20 May 2011

Cultural disconnects: how do you define beauty?

We start with Exhibit A:
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.

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.
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?"

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.


Hank Campbell said...


I agree there is no objective metric for 'beauty' (though evolutionary psychology says otherwise, that both beauty and attraction are biological) but I believe you are going to be rather close to me philosophically. If I say "You, me and Michael Jordan are all equal in basketball" and you know anything at all about basketball, you would know it is a meaningless platitude - if everyone is something, then no one is. It's artificial equality at the expense of individuality. So it goes with beauty. 'We are all beautiful' is not possible, we are not going to say the same people are beautiful. Had Karen said 'we are all beautiful to someone' or 'we are all beautiful in some way', that would be different.

What is not a valid argument is " She is adored in her community. She is a powerful and positive force." So what? Kanazawa is a rock star in evolutionary psychology, despite the fact that he engages in pseudoscience. Science 2.0 has 190 million hits in Google so we are 'adored' by someone out there but that won't make me right when it comes to saying not all women can be beautiful.

Well, they can't all be beautiful any more than all of us can be great actors or great artists. Beautiful, if we are going to communicate with other people, has to have a meaning. Karen may be beautiful to me but you may simply like her style or her approach so it makes her more attractive - those are different things.

Because, as Karen agrees, beauty is not a science is precisely why there can't be a determination like 'all women are beautiful'.

Kanazawa was called out because he made conclusions that were not based on evidence. Had he been able to use a rigorous method and make his conclusion, he would be defended. But a defense for shoddy work can't be just saying the opposite of Kanazawa, like 'all women' or, as I saw on other sites, 'all black women are beautiful'. I like Whoopi Goldberg, she has a terrific sense of humor, but saying she is more beautiful than Halle Berry would cause people to believe English is my second language because I clearly don't know what the word means.

There are interesting studies on how to determine 'beauty' that aren't complete rubbish (like the golden ratio, except for faces, I mentioned) and I might do a piece on that but it will be unsatisfying to most. Neuroscience is just not there yet.

One thing Karen, you and I all agree on is not to buy into Kanazawa's crap - even if we did it for different reasons. But, hey, if we all thought the same way about everything, there wouldn't be any need for more than one of us, right?

Karen/Chookooloonks said...

@Hank Campbell -- absolutely. That's the Beauty of Different. ;)