Student groups at the London School of Economics are calling for the dismissal of a social scientist who has become embroiled in a racism row after claiming that a study showed black women to be less attractive than women of other races.So a researcher known for his penchant for controversy (he once wrote a piece suggesting liberals are smarter than conservatives) writes something stupid but it potentially starts a rather interesting, potentially cross-cultural conversation around an important question: "how do you define beauty?"
Dr Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the institution, published his comments on a blog and claimed he had analysed data from an online study of physical attractiveness.
In his article for Psychology Today, Kanazawa wrote: "Black women are … far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women." The piece drew a barrage of complaints from readers and has since been removed from the site.
I looked at two of the online communities I review most - scientists and moms. I found a mixed bag.
Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 issued a thorough smackdown of the Kanazawa piece (seriously, read it), but went a step further to slam Kanazawa's field of study:
But the real problem is not Kanazawa. Every discipline has someone who creates a goofy study. Others criticize it, science moves on. The problem is evolutionary psychology is chock full of this stuff and virtually no one inside the field is willing to police their own. Marc Hauser just got suspended for questionable practices. And now they have taken to fuzzy epigenetics to make the picture of the human condition even murkier.He then lists a bunch of posts that illustrate his point.
Another reaction from a different community came from Karen Walrond at Chookooloonks. She offered a more emotional (and in my view very impactful) response:
But here's the thing: Walrond's response is one that Campbell dismisses.
I tried to look around for other perspectives, basically one that is not an old white guy like me or some shrill, lefty do-gooder reflexively saying how awesomely beautiful all women are...And when I decided to try a little outreach here by linking to Walrond's video in Campbell's comments, he responded:
Saying all women are beautiful is saying none are, and that is just not the case. The great thing about diversity is that attraction and beauty are subjective. Anyone attempting to homogenize beauty into generic 'we all are' psychobabble for the other side - and cynically marketing themselves in their video in the process - isn't really any better than Kanazawa.This comment illustrated the enormous gap between the two communities. First, Campbell clearly doesn't know Walrond. She is adored in her community. She is a powerful and positive force. Those who know her best say she's essentially the opposite of cynical. And she very clearly has a much different view of "beauty." I asked Karen if she wanted to respond, and she was characteristically graceful in a series of tweets to me:
My response wasn't intended to be scientific - b/c (a) I'm not a scientist & (b) I don't think beauty is a science. I think beauty is an emotion. So arguing with a scientist about beauty at all is ridiculous. Besides, he's entitled to his own opinion on his own personal blog, I wager. ;) The underlying point of my response was to tell women not to buy into Kanazawa's crap. That's all.So two very smart and accomplished people who essentially agree that Kanazawa's piece was lousy have profoundly different responses that reflect their respective communities and cultures. Campbell's post strikes me as aggressive, confrontational, data-driven, dismissive of emotional reactions and even willing to question the motives of people who have them. He views "beauty" as a term that can be measured empirically. He's standing up for what he sees as scientific integrity. Walrond's video is positive, supportive and above all emotional. To her, reducing "beauty" to scientific nomenclature is insulting. And she finds the idea of arguing this topic with a scientist to be "ridiculous."
There's nothing wrong with people who have different backgrounds having different takes on the same subject. Clearly both viewpoints have some merit. But for those of us who want science and scientists to have more influence and credibility with people in other communities, it shows we have more work to do.