Satoshi Kanazawa is back

Now he's got a gig at Big Think. Kanazawa, you may recall, is the evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics who loves to make racist arguments and then go racing to the data to find selective support for them; he's a terrible scientist. I'm no big fan of evolutionary psychology, not because I think its premises are wrong (evolution did shape how our brains work), but because it is trivially easy to find lazy, bad scientists who have hopped on the bandwagon because it is an easy path to media sensationalism — and Kanazawa is the kibitzer dancing in the locomotive cabin, constantly yanking the chain to make the whistle blow.

Kanazawa is the guy who claimed to look objectively at the data and thereby determined that black women are ugly (he also thinks Africans are stupid), and whose data were examined and found to have been selectively extracted. He got a lot of flak for that, and while he wasn't kicked out of Psychology Today, where he had his column, he hasn't posted anything there in over a year, so I suspect there was some pressure applied. Which is too bad…every time he opens his mouth, he's a great target for beating up bad science.

So now he's at Big Think, and his first column is…the same old thing all over again. The first half of it is all defensive bluster, in which he claims he's just a dedicated scientist following the data where ever it might go, and his enemies are all Politically Correct cowards and leftists (yeah, he's also a vicious right wing nutter). And then he goes on to defend, once again, his claim that black women and Asian males are ugly.

He argues that he was just paying attention to other people's data. He attended a seminar in which data on the dating behavior of 20,000 college people was discussed, and part of that data showed that black females and Asian males had the fewest dating partners, and he just wanted to explain it.

My initial suspicion was that this might be because black females and Asian males were less physically attractive than their competitors. Thus began my scientific interest in race differences in physical attractiveness.

And we're off! That's a very peculiar leap: why would you assume that the number of dating partners would correlate with physical attractiveness? My wife is a very attractive woman, but she had one partner in college (me). I'm a homely guy, and I also had one partner in college (her). It seems to me that number of partners is going to be more strongly affected by the strength and stabiity of relationships, which is going to be a consequence of far more than just appearance, and it's simply odd to leap to the hypothesis that it's because of physical beauty or lack thereof.

It's also odd because of Kanazawa's own premises. Listen to his introductory interview on Big Think, if you can; right at the beginning, he announces that the evolutionary goal of all organisms is reproductive success, and the key to achieving that is 1) status, and 2) access to resources. He must know that status is going to involve more than just appearance. So why doesn't he listen to the data in that seminar and think, "Hmm, maybe black women have lower socioeconomic status and fewer resources — I wonder if further analysis of the data would show that?" But no, that's complicated. He instead jumps to the conclusion that black women must be ugly.

Why? Because he's a goddamned racist.

He also doesn't pay any attention to the other outcome, that Asian males have fewer dates, too. Is it because they're all ugly? I suspect it's more because there are some complex cultural phenomena at play. A real scientist would try to examine the multifactorial inputs into human sexual behavior, rather than just trying to reduce it all to appearance, which is the kind of ad hoc nonsense I'd expect from frat boys watching porn.

And now his argument is that he's being oppressed because his results are uncomfortable. No, he's being laughed at because his interpretations are ludicrous and unfounded.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter, because this is no longer about empirical facts or scientific truths. It’s a matter of emotions and feelings, history and culture. What I have learned in this ordeal is that, in the Year 2011, there are certain questions that scientists may not ask, or, more accurately, for some questions, there are certain answers that scientists must a priori preclude from consideration. There are certain conclusions that scientists may not reach about some groups of people. Many commentators have pointed out in vain that, using exactly the same data and exactly the same statistical methods, I have also shown that women are significantly more physically attractive than men and black men are significantly more physically attractive than nonblack men. Few complained about these findings, because they are not politically incorrect.

I'll complain about all those findings. I personally have a bias that women are far more attractive than men, I agree; I think also that in our culture we tend to associate beauty as a laudable quality in women and strength as the equivalent virtue in men. I think it would be really hard to separate the influence of having women's bodies as the standard for beauty from our perspectives on men's bodies; "attractive" is a complicated perceptual phenomenon. So I reject his claims out of hand, not because they're politically incorrect, but because they're simplistic to the point of stupidity and focus on trivial phenomena while ignoring their broader foundations in culture.

Also, I've heard that claim that "I'm not racist because I also make judgments about my own ethnic group" somewhere else. It's not convincing.

Even less convincing is the argument from martyrdom.

…certain questions may still not be asked, and certain conclusions may still not be reached. It’s a very difficult world for the Scientific Fundamentalist.

Yeah, yeah, crawl up on that cross, Kanazawa, and keep yanking on the train whistle.


More like this

OK, ok, but to not be a fan of evolutionary psychology just because a bunch of scientists are not up to speed? What up with that? It's like not liking the guitar because some losers play it.

The man is very obviously unschooled in even the most basic concepts of Anthropology, biological or social.

Certainly he could do more even with his own odd conclusions; imagine for example that "black women are unattractive" was found to be true based on good data. The next logical step for me would be "Why don't they fit into this category? Is it cultural? Is it biological? Are both at play here? Why were they selected for in their own populations despite undesirable physical appearance? Is there something at play here that we don't see?" These threads could be tremendously rewarding to scientific understanding of the broad sweep of humanity, but what Kanazawa seems to be up to is a largely narrow pursuit of one possible explanation which he's defending despite reasonable arguments against it.

"... why would you assume that the number of dating partners would correlate with physical attractiveness? My wife is a very attractive woman, but she had one partner in college (me). I’m a homely guy, and I also had one partner in college (her). "

Wow, talk about a man-who statistic! Why would you dismiss an hypothesis? Because your personal experience is not consistent with the finding? Yes, of course! Cigarettes don't cause cancer because I smoke and I don't have cancer!

By Brian Fellow (not verified) on 10 Sep 2012 #permalink

How do you even measure ugliness? Is there even such a thing as an objective measure of ugliness? Guess you can derive some kind of comparative values when taking into account the majority's opinion, but that's gonna be pretty damn hard. Especially when the reported beauty of a person is highly influenced by desirable properties not relating to beauty such as money and power.

Thanks for the update. I read the same article and found it very sloppy. Neglecting such things as cultural background and the many other confounders in determining something as subjective as beauty as defined in a specific region in the world seemed weak. Also to jump to race which is ill defined seemed pretty unscientific rather than something like tall/short, light skinned/dark skinned, symmetry, etc.... Now that you provide some links however, I do recall other articles by this person that certainly call into question his scientific abilities.

By Science Bulldog (not verified) on 10 Sep 2012 #permalink

The Wicherts & Hoffman critique is not particularly helpful as they cherry pick the ADD Health data too (omitting the first few waves of results).

By Mike Steinberg (not verified) on 10 Sep 2012 #permalink

"And now his argument is that he’s being oppressed because his results are uncomfortable. No, he’s being laughed at because his interpretations are ludicrous and unfounded."

I.m sorry, but I'm afraid I have to agree with him. The ugly black women study was not notably less rigorous than his previous efforts (taken as a whole). Many of his interpretations have been unfounded. There was always a certain amount of eye-rolling at this, but he never got pilloried for it until he called black women ugly.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 10 Sep 2012 #permalink

CherryBombSim: "The ugly black women study was not notably less rigorous than his previous efforts (taken as a whole)"

Talk about damning with faint praise. Kanazawa has trotted out sloppy, sensationalist study after sloppy, sensationalist study. Each one as badly thought out as the last. Has he got more flack for the one where he's overtly racist? Sure, he has. We thankfully live in a society that's rather less tolerant of overt racism than mere eccentricity.

His conclusion is not entirely impossible, of course, it could be - for example - that the different appearance of Europeans was driven by runaway sexual selection for attractive females. But I doubt it, and Kanazawa shoddy science doesn't demonstrate it and merely serves to further blacken the name of Evolutionary Psychology.

Evolutionary psychology is like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence...…

Why do you want to celebrate Lyin' Ryan?

Evolutionary psychology is like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence…

It shouldn't be. The brain isn't exempt from evolution.

Trouble is, "the closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets" – evo psych is full of very poorly tested hypotheses, and even of ones that were falsified long ago but many people seem not to have noticed.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

I dig black chicks. And I'm a white dude. There's ugly and attractive people of every race and gender. And while some of this is highly subjective; I bet you'd have to work hard to find someone who would rather spend the night with Roseann Barr than with Beyoncé.

By Bootylicious (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

@Onaka, there is a simple and objective way to measure how beautiful or ugly someone is. You just count their number of dating partners. :-(

By Buzz Parsec (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

I'm an old white guy who has seen some very attractive black women over the years. And once in a great while (uhhhhh, cough, cough, maybe a little more frequently than that), I've seen some spectacularly attractive black women in Playboy. They seem to find at least one gorgeous black Playmate each year, plus good-looking ones for photo features.
So in my highly-objective analysis, I say this guy is a racist idiot. Or else he lacks my keen perception of female beauty!!!

By TheVirginian (not verified) on 11 Sep 2012 #permalink

Psychology Today lets my profession down far to often. Not to account for cultural differences in sexuality mores is an obvious flaw even to the casual reader. Indeed even within cultures women in particular can have pretty much as many sexual partners as they choose regardless of their looks. Availability can be a very desirable quality to a horny guy!

The 1500s Catholic Church dismissed those who dissented from the Orthodox as ‘heretics’. The current American theocracy dismisses those who dissent from the Orthodox as ‘racists’.

By Likely Square (not verified) on 16 Sep 2012 #permalink