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Why I’m OK with Big Think’s Kanazawa Decision

September 15, 2012, 4:37 AM
Racist

 This is a lengthy post but I want to do justice to Adam Lee, Big Think and the arguments. These are my initial thoughts.

Fellow Big Think blogger and friend, Adam Lee, has expressed his concern over Big Think providing a platform for psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. Kanazawa is infamous for many bad “scientific” claims: reaching racist conclusions, such as black women being “objectively” (I don’t think he understands this word) less attractive; or Africans being too unintelligent to overcome poverty. He bases this off flimsy science, then couching his invalid claims in the language of the misunderstood heretic. Galileo he is not, despite his blog’s name. Adam is very much against Dr Kanazawa being provided a platform, since, as one eloquent commenter said: “There is a difference between respecting someone's freedom of speech and handing them a megaphone.” Indeed, the Big Think editors penned a reply to Adam, which is an important read.

Despite all this, I have little problem with Kanazawa being a fellow blogger at Big Think. I want to express firstly my sympathy with Adam’s position, but also outline why I disagree.

As “a person of colour”, as well as a citizen of South Africa – a country that will only rub off the scars of a powerful racist regime in a few generations – I’ve experienced racism in a very deep way: both in a very personal capacity, as well as in a slightly broader sense. In a personal capacity, the colour of my skin has often been the focus for bullying and abuse – aided by my Arabic name. I’ve long overcome it, to the point where even now it takes effort to name specific examples (I won’t: it’s irrelevant). Secondly – and more deeply – my family who grew up during the worst points of the Apartheid regime had their lives stifled, their dreams crippled, and are living on the limping hopes of their enforced life-choices. My father, who desired to be a pilot, was denied such a career-path despite doing exceedingly well after school: due only to the colour of his skin, his choices were narrowed. He still has never flown. My grandfather, whose family scraped together money since they were denied access to higher paying jobs, chose to allow his younger brother to attend university since his family could only afford to send one child. He never got a higher degree.

And so on. I hope you get the point.

I know the effects of racism and, indeed, have lived with the awful results my entire life. This isn’t at all an argument or claim that Adam ought to be silent: Adam, too, has experienced racism first-hand (as far as I recall), and has loved ones who have experienced the same. We are neither of us ignorant of the ramifications of such absurd and immoral viewpoints.

But I think Adam reaches too far in his justified views , as I don't find Adam's arguments  sufficient reason to opposw Kanazawa being given a platform. I'll come to reasons I think can be made at the end. I should also state here that I don't think Adam and I actually differ that much, but we do come to different conclusions - such is the nature of inquiry though.

Taboo Ideas: Infanticide and Racism

In the comments of Adam’s original post, his commenters have brought me up as an example of… something. Here’s what one commenter said, about my views regarding infanticide: “Meanwhile, one of the other Big Think bloggers openly supports infanticide as a form of abortion. The problem with controversial ideas is that they're usually controversial for a reason.”

I’m not sure when something being “controversial” was an immediate indication of it being either false or bad. A moment’s thought will recognise this is an unjustified claim. The best thing one can say about Kanazawa is that his ideas are controversial, yet this is not a reason to oppose his writing. To use myself as an example – since I know my own arguments best – I too have written about ideas many find offensive, insulting and “dangerous”. You can read my argument for infanticide here and about one I support here.

Why did I raise this point? Well, the commenter above indicated that there exist taboo ideas on Big Think. What I’ve demonstrated in that post is – hopefully – that while my view may be controversial and perhaps shocking, it ought not to be viewed as obviously wrong. Or so bad as to require removal. Or so terrible I should be silenced.

Adam’s own blog tackles many topics people find difficult, too. I’m not sure if the commenter means to put me in a bad light, with Kanazawa; or highlight that it’s pointless “getting upset” about this matter since there already exists a baby murderer like me on Big Think. Whatever the case may be, it’s a good springboard to discuss controversy. In the end: Is there a good reason based on controversy to remove writers? Are there ideas we’re not allowed to explore? Are there scientific taboos which reach too far?

Steven Pinker – who’s book Adam is blogging about – has made some important arguments about why we should be able to academically explore ideas, even if they are taboo to everyday experience. John Stuart Mill, too, was also sensitive to the problem of removing or abstaining from thinking about ideas because they were controversial.

I don’t think Kanazawa should be removed for having very controversial ideas: if the ideas are bad, this can be demonstrated; PZ Myers, linked above, and Scott Barry Kaufman and Jelte Wicherts have done a great job of this. We can respond by benefitting our own understanding for why we disagree. Exactly what is it that makes his conclusions wrong? We benefit as inquirers by answering this.

I don’t however think this is Adam’s entire claim, but it certainly appears to be one necessary factor in his argument.

Being Hurt

Adam says:

“The only other thing I want to say is that this isn't a purely abstract debate or intellectual exercise for me. I have friends, loved ones, readers and correspondents who are people of color, who are women with careers and ambitions, who care passionately about social justice and equality. If my blog brings them to this site, and if they find such bigoted tripe as Kanazawa has in the past expressed, they would be deeply hurt and angered.”

There is a problem with this: Many have told me and have told the editors they find my blog distressing, my views hurtful and so on. The difference, for me, is that I consider my ideas justified and backed with evidence, whereas Kanazawa’s are not (I apologise for making this post so much about me, but I have more accurate knowledge about my own experience as a Big Think blogger). Should I be removed because I elicit this in people, too? As I highlighted above with my infanticide post, it is to some people controversial, people hate it and me for making it, but I don’t see that as sufficient reason to silence or remove me.

If Adam thinks that people being merely offended or hurt is reason to not have someone on a here, then he and I also should go. Why is someone offended by racist claims more potent than someone being offended by protecting their child against “psychopaths” like me?

This is where I think a case can be made.

Anti-Science and Anti-Reason

Adam would’ve made a better, but not sufficient, argument not based on emotional responses, but on Kanazawa’s disregard of evidence and argument. I’m not sure if this was in fact Adam’s initial point, since it wasn’t made explicit – I mostly just saw Adam being justifiably horrified by Kanazawa’s view and conclusions, not primarily Kanazawa’s misuse of science. That however could just be nit-picking, since it might simply be an embedded point in Adam’s post.

Let me answer my previous question: Someone can be more offended (I don’t know how to measure this) by Kanazawa than me because Kanazawa misuses science to reach unfounded conclusions. I, as demonstrated too quickly* above, believe I do not: I’ve made an argument about infanticide based on logic and using reason to the best of my ability. If I’ve failed in that, I would accede if this was pointed out. I’ve debated many people on this issue and, so far, I’ve not been convinced otherwise.

Kanazawa’s colleagues have clearly and consistently pointed out why he is wrong. He has not let up and demonstrated no progress in his thinking regarding his previous unfounded claims. This is why we should be at the most incredibly sceptical and justifiably unimpressed with his sharing a platform with the likes of Adam Lee, Steven Mazie and Sam McNerney – all recent friends, I’m proud to say. (My suggestion, Big Think editors? Get more smart women scientists and writers, not dodgy ones!) Readers are, however, smart enough to either avoid Kanazawa, or know where to find him.

Being offensive or hurt is not enough, as many feel this about me and Adam. The most hateful email I’ve got wasn’t about my incest or child-porn opinions, but on why smart people can be dumb. There’s no measure on what will hurt people more and I don’t think we ought to ever base arguments solely on measures of (1) being controversial or (2) offence/hurt alone. I have “faith” in Big Think readers to either avoid or ignore Kanazawa; I also think that if you ignore an entire incredible website like Big Think because of one writer, then you are in error (part-whole fallacy). Yes, some readers might leave, but then it becomes a legitimate** problem for Big Think.

In the end, the following might be some reasons to not have Kanazawa as a fellow blogger: he does not seem to care about using science as a tool, so much as a façade, which is insulting to the mission of Big Think’s defence of knowledge; he will demonstrably affect viewership and revenue for Big Think. The former is sufficient to oppose him as a reader and fellow blogger; the two combined is sufficient to not have him on Big Think. Big Think already has interviews and has provided platforms for a diverse range of thinkers, many of whom I think promote terrible ideas. But this will always be the case when inquiry happens: we will hear thing we don’t like, encounter ideas that are deeply offensive and hurtful. If this never happened, we are no longer in a place of inquiry but probably cultish adherence to the overarching message.

I want to feel challenged so I do not think I’m right: anti-bigotry can itself become a form of dogma (I don’t think this of Adam’s anti-bigotry, by the way), which is why I want to be able to have my own challenged, even if I think I’m right. If Kanazawa can be the wall off which I can bounce this, so be it. It benefits everyone for this to be the case, rather than letting my anti-bigotry stultify into dogma. I also wish to treat Kanazawa as a person, with multiple ideas, rather than just some horrible racist who I must obviously oppose because so many say so. Viewing someone as only one kind of thing which you must oppose is exactly what makes racism bad: I don’t ever wish to hold views based on this kind of mindset and being challenged, even by someone like Kanazawa, at least might aid me in preventing this from happening.

I appreciate Adam’s passion and opposition, but don’t think these are sufficient reasons to oppose Kanazawa as a Big Think blogger, so much as they are reasons to oppose him generally as a thinker.

----

* There are many caveats and nuances that still need to be ironed out and demonstrated regarding infanticide. But this should, I think, be obvious.

** I now hate this word.

 Image Credit: Russell Lee/WikiCommons (source)

 

 

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