In keeping with this blog’s theme (and prerogative) of being a month late to everything – at least on my part – I want to say something about Satoshi Kanazawa. Satoshi Kanazawa is a professor at the London School of Economics and a blogger-provocateur. Part of his blogger-provocateur activity has included intentionally not understanding economics, being a pretty damn shitty political pundit, and positing things such as that all women are prostitutes and that all stereotypes are true in what must be an attempt to offend as many people as possible. Well, last month he finally succeeded in that last part of his mission by having a blog post titled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” – and his post can be summarized thus: “They are. This is the objective TRUTH!!!1!1 But why? Well, could it be because they are fatter? Well, they are, but that can’t be the only reason. Well, could it be because they are stupider? Well, they are, but that can’t be the only reason. Could it be because they are more mutated [whatever that means]? Well, they are, but that can’t be the only reason. Shit, I’m almost out of ideas, let me make up something wild without any support whatsoever on the spot!” If you don’t believe my summary, feel free to read the post, which was taken down, but is archived here, but, honestly, I gave you a pretty thorough summary.
Obviously, some people got offended. Now, there are plenty of good reasons to get offended here. And not just the statements – it’s also the ridiculous certainty unbecoming any decent scientist: “Factor analysis eliminates measurement error!!!”, etc. This article by Khadijah Britton lists some of the more pertinent objections – along with some questionable ones too, of course. And, look, the whole thing is set up to offend so it’s no wonder it did. Christopher Ryan summarized Satoshi Kanazawa best when he said:
Anyone who takes evolutionary psychology seriously has to overcome the fact that many of the most prominent voices in the field don’t.
The shock-jockiness of the entire field really is a disgrace. But, one thing I disagree with from some of the more totalist Kanazawa-bashers (whose sentiments, again, I mostly share) is this idea that beauty can’t be measured. I think it is pretty obvious that it can. The song at the top of this post is Sonic Youth performing “Beauty Lies in the Eye”. Kanazawa has previously written a post disagreeing with this truism, but I think it’s an important point. By this I don’t mean that everyone doesn’t have the same standard of beauty – though that’s true, of course. Instead the important thing about beauty lying in the eye is that beauty is a question of perception. Which means that to figure out how beautiful someone is, you just ask a bunch of people. Of course, the answer to who is beautiful will depend somewhat on who you ask (something that Kanazawa doesn’t cover, which is a big issue with his post). So when you say “Why are black women less beautiful?” a totally reasonable answer might be “Because we asked a bunch of asian dudes who aren’t into black women”. But so? That doesn’t mean the question is ill-posed. It is a question of perception, though, so if black women are indeed less beautiful (which, however, Kanazawa’s rather shoddy statistics don’t do anything to prove), it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them or something, either. Compare this question: “Why are homosexual teens less well-liked by their peers?” – I don’t know if they are, by the way, but I’m guessing it’s probable. Did you get offended at that statement? Hopefully not, because it is clear that “well-liked” is also a question about who’s doing the judging, not only about who’s being judged. Beauty is the same thing – because “beauty lies in the eye”. Now of course there will be some aggregate average beauty over all responders. Whether you call that “objective” or not is, to me, a question of semantics. But it is certainly not “objective” in the sense that 2+2=4 is objective. By the aggregate standard, Jessica Simpson is beautiful, even though she looks somewhat equine to me, for example. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong, though, and it shouldn’t make me unhappy. Unless you think there is some god-given standard of beauty, I think the idea that individual opinions and aggregate opinions can diverge without either being wrong is uncontroversial and a great good. So, unless you actually do think there is some god-given standard of beauty (that the aggregate fails to measure) I wouldn’t object to “measuring beauty” – all you do is ask people. Of course, no one wants to hear “survey says: you’re ugly!” – pace HotorNot – so it’s something that needs to be done with care.
I basically agree with Britton who says the question of relative beauty is an innately offensive one, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real question or that it can’t or shouldn’t be asked. It means that the question shouldn’t be treated flippantly as it seems Kanazawa did. But it doesn’t mean the question can’t be treated at all.