A polite but pointed social psych dispute

At one extreme of strategies to control how the kids behave on family trips, there are vans with multiple DVD players, one for each little darling in the back seat.

It’s to be expected with the car seat crowd, but when unrestrained adults, especially highly respected researchers, squabble over whose lolly is bigger, it’s a different story.

That these experienced disputants are practiced in the art of the non-putdown putdown softens things only a bit, and only on the social surface of their debate.

The latest dustup can be found on Edge, where Timothy D. Wilson, a prominent social psychologist, throws the first punch by claiming that evolutionary psychology is overreaching by offering adaptational explanations for too many social behaviours  — especially those which are properly explained by social psychology.

Of course the evolutionary psychologists must defend themselves, and Stephen Pinker,  having been slapped in the virtual face by Wilson’s assessment, is quick to respond. Lucky for all, there’s an interested but unvested referee, Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, to monitor the bout and keep things appropriately bloodless.

Wilson’s criticism of evolutionary psychology is familiar: too many stories, not enough evidence. “Too often, there’s a very loose kind of theorization that goes on, where people just tell a story and assume that it’s true because it kind of makes sense.”

Wilson compares evolutionary psychology to psychoanalytic theory, arguing that both approaches are too broad and too hard to test. After a very polite section in which he assures us that he has great respect for the contributions and insights of the two theories, he proceeds with more gusto, and at greater length, to outline what he sees as their flaws:

But both theories led to a lot of absurd conclusions, and both are very hard to test rigorously. The influence of psychoanalysis waned in research psychology because it was too broad. …

Evolutionary theory, in a way, has the same status. It can explain virtually anything. It can be a useful heuristic, as I mentioned. But at the same time, I think it is way too broad. Another parallel between the two theories is they both seem obsessed with gender differences. There are many ways that we could think about human behavior, but zeroing in on why women are different from men is something both theories were obsessed with, and both theories have gotten wrong, to some extent, in attributing differences in social behavior to genetic hardwired influences.

Wilson writes that “The storytelling method is a real problem. … The plausibility of a story is not a good way to settle a question scientifically.” Again, Wilson is careful to be polite, but professional courtesy can go only so far: “Now again, in fairness, there are some very interesting hypotheses that we would not have come up with if it were not for evolutionary principles that have led to some interesting lines of research. But there are not that many of them.”

Wilson graciously cites two areas in which he thinks evolutionary psychology may have contributions to make. One area is the well known research on moral weighting done by Jonathan Haidt (only coincidentally a colleague of Wilson’s at UVa?). Also of interest to Wilson is work on the origins and purposes of religious belief.

For much of the rest, Wilson favours “traditional” social psychology — the type he practices.

Stephen Pinker’s response is somewhat less polite than is Wilson’s charge, with words like “canard” and “otiose” popping into his sentences despite what we can be sure were his best intentions to be  nice.

Pinker writes that “adaptive hypotheses are needed to explain traits that are improbable given the biologically and physically possible variation in organisms.”

As for Wilson’s claim that evolutionary psychology tries to do too much, Pinker counters:

Even in his own field of social psychology, Wilson is mistaken about evolutionary hypotheses. Of course one can come up with evolutionary hypotheses that can explain anything; one can come up with non-evolutionary hypotheses that can explain anything, too. The question is, do these hypotheses make test able predictions that are confirmed?

Answering a question that Wilson raised himself, Pinker writes:

Why doesn’t social psychology get more respect? 

Social psychology has, as Wilson noted, made valuable contributions in methodology and discovery. But to explain its own findings—to explain why humans are bad at what they are bad at, and good at what they are good at—it needs to invoke deeper principles from fields other than social psychology itself, including genetics, evolutionary biology, and economics. Wilson’s dismissals of the very fields that could complement and deepen social psychology help answer his question of why his discipline is not taken as seriously as it should be.

It’s a good thing that these guys are being nice to each other. Imagine what they might have written if they weren’t observing the professional niceties — niceties that are essential if one is to be able comfortably to attend conferences and seminars, where you never know with whom you’ll be forced to spend an afternoon.

Professor Gilbert’s primary contribution is to chide Pinker gently for his tendency to “make rash generalizations,” something Gilbert calls “unfortunate.” Other than that, he stays out of the way.

Wilson gets the last word in response to Pinker’s rebuttal. His main claim in this section is that traditional social psychology studied some of the subject matter of evolutionary psychology’s research first — the academic version of yelling “Shotgun!” on the way to the car, I guess? In any case, Wilson’s argument seems to come down to the assertion that evolutionary psychology has yet to demonstrate its necessity.

But at the end, Wilson puts his case in tellingly defensive terms:

I fear that the emphasis on evolutionary principles, in a simplistic way, fosters the view that human behavior is fixed and that we don’t need psychological theory to explain it. … I know that evolutionary psychologists disavow that viewpoint, but it creeps in.

So is all this just a minor turf dispute, or is Wilson playing Neanderthal to Pinker’s Cro-Magnon? It’s tempting to see the disagreement that way, to see Wilson’s criticism as part of an older paradigm’s slow, mostly dignified retreat from the front lines of the struggle to understand human behaviour.

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(How about that — I used the word “paradigm” non-pejoratively. I believe it’s a first!)

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3 thoughts on “A polite but pointed social psych dispute

  1. There once was a maiden of Lyme
    Who followed a new paradigm
    She tried some Cro-magnon
    In getting a man on
    But found that evolution took time.
    with respect to the memory of Hugh E Mirren

  2. Pinker is a brilliant guy in some very narrowly defined areas (e.g. linguistics), his intelligence is highly overestimated. I would hate to debate him in person, not because I think he has better arguments, but because he speaks with unquestionable confidence and has a better command than most of the English language.

    Pinker’s brilliance is lacking when it comes to his attempts at deduction, logic, or philosophical argumentation in general… he makes many assumptions or leaps from reason before blindly focusing on ‘science’ or ‘research,’ seemingly unaware or unmoved by the possibility that the interpretation of said research could be influenced by the investigatory lens.

    • Your criticism of Pinker’s reasoning skills echoes what others have said, notably in relation to The Blank Slate, a book that impressed me at first blush (since I agree with much of what it says) but that at a greater distance appears rather more polemical.

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