Sunday, January 13, 2013

Begging the Question

I've long been bothered by evolutionary psychology. Thoughts leave no fossils, the way bones do. So we can know that ancient Egyptians suffered from tuberculosis, or Neandertals from arthritis, but it's much harder to know how they brought up their children.

Behaviors may leave fossils, although the interpretation of them is much more difficult than the lesions of tuberculosis or arthritis. A Neandertal grave with the body carefully arranged and flowers around it may mean respect for the dead or magic to keep death away from the living. Or both, or something we haven't thought of.

Dan Slater this morning provides what may have really been bothering me about the field. I haven't paid enough attention to its methods, but I have noticed, far too often, that its results tell us that men do things pretty well and we should allow them to keep doing what they're doing: following their penises, mostly.

The term "begging the question" is frequently used when the writer finds a question in material preceding. But the older meaning, from formal logic, is that a conclusion is assumed and then used to prove itself. Slater:
Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today.
Assume that men think about sex more than women do. Then gather evidence to support what you've assumed. Then use that to explain why men think more about sex than women do. A very nice, clear example of begging the question.

I'm a chemist, and the matter that we investigate is more easily pinned down than human behavior. Our usual method is to make a great many observations, designed to observe a phenomenon from many sides, then make a hypothesis about what is causing the phenomenon, then designing experiments that will come out one way if the hypothesis is true, another if it is false. We admit all evidence, even when it does not support the hypothesis. In fact, we will usually try to find evidence that conflicts with or undermines the hypothesis. If we don't, another chemist will.

The example Slater has chosen is telling, too. Yes, men and sex and why that behavior is justified, again. I haven't done a count, but I wonder how many evolutionary psychologists are women.

Slater goes on to examine the navel of ev psych. Some of the initial male preferences hypotheses are being, apparently, invalidated by later investigations. If those later investigations beg their questions in the way that Slater has outlined, they are no more valid. Although they investigate current behavior rather than imagining how the caveman slung the woman over his shoulder and she liked it. And apparently some of that behavior is at odds with those initial male preferences hypotheses. Horrors!

As I said, chemists try to disprove their hypotheses. If it turns out the hypothesis was wrong, then we devise one more in line with the observations. I guess that finding your hypothesis is wrong when you've used it to prove itself is a worse outcome.

It's nice that people can get  jobs fantasizing about sex and asking others embarrassing questions. But, if this "science" is done as Slater describes, what can we possibly expect to get out of it?

Update: Steven Pinker tweets that Slater has misquoted him. His entire statement is here.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

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