The Two Professions that Get to Tell the Truth: Scientists and Humorists

The seven things Satoshi Kanazawa cannot blog about.

Posted May 23, 2011

Quantum physics bugs the heck out of me -- no kidding. I recall having a "debate" back in graduate school with a fellow student who had a background in physics. I said that quantum physics must be wrong -- events at the quantum level must be deterministic (causally determined) not random. He said I was wrong. I said I didn't like it. He said "too bad, study physics." Many of the same type of "but I don't like it" comments about quantum physics were directed at the famous physicist Richard Feynman. One of his replies was: " ...(there) is only a conflict between reality, and your feeling of what reality ought to be." He was pointing out what is called the moralistic fallacy: the belief that the world can't be like this because I don't like it that way.

Someone once said that there were only two professions that can be relied on to tell the truth: scientists and humorists. Both can challenge our worldviews, criticize our most cherished beliefs, remind us of unpleasant truths, and stretch the limits of common courtesy. Both can be provocateurs.

The late comedian George Carlin was especially known for his very provocative routine: "The seven words you can't say on TV," as was noted in this CBS News memorial of him:

Sure, freedom of speech has its limits -- you can't yell "fire!" in a crowded theater.

And, in our personal lives, common courtesy is the preferred way to go. When a man asks a woman "was it good for you too?" well, maybe sometimes courtesy trumps the truth. When Mrs. Braddock accused Winston Churchill of being drunk, he definitely crossed the line into discourtesy with his famous reply: "Yes, Mrs. Braddock, I am drunk. But you, Mrs. Braddock are ugly, and disgustingly fat. But, tomorrow morning, I, Winston Churchill will be sober."

But in science, does data trump courtesy, or vice-versa?

In general, the bottom line in science isn't courtesy, it is data. For example, Galileo and Darwin reported on some data that some folks found seriously offensive. And those darn quantum physicists are still offending me, especially with their crazy ideas about a Cheshire cat that is both simultaneously alive and dead, entangled particles that are supposed to somehow "know" what the other one is doing on the other side of the universe, and the bizarre suggestion that light behaves like a wave or a particle depending on whether anyone is looking. This ridiculousness just has gotta stop.

As I noted in an earlier post, Kanazawa's controversial post should have included more qualifiers given that he was writing for a popular audience. Science is tentative, and scientists require several independent replications before they conclude that a finding is well established. On the other hand, it was a blog post, and blogs are a pretty free wheeling form of expression. A great many of the blog posts here are just personal opinions, backed up by no empirical data at all.

Kanazawa is a provocateur. He sometimes uncovers data that we don't like, and then he puts those data baldly "in your face" (no pun intended). And, Kanazawa is both an evolutionary psychologist and a provocateur -- which is doubly offensive to many.  The epithets soon started to fly, here, in the press, and the blogosphere: racist, idiot, ridiculous, pseudoscience, stupid, fire him, purge him, sexist, etc. Even some really rather personal "below the belt" attacks from people that I doubt are really privy to that information. For reporting unpleasant data (yet nothing about his own personal opinions or preferences), today his punishment is ostracism and banishment. Historically it might have been house arrest, blog burning (well, book burning), or much worse.

But, ironically, the same fate may have also awaited him if the data he reported on indicated that black women were rated on average as equally attractive as women of other races. There are some uncomfortable contradictions. Some commentators suggested that black women already perceive that they are generally viewed as less attractive compared to other racial groups. So if the data had instead suggested that there are no differences in ratings of levels of perceived attractiveness by the raters, would this finding then be criticized because it is at odds with the perceptions of some black women themselves? It reminds me of the lyrics from a Simon and Garfunkel song: "any way you look at it you lose."

Kanazawa reported one result (which is consistent with an earlier study by Lewis). However, then Kaufman and Wicherts reported that their reanalysis of the same data found no differences in average attractiveness ratings across racial groups. But they also found very low  inter-rater agreement on the ratings of attractiveness.   Such a low level of measurement reliability makes drawing any definitive conclusions unwarranted -- includng the finding of difference by Kanazawa and the finding of no difference by Kaufman and Wicherts.    However, there will be more research, and it will take many investigations by many researchers to arrive at a well corroborated empirical conclusion.

Whatever the results, is the truth a good thing? If there are no racial differences, that is good news. If there are, that is bad news.  But it is also news that is needed if we are to  raise consciousness of this issue, help to motivate people to re-evaluate their perceptual biases, and for all of us to reevaluate the images of black women that are portrayed by the media in our culture.

More research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be reached.  The key point here is that, with a bit of patience, science tends to be self-correcting.  This is what open and free dialog, and the scientific process can achieve -- without censorship.

So provocateurs -- scientific or comedic,  can sometimes serve a valuable purpose. Consider these provocative statements: Marilyn French's "all men are rapists" and Kanazawa's "all women are prostitutes." I doubt either was meant to be taken as literally true (I think) -- they were meant to be provocative, "in your face" hyperboles.

Despite being objectively false, they may help to challenge us to think about the issues involved, and to what degree there could be even just a grain of truth in each (e.g., maybe many men are potential rapists -- as in during war when the likelihood of punishment may be close to nil). The fact that many women consider their dates "cheap" if he doesn't pick up the tab for dinner or a concert on a first date, well, this doesn't make them prostitutes. But this hyperbole may get us to think why this courtship script -- wherein men generally pick up the tab on first dates -- still has not changed.

Sure, at times, provocateurs go right up to the very edge of the line of acceptability. A few times, they cross it, either intentionally or by accident.  We can choose to listen to them or not.  If you think the humorist Bill Mahr is offensive or too politically incorrect, you don't have to watch him. If you think Satoshi Kanazawa's blog posts are too far over the line, you don't have to read him. For me, given a choice, I would prefer to live in a culture with provocateurs (even ones that sometimes cross the line), rather than in one where they are censored or suppressed.

The really cool thing about science, unlike some other 'ways of knowing,' is that there are mutually agreed on empirical methods to resolve disputes in a civil manner -- without killing people and without shouting others down. If data is suppressed in science -- then it is no longer real science. It is something else.

And, one more thing -- and no one has mentioned this yet. Men are rated -- on average -- as less attractive than all races of women.

Oooh.... now that peeves me off even more than quantum physics.

See also:

   My previous post on this topic, and my more recent post on the 8 point deficit in male attractiveness.

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