correct at the same time.

     77  The authors reported that both sexes and both English and Chinese ethnicities overwhelmingly prefer blues to any other color. This is not an impressive effort at supporting any stereotypes (Hurlbert and Ling, 2007).


    The study disproves itself because part of it was done in China, and what they found in China is that men also prefer pink. Everything in this remark is incorrect.

    78  No part of the study was done in China. It was conducted in the UK and included ethnically Han Chinese participants who had recently relocated to the UK.

     79  The study did not measure male (or female) preference for pink, but rather the shape of a preference curve across the blue-yellow and red-green hue contrasts. The sex difference in which the red-green curve “leans” positive for women and negative for men was found for both cultures. The authors wrote, Only the “red–green” weights show a consistent sex difference across all populations. On average, all males give large negative weight to the [red-green] axis, whereas all females weight it slightly positively (sex difference p < 0.00001). That is, females prefer colors with “reddish” contrast against the background, whereas males prefer the opposite (Hurlbert and Ling, 2007).

     80  The authors did expect cultural influence, including the Chinese belief that red is lucky. Watson implied they were surprised and hamstrung by the finding. They weren’t. From the NewScientist article Watson displayed on screen: The idea of testing the two groups was to separate out whether culture or biology might influence gender preferences for color (Khamsi, 2007). It is also worth noting that Watson implied that she has a more sensible opinion on color preference and culture than Yazhu Ling, a highly educated Chinese-born woman who has lived and worked in China, the UK, and the US and has made human color perception her career.

     81  As in point 64, Watson has confused a paper’s conclusion (the thesis supported or unsupported by the data) with speculation about the meaning of that conclusion. Researchers are expected to speculate about findings in published papers. In this particular paper, a reader may note such a tone by the phrase “We speculate that…,” which the authors wrote on page 624 (Hurlbert and Ling, 2007). Watson said the paper “proves” and “shows” that which was merely speculated (or entirely absent).


    Watson suggested that the stereotype that men cry less was invented and perpetuated by evolutionary psychologists.

     82  The evidence is that a reduced male tendency to cry (or to appear to cry) is not cultural. A 2011 study of 37 nations including ones in Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania and a total of 5,715 subjects found that in all places women report a stronger tendency to cry and to have done so more recently. Analysis of the 74 comparisons (2 measures x 37 nations) showed the same effect size for sex in all but three. This is very substantial evidence sex plays a significant role independent of culture (van Hemert, van de Vijver, and Vingerhoets, 2011). Lombardo et al. conducted a study on gender and crying in 1981, then again in 1996 using diverse subjects. Although many researchers noted the culture of the US had changed in that time, the two studies reported the same results (Lombardo, Cretser, and Roesch, 2002).


    Watson said that the idea that a woman’s place is the home is novel to the industrial era and that evolutionary psychologists are bent on looking for reasons to support the stereotypical view.

     83  In point 30 Watson cited Kuhn and Stiner (2006) to support her contention that present small-scale societies do not necessarily resemble past ones. However, Kuhn and Stiner were arguing that that was the start of division of labor for Homo sapiens, around 40,000 years before the industrial revolution. Watson may wish to reconsider citing papers that contradict her position, or at least not to ignore primary points in a paper she alleged that evolutionary psychologists had ignored.

     84  Watson provided no evidence for the outlandish assertion of active sexism. Here is what prominent evolutionary psychologists actually say:

    Nothing in evolutionary theory privileges males over females, however, nor does evolutionary theory prescribe social “roles” for either sex. Are ovaries superior to testicles? The question is meaningless. Are male mate preferences superior to female mate preferences? The question is equally meaningless. -Edward Hagen (2004)

    [E]volutionary explanations of the traditional division of labor by sex do not imply that it is unchangeable, “natural” in the sense of good, or something that should be forced on individual women or men who don’t want it. -Steven Pinker (1997)

    We share the view that men’s historical control of power and resources, a core component of patriarchy, can be damaging to women in domains ranging from being forced to endure a bad marriage to suffering crimes such as genital mutilation and “honor killings” for perceived sexual infractions. –David Buss and David Schmitt (2011)


    Watson intimated that evolutionary psychologists are using bad science to keep women and minorities down is nothing new, and that not much has changed in a hundred years.

     85  There is no evidence that the evolutionary psychology research program is based on subjugation of anyone, and much to the contrary. Refutations in point 69 are similar. The claim of oppressing minorities is especially bizarre. A fundamental claim of evolutionary psychology is that the mind’s structure is basically pan-human, an idea which would undermine any biological justification of prejudice on the basis of class or race. See Buss and Schmitt (2011) for discussion of evolutionary psychology and feminism.


    Watson said that evolutionary psychologists assert that “men evolved to rape” in order to justify rape with “it’s natural for men to rape” and/or that people will construe it this way. 

    This part of Watson’s talk was vague and unclear. To recap a bit, in minute 36 Watson explained “traditional” sex roles are an artifact of the industrial revolution: … and then when the industrial revolution came around men started working in the factories leaving women at home to take care of everything else. So now evolutionary psychologists ignore all that and pretend that women’s place is in the home and they look for reasons to “scientifically” [makes air quotes] support that. So it’s all good to chuckle at bad science but what is the harm in bad science that perpetuates stereotypes… 

    At that point, the topic was “evolutionary psychologists” and their “bad science” that supports stereotypes. Next Watson said that this is “nothing new” and discussed how biology textbooks were used (by who?) against early twentieth century women fighting for suffrage, adding “and not much is changed in a hundred years.” Watson then quoted a FOX news contributor, Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson who made a misogynistic statement about “evil reign[ing]” as a result of women “taking over.” At that moment, it was not clear what point Watson was trying to make. Peterson is a right wing religious ideologue citing no textbook or science. Perhaps she cited Peterson to speak to the harm of stereotypes. On the following slide, Watson continued: 

    So, there are a lot of ways stereotypes screw us up. One is that they are sometimes used as the basis to limit our own rights. It’s also used to excuse predatory behavior like “men evolved to rape,” maybe you’ve heard of that one. Newsflash, it’s bullshit but it was used as a sort of… well you know it’s natural for men to rape therefore we don’t really need to look into the ways that we can change our culture to stop men from raping, it’s natural. 

    Who used it? Who is making this claim? To clarify, consider Watson’s answers during an interview after giving the same talk at the World Skeptic’s Congress in Berlin in May of 2012: 

    Watson: Yeah, basically I used my talk as an opportunity to slam evolutionary psychology for half an hour, cause– 

    Interviewer: Good [unintelligible] 

    Watson: Yeah, well, it’s been building up for a while. I just get so tired of seeing. “Women evolved to shop,” “Women evolved to like the color pink,” “Women evolved to be terrible at math and logic.” 

    Interviewer: Oh yeah, and “Men are evolved to rape.” 

    Watson: Yeah. “Men evolved to rape.” Uh, yeah. I mean, the thing is, once you look past the headlines and actually look at the studies, what you see over and over and over again is pseudoscience being passed off as science. You know, they have tons of assumptions that they don’t support with the evidence, and they make up Just-So stories that seem to fit the facts. And it only ends up reinforcing stereotypes, which does harm to all of us. 

    Five minutes later in the interview, she stated, 

    I think there are people who hold misogynist, racist, bigoted ideas, but they value science, and so they will seek out what they consider science in order to support their prejudice. And it’s been happening since the beginning of time. I mentioned during my Q&A that evolutionary psychology is not a new thing. It’s becoming more and more popular in the last few years, but it’s actually evolved from other things, like Social Darwinism, which, you know, got into a lot of trouble over eugenics and things like that. 

    Now it is clear that Watson could only have been referring to evolutionary psychology researchers and whomever supports them. She explicitly said “when you look past the headlines” and identified the field as social Darwinism reborn. When she spoke of those who believed “men evolved to rape” is some sort of justification, it must be concluded that she means evolutionary psychologists and the lay people that support or believe them. 

     86  Watson provided no evidence for this claim that the evolutionary psychologists studying rape (or proponents of evolutionary psychology) attempted to morally justify it in any way, shape or form. No research or researcher was quoted or cited.

     87  The evolutionary psychology of rape informs that rape is a more heinous violent crime than other types of assault. Commenting on Thornhill and Palmer’s book on the subject, Tooby and Cosmides wrote, “Thornhill and Palmer argue that women evolved to deeply value their control over their own sexuality, the terms of their relationships, and the choice of which men are to be fathers of their children. Therefore, they argue, part of the agony that rape victims suffer is because their control over their own sexual choices and relationships was wrested from them.” (Tooby and Cosmides, 2000)

     88  There is no monolithic view on the truth of the hypothesis that rape could be an adaptation. David Buss and David Schmitt wrote in a 2011 paper Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism, “We concur with Symons’s 1979 summary that the then-available evidence was not ‘even close to sufficient to warrant the conclusion that rape itself is a facultative  adaptation in the human male’ (Symons 1979, p. 284). We believe that his conclusion is as apt today as it was then.” These are very influential people in evolutionary psychology rejecting the claim which Watson said evolutionary psychology exists to promote (David Michael Buss and Schmitt, 2011).


    Watson stated that stereotypes reduce minority interest in such things as skeptical events and organizations. She described a Stanford study which demonstrates the harmful effect of stereotype threats.

     89  Stereotype threat may be a worthy area of study, but it is not especially relevant to Watson’s topic, nor is any connection between the two created beyond mere assertions and confused or mistaken references.


    In response to a person in the audience asking, “Is there any good evolutionary psychology?”, Watson replied:

    Proooooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. Because, really, good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene, and we have no evidence for this, but maybe this. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. So if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media, and therefore, it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned.

     90  Watson appeared unaware of the uncontroversial fact that much of evolutionary psychology is mainstream, reputable and well-tested. She admits to not being familiar with anything that is not hyped in the media (in spite of insisting in a previous interview that it is pseudoscience “once you look past the headlines”) and it turns out she is also not familiar with evolutionary psychology that is in the media—including studies she has cited herself. Watson has gotten the facts exactly wrong. It’s very easy for studies critical of evolutionary psychology to get attention in the media.

    There are two ways to take Watson’s certainty that there is no “good evolutionary psychology in the media,” and both are empirically false. The first is in terms of studies that literally fit her stated criteria, that is, those that question or seek to disprove evolutionary accounts as overreaching or mistaken. Watson herself favorably cited research investigating evolutionary psychology hypotheses. Assuming Watson does not believe that they “made everything up” to be interesting, we may conclude that she must think of them as good studies. She may not think of them as evolutionary psychology studies, but since they specifically and deliberately investigate and comment on the evolutionary account, they categorically are. Do they have trouble getting media coverage as Watson said?

    At minute 27:16 Watson mentioned a study by Eli Finkel and Paul Estwick (see points 50-54). It was featured, favorably, in both Nature and The New York Times (Arnquist, 2009; Kaplan, 2009). Journalist and writer Dan Slater wrote a The New York Times op-ed about the work of Finkel and others. He called his anti-evolutionary psychology polemic “Darwin was Wrong about Dating” (Slater, 2013). Watson cited work by Steven Kuhn at minute 14:47, again favorably. Kuhn’s research got good press from National Geographic News, and ScienceDaily (“Gendered Division Of Labor Gave Modern Humans Advantage Over Neanderthals,” 2006; Lovgren, 2006).

    Watson told her audience to read Cordelia Fine. Fine’s latest book was well reviewed by the Guardian and the New York Times (Apter, 2010; Bouton, 2010). Biologist and behavioral ecologist Marlene Zuk wrote the book Paleofantasy, specifically to repudiate pseudoscientific myths about our evolutionary past. Zuk says almost verbatim the sort of thing Watson described, in this case about the human diet. Zuk explained there is too much variation in time and space, “We simply ate too many different foods in the past and have adapted to too many new ones, to draw such a conclusion” (Zuk, 2013). Zuk and her work were featured by Slate, Salon, The Guardian, and NewScientist (Forbes, 2013; George, 2013a, 2013b; L. Miller, 2013). It seems that “good” studies per Watson’s own description have no trouble at all getting media coverage.

    The second and less myopic question relevant to Watson’s curious statement is, does good evolutionary psychology in general make it into the media? Absolutely. Watson mentions a few books, so let’s start with a short list of reputable, well-reviewed pop evolutionary psychology books.

    The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright

    The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

    Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind by David Buss

    How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

    Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer

    The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture by Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby

    In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran

    The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley

    Good reporting can be found many places, such as Scientific American and the Smithsonian magazine (Ward, 2012; Wayman, 2012; Weierstall, Schauer, and Elbert, 2013). My own work was reasonably well covered by National Geographic and the Smithsonian magazine (Nuwer, 2013; Zimmer, 2013). Great evolutionary psychology discussion is regularly found at Edge.org. Many evolutionary psychologists publish blogs including Diana Fleischman and Robert Kurzban who writes at Mind Design for Psychology Today as well as the blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology (Fleischman, 2013; Kurzban, 2013a, 2013b). In fact, there are eighteen blogs at the Psychology Today website with a focus on evolutionary psychology. The evolution magazine This View of Life, edited by David Sloan Wilson often has great articles (Wilson, 2013).

    Good science reporting for nearly any field is frustratingly rare, but evolutionary psychology is no more or less so than any other.


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    [1] http://www.nature.com/news/tennessee-monkey-bill-becomes-law-1.10423
    [3] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-liberals-war-on-science/
    [4] http://bigthink.com/risk-reason-and-reality/the-historic-roots-and-impacts-of-our-nuclear-fear
    [5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/opinion/sunday/darwin-was-wrong-about-dating.html
    [6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9SvQ29-gk8
    [7] http://skeptoid.com/skeptic.php
    [8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Behe
    [9] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-10-14-PopeNIH_N.htm
    [10] See Appendix number 55
    [11] The answer is yes. See Appendix number 90
    [13] See Appendix numbers 1-14
    [14] http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/1/2.full.pdf
    [15] Mark Hoofnagle himself does not agree with my assessmentof Watson’s talk as science denialism.
    [16] http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/08/02/men-testosterone-damaged-women/
    [17] http://youtu.be/v5uvPhZ29fs?t=38m20s
    [19] http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2011/10/amanda-marcotte%E2%80%99s-ugly-prejudices/
    [20] http://www.bostonreview.net/BR25.2/alcock.html
    [21] http://www.stephenjaygould.org/reviews/pinker_exchange.html
    [22] https://soundcloud.com/techniskeptic/rebecca-watson
    [23] See Appendix numbers 64 and 81
    [24] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_fallacy
    [25]  http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/tnr.html
    [28] http://wizbangblog.com/content/2011/06/19/climate-science-the-new-age-phrenology.php
    [29] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_in_Our_Genes
    [30] http://www.skepticblog.org/2009/06/02/darwinian-psychology-goes-mainstream/
    [31] See points 30 and 83 in the Appendix for more discussion
    [32] See points 34 and 35 in the appendix for further discussion
    [33] See points 13 and 55 in the Appendix for further discussion
    [34] See Appendix points 26, 31, and 42
    [35] See Appendix points 35, 37, 53, 56 and video indices 39:00 and 42:40 respectively
    [36] http://www.hbes.com/
    [37] http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/12/03/oh-gob-evo-psych-again/
    [38] http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/12/03/science-denialism-the-role-of-criticism/#comment-156490
    [39] https://twitter.com/minus1cjb/status/321872266994536448
    [40] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9SvQ29-gk8
    [41] http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller/2012/11/21/how-girls-evolved-to-shop/#comment-30503
    [42] http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller/2012/11/21/how-girls-evolved-to-shop/#comment-30507
    [43] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2012/11/skepticon-5-day-two-rebecca-watson-on-evolutionary-psychology/
    [44] http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/11/13/skepticon-demonstrates-that-pro-fun-means-anti-harassment/
    [45] http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/skepticon-v-impressions
    [46] http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2012/12/05/rebecca-watsons-skepticon-talk-is-not-an-example-of-science-denialism/#comment-22781
    [47] http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/sceptical-arrogance-and-evolutionary-psychology/
    [48] http://www.humanisticus.com/2012/12/why-defence-of-rebecca-watsons-ep-talk.html
    [49] https://skepticink.com/skepticallyleft/2012/12/04/ftb-blogger-stephanie-zvan-makes-a-small-mistake/
    [50] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2012/12/rebecca-watsons-awful-skepticon-5-talk-on-evolutionary-psychology/
    [51] http://soundcloud.com/techniskeptic/rebecca-watson
    [52] http://gregladen.com/blog/2011/11/a-foundation-in-mainly-human-behavioral-biology/
    [53] https://twitter.com/AmandaMarcotte/statuses/294252921292472320
    [54] http://www.popsci.com/category/popsci-authors/rebecca-watson
    [55] http://www.theskepticsguide.org/about/rebecca-watson

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  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.