Saturday, January 22, 2011

the real Mr. Quirk

My play THE SLASH currently in rehearsals has a character named Mr. Quirk.

How odd that there's a real Mr. Quirk, and I would be at odds with him at this time.

A Facebook friend posted a link to Joe Quirk's article Science Proves You're Stupid but what the article proves mostly is that Joe Quirk is stupid.

Maybe not stupid - maybe just lazy and shallow and glib and self-aggrandizing. I followed the link from my Facebook friend's page to his article, and eventually I realized that he was an evolutionary psychology promoter. The clue was this sentence in the article:
Many transhumanists tell me triumphantly that human nature has been left behind.

Evolutionary psychologists always worry that there's someone, somewhere denying human nature. Although it always turns out that what's being denied is one or more specious and unsupported and wild claims for some aspect of human nature made by an evolutionary psychologist.

So I was not at all surprised to find Quirk wrote a book entitled "It's Not You, It's Biology" which recycles all the trashiest gender essentialist evolutionary psychology tropes into one "humorous" package. Quirk's web site includes glowing reviews of the book - to get an idea of how scientifically ignorant the reviewers are, one of them says:
From Mike Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin, 2005):

Stephen Jay Gould was a leading opponent of evolutionary psychology, especially of the moronic pop-psychology variety that Quirk is selling. Gould's evisceration of Helena Cronin's "The Ant and the Peacock" in the New York Review of Books is a joy to behold, and I don't think Cronin's bff Richard Dawkins has ever forgiven him for it.

It's actually no wonder that evolutionary psychology is so popular - it's so easy to prove the premises of evolutionary psychology - at least to the satisfaction of other evolutionary psychologists and ignoramuses who are impressed by anything labeled "science."

Here's how it works:

  • Identify something to study.
  • Do a study of it: observe human behavior - or just send out a survey
  • Claim that the behaviors observed, or the survey results are evidence of "human nature."

    It's a little like Eddie Izzard's description of British imperialism - just stick a flag in.

    That's why the name David Buss doesn't provoke shame and/or laughter in spite of the fact that he actually chose to interpret female sexual slavery as evidence of female sexual selection, as documented in David Buller's Adapting Minds.

    Regular readers of this blog know how much I despise evolutionary psychology and those who promote it. I ripped into David Brooks recently

    I have to say, the New Yorker article The decline effect and the scientific method has been indispensable in arguing against evolutionary psychology since its promoters tend to cite debunked studies. Brooks cites the debunked "symmetry" effect, and Quirk cites "verbal overshadowing."

    You're so clueless about your own experience, you've already re-written the paragraph you just read. Close your eyes and sum up what was just said. Done? Now when you re-read it, you'll find you don't remember the words, but only your impression of what was said. Once you say it, you replace your vague impression with your act of verbalizing it. Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology Jonathan Schooler calls the effect "verbal overshadowing."

    I guess Quirk is too busy searching for proof of human nature to read the New Yorker, which reported in "The decline effect...":
    "Jonathan Schooler was a young graduate student at the University of Washington in the nineteen-eighties when he discovered a surprising new fact about language and memory. At the time, it was widely believed that the act of describing our memories improved them. But, in a series of clever experiments, Schooler demonstrated that subjects shown a face and asked to describe it were much less likely to recognize the face when shown it later than those who had simply looked at it. Schooler called the phenomenon “verbal overshadowing.”

    The study turned him into an academic star. Since its initial publication, in 1990, it has been cited more than four hundred times. Before long, Schooler had extended the model to a variety of other tasks, such as remembering the taste of a wine, identifying the best strawberry jam, and solving difficult creative puzzles. In each instance, asking people to put their perceptions into words led to dramatic decreases in performance.

    But while Schooler was publishing these results in highly reputable journals, a secret worry gnawed at him: it was proving difficult to replicate his earlier findings. “I’d often still see an effect, but the effect just wouldn’t be as strong,” he told me. “It was as if verbal overshadowing, my big new idea, was getting weaker.” At first, he assumed that he’d made an error in experimental design or a statistical miscalculation. But he couldn’t find anything wrong with his research. He then concluded that his initial batch of research subjects must have been unusually susceptible to verbal overshadowing. (John Davis, similarly, has speculated that part of the drop-off in the effectiveness of antipsychotics can be attributed to using subjects who suffer from milder forms of psychosis which are less likely to show dramatic improvement.) “It wasn’t a very satisfying explanation,” Schooler says. “One of my mentors told me that my real mistake was trying to replicate my work. He told me doing that was just setting myself up for disappointment.”

    Schooler tried to put the problem out of his mind; his colleagues assured him that such things happened all the time. Over the next few years, he found new research questions, got married and had kids. But his replication problem kept on getting worse. His first attempt at replicating the 1990 study, in 1995, resulted in an effect that was thirty per cent smaller. The next year, the size of the effect shrank another thirty per cent. When other labs repeated Schooler’s experiments, they got a similar spread of data, with a distinct downward trend. “This was profoundly frustrating,” he says. “It was as if nature gave me this great result and then tried to take it back.” In private, Schooler began referring to the problem as “cosmic habituation,” by analogy to the decrease in response that occurs when individuals habituate to particular stimuli. “Habituation is why you don’t notice the stuff that’s always there,” Schooler says. “It’s an inevitable process of adjustment, a ratcheting down of excitement. I started joking that it was like the cosmos was habituating to my ideas. I took it very personally.”

    Of course lack of empirical data will never stop or even slow down an evolutionary psychology promoter with a flag.

    I posted comments on the Joe Quirk article, but I doubt they'll get past the moderator, since apparently they only accept comments that proclaim how brilliant Joe Quirk is.

    And he is so obviously not. As I said to my Facebook friend:

    His article is glib and shallow and only works if you don't actually think about it too much. I mean, what about his cat example?

    "Many transhumanists tell me triumphantly that human nature has been left behind. So why are they bothering to... tell me? All humans everywhere care what other people think, spontaneously react when their values are challenged, argue with tribemates about what's true. See the comment button below? Why doesn't your cat find this button irresistible? Why can't you choose to be more like your cat? Turn off your mind, go sit in the sunbeam, give not a shit, and be content.

    Hey, you're still reading. How long did you consider the option to stop chasing opinion and contributing your own? Why does your cat's brain gravitate naturally toward the Buddhadom you must discipline yourself to achieve? It's that damn human nature again. It won't go away, not even the part that desires to transcend it, a particularly unique feature of Homo Confabulus."

    He's positing this idea that cats are more content than people - they gravitate "naturally" toward Buddhadom. And if you're just reading along, not considering this very much, you might go, "yeah, my cat looks very content sitting in the sun" and just move along in the article.

    Well MY cats are discontent PLENTY. My cat Spike is always pestering me to play fetch with his mousies. And Willow always wants me to give her cat treats. Sometimes she comes right up to me and screams in my face.

    That ain't no "Buddhadom" - I mean yeah, SOMETIMES cats are content. But sometimes so are people - all those people laying on the beach in the summer. What's THAT?

    Just like his example of cats vs. people in THIS article, his approach to men vs. women in his BOOK is the product of the most shallow, stereotyped, cartoonish outlook.

    His whole gig is to reinforce what everybody thinks they know about people and cats and men and women. So it's deeply ironic that he is making a case about people forging their understanding of the world not out of what actually happens, but out of a mental template.

    It appears to me that he's more guilty of doing so than most people.

    So now somebody is googling my name combined with Joe Quirk's to get to my site. I'm 99% sure it's Joe Quirk himself, since the person most likely to Google you, unless you are very famous - is you.

    And in spite of his best efforts, rehashing tired old "Men are from Mars" books will not make Joe Quirk famous.