The agony of Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa

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.

1) Background:

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
  • is.

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
  • wrong.

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:

  1. Why was Kanazawa’s post deleted (as opposed to updated, refuted etc)?
  2. Where is the evidence that Kanazawa is racist (as opposed to wrong)?
  3. Why has he not posted since then? (It’s been over a month, and he usually posts weekly.)
  4. Has he been shut up? Fired? Lynched? Censored?
  5. 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.

Intelligence and liberalism

Probably Republican

The Hannibal Blog recently introduced you to Satoshi Kanazawa, a controversial evolutionary psychologist.

A willingness to be controversial, when paired with actual research and intelligence, is a trait The Hannibal Blog applauds. Even so, you guys appropriately rang the alarm bells about some of Kanazawa’s more out-there views in the comments under my post.

That said, those views were not the ones that I found interesting (or had even been aware of). So allow me to re-introduce you to some of Kanazawa’s thinking.

1) The Savanna Principle

Evolutionary psychology starts with the premise that our brain, like our liver or eye or gonads, has evolved. This immediately leads to interesting insights, such as The Savanna Principle, a term that Kanazawa coined.

It states that we (Homo sapiens sapiens), having spent most of our evolutionary time in the African savanna, have adapted to its circumstances. We have not had much time (in terms of generations) to adapt to modern life. Therefore

the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment.

(The word difficulty is important: Dealing with modern circumstances is not impossible, merely difficult.)

Thus, humans will see a banana as yellow (= recognizably edible) under all conditions except in a parking lot at night, because sodium vapor light did not exist in the savanna.

Let’s take another easy example. I recently railed against driving while texting or talking on the phone (the former is worse than drunk driving, the latter is as bad). Why are both activities so dangerous (whether or not you use “hands-free” devices)? Well,because

carrying on a conversation with someone who is not present in front of you is evolutionarily novel. Our ancestors never carried on a conversation with anyone who is not present in front of them or whom they could not see during the conversation. We have had the telephone (which allows us to have such conversations) for more than a century now, but it is still evolutionarily novel. Our brain has not adapted to the telephone in the last century. So it is possible that telephone conversations per se, not necessarily cell-phone conversations, are cognitively taxing and distracting because they are evolutionarily novel.

Everyone (legislatures and publics alike) assumed that what was causing the accidents was the manual and mechanical handling of the device, not the conversations per se. After all, drivers have conversations with fellow passengers all the time, with seemingly no effect on safety. [But] drivers who use hands-free devices are just as likely to cause road accidents as those who use hand-held devices.

2) Relevance to intelligence

More recently, Kanazawa has been thinking about how intelligence might have evolved in the Savanna, given that it would have been mostly useless there.

By intelligence he means general intelligence, as opposed to any set of specific adaptations to address specific threats in the Savanna (such as the specific ability to recognize a cheater in a social setting). Put differently, how and why would Homo sapiens have evolved to deal with any novel threat?

Well, it must have evolved since we left the Savanna. Our departure meant that we started encountering one (evolutionarily) novel situation after another, and those of our ancestors who happened, by mutational chance, to be better equipped to think about these new situations would have had a reproductive edge.

But intelligence can be misunderstood. As Kanazawa says:

more intelligent individuals are better than less intelligent individuals at solving problems only if they are evolutionarily novel. More intelligent individuals are not better than less intelligent individuals at solving evolutionarily familiar problems, such as those in the domains of mating, parenting, interpersonal relationships, and wayfinding (finding your way home in a forest), unless the solution involves evolutionarily novel entities. For example, more intelligent individuals are no better than less intelligent individuals at finding and keeping mates, but they may be better at using computer dating devices. More intelligent individuals are no better at finding their way home in a forest, but they may be better at using a map or a satellite navigation device.

3) Relevance to politics

The controversy starts right about now.

One by-product of this recently evolved general intelligence, according to Kanazawa, is an ability to empathize with people to whom we are not genetically related.

In the Savanna we only cared about kith and kin, because we hardly knew anybody else. (We lived in groups of up to about 150 individuals, the so-called Dunbar number.) Modern cities or countries did not exist.

But they exist today, as evolutionary novelties. Does general intelligence help us to deal with the situation?

Yes, says Kanazawa, by making us “liberal”. He uses not the correct and traditional definition but the modern American definition of liberalism

as the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. In the modern political and economic context, this willingness usually translates into paying higher proportions of individual incomes in taxes toward the government and its social welfare programs. Liberals usually support such social welfare programs and higher taxes to finance them, and conservatives usually oppose them.

And indeed, he has found a certain correlation between intelligence and liberalism:

And by the way, Kanazawa considers himself conservative.

So, as he says in a follow-up post, this is not to imply that liberals are “smart” and conservatives “dumb” in the conventional sense.

In fact, it may well be that liberals lack, and conservatives have, “common sense” — if by common sense we mean precisely that more pristine and specific intelligence that allowed our ancestors to survive and reproduce in the Savanna.

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Is or Ought, true or good

Satoshi Kanazawa

I’ve recently discovered the blog of Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics (LSE), which happens to be one of my alma maters (I got my Masters there).

It is called The Scientific Fundamentalist, and for good reason. As he says here,

From my purist position, everything scientists say, qua scientists, can only be true or false or somewhere in between. No other criteria besides the truth should matter or be applied in evaluating scientific theories or conclusions. They cannot be “racist” or “sexist” or “reactionary” or “offensive” or any other adjective. Even if they are labeled as such, it doesn’t matter. Calling scientific theories “offensive” is like calling them “obese”; it just doesn’t make sense. Many of my own scientific theories and conclusions are deeply offensive to me, but I suspect they are at least partially true. Once scientists begin to worry about anything other than the truth and ask themselves “Might this conclusion or finding be potentially offensive to someone?”, then self-censorship sets in, and they become tempted to shade the truth. What if a scientific conclusion is both offensive and true? What is a scientist to do then? I believe that many scientific truths are highly offensive to most of us, but I also believe that scientists must pursue them at any cost.

Well, in this post, The Hannibal Blog would simply like to endorse and celebrate Kanazawa — both his approach and philosophy and his research and style.

Subscribe to his blog! It will do what I secretly hope The Hannibal Blog occasionally does for you:

  • intrigue you,
  • offend you,
  • delight you,
  • enrage you,
  • enthrall you.

How? Because it does not — as so much of the politically correct piffle out there does — try to achieve one half of the above effects without the other half. It has writerly courage. More specifics to come.

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