Monday, 17 December 2012

Robert Sapolsky and B.F. Skinner Discuss Behaviorism

This is an interesting video up on YouTube at the moment where the uploader has spliced together snippets from one of Sapolsky's lectures with various snippets of Skinner discussing similar topics or claims as those raised by Sapolsky. The brilliance in this is the seamless juxtaposition of contradictory claims being raised on the same topic - behaviorism.

The video isn't too long and I think it does a great job of highlighting some of the character of Skinner as well, rather than presenting the dry, matter-of-fact scientist that is often seen only discussing reinforcement schedules and pigeons.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Debunking Evolutionary Psychology

I wanted to discuss this topic because recently there have been a few disgruntled comments made about Rebecca Watson's talk at the "Skepticon" conference called: "How Girls Evolved to Shop" where she brings up a number of dodgy claims made by researchers in the field as well as how they're presented in the media. The main focus of her discussion, from my point of view at least, was on how we should be skeptical of the main assumptions of evolutionary psychology, how we should question how science is presented in the media, and also a good discussion on the effect that sexist and misogynistic attitudes have on the direction of some research in the field. Some of the criticisms against Watson are just plain silly, like the idea that since she is not an evolutionary psychologist then she should just remain quiet on the topic (or, "Shut Up and Sing", as P.Z. Myers puts it), but some arguably carry a little more substance.

An argument which is potentially more troubling is one presented by Ed Clint here which suggests that Watson's talk was an attack on the entire field of evolutionary psychology, and is thus an example of science denialism. This characterisation of her position seems unfair to me given that it seemed that she was attacking the bad science, not the entire field, but I thought it might be a good idea to discuss why the field of evolutionary psychology is often dismissed and what distinguishes the good science from the bad.
The latest deadweight dragging us (evolutionary biology) closer to phrenology is evolutionary psychology, or the science formerly known as sociobiology. If evolutionary biology is a soft science, then evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly. - Jerry Coyne1.
Given the somewhat controversial title of this essay, it is perhaps necessary for me to preface it with a few disclaimers. Firstly, I am not a creationist and, for all intents and purposes, evolution is TrueTM. Secondly, whenever somebody voices their skepticism over the veracity of evolutionary psychology, they are often met with the retort, “Do you not believe that the brain is a product of evolution?” with the implication that since behaviors are the product of the brain, and the brain is a product of evolution, then behaviors are the product of evolution. This logic, however, is flawed for reasons I will discuss later but I do accept that the brain is an evolved organ with implications for resulting behaviors. And thirdly, this is not a broad scale attack on evolutionary psychology – instead, my focus is on the particular approach to evolutionary psychology known as the “Santa Barbara church of psychology”2.

To distinguish between the two approaches, I will follow the nomenclature used by Gray, Heaney and Fairhall3 where they refer to this approach as Evolutionary Psychology (EP). This approach (used by popular authors like Steven Pinker in his “How the Mind Works”) attempts to explain a wide range of human behaviors, like whether we have an evolutionary preference for green lawns, with an emphasis on the concept of a modular mind, and utilises a cartoonish view of the Pleistocene – with all considered, we have to wonder whether it should be rebranded as the “Hanna-Barbera church of psychology”.