Offensive inanity in the name of evolutionary psychology
Published on 3 June 2011 at 12:50
Satoshi Kanazawa has caused a scandal by publishing a blog post (later withdrawn) claiming, with specious evidence, that black women were less attractive than others (and black men were more attractive). His Psychology Today blog has just been closed down. Readers of the hell-raising post will realize that this does not look like the work of a scientist willing to challenge political prejudice in the name of truth. The author obviously relishes provocation, and he was willing to relax the standards of scientific proof to create a stir. Which he did.
As a result, evolutionary psychology as a whole is once more under attack in the media and at the LSE (where Kanazawa is a reader in the management department).
Leading evolutionary psychologists like Robert Kurzban complain that a healthy scientific discipline is being pilloried for one researcher's faults, and refuse to have their field held responsible for all the questionable pop psychology that goes by its name. More than 60 prominent researchers, representing the field, have issued a short text saying that Kanazawa's bad science does not represent evolutionary psychology. Opponents of evolutionary psychology point out that politically dubious speculations still occasionally find an official tribune in the field (see e.g., here).
Here is an opinion we published in 2009, in the midst of a similar debate:
The fact is that, on the whole, the media have been very positive about evolutionary psychology, reporting a variety of tentative findings as ground-breaking discoveries and making cultural heroes of some of the most effective defenders of the approach. (...) The problem is that this success was based not so much on an interest for scientific progress and for a genuinely naturalistic understanding of human affairs, as on a taste for sweeping generalizations with hints of political and moral relevance, in particular about sexual relationships, violence, domination, and so on. The reputation of evolutionary psychology has greatly gained from this press coverage, with more students attracted, more jobs, and more research funding, but there is a price to benefitting from the kind of distorted and simplified image produced by the media.
Part of the price has been exacted when evolutionary psychologists had to play the game and, in order to benefit from it, went along with the media image, with its superficiality, distortions, and ideological overtones. This might have seemed cheap but now another part of the price is exacted when similar ideologically loaded simplifications and distortions are used not in favour but against evolutionary psychology. Still another part of the price is paid within the field itself which has, to some extent, come to imitate its own media image.