Long ago I wrote a post about why I needed David Mitchell to get married, which he has since done – thank you, sir – as have I – thank you, other sir. And if his column this week can be believed, that wife is in part responsible for this snortingly funny example of how NOT to make some of the mistakes made by some evolutionary psychologists.
The column is a discussion of the results of a Valentine’s Day survey by Madame Toussauds about which celebrity among their waxworks visitors would most like to date. The results were George Clooney, followed by Prince Harry.
Here are two routine mistakes he avoids:
1. Selection and response biases. “These are people who have chosen to spend their money and time at Madame Tussauds …. Not only that; these women have then further defiled the sanctity of the gift of life by agreeing to take part in a publicity-garnering PR department dating poll.” Let us never forget that the respondents on a survey are not all people, everywhere, and certainly not people living in the environment in which we evolved.
2. The “dual mating strategy” hypothesis. It’s one of the most beguiling bits of all the beguiling nonsense found in evolutionary psychology, despite being thoroughly debunked. And Mr Mitchell easily sidesteps it, with the assistance of his good wife. He could too easily have slipped into “George Clooney for genes, Harry for parenting,” but he didn’t go there. He stuck tidily to a cultural narrative:
The voters were looking for their Prince Charming but, in Clooney and Harry, were faced with a choice between plain Mr Charming and Prince Not-Tremendously-Charming. They were all having to make do.
See? No need for ultimate causation when proximate does very well indeed.
So next time you read about the results of a survey that assert that our romantic behavioral patterns have anything to do with our evolutionary origins, think of this. Okay.
I read some survey results once that showed that people who watched The Daily Show, a comedy program, are better informed about current events than those who watch Fox News, putatively a new channel. It’s growing clearer and clearer to me that humor, the nerd voice, and pretending not to understand something (or even ACTUALLY not understanding) and thus being free to postulate the absurd, can be more persuasive, more shareable, and generally more compelling than all the facts in the world.
When you discuss Science, lots of people put on their bone-picking hats and starting finding things to disagree with. When you present a joke, plenty of people may not like it, but at least it’s obvious that they’re just disagreeing, rather than making as if they had a logical argument against the basic facts. Indeed it’s science’s great strength that it’s open and responsive to criticism. But the rational arguments of science are (often) precise, intricate, and often terribly, terribly specialized.
There are days when I wonder if, as an educator, I wouldn’t be better off writing a funny blog instead of a sciencey one. Sadly it’s easier to delve infinitely into the precisions of science than to write a good joke, as I’ve learned from the romantic euphemism. Until I develop the skill of making things funny, I’ll have to stick to the lesser skill of making them precise.