April 08, 2011

More on the Science of Rape "Adaptations"

In yesterday's post, I noted the attempt of certain proponents of evolutionary psychology (specifically that dealing with matters of gender and sexuality) to position themselves as skeptics resisting the dogmatic pressures of societal group think. I contrasted that with actual, procedural analysis of evolutionary psychology practices and claims. I also documented how one set of researchers is spending time selectively looking into evolutionarily adaptive reasons for behavior, when we already know that behavior looks much like other behavior with no reasonable adaptive value. (Yes, that's vague. The post itself it much less so. I promise.)

I wrote all this in the context of a web page and email that the Michigan CFI put out promoting a lecture by one of the researchers I critiqued, hosted by a local student group. Then I ended the post with this sentence: "That is what makes it disappointing that CFI Michigan has chosen to uncritically promote his work."

The objections have been interesting, both to my post and to Bug Girl's post at Skepchick, which is a rantier take on the same topic. Today, I'll summarize the objections to how we dealt with the science, although the one I got here was not exactly helpful:

You have a very poor understanding of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary theory, and human origins. I suggest going to Shackelford's talk or contacting him for more information and explanation. I would not consider him a "rape expert" nor do I think he considers himself as such either, but he is a very well-respected evolutionary psychologist. You are misinterpreting his research and related research.

It doesn't note anything in particular that I'm supposed to be wrong about, acknowledge that I read his papers, or seem to understand that not being familiar with the literature on rape while studying the topic is a rather large problem. It makes it incredibly difficult to design studies, much less understand what your results are telling you.

Comments both here and on Skepchick, as well as Bug Girl's post itself, note that there are a rather large number of rapes (non-vaginal, involving males or females outside reproductive age ranges) that have no chance of increasing the rapist's odds of reproduction. One Skepchick commenter attempted to address this criticism:

If we’re talking about rape as an evolutionary strategy, then it would be as a built-in instinct. As such, it would need to do little more than create a forced copulation with a subject to be useful in that manner. In that context, a child rape and etc. could be thought of as a misfire of the rape instinct.

My response, which also applies to those who criticize Bug Girl's statement that rape is not an adaptation, was that, yes, it is possible that there could be an instinct for rape that misfires, is warped by cultural pressures, etc. It is also possible that there is an instinct for sex that misfires, is warped by cultural pressures, etc. In fact, that would be the parsimonious explanation. However, scientists working on this rape adaptation theory are advancing their theory without doing the work that would be able to support something more than the parsimonious explanation. Until they produce some work that does counter the simple explanation, or even a testable theory that encompasses all of what is already known about rape, the simple explanation is the more reasonable one.

There also seems to be an idea that criticizing these researchers is somehow limiting the topics that it is acceptable for science to touch. I addressed that yesterday at Skepchick.

There are a number of comments that seem to be suggesting Bug Girl is making a moral argument in the place of a scientific one. There are a couple of problems with that. First off, she’s linked to three people (me included) discussing the scientific problems with this research. Any moral argument is being made on top of a scientific argument.

The second problem is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong in making an argument for the moral practice of science. We do this already. That’s why institutional review boards exist--to (ideally) ensure that the fewest people and other organisms are put at risk or injured by research. Bug Girl certainly isn’t saying that no research should be done on rape. What she is pointing out is that this research is bad (badly designed, badly reasoned, and badly represented–as supported by her links), and that the quality of this research puts people at risk, making it even worse research. It’s nifty to point out that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy, but that won’t prevent the idea that rape is promoted by evolution from becoming just another excuse to rape–unless someone knows how to abolish the naturalistic fallacy.

Rape is an issue that touches an incredibly large number of people. I fully support researching rape, and I highlight the results of that research on this blog. I also demand, and intend to keep demanding, that this research be of as high a quality as we can manage. Scientists can, and many of them do, do much better than to produce studies and statements that completely ignore vast swaths of our knowledge of rape and of victimization in general. We produce good science on this topic. There is no reason to tolerate bad science and every reason to sharply criticize those who produce it.

In a day or two, I'll come back to this issue to talk about the response to my one sentence about the promotion by Michigan CFI. The issues and people involved are different enough that it warrants a separate post.


D. C. said...

What gripes me is that all of this research is so far from being anything like conclusive that it's not ready for general public consumption.

Yet that's what we see. Net result is more of a public Rorschach test than anything.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Well, that's what happens when they put all the effort into the story instead of the science.

daedalus2u said...

Exactly right!

What is needed is not more research but more GOOD research.