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Is Satoshi Kanazawa the Glenn Beck of Pseudoscience?

Satoshi Kanazawa
Satoshi Kanazawa

It's only been a few weeks or so since controversial evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa posted the blog heard round the world — his blatantly discriminatory study, "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" In a nearly unanimous verdict, Kanazawa's peers — his fellow science bloggers and psychologists — have found him guilty of perpetrating pseudoscience, embarrassing the profession of evolutionary biology and offending multitudes of black women and men.


Actually, black women are just Kanazawa's latest target. His page on the London School of Economics' site shows that he's also denigrated the poor and asserted that racism in the United States is a myth, among other claims.

But what's really amazing about this work is how far Kanazawa appears to have stretched the rules of statistical analysis, while ignoring much of what we know about biology and culture, to produce a hurtful, racist assessment of black women. Originally posted on Psychology Today's blog, and now found here, Kanazawa's work is a startling example of the degree to which racism is alive and well in some corners of academia. 


A group of concerned scientists has taken to the Web to voice their concerns over Kanazawa's misuse of the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to draw a conclusion so odious that many wonder why he would even ask such a question. But few have discussed the degree to which he discounted much of what we know about culture and race in America and how it would inform any random survey of attractiveness and black women.

Distorted Data

As an African-American psychologist, T. Joel Wade, chair of the department of psychology at Bucknell University, can certainly understand the racial impact of Kanazawa's work. "You have to factor in culture to do a study like this, but Kanazawa does not address culture here at all." 

Specifically, Kanazawa's inaccurate interpretation of information from a highly reputable federal survey renders his conclusion about black women virtually meaningless, suggests Ernest Davenport, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and an expert in statistical analysis and measurement. "While the author [Kanazawa] extols the use of factor analysis in this study — a method for eliminating all random measurement errors — he forgets the 'garbage in, garbage out' rule. No statistical analysis can overcome a bad theory and bad data.  

"In terms of statistics, Kanazawa gives no clue to how he resolved many issues with the data he gathered," Davenport continues. "Add Health uses oversampling of certain subgroups [a common practice in studies of multicultural populations], and any analysis of the data should be weighted to compensate. Kanazawa makes no mention of weights. He also refers to 'statistical differences' without specifying how he handled aspects of the data that would be affected by cluster sampling [distortions caused by the tendency of people in clusters to hold similar opinions]."


Next, there's the issue of objectivity. Kanazawa states in his analysis: "Black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women." And, Davenport adds, "he claims to have used both objective and subjective measures of physical attractiveness in his work, but I believe his information is simply the result of three different sets of opinions drawn from people who may share very similar cultural perspectives. I think that the main problem [with the study] is not methodological; it's due to the interviewers."

Eyes of the Beholder

To conduct the Add Health survey, approximately 350 interviewers assessed 20,000 girls and boys over 14 years, starting with grades 7 through 12. The final meeting took place when the respondents were 24 to 32 years old. Female interviewers rated all of the young girls on many variables. In the third wave of the study, male interviewers were added to the group. "We did not match interviewers or subjects by race, only gender," says Kathleen Mullan Harris, principal investigator for Add Health. "The interviewers are not scientists; they are people hired and trained, much like the workers who conduct the U.S. census.


"All of the data is highly subjective, as all of the scientists using the study well know," Harris adds. "We ask the interviewers to assess the attractiveness of the adolescents using a scale that includes personality and physical characteristics. As far as I can see, Kanazawa put all of the attractiveness measures together. He did not account for that or the characteristics of the interviewers, such as race or ethnicity."

Yet considering the cultural dynamics of the interviewer-adolescent pairings would have been necessary if Kanazawa were to control for another key factor. "Many, many times, in looking over the data," Harris says, "you will see that the adolescents would report that they were one race, but the interviewer would report that in their opinion, the adolescent was a different race. In some cases, the adolescents themselves changed their stated racial identity over the years they participated in the study, and this occurred with Hispanic, black and other participants." Kanazawa makes no mention of how he handled this information. 


In fact, Harris says she agrees with psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman's reanalysis of the data Kanazawa used. Kaufman found that in the fourth wave of the study, the interviewers found no differences in attractiveness among the interview subjects once they became adults. "He [Kaufman] did an excellent job with his analysis," Harris says.

Of Kanazawa's misuse of Add Health, Harris says, "Our study has 8,000 users, and their work does a lot of good for adolescents. That's why this situation is just so disappointing."


A Word on Biology

After bending the laws of statistics and dismissing common sense about human interaction, Kanazawa went on to conclude:

The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races. 


Based on what? Davenport asks. "The author's conclusion appears to be merely speculation. He provides no evidence of the difference in these hormone levels for black females or evidence of their relationship to beauty," he says.

"Attractiveness does carry some weight as it's related to health and fertility. But the characteristics evolutionary biologists consider important in this equation exist in women all over the world and have nothing to do with race," Wade adds.


There's also a great deal of evidence suggesting that the exact opposite of Kanazawa's hormone theory is true. Estrogen levels do correlate with certain aspects of attractiveness in the female face and body, but black women tend to have higher estrogen levels than women of other races, not lower. Higher estrogen levels, Scottish researcher Miriam Law Smith found, do influence physical characteristics and perceptions of attractiveness, regardless of race. 

"Estrogen contributes to larger eyes, high cheekbones and full lips," Wade notes, and of course a small waist relative to larger hips is a universal, biological sign of attractiveness and fertility — qualities found in women in every ethnic and cultural group. 


It's also impossible to assess a woman's hormonal status by simply considering her race. "There are some studies that may show higher levels of estrogen in black women," says Funmi Olopade, M.D., a professor of medicine and genetics at the University of Chicago. "Still, my studies of Nigerian women and other African women show estrogen levels that are all over the map — there are broad variations."

As for Kanazawa's assertion that "Africans have more mutations in their genomes than other races, and the mutation loads significantly decrease physical attractiveness," Wade says, "We do not have a common genetic inheritance that can be based on skin color." Scientists generally agree that there are no consistent genetic patterns that can distinguish one race from another; therefore, Kanazawa's analysis cannot hold.


Have We Heard the Last of Kanazawa?

The best efforts of well-meaning scientists aside, the real problem with the Kanazawas of the world is that no matter how many experts weigh in and debunk their conclusions, their injurious words will live on. Kanazawa has released yet another poisonous cocktail of racism, spiked with junk science, to disparage the image of black women. And there's little doubt that we will hear from him again. 


Ending its initial silence on the issue, Psychology Today finally apologized for briefly posting the study. It seems to have learned a valuable lesson from this experience. Responding to an interview request from The Root, Editor-in-Chief Kaja Perina replied, "The [Kanazawa] post was not approved by Psychology Today editors. But we are in the process of implementing measures to ensure that more rigorous editorial oversight is exercised at all hours, including weekends." It seems that Kanazawa's post slipped by on a Sunday night. 

As for the quality of the research on the site, Perina added, "Our bloggers are free to address material of their choosing. Their viewpoints do not reflect the viewpoints of Psychology Today. In ideal circumstances, our community of academics and readers will discuss and debate the merits of a post online."


In this case, it is clear that the community has been heard. "Satoshi Kanazawa is no longer contributing to the blogs or to Psychology Today," Perina said.

Across the pond, officials at the London School of Economics claim to be discussing what action, if any, to take against Kanazawa. Perhaps this time they, too, will decide that Kanazawa — who increasingly appears to be science's answer to Glenn Beck — has gone too far.


Sheree Crute writes about health and medicine.

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