A note to lawyers – today’s blog post in no way endorses fascism, racism or any other perverse ideologies. It is intended to stimulate debate and thought.
Phew, I think I’m safe from a libel suit.
Last week Dr Satoshi Kanazawa, lecturer and psychology guru, was suspended from most of his teaching duties at the London School of Economics. After writing a blog article entitled “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?”, a furore erupted.
The far-right English Defence League lapped it up, citing it as evidence for their cause. Everyone else said it was utter tosh. Dr Kanazawa, being no stranger to controversy, has a publication list that would enrage women, ethnic minorities, the poor, Jewish, and… well, pretty much everybody who isn’t rich and middle class.
But this all raises a far more pressing question: Should scientific research, like Kanazawa’s, ever be censored? Are there ever any ‘no-go’ areas in the quest for greater knowledge and understanding?
Dr Kanazawa’s flawed research
I haven’t explored every nuance of Dr Kanazawa’s research – but it’s fair to say many academics, even if they don’t mind his controversial topics, think his methods suck. Here’s a summary of some of his more headline-grabbing papers:
- “Battered Woman Have More Sons: A Possible Evolutionary Reason Why Some Battered Women Stay.”
- “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent.”
- ““First, Kill All the Economists….”: The Insufficiency of Microeconomics and the Need for Evolutionary Psychology in the Study of Management.
- “Why Beautiful People Are More Intelligent.”
- “Intelligence and Homosexuality.” (forthcoming)
All the above have been published in established scientific journals and have been subject to (the supposedly rigorous) peer-review process. Dipping into one of his articles “Why Liberals and Atheists are more intelligent” it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to uncover the rather dubious conclusions he draws. Using a combination of questionnaires and intelligence tests (the PVVT – a simple test of vocabulary skills), he extrapolates his results to propose that atheists and politically left-leaning individuals have more going on upstairs.
Which is fine, if we assume the PVVT is a good measure of ‘general intelligence’ (that’s a big ‘if’). If we also discount the numerous factors that could bias his results (such as socio-economic factors, schooling and cultural differences) then – who knows? He might just be onto something.
Science faces an Ethical Dilemma
From what I’ve explored so far, I’m not a fan of Kanazawa’s work. Yet his research methods have broken no ethical code – interviews and ‘IQ tests’ aren’t wrong. He’s not acting like a Nazi scientist of Second World War infamy.
If his divisive blog piece was a simple explanation of current research – something all science writers do – then I’d be inclined to have sympathy for him. You can’t find his article anywhere on the internet any more (just a brief apology by Psychology Today) so it’s impossible to comment on what he actually wrote.
However, It seems there is a greater dilemma: Should the journals have published his work in the first place? If they felt his techniques were acceptable – then fine – but shouldn’t scientific institutions consider the potential ramifications of the conclusions drawn? (no matter how tenuous)
I would hate to live in a world where scientific endeavours are wholesale censored. When pharmaceutical companies refuse to publish results that show their medications don’t work well, I get enraged (like Ben Goldacre’s – watch his fabulous rant here). The idealistic part of all scientists is for science to advance with minimum hindrance.
But what if such research leads to great harm? Atomic Weapons anyone?
Let us suppose that it could be comprehensively concluded that a racial group had a genetic superiority over others. Would we want to know the results? When would it be fair to publish these findings?
There’s no obvious answer, but surely the ‘greater good’ must come into the equation. I suggest that ethical committees, journals and research institutions not merely consider the ethics of the methods, but the implications of the potential findings. A degree of common sense should prevail.
Especially when the logic is anything like Kanazawa’s…
Thanks for reading – feel free to comment below…
Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent Social Psychology Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0190272510361602
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