Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Who keeps paying David Brooks to write worthless crap???

Now we know why the New Yorker can't hire more women writers - it has to save that money to pay David Brooks to write utterly worthless crap.

Brooks's "think" piece, Social Animal is the worst dreck I've seen in a magazine with intellectual/literary pretensions since Vanity Fair paid Christopher Hitchens to write an incoherent misogynist screed called "Why Women Aren't Funny".

Brooks's inability to grasp the complexities of all social realities would be astounding in anybody this side of fourth grade, much less from somebody who makes a living as a writer for the biggest media outlets. But I can't express the baffled middle-brow inanity of Brooks any better than Tom Tomorrow:

More Tom Tomorrow commentary on the travesty that is the output of David Brooks here.

But it is just Brooks's intellectual near-sightedness that makes him a perfect candidate for the theories of evolutionary psychology. "Social Animal" only mentions "evolutionary psychologist" once, in reference to David Buss (for a perspective on the outrageously bad "science" practiced by Buss, take a look at this excerpt from "Adapting Minds" by David J. Buller) but the article is completely informed by evolutionary psychology. In fact, if you took all the articles about evolutionary psychology from all mainstream publications from the last twenty-five years and rolled them into a big gray ball of mush, you'd have Brooks's article. All the biggest EvPsych tropes are there.

I won't get into them all now, it would take hours. If only my full-time job was debunking evolutionary psychology - I would be extremely happy. Thanks to this Brooks article though, I bumped into what is surely one of the greatest magazine article titles in the history of the world:

Is Evolutionary Psychology Total, Utter, and Dangerous Bullshit? by Stanton Peele. And this is in Psychology Today, to my utter amazement. I thought PT was completely in bed with evolutionary psychology.

But the one, perfect example of the absolute, utter and blindingly manifest (to anybody but editors at the New York Times and the New Yorker) black void of literary and intellectual value that is the musings of David Brooks is this bit from "Social Animal" :
Erica was impressed by him: women everywhere tend to prefer men who have symmetrical features and are slightly older, taller, and stronger than they are."

Now this is all standard party-line evolutionary psychology, iterated and re-iterated for the past twenty-five years. But the beauty part is that just a few weeks ago, in the December 13, 2010 issue of the New Yorker the "symmetrical features" study was completely debunked in "The Decline Effect":

In the three years following, there were ten independent tests of the role of fluctuating asymmetry in sexual selection, and nine of them found a relationship between symmetry and male reproductive success. It didn’t matter if scientists were looking at the hairs on fruit flies or replicating the swallow studies—females seemed to prefer males with mirrored halves. Before long, the theory was applied to humans. Researchers found, for instance, that women preferred the smell of symmetrical men, but only during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. Other studies claimed that females had more orgasms when their partners were symmetrical, while a paper by anthropologists at Rutgers analyzed forty Jamaican dance routines and discovered that symmetrical men were consistently rated as better dancers.

Then the theory started to fall apart. In 1994, there were fourteen published tests of symmetry and sexual selection, and only eight found a correlation. In 1995, there were eight papers on the subject, and only four got a positive result. By 1998, when there were twelve additional investigations of fluctuating asymmetry, only a third of them confirmed the theory. Worse still, even the studies that yielded some positive result showed a steadily declining effect size. Between 1992 and 1997, the average effect size shrank by eighty per cent.

… For Simmons, the steep rise and slow fall of fluctuating asymmetry is a clear example of a scientific paradigm, one of those intellectual fads that both guide and constrain research: after a new paradigm is proposed, the peer-review process is tilted toward positive results. But then, after a few years, the academic incentives shift—the paradigm has become entrenched—so that the most notable results are now those that disprove the theory.

This shouldn't have been hard for Brooks or the New Yorker editors to find - as of this writing it's in the New Yorker web site's "Most Popular" article list.

Paul Krugman often refers to the zombie lies of economics - claims that have been proven false, but keep coming back no matter how many times they are debunked.

And the reason they won't die a natural death is because somebody wants to believe in them. Clearly some editor at the New Yorker wants to believe in the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology. Otherwise they wouldn't pay the intellectually-limited but over-employed David Brooks to keep spreading them.

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