Dear Stanton Peele, I Would Like To Cordially Invite You…Published 8 December, 2010
Yesterday I mentioned two articles, one of which was a piece at Huffington Post by Stanton Peele. Today, Peele has followed this up with a post to his Psychology Today blog entitled “Is Evolutionary Psychology Total, Utter, and Dangerous Bullshit?”
So, that’s pretty provocative. I thought I would take a moment to evaluate Peele’s evidence that an entire scientific enterprise – my discipline – is bullshit. Before I begin, I just want to mention – very casually, of course – that my view is that finding one study that has difficulties isn’t enough to support the bullshit claim. I mean, should we take worries about Bem’s recent paper about psi to be enough to support the claim that “Social Psychology is Total, Utter, and Dangerous Bullshit?” If it turns out the recent work on arsenic-using bacteria is wrong, should we simiarly condemn microbiology?
Peele gathers evidence for the bullshitty nature of the field in six sections. The first section, “EvPsych as catechism,” addresses comments on Peele’s Huff Post piece, several of which pointed out that Peele equated intelligence and level of education. His reply to this is that while Kanazawa says smarter people do more binge drinking, there is other evidence that better educated people binge drink less. So, unless education and intelligence are negatively related, there is a contradiction. This contradiction is, apparently, sufficient to support the “evolutionary psychology as catechism” claim (whatever it is supposed to mean).
The second section, “EvPsych as fable,” consists largely of a lengthy quotation from Peter Sagal’s review of Christopher Ryan’s book, Sex at Dawn. Based on the review, Peele writes that, “the EvPsych narrative reinforces current cultural mores with elaborate claims of evolutionary necessity – we are what we are (inherently monogamous) because – not God – but nature made us this way. Yet, in fact the opposite is true!” I’m not quite sure what “opposite” he’s talking about there — is he saying that we made nature? – but the funny thing about this is that Sex at Dawn is making an evolutionary psychology argument. The Amazon page for the book, for example, says that “Ryan and Jethá’s central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners.” So, you know, the central contention is an evolutionary argument. This idea is actually right there in the review he quotes; Sagal says that the conclusion of the book is that “we are evolved to be highly sexualized creatures…” So Peele is supporting the claim that evolutionary psychology is bullshit by pointing to an evolutionary argument.
The third section, “EvPsych as science,” is brief. Here is his syllogism: 1. Kanazawa said people who score high on intelligence tests drink more. 2. Peele said that people with more education drink more. 3. These two things are “close to the same things.” I take it from the subheading that Peele believes that these three items logically imply that evolutionary psychology is not a science. Interesting.
The fourth section is “EvPsych as three-card monte.” Here, he calls one of the people who commented on his Huff Post piece a “devil” and points out that this commentator incorrectly identifies a claim that Kanazawa made. He also argues that Kanazawa drew a conclusion that he (Peele) suggests the data do not support. From this, apparently, he infers that evolutionary psychology is three-card monte.
The fifth section is “EvPsych as anti-psychology,” and I admit I couldn’t follow it. It seems to have to do with the fact that Kanazawa says that the fact that drinking is bad for you isn’t relevant to the claim he’s making about the correlation itself. From this, Peele writes: “All that stuff about people’s attitudes and behavior that psychology finds – bullshit according to Dr. Kanazawa. The EvPsych “Hypothesis” reigns supreme!” I think this is sarcasm, but I confess that I have no idea what Peele is saying here.
Sixth and lastly, in the section “EvPsych as detrimental to our health,” Peele distinguishes between moderate and binge drinking. Apparently the fact that these two have different health consequences makes evolutionary psychology dangerous.
I want to be very clear that I am not taking any position at all – here, anyway – on the quality of the Kanazawa work that Peele is criticizing. I might chime in on this down the road, but my point here is only about Peele’s apoplectic screed about evolutionary psychology being bullshit. I don’t care, for purposes of this post, if the ideas he’s criticizing are right, wrong, or even incoherent.
My point is that while it might well be true that there are logical errors or other problems with the work that Peele is criticizing, finding errors does not render the entire discipline bullshit. Peele did not address, in a single syllable, any of the conceptual foundations of the discipline. Indeed, he actually endorses the approach in his second point.
I might note that Peele’s text is quite agitated, as one can tell from the epithet in his title (and subtitle) and his various rhetorical flourishes. However, Peele hasn’t provided any evidence to support the very strong claim he wants to make. He has presented an enraged, sputtering attack on an entire discipline on the basis of his critique of Kanazawa’s work.
What’s really going on here, I think, is not that Peele isn’t capable of logic. Surely he knows that the fact that moderate and binge drinking have different health outcomes does not logically entail that the entire adaptationist approach to behavior is dangerous. My read is that he is skeptical of some work by some people who call themselves evolutionary psychologists, and his skepticism makes him angry, and he appears to be unable to contain his rage sufficiently, which in turn causes him to adopt this excoriating tone and make these absurdly sweeping claims. There is a real question here, of course, which is why shoddy work in other areas doesn’t similarly cause such rage directed at entire disciplines.
But my point is really that I would be very pleased for Peele to critique any work, of course, by anyone who styles themselves an evolutionary psychologist or anything else. But until he can support these extremely strong and broad claims he wants to make about the discipline – that the entire field is “bullshit” – I would respectfully invite him to shut the hell up.