No, You Are Not 'Less Physically Attractive'

Last week a piece called "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" made the rounds on twitter, eliciting a throng of denunciations. I (foolishly) scrolled through the article, quickly confirmed my suspicion that it was bullshit, and kept moving. In general, my experience has been that scientists who treat treat the measures of nebulous and ill-defined qualities as strident inarguable fact, are not so much practicing modern science, as they are practicing modern phrenology. 


In this specific instance, the scholar in question, Satoshi Kanazawa, bills himself as "Scientific Fundamentalist" and boasts a rigorous and iconoclastic body of work including, "Why Feminism Is Illogical, Unnecessary And Evil," "If Beautiful People Have More Daughters, Why Do Posh and Becks Have Three Sons," and "Beautiful People ARE More Intelligent." (His caps, not mine) 

This is a particularly smarmy strain of the cheap, overly-clever "counter-intuitive" model of discourse which is now the fashion. The blaring sirens of my hustler-alert tends to drown out, tends to drown out writers who make a habit of  proclaiming, in all caps, that the world actually is flat.


Kanazawa claims to be only interested in the "hard" truths on human nature. And the truth of the matter is: As adults, Black Women in North America are not rated less attractive by interviewers of the Add health study, which is one of the most nationally representative samples ever available for investigation. 

Note that the data could have come out any which way, and no matter how it turned out we would have reported what we found. We do think this is an interesting and important topic of investigation. Other rigorous peer-reviewed published research (involving a much less representative and smaller sample of the United States) has shown statistically significant mean differences in attractiveness ratings based on ethnicity. 

 It is our view though that such research should be held to a higher standard than other research topics both in scientific rigor and presentation (see here for a similar argument). This should be so especially for topics that could potentially cause harm and suffering to individuals within a particular group. Science doesn't operate in a vacuum. Rigorous science collection and responsible science reporting is essential not just for the progress of science but also for the betterment of society (isn't that the point of psychology?). 

 Even if good, rigorous research does eventually show that black women are rated differently, on average, in relevant characteristics (although it highly unlikely considering the representativeness of this dataset), there may indeed be implications for racism. The way to combat racism though is not to ignore it (see here for a related argument) but understand how and why it develops, entertaining the full range of potential causal explanations, from the biological, to cultural learning, to bio-socio-cultural learning. 

Damn right. There's now a move afoot to have the gentleman removed from his job. To which I of a hearty "meh." I guess you can't have people in your biology department trying to prove the existence of elves and dragons. But, in the long run, I prefer science to the muzzle.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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