April 12, 2011

Skepticism Is a "How," Not a "Who"

On Thursday, 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 CFI Michigan 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. I covered the discussion of the science on Friday.

Now we come to my single sentence about Michigan CFI, which has produced its own interesting responses. Two people from the group commented on my post, one of whom also commented at Skepchick. One of these invoked his title with CFI Michigan, lending his comments here official weight (whether intended or not). A note was posted to Facebook as well by another member, where it generated several comments and a signed response from the group's president. The Reasonable Doubt podcast reposted that note, where it generated even more comments. And one of the CFI Michigan officials who commented here made a (public) snarky comment on her Facebook profile (which is used for skeptical networking) about being as rational as we claim to be and "liked" a comment using the term "femi-nazi" and suggesting that rape is "too emotional" a topic for some people to handle.

You can catch all the drama aspects at Jason's post at Lousy Canuck. I'm generally going to lump it all together in this post under the umbrella of "unprofessionalism," because I want to focus on the promotion of skepticism and critical thought. According to their About page, this is also an area of focus of CFI Michigan.

The purpose of Center for Inquiry | Michigan is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an international, nonpartisan, nonprofit 501©(3) organization that encourages evidence-based inquiry into science, pseudoscience, medicine and health, religion, ethics, secularism, and society. The Center for Inquiry is not affiliated with, nor does it promote, any political party or political ideology.

Through education, research, publishing, and social services, CFI seeks to present affirmative alternatives based on scientific naturalism. The Center is also interested in providing rational ethical alternatives to the reigning paranormal and religious systems of belief, and in developing communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share experiences.

There is also a statement on this page about the calendar that brought Shackeford's talk to Bug Girl's attention, and then to mine.

We host numerous educational and social events throughout Michigan. Our events are open to the public. Visit the Event Calendar to learn about upcoming events.

Event topics include: science, religion, philosophy, social issues, politics, atheism, humanism, agnosticism, skepticism, deism, evolution, morality and ethics, secularism, rationalism, psychology, and others.

That is the sum total of CFI Michigan's contextual statements on the purposes of their calendar. They host events on topics that are associated with their mission in a positive way. It's little wonder that Bug Girl was originally confused over who was hosting Shackelford's talk. And this would be the answer to Jennifer Beahan's question at Skepchick:

How is it okay for you to say “my views are NOT the views of Skepchick, or the other writers, hence the edits above” …

But, when I say “CFI does NOT endorse the views or research of Dr. Shackelford” – that’s not okay. How is that any different?

The difference, of course, is that Bug Girl's disclaimer is attached to the original post. Jennifer's disclaimer only appears where anyone is already being critical of Shackelford. There also seems to be some confusion about the official position of CFI Michigan on Shackelford's work, given the statement from the executive director:

We respect and value Dr. Shackelford and his work, and his role as a faculty adviser to the Atheists at Oakland University student group. I have previously invited Dr. Shackelford to speak to CFI and he was unable because of scheduling conflicts. We welcome the opportunity to host a talk with him when schedules align.

There may be some distinction between not endorsing his research and making a statement about respecting and valuing his work, but I'm not sure what it is. At this point, we appear to have gone from passive uncritical promotion to active endorsement, whether that was the intent or not.

The difference between intent and actions was a big part of my discussion with Jason Pittman, Advisory Board Chair in the comments as well. Jason objected, at length, to my single sentence quoted at the start of this post. His position:

Stephanie, we have encouraged and facilitated criticism of Dr. Shackelford simply by promoting the event. CFI has provided info about the event so that you and others can provide the criticism. Your post about Dr. Shackelford proves my point. We promoted the event. You have provided criticism. When we promote an event, we are encouraging critical thinkers to attend (sometimes to the detriment of the speaker at said event!) Skeptical criticism of ideas is what CFI is all about.

It's...an interesting thought. There's just one little problem with it. As I pointed out to Jason, there is nothing about the CFI Michigan website, the calendar item, or the email promoting the event that would look any different if they were intending everyone to take Shackelford's work and word as gospel. Why? According to Jason, CFI just acts as a conduit to match up skeptics with material about which they can be skeptical ("We provide a forum for people to address controversial topics and our audiences are extremely critical.").

Let's unpack the assumptions required for Jason's statement to work in this context.
  • The CFI Michigan website and email list reach people who understand CFI's intent in promoting events and speakers.
  • The CFI Michigan website and email list reach people who have the tools and knowledge to effectively challenge speakers.
I've covered most of the first point already, but I'll add one thing. The people who receive these emails sign up at events or through other skeptical organizations. However, the simplest way to get on the list is to provide your email address through the same website that includes the misleading description of the events calendar. There is a high likelihood that both the website and the email reach people who have no idea what's meant to be going on. They reached at least one already.

To address the second assumption, I'll note that I'm not on that list. My participation in this discussion is a fluke, brought about because Bug Girl was thoroughly frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from CFI Michigan. It's also only because of Bug Girl that my post ended up anywhere that CFI Michigan members would see it. She posted it to their Facebook page. Counting on a situation like that--a highly motivated recipient who knows someone familiar with the scientific literature on a topic--is a bit of a stretch in terms of organizational planning. Also, given CFI Michigan officials' unprofessionalism and retrenchment in response, I wouldn't count on it happening again.

While I'm sure there are plenty of members of CFI Michigan who have excellent critical thinking skills and who are wise in the ways of argument, that simply isn't enough. You also need good information. This is a problem that becomes noticeable any time you're dealing with topics that haven't been hashed over by skeptics for ages. Critical thinking can't cut it without information. When it tries, we get James Randi being very publicly wrong on climate change. We get Lawrence Krauss suggesting that guessing the age of girls he saw with his friend is enough to tell that his friend is innocent of having sex with trafficked, underage hookers. We get Penn and Teller having to retract the claim that there's no connection between secondhand smoke and cancer. We get Brian Dunning repeating DDT chestnuts in a skeptical podcast.

It just doesn't work, no matter your skeptical credentials or pedigree. You can't "do" skepticism without knowledge of your topic. So CFI Michigan can have all the critical thinkers it wants. Unless those critical thinkers are provided with information about the subject of rape and background on the questions and disagreements in the field, they have no way of evaluating a speaker on the topic. That is particularly true with this speaker, whose research relies on an incomplete understanding of the topic. No one can train critical thinking on information the speaker, host, and promoters don't provide them.

A good example of this came up at the event itself. A comment from someone who attended:

As someone who has just participated in the event, I wish to point out that whether or not someone is swayed by his arguments, we must at least take his data into account. Shackleford acknowledges that there are limitations in his studies; he also acknowledges rightly that just because we study something that is deplorable does not mean we endorse the act. Somehow, people always seem to forget that. Studying rape as it happens, and looking for an explanation, is not the same as justifying it

This completely misses the actual objections to Shackelford's work. It isn't that people don't want him following the evidence. The problem is that he is following only those tiny bits of the evidence that point the direction he wants to go. If he were following all the evidence, he'd be headed somewhere else. But CFI Michigan's promotion of the event, made with an assumption that somehow effective criticism would just happen because they were CFI Michigan, left people unable to do more than nod at the line they were handed.

If that weren't enough, the treatment of a reasonable criticism as a personal attack left those affiliated with CFI Michigan apparently feeling that the right thing to do was support their friends rather than pay attention to the real, scientific criticisms Bug Girl and I both offered. None of the postings on Facebook engendered any engagement with our points, just comments like, "
Well, just as we are expected to clear all speech and art with Muslims first to avoid giving them offense I guess the Skepchicks also feel they deserve a veto over ideas. An important lesson to remember - it isn't just right wingers who dislike freedom of speech."

That's not how you promote reason on a topic. I stand by my original statement.

1 comment:

Greg Laden said...

I am very concerned, and was actually (slowly getting around to) writing a blog post on this topic, with the use of the rhetorical tools commonly used by skeptics to promote or buttress what are probably politically motivated and very non-skeptical ideas. Psychometrics and racial differences in IQ being one of those non-skeptical ideas that is accepted by many so-called skeptics and buttressed by those rhetorical tools.

Nobody who is asking hard questions about research into rape as an adaptive mechanism (that I know of or have conversed with) is squeamish about rape, talking about rape, or is trying to make rape (as a topic as well as a criminal and offensive act) go away by pretending that it can't be studied. Of course it can be studied, and it can be studied at many levels. The problem with the evolutionary psychology approach to studying rape is not about rape being adaptive or not, or about rape being a hot button issue, but rather, it is about evolutionary psychology as it is often practiced being a low-power and ineffective way of understanding human behavior, and I say that as a reformed evolutionary psychologist who was literally in the room when John and Leda gave birth to the creature (it was room 14A in the Peabody Museum, if you must know).

People who want to swing their skeptical dick (as they would say on Fleet Street) should spend some time looking critically at methods and be less laissez faire about biological theory.

Funny, you don't see this sort of belief and wishful thinking in topics linked to physics in the skeptical community. Why is willful misunderstanding of biology OK?