In my peripheral web vision, I’ve been watching the unfolding drama of Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist at the London School of Economics of whom you’ve probably never heard until now. He writes a daredevil blog, on which he practically asks for trouble. And recently he got a bit more trouble than even he expected. Now I find myself contemplating deeper questions, as I will explain in a moment.
I first mentioned Kanazawa here, more than a year ago, by way of … endorsing him! Or rather, endorsing not him but his philosophy as I understood it, which claims to distinguish between
- ought and
Kanazawa, if you ask him, will say that he forges ahead valiantly in search of the is (truth) even when it conflicts with the ought (what is good).
I like that. In this context, I even compared that attitude to Friedrich Nietzsche’s, as expressed in his letter to his sister. I might also have compared it (the attitude, not the man) to that other gadfly, Socrates. I might even have drawn a line from Kanazawa all the way back to the first recorded conversation (Callicles v Socrates) about the tension between ought and is.
As it happens, I find myself sympathizing with specific aspects of these men — Kanazawa, Nietsche, Callicles, etc. Each is part thinker but also part court jester, boat-rocker, pot-stirrer — whatever metaphor you want to choose. They live for the piquant headline. They run toward controversy, not away from it. They dare you to bring it on. They’re a tiny bit mad, possibly megalomaniacal, occasionally profound, and — this is the crucial bit — necessary.
2) The controversy:
The last post that Kanazawa wrote on his blog — now deleted, although it lives on in my RSS reader and is being preserved here — was titled:
Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?
You see the problem already.
In the post, Kanazawa did what he always does: dig for some interesting data, whether those data are good or not, then grind the data for nuggets of insight, or hypotheses to be tested. In this post, he did “factor analysis”, which seems to have become the term that, with its pomposity, sets everybody off.
And then, the tornado. Protests at the LSE, an “investigation” by the LSE, jihad in the blogosophere, and so forth.
Psychology Today, which publishes his blog, deleted the post and apologized.
Everybody agreed that Kanazawa’s “racist nonsense should not be tolerated.”
Case closed. Society saved.
3) The meta-issue
There were some reactions, such as this, that also attempted to answer Kanazawa’s post the traditional scientific way: By reexamining his data, his methodology, and his logic. And it does seem that Kanazawa was:
- sloppy, and indeed
Usually, this is is how science (which is just Latin for knowledge) progresses:
Research → Falsifiable hypothesis → Replication and scrutiny → corroboration, refutation or refinement → more research and hypotheses …
Thus, scientists with integrity are equally proud of hypotheses that are corroborated as of those that are disproved: Both push humanity, in tiny steps, to higher levels of ignorance. In free societies, people are free to ask any question and form any hypothesis they like, and knowledge advances faster. In unfree societies, we censor the questions and hypotheses people are allowed to formulate, and knowledge stagnates.
Thus a few questions:
- Why was Kanazawa’s post deleted (as opposed to updated, refuted etc)?
- Where is the evidence that Kanazawa is racist (as opposed to wrong)?
- Why has he not posted since then? (It’s been over a month, and he usually posts weekly.)
- Has he been shut up? Fired? Lynched? Censored?
- Or is he on boycott, hunger strike?
Speak up, Satoshi. If ever there was a time to hear from you, it’s now. A lot is at stake.