Friday, 27 May 2011

‘If the truth offends, it’s our job to offend’?

This past week there’s been a bit of a furore over the work of LSE psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. Last Monday, Kanazawa used his Psychology Today blog to speculate about the reasons why black women were ‘objectively’ less attractive than women from other races. Unsurprisingly, this sparked outrage, with the student union voting unanimously to campaign for his dismissal. The response was predictable, but what, if anything, did Kanazawa do to deserve it? Was the objection to his flawed methodology, or is it the case that some questions are off limits? If it is the latter, then how can we respond to Kanzawa’s own argument that ‘If the truth offends, it’s our job to offend’?

As it happens, there are strong reasons to think that Kanazawa was nowhere near the truth – the past week has seen his methodology savaged by his peers. Moreover, there is reason to be suspicious of Kanazawa’s motives. His past work – from linking the poor health to poor to low intelligence to asking ‘Are all women essentially prostitutes?’ – shows that Kanazawa has form when it comes to seeking out outrageous conclusions. Numerous people have accused Kanazawa of hiding behind statistics to justify his own prejudices. Indeed, the speed with which he moves from the proposition ‘black women are perceived to be less attractive than other races’ to the proposition ‘black women are objectively less attractive than other races’ is definitely grounds for suspicion.

Imagine, though, another scientist –a better one than Kanazawa – who was interested in the same subject. Suppose we can know that they harbour no racial prejudices whatsoever (the fact that this is the sort of thing we can only know in thought experiments is a bit of a problem for this argument). They are simply pursuing their academic curiosity wherever it takes them. Suppose doing a similar, but better designed experiment, they discover one race is commonly perceived to be less attractive than the others. They are not so stupid as to presume this is of any objective significance, but still see this subjective tendency as a fact worthy of explanation. Is this research still objectionable?

Some people may dogmatically resist the idea that there can be such natural differences between races. This seems to me mistaken. However implausible we find an idea, it is a betrayal of the scientific method to prevent other people investigating it. The notion that it is in our interests to allow others to try and falsify what we are certain is true is as compelling an argument today as when John Stuart Mill first made it in 1859.

However, one of the criticisms that could be levelled against Mill is that his faith that the open competition of ideas is always beneficial, because it will always tend to truth, is naïve. This argument is suspect on two grounds. First, it is not obvious that truth always will triumph in market place of ideas – when the rich and powerful seek to mislead, it is difficult to resist. The second problem is that certain truths may cause great harm.

If it were the truth that one race is inferior to another (which, for the record, I don’t think is the case), this might be just such a truth. In the first place this would cause great harm to the self-esteem of members of that race. This could make them less confident, and so reluctant to push themselves forward in the public sphere. It would also likely poison interracial relations. It seems likely that many people would not appreciate that just because a racial difference holds on average, nothing can be inferred about the attributes of any given member of that race. While this is of course less likely with a feature like attractiveness, where individuals can be evaluated rapidly on their own merits, it is a deeper worry for things like intelligence.

Of course, the deeper objection is that norms of beauty are socially and culturally contingent. It seems absurd, as Kanazawa comes perilously close to suggesting, that there can be such a thing as ‘objectively attractive’. It is, of course, an objective fact that some people are perceived to be more attractive by more people than others. However, it could be argued that research that takes these perceptions for given, and does not seek to challenge them, only perpetuates and legitimates these beauty norms. The scientist is supposed to be a detached observer – when their research impacts upon the things they study in such a significant way, it certainly means that there are ethical considerations in play. As soon as scientific research has these sorts of effects, I believe, we can no longer just presume that there are no questions off limits.

At the end of the day, while we should be reluctant to restrict the questions it is permissible for the scientist to ask, it does not seem unreasonable to wonder whether certain questions are worth asking. In morally and politically charged issues like these it is imperative that research is exceptionally well-designed, and conclusions drawn from exceedingly powerful evidence. It seems to me that probing racial differences involves a degree of effort and rigour that far outstrips the scientific interest of the questions.

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