Skepchick Quickies, 09.02.10

Artificial ecosystem on Ascension Island may hold the key to the colonization of Mars. Thanks to Dave W.

The Institute for Creation Research will not be offering a master’s degree in science education because the court upheld the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2008 decision.  The ICR will instead be offering graduate courses at their School of Biblical Apologetics.

NPR offers a theory about why religious belief may have been evolutionarily advantageous. Be sure to scroll to the bottom and read the disclaimer, which should appear at the bottom of all evolutionary psychology articles.

Roger Ebert discusses his perspective on gay marriage and why civil unions don’t offer the same benefits as marriage.

Cracked compiles sounds of outer space. Please no sound of uranus jokes. Thanks to “Stevie”.

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  1. @redsky: Yeah, he’s corrected it already. He meant “Freaky Friday.”

    He’s one of those people I really love, because while I frequently disagree with him about movies, when I agree with him (as now) I really agree with him, and he says things so much better than I ever could.

  2. The NPR on religion hit home with me. I do that all the time (see some phenomena as supernatural and then have to rethink), but I assumed it was artifact from when I was very religious. But unlike many thought habits, I can’t seem to stop it no matter how many times I correct it.
    I also notice that I’m sort of sad and reluctant to give up some of the nicer ideas. ( Like Bering’s windchime thing.) If the idea is a kind one, I want to keep it. If the idea is a mean one, I am happy to kick it out and forget it.

  3. Be sure to scroll to the bottom and read the disclaimer, which should appear at the bottom of all evolutionary psychology articles.

    Thanks for this because the first time I tried to read this article I didn’t make it to the bottom.

  4. We are exposed to the concept of supernatural beings from birth. To try to separate nature from nurture by introspection is epic futility, and the experiment described isn’t much better.

    Studies which compare the moral behaviour of groups of atheists with groups of religionists show the atheists are at least as moral, which suggests that the experiment doesn’t show what the ep’s think it shows.

    Mind you, I’m just speculating.

  5. On the Ascension Island bit, I’d actually had a similar thought long ago, but in relation to Venus. Before I realized just how hot and inhospitable Venus was (based on where I remember having these thoughts, I was in 2nd-4th grade), I’d heard about photosynthesis and turning CO2 into oxygen, and about Venus having an atmosphere that was mostly CO2, leading me to the conclusion that we should seed Venus and let plants turn the planet into one we could breathe on.

    Now, obviously there are a ton of problems with that, which a 32 year old recognizes that a 9 year old did not. The point is I thought of it first. So there.

  6. I like how the news stories about science always feel it’s required to somehow link to the story to another sciency story in the public consciousness.

    In this case planting vegetation on Ascension Island is supposed to tell us how to terraform Mars. Because, you know, Ascension Island is *just* like Mars.

    Well, except for the completely different atmosphere, minerals, stronger sunlight and the gravity. Then there’s all that H2O stuff that Ascension is surrounded by, what with it being an island and all.

    Why can’t the story just be about how for once we seem to have landed somewhere and not fucked it up.

  7. I have a generic refereed journal article for recipients of the ICR graduate degree in Creation Research. Can some one help me turn this into a Word template so we can sell it the the grad students and staff at the ICR?

    Anyway, here goes:

    [fill in title here]
    [fill in author(s) here]


    God did it.

    Full Article:

    The reason for [fill in title here] is that God did it.


    [1] The Bible


    To my potential collaborators: Can we work out some scheme where they have to pay us each time they use it, rather than just once? Maybe some kind of digital watermark in the Word template?

  8. I don’t know about this NPR article in particular, and I don’t know about how much evolutionary psych to take seriously yet, but that disclaimer we’ve been instructed to focus on:

    “SPIEGEL: Of course, these are all just ideas, with no real way to confirm any of it. Unfortunately, it’s not possible now to rewind the movie, so to speak, and see what actually happened. And so these speculations will remain just that -speculations.”

    …sounds suspiciously like, “Of course, we can’t rewind the movie on the Big Bang, abiogenesis, evolution, so all your science is just speculation.”
    There may not now be incontrovertable evidence for some of evopsych claims, and we may find evidence to even disprove the claims. But I think it’s just as ideologically closed minded as a creationist to instead of saying “We must be skeptical and critical about the evidence,” to say “It’s in the past, so we can’t ever know for sure.”

  9. Speaking as a biologist, evo psych really does contain a lot of bullshit. Their evidence is incredibly flimsy (if it even exists in the first place) and they often assume that today’s societal and cultural norms must have an evolutionary basis a prior. And when they are asked for a way to test their ideas, there is often no way to confirm or deny them.

  10. @Vene: Well that sounds like valid criticism. :) It’s the idea that because something happened in the past, all we can do is speculate, is what I bristle at.
    ([worms_can]Personally, I think the concept of evopsych is worth examining, even if most or all their claims are currently flimsy at best. Memory, sensory, and behavior are all constructs of an organ than did evolve to develop into adulthood with some set circuitry. Emotions are processed in the same part of everyone’s brain, math, music, logic, even the pre-decision-making that happens before we’re consciously aware of making a decision, all happen in the same parts of the brain for everyone. It evolved to be that way. To completely dismiss the very idea that even SOME of our brain-located psychology may be influenced by the evolution-affected circuitry layout it has, seems ideological. Maybe nothing they present now has much validity, but whose to say it’ll never happen?[/can_worms] ….error: cannot close…)

  11. @Mechphisto: Evolutionary psychology tries to answer the “why” instead of the “what, when, or how”, which in and of itself is fine, but they answer it with speculative deductions and post hoc rationalizations and little to no supporting evidence. The field just lacks the rigor of other scientific fields.

  12. @Stacey , like Vene, that’s a fair criticism and I support that critique. We should absolutely be skeptical and demand good evidence for claims.
    By beef is with the idea that the disclaimer put forward, that because something is in the past and we can’t tome travel, we can’t KNOW a thing. That’s patently and probably false.
    That’s all I’m saying.

    Oh, and I did say that I think the idea of evo’psych has enough of a possibility to warrant GOOD investigation; but I recognize that that “good investigation” may not have happened thus far.

  13. @Mechphisto:

    I was thinking the same thing. Like other posters here, I’m skeptical about the current culture of evolutionary psychology and its lack of rigor, but I don’t think that’s what the reporter was expressing. She seemed to have gotten about as far as the old idea that since soft tissues don’t fossilize easily, “we’ll never know how the eye evolved.”

  14. One of the fundamental errors made by evpsychs is the assumption that if a trait exists it must be selected for. Its not true. All that is necessary for a trait to persist is that it not be selected against. There are plenty of neutral alleles in any population.

  15. @Skepotter : I’ll be the first to admit, I really don’t know what the evosychs actually claim; I just think the general concept has research merit. But do they really claim exactly that? For all traits? I can’t imagine they do, that’d be silly. Even in non-psych evolutionary biology we know of physical traits which happen to be side-effects or accidents of evolution. Surely evopsychs accepts this for their field as well?
    Plus, surely, evopsychs (at least some of them?) surely don’t claim ALL traits are hardwired. I mean, we KNOW that a lot of human behavior is cultural.
    I don’t know enough about the subject to identify what are legit complaints and what are straw men. :(

  16. Every explanation of a behaviour or tendency toward a behaviour that I have seen explained by evpsych has contained the assumption that the trait or tendency was selected for.

    I have never seen an explanation like:
    “The behaviour arose by random chance, and nothing came along to stop it, so its still there.”

  17. This is like someone (me) discussing calculus when that someone (me) barely groks algebra. But I wonder: Is this a case where the traits they discuss and pursue they say are all evolutionary…because it’s those traits which appear evolutionary to begin with that they pursue? That is, they’re not talking about the traits they’re not investigating? So it simply looks like they’re saying all traits are evolutionarily derived when what they’re really saying is THESE subset of traits are thus and we’re not bothering with the other 50% that don’t appear to be so?
    I have no idea. That would seem reasonable to me. But I’ve been known to be terribly wrong in the past. :)

  18. One criticism of evopsych I’ve heard isn’t that the theories are wrong, but that there’s no corroborating evidence for most of them, and without that, they’re really just evolutionary just-so stories.

    One more specific example is “is the hypothesis consistent with cladistics?” To do that you need a bunch of closely related species, some of which display the trait (or behavior) and some don’t. Does the pattern follow the evolutionary tree? For that to work though, you need 20-30 species and for humans, we only have about 4 or 5 (people, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and maybe orangutans.) And most of the human traits discussed by evopsychs are unique to humans. If we knew more about the behavior of Neanderthals, homo erectus, homo habilis, australopithecus, the common ancestor of chimps and bonobos, etc, we could get a lot better handle on things.

    Anyway, my opinion isn’t that evopsych is wrong (they may well be correct in many cases), but that without supporting evidence, it has to be filed in the “interesting but not proven” file, and so shouldn’t be used as supporting evidence to prove anything else or to create public policy. Also it is hard to see what evidence might be collected in the future to bolster their case.

    If someone does come up with something, it will probably be one of things that is obvious in hindsight even though it wasn’t obvious to anyone at the time, and lots of people will say “what’s the big deal?”

  19. “Anyway, my opinion isn’t that evopsych is wrong (they may well be correct in many cases), but that without supporting evidence, it has to be filed in the “interesting but not proven” file, and so shouldn’t be used as supporting evidence to prove anything else or to create public policy. Also it is hard to see what evidence might be collected in the future to bolster their case.”

    Except that last sentence which borders on argument from incredulity (borders, I say), I couldn’t agree more. :)

  20. @Mechphisto: I’m glad you said “borders”, because it isn’t, as I described in the next paragraph. I think the distinction is extremely important. An argument from incredulity is a form of argument from ignorance. First create a false dichotomy: A claim is either true or false. Then claim that either 1) we can’t prove it is true, so it must be false, or 2) we can’t prove it is false, so it must be true.

    There is, of course, a third possibility, which is we just don’t know (yet.) My claim is a claim about methods of corroboration, which is that we currently haven’t any, which puts it in the “we just don’t know” category, not in either the “true” or “false” category.

    If someone says, “yes, we do have methods of independently verifying various or some particular evopsych hypothesis”, then my reaction wouldn’t be “No, that can’t be true, because it’s unprovable.” It would be “Cool. Please explain to us how it works (or give us a link or a book to read or whatever.)” Being skeptics, we could then argue blissfully about the merits of the method, but right now we really don’t have any substance to argue about.

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