18 May 2011

Should we call "Psychology Today" a racist organ? Probably not, but...?

Blogging, a topic I love, can have a nasty underbelly. But thank goodness for that! Because every now and then someone reveals the raison d'être of their research agenda. The Guardian reports that on Monday, Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, "published an article on his Psychology Today blog that sent shockwaves across Twitter and the blogosphere and reminded many of us of just how dangerous this kind of "science" can be." They continue:

In his incendiary piece, which has since been taken down, Kanazawa discussed the scientific basis for "why black women are less attractive than any other women". Note that Kanazawa did not claim to have discovered why black women are perceived to be less attractive, or why he believed that black women are less attractive.

After bombarding the reader with colourful bar graphs and a set of numbers, he asserts that he has found the answer as to why black women are "objectively" less attractive than women of any other race, and it has something to do with testosterone and genetic mutations.

Following the backlash that ensued, the headline, "Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?", was first edited, before the article was taken down in its entirety. This is interesting, because it implies that the editors didn't initially accept that there was anything wrong with the article itself – only a headline that needed tweaking. However, even the poorest-performing psychology undergrad at a university at the bottom of any league table will tell you that the article oozes bad science.

I've attacked evolutionary psychology and sociobiology like this in the past (see here or here), and I see in it all of the worst qualities of really bad science: correlation equalling causation; red herrings; appeals to false authority; selective citation; naturalistic fallacies; appeals to ignorance; framing, sampling or confirmation biases; inconsistency; tautology - its all there.

But ignore for the moment the intellectual failings and look purely at the facts. The important question is why does such garbage make it through peer-review? Kanazawa's blog post, of course, was not reviewed. But an examination of the titles of his peer-reviewed research suggests that such hostilities were always there below the surface, ready to be spotted by the not-so-careful reader. Consider some titles of his recent publications, listed on LSE website:

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2011) Intelligence and physical attractiveness. Intelligence, 39 (1). pp. 7-14.

Kanazawa, Satoshi and Hellberg, Josephine E. E. U. (2010) Intelligence and substance use. Review of general psychology, 14 (4). pp. 382-396.

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2010) Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. Social psychology quarterly, 73 (1). pp. 33-57. ISSN 0190-2725

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2010) Evolutionary psychology and intelligence research. American psychologist, 65 (4). pp. 279-289.
Do these really suggest anything other than a prejudiced view of human nature? Where does the funding come from? Who reviewed this work? Why did the academic journals publish it? While recognizing that Kanazawa has been called out for his views, Nanjala Nyabola worries in The Guardian commentary about "Psychology Today? Will they escape censure for letting this offensive tripe go out in the first place?" A generous concern. But I'd be more concerned about the fact that there are apparently peer-reviewers out in academia who are able to justify publishing articles with titles like the above. What I'd like to know is will someone call those reviewers out. I want to be very clear - I am not arguing for censorship. "Psychology Today" is free to brand itself however it wants. But sloppy thinking needs to be called out - and there are apparently many people doing that. Sad.


Salon.com also has an analysis of Kanazawa's work. Kanazawa's tagline:
If what I say is wrong (because it is illogical or lacks credible scientific evidence), then it is my problem. If what I say offends you, it is your problem.
Umm...no. Not our problem. Anyone can be logical and scientific and come to perfectly horrible conclusions.

Addendum II

It turns out that Kanazawa has published numerous articles in sociology journals as well (no history journals that I have found).  I would like to point to a couple of titles: Can evolutionary psychology explain reproductive behavior in the contemporary United States? Why we love our children? Why men commit crimes (and why they desist)? Its easy to imagine - without even reading these articles - what their conclusions will be - and I will read them soon and write a lengthy response.

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2004) Social sciences are branches of biology. Socio-economic review, 2 (3). pp. 371-390.

Kanazawa, Satoshi and Savage, J (2004) Social capital and the human psyche: why is social life "capital"? Sociological theory, 22 (3). pp. 504-524.
Kanazawa, Satoshi (2003) Can evolutionary psychology explain reproductive behavior in the contemporary United States? Sociological quarterly, 44 (2). pp. 291-302.

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2003) Reading shadows on Plato's cave wall. American sociological review, 68 (1). pp. 159-160.

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2001) Science vs. history: a reply to MacDonald. Social forces, 80 (1). pp. 349-352.
Kanazawa, Satoshi (2001) A bit of logic goes a long way: a reply to Sanderson. Social forces, 80 (1). pp. 337-341.

Kanazawa, Satoshi (2001) Why we love our children. American journal of sociology, 106 (6). pp. 1761-1776.
Kanazawa, Satoshi (2001) De gustibus est disputandum. Social forces, 79 (3). pp. 1131-1163.
Kanazawa, Satoshi and Still, Mary C. (2000) Why men commit crimes (and why they desist). Sociological theory, 18 (3). pp. 434-447.
Kanazawa, Satoshi (2000) A new solution to the collective action problem: the paradox of voter turnout. American sociological review, 65 (3). pp. 433-442.
Kanazawa, Satoshi and Friedman, Debra (1999) The state's contribution to social order in national societies: Somalia as an illustrative case. Journal of political and military sociology, 27 pp. 1-20.
Kanazawa, Satoshi and Still, Mary C. (1999) Why monogamy? Social forces, 78 (1). pp. 25-50.

Kanazawa, Satoshi (1998) In defense of unrealistic assumptions. Sociological theory, 16 (2). pp. 193-204.
Hechter, Michael and Kanazawa, Satoshi (1997) Sociological rational choice theory. Annual review of sociology, 23 pp. 191-214
Addendum III

Scatterplot, a blog devoted to the geography of hate, pulls some examples of Kanazawa's brilliance (note my sarcasm):

So why are black women supposedly less attractive? Here it is:
The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the physical attractiveness of men and women differently. Men with higher levels of testosterone have more masculine features and are therefore more physically attractive. In contrast, women with higher levels of testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. The race differences in the level of testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other races.

So I performed the highly rigorous test of checking to see if black women were ever supermodels. How did I do this? Well I wrote the words: "black AND supermodel" into Google". Hit "images", and surprise, there were 966,000 instant results. Of course, probably according to Kanazawa, these are all exceptions that prove the rule. No arguing with someone who makes stuff up!

By the way: lest anyone think that my claims that there are deep ideological commitments underlying this work (and other scholarship like it), I'll offer Kanazawa on 9/11:
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 [he's referring here to Hillary Clinton].
There is only one appropriate course of action here: "Psychology Today" must determine a position on hate speech. Kanazawa is more than able to start his own blog and create his own circle (its called Blogger). But if "Psychology Today" wishes to be a serious scholarly organ for evolutionary psychology, then they are going to need to exclude him from their organization. Kanazawa is free to think whatever he wants - and LSE need not sanction him (there is nothing more loathsome than ideological purges). But academics who peer-review such garbage and let it get through are lazy, malicious, biased, or likely all of the above. Contemporary scholars who say things like this have no scientific or scholarly credibility.


  1. grad students at LSE should protest

  2. How this man still works at LSE is beyond me. I tend to equate evolutionary psychology with crypto racism and eugenics and these sorts of psychologists aren't any different to the type of Eugenicists of The Third Reich. I was horrified to even read that blog post and since that day, have dismissed Psychology Today as a rubbish periodical that bows down to sensationalism, not science.

  3. This man is clearly a racist and an idiot. Unfortunately you do come across psychologists of this calibre, and I know, because I've had the misfortune of being taught by some, who weren't racists, but presented themselves as being specialists in areas they clearly had no idea about. Unfortunately they exist in many universities and universities should have policies that rotate academics who don't actively research or contribute any proper research on an annual basis.