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You Are a Poor Scientist, Dr. Kanazawa!

May 20, 2011, 7:10 PM

DEAN YEAGER: "Doctor... Venkman. The purpose of science is to serve mankind. You seem to regard science as some kind of dodge... or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!"--Ghostbusters (1984)

In this scene Dean Yeager fires future ghostbuster Dr. Peter Venkman, a parapsychologist whom we have just seen fudging his ESP testing data in a bid to seduce an attractive experimental subject.

The pathetic saga of evolutionary psychologist Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa brought this scene immediately to mind. The comparison is inexact, however, and somewhat unfair to the character of Dr. Venkman. Within fictional the world of Ghostbusters, psychic phenomena exist and are empirically measurable. So, Venkman is merely a fraudulent scientist, not a pseudoscientist like Kanazawa. 

Kanazawa published a blog post entitled "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" Psychology Today quickly removed the post amid public outcry. Student groups at the London School of Economics are demanding that Kanazawa be fired from his job as a reader in Management. The university is investigating the matter. I suspect that if there were an easy way to fire Kanazawa, LSE would already have done so. He's a serial embarrassment to the institution. It's safe to say that Kanazawa never should have been hired in the first place. (While researching this post, I discovered, to my dismay, that Kanazawa is a Big Think "expert.")

Kanazawa's piece isn't just offensive, it's completely incoherent. You're probably imagining a slick con job like some of the better parts of The Bell Curve; but it's not nearly that good.

Daniel Hawes has an excellent critique of Kanazawa's research methods at Psychology Today. He argues that Kanazawa's post epitomizes bad science and pseudoscience because he asks questions that can't be answered scientifically, uses inappropriate tools to measure what he's looking for, and papers over his shortcomings with scientific jargon:

Bad science, I tell my students, is marked by an incompatibility or gross incoherence between the data (or more general: the information) available, the methods that are used to organize and summarize this data, and the conclusions one derives. In other words: Bad science is trying to answer a question and draw conclusions from data that does not pertain to your question and/or using methods not amenable to your question and/or data.

Pseudoscience takes bad science one step further. It displays a willful effort to hide the incompatibilities that exist in your bad science; often by inappropriately using scientific jargon and being vague about assumptions.

I mention these things, to introduce the thoughts running through my mind when I read an article on the Fundamentalist blog, "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" yesterday morning.

Kanazawa analyzes data from Add Health, a longitudinal study of U.S. teenagers. The subjects are interviewed several times over a period of years. At each meeting, an interviewer scores each subject's attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "very unattractive" and 5 being "very attractive." Kanazawa asserts that the interviewer's ratings constitute an objective measure of attractiveness.

The glaring methodological problem, which has already been pointed out by numerous critics, is that ratings of other people's attractiveness are still subjective judgements.

We all know that the prevailing standard of female beauty in the U.S. is heavily biased in favor of whites. Kanazawa's analysis is only interesting if he can somehow get beyond mere opinion to some deeper fact.

The interviewers are presumably U.S. residents, whose opinions about what's beautiful have been shaped by the prevailing standards of beauty, which idealize stereotypically white beauty and denigrate every other look.

White features aren't prized because white people are objectively better looking, whatever might mean. Beauty ideals have always mirrored the idiosyncrasies of social elites. When the rich were pale from sitting inside and the poor were tanned from working outdoors, pale was chic. When tans became associated with tropical vacations and expensive spray-on spa treatments, a tan became an essential fashion accessory. When food was scarce, extra pounds were considered beautiful. Now that obesity is linked to poverty and thinness is linked to affluence, the beauty standard has flipped. A curvy waist-to-hip ratio never seems to go out of style, but dramatically different body types can have the same ratio. Cf. Marilyn Monroe and Candice Swanepoel.

Kanazawa seizes on the fact that black women were rated as less attractive by interviewers as proof that black women are "objectively" less attractive.

Of course, the interviewers' ratings are exactly what you'd expect to see in a society where most Hollywood starlets, fashion models, pop princesses, beauty pageant contestants, and other beauty icons have historically been white, or at least light-skinned and silky-haired.

Who are these interviewers, anyway? For all we know, they're all white women between the ages of 45 and 50; or Asian men aged 28 to 30; or any arbitrarily narrow segment of society. Interviewers' ratings probably say more about what kind of person gets hired to be an Add Health interviewer than anything else. We probably can't even draw valid conclusions about beauty standards in America based on the tastes of this handful of people.

Even if the interviewers were miraculously representative of America at large, and comprised a large group, and were randomly selected, their answers would only tell us something about the prevailing standards of beauty in America. Their reactions could never be objective measures of beauty. So, Kanazawa's entire enterprise fails.

[Photo credit: nora, Creative Commons.]



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