So we all agree Satoshi Kanazawa is a bad scientist; what next?

Yesterday morning, Psychology Today published a blog post by Satoshi Kanazawa titled Why are Black Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Women. The link has gone dead, but if you’re curious, somebody mirrored the article here. News and reactions here and here and here and here (and plenty elsewhere). It has been causing a bit of a kerfuffle online. Plenty of people are duly taking Kanazawa to task over what he wrote. I’d like to reflect on some related issues.

1. Psychology Today needs to answer for itself. Psychology Today apparently pulled the article, but so far they have offered no explanation. Marianne Kirby says that’s not enough, and I agree. With no explanation, Kanazawa or his supporters can position him as the noble truth-teller being censored in the name of political correctness. Psychology Today needs to head off that argument by directly refuting the substance of what Kanazawa wrote, not just disappearing his blog post. They need to show that their decision to spike the article was an evaluation of the science. And the statement needs to come from the editorial staff – it isn’t enough just to let this be a back-and-forth with other Psych Today bloggers.

2. Let’s stop bothering to read anything that Satoshi Kanazawa writes. A few years ago statistician Andrew Gelman spent some of his valuable time writing a critique of another of Kanazawa’s claims. Gelman took Kanazawa seriously and was evenhanded, but concluded that Kanazawa had commited some serious statistical errors. Kanazawa (or his partisans) placed a rebuttal on Wikipedia, and went on to write a popular book about the disputed research. The lesson I took from that incident was that hunting down all of Kanazawa’s errors is a thankless job. Based on his track record it is probably safer just to assume that he’s always wrong and move on.

3. Don’t blame Add Health. I’ve seen some bloggers attacking Add Health, the longitudinal study of adolescent and adult health from which Kanazawa got his data. That’s misguided. Kanazawa had nothing to do with planning or running Add Health. Add Health is a publicly funded study that makes some of its data available to the general public and other, more sensitive data available to researchers who enter into security arrangements. They provide a valuable resource and should not be held responsible for how their data gets used or misused.

4. You don’t need cultural determinism to refute him. Physical attractiveness is a reputational construct, meaning it is irreducibly defined by how people perceive one another. And plenty of studies have shown that judgments of physical beauty vary by culture, historical era, by who is the perceiver and their relationship to the target, etc. But there is a world of difference between saying “culture matters” and saying “culture is the only thing that matters.” The former is indisputably true, and that gives you everything you need to indict Kanazawa. By not considering cultural explanations or perceiver-side biases, Kanazawa committed an enormous error in reaching his conclusions. You don’t need to go the next step and claim that there are absolutely no universals in how humans make judgments of attractiveness. For one thing, that kind of blank-slate cultural determinism is much more difficult to defend; for another, no serious universalist theories say anything about race differences. Don’t do Kanazawa the favor of including him in a sophisticated scientific discussion about the bases of attractiveness judgments; his mistakes are far dumber than that.

7 thoughts on “So we all agree Satoshi Kanazawa is a bad scientist; what next?

  1. Biologically (thus physically), alot can be said about the attractiveness of what we may call the typical (or stereotypical) black woman. Full-Round cheeks, generally very curvy body, they seem to age well (they seem to wrinkle less), eyes and teeth tend to appear pristine white in contrast with skin color, full plump lips, the list goes on.

    I think it is highly economical-social-cultural-political that somehow white women are seen as the standard for beauty and that occasionally Asian (japaneese) women fall in the spotlight.

    I bet if an experiment would be devised where males could engage with the other sex, free of any aublogation and expectations of their peers, not considering culture, relashionship building, or inner sence of cultural and racial identity, the “black woman” choice would would be quite popular for the night.

    I other words, I don’t buy that “physically” black women are less attractive, to the contrary… it is rather other factors that possibly gets in the way.

  2. 4GE: I’m just going to respond to the second part because I’m sort of flummoxed by that list you gave. Anyway, the idea that you could remove cultural effects doesn’t make sense to me, even as a thought experiment. People develop in a culture, and that’s as much a part of somebody as their DNA. You can do experiments where you try to amp up or down culturally learned associations and the like, but you cannot zero out culture from a human mind. (Hey, come to think of it, maybe I’ve sorta responded to the first part after all.)

  3. A refutation of Kanazawa’s article would not only be the socially responsible thing to do, it would also provide Psychology Today the opportunity to demonstrate a science journalism gravitas heretofore not associated with their publication.

    Additionally, it would settle the associated “kerfuffle” and free up the intellectual resources, currently sidetracked by the discussion of his bad science, to address questions of much greater importance, like: Why are the British so ugly?

  4. To Sanjay: You make a good point, I think, because you focussed your answer on our biggest sexual organ : Our Brain!

  5. I’m an Antipodean medic, and used to be a student of James ‘Flynn Effect’ Flynn.
    I am nearly as dismayed by many of the low quality comments attacking K as I am dismayed by the quality of his blog post.
    Just reading the mirrored post for a few seconds gives pause for thought.
    His graphs show that ‘black races’ have higher BMIs on average. He doesn’t source where these ‘black races’ come from. Genetic variability in Africans is far greater than for all other ethnicities, due to the reduction of genetic variability from multiple founder effects as other groups migrated out of Africa over the past 100-200kyears. Samples from the Americas may have significant components of white and other ancestry. Anyhow, BMI is also correlated with class/wealth. Obesity is positively correlated with low incomes, at least in the developed world where high calorie foods can be purchased for low proportions of income.

    Most bizarrely, he explains his assertion as due to the ‘higher testosterone in black females.’
    I do not know of any large peer-reviewed studies which validate this. Moreover, adipose tissue stores oestrogens, as well as converting other steroid hormones into oestrogens. Hence, if higher BMIs are in part due to greater quantities of adipose tissue, there should be proportionately greater amounts of oestrogens, which contradicts his statement of excess androgens in ‘the black race’.

  6. 4GE – You KNOW it!

    As much as people like to deny it, Black women have been the secret ‘fantasy’ and ‘taboo’ for CENTURIES.

    I know, just as a mid-thirties Black female who has grown up/lived in all-white environs for the majority of my life, that these desires are here to stay.

    (But I totally get it… I love my curves… And anorexia is NOT hot in our community, and ‘thickness’ is seen as an ASSet – thank GOODNESS =] )

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