Race, Attractiveness, and the Psychology Today Firestorm

Giving psychology a bad name, one pseudo-scientific blog post at a time.

Posted May 18, 2011

Though I must admit, when I finally got around to reading the by-then-removed post, I was anything but surprised. I've been blogging on the site for almost three years now and I guess I've long since grown numb to the unfalsifiable, pseudo-scientific speculation some bloggers–and one in particular–try to pass off as psychological science.

I recall the first time I encountered one of you-know-who's posts, just a few weeks after I started blogging. In it, he claimed that "all stereotypes are true." His evidence for this bold assertion? The circular argument that "If they are not true, they wouldn't be stereotypes."

Aw, Aristotle would have been so proud.

So I got agitated and wrote a polite, yet detailed response outlining the problems with this perspective. In retrospect, the politeness was unwarranted. I had given the author the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he knew better but just chose his words poorly. But the provocative yet irresponsibly unscientific posts just kept coming.

Just this spring I recall–against my better judgment–clicking on yet another treatise on the pressing psychological question of the day: in this case, why does Victoria Beckham have male children? The answer, according to the post? Well, it must be that she has a sexually promiscuous past. Because, really, when you think about it, there's no other logical explanation, right?

This weekend's post on attractiveness and race certainly merited the quick and decisive criticism it engendered. (And please take note: as the immediate and vocal responses demonstrate, this particular blog post is anything but representative of the current state of psychological science.) But let's not pretend that it came out of the blue. This is a blogger who relishes his own perceived iconoclasm and equates controversial statements with scientific innovation.

I'm sure at some point we'll get to his side of the story. There will be allegations that he's a victim of "political correctness" and has been pilloried for discussing that which the rest of us are too timid to address. (Of course, the problem wasn't raising the issue of race and attractiveness; it was offering imprecise conclusions with half-assed and offensive explanations and passing it off as scientific analysis.)

There will be a wink and a shrug and an argument of, hey, don't blame the messenger–I'm just relaying what the data tell us. I mean, I used the word "objective" and had graphs and everything! (A hard case to make when you don't describe the data accurately and make no effort to actually test the purely speculative explanations you pull out of thin air because, by your own admission, you can't think of anything else.)

And there will inevitably be some tongue-in-cheek reference to a Black female celebrity that he finds attractive, complete with cleavage-focused photo to bolster his assertion of personal impartiality.

But by now, we all know better. This is precisely what you should expect from someone who considers provocation to be the same as good science–who thinks that empirical inquiry means reading something somewhere and using the first thing that pops into your head to explain it.

Sure, other bloggers have also used their Psychology Today platform to advance political ideology or other non-scientific arguments. And I often find myself exasperated with those posts as well, even when I happen to agree with the ideology in question. But at least they're usually offered as opinion pieces and clearly identifiable as such.

From a disciplinary perspective, that's the major crime here: this post was presented as a scientific analysis. As many others have pointed out, it failed miserably on that count, several times over. No one is curtailing free speech; anyone can blog about anything they want to on their own time and website. But Psychology Today gives its bloggers relative carte blanche, and with it comes the assumption that those of us with academic and professional credentials will use this expertise responsibly.

Like it or not, the burden is higher when you're a scientist blogging about science. And anyone who can only think of one explanation for an observed difference in a data set might simply be incapable of meeting that high burden.


Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.