Bad Evolutionary Psychology

I’ve sometimes been asked by people working in evolutionary psychology to explain why so many feminists hate the field.  It’s an understandable question, from a careful scientist doing serious work on (say) concepts, or the evolution of language, or vision. There’s a lot of completely legitimate good science done by evolutionary psychologists. But then there are the people out there giving the field a bad name:

(1) The folks making claims about innate sex-based colour preferences, based on studies of adults. 

(2) The folks making claims about innate sex-based food-finding abilities, based on a small study of shoppers at a farmer’s market.

It doesn’t take a degree in  women’s studies to make one think there might be some alternative, culture-based hypotheses to rule out in these cases.  At least make an effort– Geez, study babies for the colour preferences.  It won’t be perfect, since the girls will already have spend nearly every minute of their lives swathed in and surrounded by pink.  (I really never appreciated how strong and immediate all the colour-coding was until I became a parent and tried to not play the game.)  Maybe control for how much food-shopping individuals do for the second– perhaps with a cross-cultural study, as The F-Word suggests. Do SOMETHING!

There’s an excellent critique of the colour preference study at the Guardian’s aptly-named Bad Science column.  (Note, by the way, that the Guardian itself is what I linked to for breathless reporting of the study. Though I could have chosen from hundreds of options.) Bad Science points out, among other things, that pink was considered the boy colour until the 1940s.  A quote from Ladies Home Journal, 1918:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” 

Come on, people, stop making your field look bad. And science journalists– what is wrong with you, giving a study like the colour preference one such huge press? The flaws are so obvious that one wonders how this could happen. Gives good support to claims by feminist philosophers of science that it is much harder than one might think to correct for pernicious biases.