The Claim and the Cause Entwined

This appeared over on the JREF site today and immediately caused controversy despite being pretty clear cut. People have having a fit over it, so I want to preserve it here and offer my tuppence into the mix.

Written by Steve Cuno
Ever ordered Sea Monkeys from the back of a comic book? They are not monkeys at all, but brine shrimp, tiny creatures whose eggs survive long periods in a nearly-dry state.

I can only hope that you will join with me in my outrage. Brine shrimp eggs are ripped from their natural habitat and shipped to hatch far from family and friends. Many eggs do not survive the arduous trip. The lucky ones that survive do not live free, but are doomed to an unfulfilling aquarium life as the “property” of snot-nosed kids. It is not unlike the early slave trade in the U.S.

If you are tempted to click “Add Comment,” be forewarned. Should you challenge my likening the brine shrimp trade to the slave trade, or question whether brine shrimp are capable of feeling fulfilled or unfulfilled, or ask me to back up the claim that kids are snot-nosed … I have an ace up my sleeve. I shall call you a racist. Nay, even better, I shall accuse you of being pro-slavery.

It’s a nifty, sleight-of-mind trick that lets me get away with begging the question, setting up a straw man and launching an ad hominem attack, all while looking like I’m defending decency. Heck, I may even fool myself.

If you’d like to try my trick, here are the steps: (1) Make a claim and apply it to a worthy cause. (2) Should people challenge assumptions underlying the claim, accuse them of opposing the cause. (3). Call them names and encourage others to jump on your bandwagon Thus it will make short work of any opponents. Not only that. You will emerge feeling validated, even justified, eager and ready to launch the process again. And again.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in the real world. Skeptics aren’t so human as to indulge such tactics, wittingly or unwittingly, much less fall for them. Thank goodness for that.

Steve Cuno is a three-time TAM speaker and regular contributor. He is also bald. Disagree with him and he may call you a scalpist. If you have nothing better to do with your time than read Steve’s blogs, click here.

I think Steve makes a hugely important point and a similar one to the one I’ve made before. If you’re going to be a sceptic you should be sceptical to everything, have the same standards for everything. A theist might not have the same standards for believing in god as they would for Nessie and we should be better than having that sort of contradiction.

Just because your cause is just or you care about it a great deal doesn’t release you from the need for evidence. Nor does it mean that anyone who takes issue with one of your claims is a bigot, a racist, a sexist or whatever the hell else the genuine opponents of your point of view are.

This is not only stupid, insulting and irrational but it also turns people against you and makes your cause seem less legitimate because the only way you have of backing it up is to hurl invective rather than back up your point.

Predictably, people with an apparently guilty conscience started weighing in assuming it was talking about them and, disappointing, engaging in the very tactic being talked about.

Take this prime example:

Where would the internet and skeptic community be without straight white men and their passive-aggressive grumbling about being forced to question their assumption that they’re too intelligent to be bigots?

Hopefully my readership doesn’t need the terrible irony and the lack of self awareness in that statement pointed out to them.

Learn the lesson. We explain things to Creationists over and over and over again as needed. You might be tired of explaining your other beliefs over and again but if they have anything behind them you should show the same patience and willingness to do it for these beliefs and be willing to understand the being sceptical of your claim doesn’t make someone an ‘ist.


Why the Hate for Evolutionary Psychology?

Sticking with the feminism theme, at least for this post. I find myself wondering quite what the objection to evolutionary psychology is. After all, evolutionary psychology, just like any other evolutionary theory, doesn’t try to say what’s right or wrong, it tries to describe what is.

It cannot help but feel to me that the objections to it come from a similar root to religious objections to biological evolution. Just as a creationist doesn’t like the idea of ‘coming from a monkey’ or just being another animal so, it feels, that people object to the idea that their behaviours, their psychology, may be influenced (rather than determined) by their evolutionary history.

This becomes particularly contentious when one gets to the matter of differences between the genders. Hopefully, by this point, nobody would disagree that there are – indeed – biological differences between the sexes. Not just the obvious primary and secondary sexual characteristics but in genetics, hormones, brain structure and a host of other things. Hell, human females are (if I remember correctly) the only animal to have evolved an organ purely for pleasure.

Moving away from the sensitive area of talking about humans and all their neuroses for a moment let’s strip it back.

  1. We know evolution takes place.
  2. We know sexual dimorphism exists. Often to remarkable extremes.*
  3. We know behaviour can be affected by selection.
  4. We know behaviour, particularly sexual, even very complex can be split between genders.
  5. What is psychology other than complex behaviour interactions?

The question then becomes what’s so bloody special about human beings? Why would someone think we were different? Strikes me as particularly arrogant, as arrogant as claiming we have ‘souls’ and animals don’t.

I think the problem comes about in that some people see, in evolutionary psychology, justification or support for rather hidebound and traditional views of gender roles. That there are (or probably are) psychological difference between the sexes does not mean those differences conform to stereotype or myth.

At the risk of invoking a reductio ad Hitlerum I would point out that eugenics, while crude, could eliminate many genetic diseases. That doesn’t mean that the crazed racial hatred of the Nazis or their elimination tactics are valid or scientific. Nor does it mean that such methods have not been superseded, nor that they were right or moral.

*And other than, perhaps, gorillas or baboons, we’re particularly sexually dimorphic amongst our close relatives.