Skeptics with a K: Episode #170

Tattoos, artificial gills, space travel, and evolutionary psychology. Plus Malteasers, watches, body hair, and moon lasers. Even without Marsh, it’s Skeptics with a K! Featuring guest hosts Laurie and Kat.

  1. #1 by Nick from Vancouver BC on April 8, 2016 - 04:21

    Possibly my favourite episode since the Giant Book of Fantastic Fact days. Perfect blend of fact and bullshit. I also enjoyed Nicola’s cameo.

  2. #2 by Rob on April 8, 2016 - 09:17

    Best show ever…….mind you it’s only the 3rd one I’ve listened to. Truely brilliant.

  3. #3 by Tom Williamson on April 8, 2016 - 20:49

  4. #4 by Myk Dowling on April 10, 2016 - 03:41

    Kat can’t have looked hard for critiques of Evo Psych, because the criticisms she defended against are the low-hanging fruit.

    “What I object to in evolutionary psychology is that their stock in trade is to make observations of behavior in a single species, often in a single population, and then to infer an evolutionary history from that data point. You don’t get to do that. It’s not that the observations are invalid (they’re often interesting in their own right), or that it’s not possible that human behaviors carry a strong genetic component — it’s that you simply can’t draw an evolutionary conclusion from the simple existence of a trait in a population. Yet evolutionary psychologists do, all the time.” – PZ Myers,

    “Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind works much like the body… that it is an information-processing system, with pre-specified psychological programs (or environmentally-triggered ones), adapted much like the rest of the body, to meet specific problems in our evolutionary past. Others, including myself, disagree with this definition of the human mind. While I would certainly agree that evolution had a profound role in shaping lower-level modular systems, including autonomic nervous system responses, reflex arcs, immune systems, complex motor control, systems related to sexual arousal, and so on, it does not make sense for us to assume that our more complex social behaviors were shaped in the same way, or that they would even depend on lower-level domain-specific systems that evolutionary psychologists so frequently assume to be the ‘ultimate’ causes of behavior. Neurobiologists Panksepp and Panksepp point out that while evolutionary psychologists may interpret psychological data in a way to fit with their preferred theory, the philosophical assumptions that are the foundation of that theory are not at all consistent with what we know about human neurophysiology.” – Brad Peters,

  5. #5 by Muz C. on April 12, 2016 - 05:01

    I don’t want to impugn Kat’s motives as she seems cool and genuine, but her list of Ev Psych misconceptions is something I’ve heard before. Such that it’s almost as though the Ev Psych ‘leaders’ distribute a pamphlet.
    The short response would be that I find the list as such did little to address the most important criticisms of the nascent discipline that actually occur and it also unfortunately reinforces the impression that Ev Psych fans in general dismiss a lot of criticism as being simply that critics “can’t handle” or wish to deny the Truth that Ev Psych reveals(/assumes).

    I stress again that I don’t think guest Kat exhibits that sort of smugness Ev Psych can be known for. It’s more incidental to the narrative that Ev Psych has had around it since it first emerged.

    I mean, for starters the standard social science model of Tooby, Cosmides, Pinker etc is not actually real. Not in my experience at least. It’s more of a rhetorical wedge they like to drive. You could find some corners of some schools where a ‘blank slate’ might be implicit or implicitly necessary in the various theories and thought adventures that some engage in. You can also probably see where the social and behavioural sciences swung as far away from Eugenics as was possible at times in the late 20th century, and perhaps too far from biology in the process. But it would be wrong to say it’s anything resembling a model or a standard.

    If anything, by default these various schools of thought don’t have an opinion either way, or don’t intend to assume one about a given observation. Which is not the same thing. And the question would be why would one assume an evolutionary/selected aspect to some observed behaviour if you had no specific mechanism to attach it too? That would seem premature and prejudicial. Thus acting as though there’s a dichotomy here seems more like a rhetorical wedge to sideline great swathes of academic thought. (not to mention there’s acres of pre-genetic biological implications in Freud alone, as well has dozens of political thinkers, who all form part of current social science thought)

    Secondly, pretty much all of that list of things which Ev Psych is not have actually been prominently done in its name at some point or other. So, even if it is bad dealing by some people the response is understandable.

    Really, I don’t see people fighting over these points much anymore. The debate is at a much lower level of what the discipline can actually tell us. Ev Psych in a pretty fundamental way is an answer in search of question. At face value that makes it a hypothesis in search of, not quite evidence but more like clearly isolated exemplars, which is mostly fine. But it certainly has had a tendency for ‘Just So Stories’, many of which were great Daily Mail fodder that Marsh is probably familiar with. This I can’t really explain except to think that the notion underpinning Ev Psych is so appealing to people on some level that it’s a case of when you’ve got a hammer to wield everything starts to look like a nail.

    Which brings me to the meta aspect of it all, which can’t really be ignored. There is a repeated “Why do people hate us?” sort of confusion you get from Ev Psych people lately (which also seems to lead to argument that critics must have some ideological problem with the field, rather than a rational one). Well, perhaps those saying this missed that Ev Psych is probably the most feted, famous and faddish movement to produce almost nothing at all since String Theory. Its fans and acolytes were everywhere in the nineties and beyond. It was going to revolutionise all the fields! Quit Psychology now because you’re not going to need it in a few years. Politics too. Probably won’t need Economics either, except for the stats. The true way has been found.

    This has seemingly calmed down a bit a decade or so later, which is nice. It helped that its thunder was stolen or diluted by great advances in Cognitive Neuroscience and the like. But I’m not really exaggerating the glassy eyed zeal of people taken with it, or their apparent ubiquity. It was like a cult. Dianetics for the hunter gatherer in us all.

    So, yes, while it might seem unfair to read too much into the neutral sounding mission it has, all this stuff surrounding it is a factor in how people react to it.

    Since I’ve failed to be brief I’ll throw in this part of a debate between PZ Myers, Pinker and others.

    You could say Kat’s defense covers or rules out some of what he talks about there and I’d agree. But in there it hits on some of the more important disagreements, as in this quote: “the issue is not whether genes contribute to our psychology, a point I totally agree with, but whether we can assign a selective origin to a behavior. That is a much, much harder problem.”

    That’s really the rub. Evolutionary Psychology could go around and find any number of virtually universal generalisable human behaviours. It still couldn’t tell us what they are for or why they were inherited nor how. Which isn’t to say that it shouldn’t go on this (re)search. It might turn up some interesting stuff along the way. But it has some way to go yet (even though you’d swear it thinks it has all the answers sometimes).

  6. #6 by NickT on April 12, 2016 - 14:32

    Another great episode folks! I was particularly interested in the segment on the Triton “artificial gills rebreather”.

    I think that for all the reasons outlined, the ‘artificial gill’ bit of the device can be discounted. I do have some thoughts on the rest of the proposed mechanism which gave me some concern.

    There are two things here:

    The first is nomenclature; I don’t think this device is actually a rebreather (at least nothing indicates that from the funding webpage that I’ve seen). There doesn’t appear to be any recycling of your exhaled breath going on… indeed, where’s the space for a lungs worth of exhaled air to go and be scrubbed of its CO₂?

    The second concern is around oxygen toxicity. Again, the details are scant, and I’m making quite a few assumptions about how the device works so bear with me!
    I am assuming that pure O₂ is being breathed, as there is no mention of any other compressed gas of any sort (and again, where’s the room for it?)

    Breathing oxygen under pressure is not as super as you might imagine, having harmful effects when you increase the partial pressure of the O₂ (PPO₂) you are inhaling. Moreover, the effect with repetitive events (ie: repetitive dives) is cumulative.

    So, breathing 100% O₂ means that you can’t dive very deep before oxygen becomes toxic. The 15 feet maximum depth quoted by Triton exceeds the standard recreational PPO₂ limit of 1.4 bar.

    15 feet would not be guaranteed death or anything of the sort, but repeated dives to that depth are certainly pushing, and exceeding, the limits of recreational diving.

    To use 100% oxygen underwater is not as straightforward as it appears, the human body not behaving the same way under pressure as it does when it is on dry land.

    I figure the 45 minute duration limit stated is related to oxygen toxicity as much as it is breathable O₂ capacity.

    Some training required in the practicalities of use!

    It’s all a worry, as it would be very easy to exceed the depth limit on this device, and suddenly find yourself in trouble.

    And, that’s without those “gill” claims which just don’t appear to stack up.

  7. #7 by Tony on April 14, 2016 - 09:27

    The section on evolutionary psychology was pretty disappointing. The argument that its findings are just-so stories comes from an evolutionary reasoning being fitted post-hoc to observations. The way to counter this is to show that the hypothesis is generated first based on evolutionary adaptations, and is then tested.

    Instead what we had was observations being described (waist to hip ratio), and then an evolutionary reasoning being fitted to them. This is a “Just So” story.

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