07/06/2011

The Lesson from the Kanazawa Affair

You may already have heard about this, or you may not: The University of London Union Senate, which represents more than 120,000 students, recently voted unanimously to dismiss Satoshi Kanazawa, a professor at the London School of Economics. 'Sherelle Davids, anti-racism officer-elect of the LSE students' union, said: "Kanazawa deliberately manipulates findings that justify racist ideology."' In The Guardian, Nanjala Nyabola also called him racist and didn't fail to mention the Nazis. There's more along these lines to be found around the web.

What on earth had happened? Kanazawa, a sociologist-turned evolutionary psychologist who teaches at the LSE's School of Management had published a post at his blog hosted by Psychology Today. The post started from the assumption that there is such a thing as "objective" physical attractiveness - that is, some people look objectively better than others. It then went on to analyze interviewer ratings of interviewees' physical attractiveness from a large-scale survey of young Americans. Result: African American females (but not males) are rated as less attractive. Interpretation: African American females are objectively less attractive. Explanation: People of African descent are high in testosterone, which is bad for female looks.

Given the reaction to the post, it is unsurprising that Psychology Today has since taken it down; it is also unsurprising that you can still find it online nonetheless.

Now, I find the idea of objective quality of looks nonsensical - but no more nonsensical or, indeed, objectionable, than the idea of objective quality of movies, held by famous movie critic Roger Ebert and blogger extraordinaire Andy McKenzie. A number of people have made reasonable arguments that the data should have been analyzed differently and that such different analyses lead to different results. I personally wonder about interviewer race and sex and how it affects the ratings. But as far as I can see, Kanazawa made no decisons that were outlandish. Also, it was just a friggin' blog post.

There's a curious disconnect here. Given the reactions, one should think Kanazawa at least defended slavery, but all he did was argue that women of African descent, on average, are less attractive. I have my own personal (i.e., totally nonobjective) views on the relative looks of women from different countries. If such things are included in your concept of racism, your concept is too inclusive.

More fundamentally, people calling for Kanazawa's head would do well to heed Steven Pinker's warning that basing legal concepts of equality on empirical claims is unwise "because it makes our values hostages to fortune, implying that some day discoveries from the field or lab could make them obsolete." The outrage that Kanazawa's post caused makes sense if you hold the view that if the claim were true, that would make it o.k. to treat people of Sub-Saharan descent worse. That, of course, would be wrong, wrong, wrong.

I probably wouldn't have written about all of this if the journal Evolutionary Psychology hadn't decided that it is a good idea to make its homepage an outlet for an open letter to the general public signed by 68 researchers which informs us that "Kanazawa's research should not be taken as representative of the evolutionary behavioural science community." It's an interesting document for students of rhethoric because the authors want to give lip service to the idea that researchers "who publish work that may be unpopular with some sections of the media or general public should not be condemned on those grounds", but at the same time want to condemn Kanazawa. They exploit the fact that Kanazawa's work has attracted more than the typical amount of criticism in academic journals, as it is often, um, low in rigor - I called him "The Malcolm Gladwell of Evolutionary Psychology" on this blog not so long ago, and if you prefer the opionion of someone more respectable, Andrew Gelman declared in public that he'd read another paper by Kanazawa "only if you'd pay me a lot. I'll do lots of things for free, but reading anything more by this dude isn't one of them!". So their main excuse is that Kanazawa's work isn't good enough; moreover, malice on Kanazawa's part is implied. This aspect finds its climax in the hurt feelings section of the letter:
Those of us who have reviewed his papers have had experiences where we have rejected papers of his for certain journals on scientific grounds, only to see the papers appear virtually unaltered in print in other journals, despite the detailed critiques of the papers given to Kanazawa by the reviewers and editors of the journals that rejected his papers.
Bastard! Had his papers rejected, and instead of being thankful for the detailed critiques he received, he went and submitted the papers, virtually unaltered, at another journal. It's unheard of in the worlds of scientific publishing!

Of course, all of that isn't funny. When some wannabe dictators from the institute of Africa studies in M√ľnster called German psychologist Heiner Rindermann a racist after he had given an interview on the radio about his research on international differences in IQ, the German psychological association quickly shot back on behalf of its member. That's how you do it. You don't go and kick your fellow researcher when he's on the ground because, now that you think about it, maybe hypotheses can be immoral after all. The signatories of the letter (including none of the big names in the field) should be ashamed of themselves. They don't belong in the scientific community. Come to think of it, I believe their employers should consider firing them. They simply have the wrong attitude concerning "wherever the evidence may lead me".

All of the above might make you think I'm sorry for Kanazawa. I'm not, here's why. In March 2008, when it still seemed like Hillary Clinton might be the next U.S. president, he published a post on the "war on terror". After a bit of throat-clearing, he came up with an interesting hypothesis . . .
It seems to me that there is one resource that our enemies have in abundance but we don’t: hate.
. . . and then went off the rails:
This has never been the case in our previous wars. We have always hated our enemies purely and intensely. They were “Japs,” they were “Krauts,” they were “Gooks.” And we didn’t think twice about dropping bombs on them, to kill them and their wives and children. (As many commentators have pointed out, the distinction between combatants and civilians does not make sense in World War III, and the Geneva Convention -- an agreement among nations -- is no longer applicable, because our enemies are not nation states.) Hatred of enemies has always been a proximate emotional motive for war throughout human evolutionary history. Until now.

Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that, on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, the President of the United States was not George W. Bush, but Ann Coulter. What would have happened then? On September 12, President Coulter would have ordered the US military forces to drop 35 nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East, killing all of our actual and potential enemy combatants, and their wives and children. On September 13, the war would have been over and won, without a single American life lost.

Yes, we need a woman in the White House, but not the one who’s running.

So, I guess it's fair to say he is indeed a bastard. But here's the thing that's interesting sociologically. You can find a number of critical comments around the web concerning the bloodlust displayed in the paragraphs above, but resolutions to get him fired? Colleagues stabbing him in the back? No. Apparently, calling for the death of millions of innocents is not nearly as bad as stating, on the basis of data, that black women are, on average, unattractive.

So now you know how to get your priorities straight.

Added:

(1) Believe it or not, as I am writing, the top item in the "Evolutionary Psychology in the news" column on the journal's front page is a link to a press release entitled "People more strongly condemn bad behaviour when cued that they are being watched".

(2) For a less enraged assessment, with many links to reactions, see Eric Crampton.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across this post.
I don't agree with your take on Kanazawa, but be that as it may.

What I think is most interesting about the Kanazawa affair is what it implies about the academic context in which he has existed. In that context it is okay (as you have noted) to publicly talk about annihilating Arabs, or to say that black women are objectively less attractive. But we can be sure that if he was advocating for even something reasonably defensible like attacks on US military bases, he would have been quietly let go.

This is something you see in disciplines like economics quite a lot: you can be a raving free market loony with no serious publications and still get tenure in a decent department, but someone with non-loony left-wing political views with lots of decent publications ends-up in a non-economics department. The sociology of the Western academy...