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On Kanazawa: It's time for a little perspective (and some history)

Another psychiatrist was censored at LSE years ago. What's the link?

The debate has been hot, not to say inflammatory, surrounding Satoshi Kanazawa's blog on the physical attractiveness of black women, the storm of response that followed the blog, and Psychology Today's decision to suppress that post. It's time for a little perspective on all of this--and some history as well.

Hans Eysenck

Kanazawa is a reader (assistant professor in US terms) in evolutionary psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and that fact, I think, is curious. I was an undergraduate at LSE in the seventies when another psychologist, Hans Eysenck, was invited to speak in LSE's Old Theatre on Houghton Street. Eysenck (shown here) was a very respected researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College--like LSE, part of the University of London. He had acquired notoriety for backing the claims of a former student, Arthur Jensen, a UC Berkeley prof whose research supposedly indicated that test-based differences in IQ between races were genetically inherited.

When Eysenck rose to speak, a group of students, most of them from the Afro-Asian Society at LSE, rushed the stage. Eysenck was punched and his glasses were broken in the scuffle. He left in a rage. The incident made headlines all over Britain.

I was assistant editor of the LSE student newspaper at the time. I interviewed Eysenck at King's following the incident. I was pathetically unqualified to challenge him on scientific grounds, although I had a strong instinctive sense that the studies Jensen was relying on were so narrow in scope as to be almost irrelevant when applied to something as complex and opaque as human intelligence.

In human terms I got a distinct notion that Eysenck was sincere and believed in the science behind inherited intelligence levels. His outrage at being violently censored was also clear. It turned out Eysenck had left Germany in the thirties because of his outspoken hatred of Nazi repression.

In his autobiography, Rebel With a Cause, Eysenck wrote the following: "I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad." He viewed my Afro-Asian schoolmates as tantamount to Gestapo thugs.

Now read the following from Kanazawa's PT blog: "I believe that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the only legitimate goal in science ... and the truth is its only arbiter. Nothing else should matter in science besides the objective, dispassionate, and single-minded pursuit of the truth, and scientists must pursue it no matter what the consequences." In their bald, perhaps even arrogant, dismissal of outside opinion, Eysenck (who died in 1997) and Kanazawa seem to have much in common.

As with Eysenck, I find myself unqualified to judge the scientific evidence behind some of Kanazawa's controversial theories. Looking over the basis of one of them however--the theory that inherited physical attractiveness leads to having more daughters, a spin-off of something called the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, which correlates a higher incidence of female offspring with the precarious condition of parents--it does seem to me that Kanazawa follows scientific method in pursuing his research. He accepted, also, that he made a mistake in one aspect of this study: a fair sign of objectivity.

As with Eysenck, however, I am struck by the contrast between the narrow, even microscopic, focus of the studies Kanazawa relies on compared to the almost limitless complexity of the subject. Anyone who has tried to understand and fit in with a "foreign" culture and communicate with people of vastly different backgrounds must be aware, logically and objectively, of the massive differences between ways of speaking, thinking, feeling that characterize different cultures. They must know that what is perceived as "smart" in London might not be seen that way or even valued in Jakarta or Accra. Another controversial Kanazawa study suggesting poor health in poor countries might be the result of lower intelligence also seems risky in the giant disproportion between inevitably specific IQ tests and the vastly complex social and cultural factors at work. IQ tests are notoriously limited in scope and tend to prove, with hindsight, culturally biased. The now largely reviled "Bell Curve" hypothesis relied on just such a test. When the consensus among top researchers is that we have not figured out even ten percent of how the human brain works, how can anyone justify drawing vast and controversial conclusions based on IQ tests?

It's interesting that both Eysenck and Kanazawa are natives of foreign countries (the major Axis powers in fact) who ended up living and working in England. Is there perhaps a connection here? Kanazawa has written of elements in Asian culture that limit scientific creativity. Eysenck rebelled strongly against fascist censorship. In a complicated, and perhaps unconscious, reflex, were both seeking joyfully to exploit the limits of Anglo-Saxon intellectual freedom? Certainly one gets the sense, from his blogs, that Kanazawa detests the tyranny of "politically correct" conformity in Anglo-Saxon academia, and one can only sympathize with him on that score.

I suspect another common factor behind Eysenck and Kanazawa's bear-baiting assertions, however; and that too is relevant in the LSE context. The London School of Economics despite its name is an institution devoted to all the social sciences, and despite some current, uninformed criticism (the "Libyan School of Eugenics," one naive commentator called it), it is an excellent school. The discipline of social anthropology was essentially founded at LSE. It numbers sixteen Nobel prizewinners among its current and former faculty. The chief tenet of the education I received there was the absolute priority one must give to evidence and objective, fact-based research. (Note that London University was founded by the strict empiricist Jeremy Bentham, whose mummified corpse still presides at board of governors meetings: see photo.)

Bentham's mummy

At the same time it must be said that social scientists, and economists in particular, always have a chip on their shoulder vis à vis hard science. Their field is the impossibly complicated, fluid environment of human behavior. This is arguably a much more important field of study than experimental physics, yet, unlike the most humdrum chemist, they cannot conduct lab experiments or draw fancy graphs leading to incontrovertible conclusions. Western culture, however, is biased toward hard science, and social scientists as a result feel they have to try. Endless graphs elaborating dodgy theories are the result in economics. Hard assertions on soft topics--such as Kanazawa's--are another.

Maybe the key issue here is this: social scientists should come to terms with the extraordinary nature of their subject matter. It is a much, much harder job to figure out a tiny percentage of how the human mind works than it is to send a space vehicle to Mars. (Extrapolating from the Gödel incompleteness theorem, it might even be impossible by definition.) As a general rule, the tools and equations of physics do not work on the human mind. At the same time, figuring out how our mind works is a much more valuable, and perhaps even more crucial endeavor than crawling around on unliveable planets. Social scientists should never avoid researching a topic because it might be controversial but they should always place their theories--tiny and inevitably flawed as they must be--in the fascinating, awe-inspiring, and humbling context they operate in.

And--all that being said--the media should not take it upon themselves to act like my Afro-Asian Society buddies at LSE, and censor views that do not directly advocate anti-social behavior. A free society is a hot soup of swirling ideas, and one can rely on the dynamism, spices and temperature of the soup to kill lethal infection. It's when one unilaterally tries to shut down ideas that the temperature drops; and it is then that the truly dangerous bugs will hatch. All of us will suffer the maladies that result.