Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The LSE's "racist" professor

Around a week ago at the LSE the story of the supposedly racist article written by a professor in the methodology department, Satoshi Kanazawa, surfaced in a big way. Essentially the article argues that national IQ is the biggest determinant of health citing, among other observations, that Ethiopia has the lowest national IQ and the lowest life expectancy. While there have been criticisms of the methodology in this paper, these criticisms centre upon the difficulties with comparing international IQs, which are entirely legitimate and I'm not sure about this new work as I have reservations about just how much intelligence is a result of genetics (the intelligentsia have always bred less but haven't died out) the main criticism within the LSE Student's Union appears to be a crude Reductio ad Hitlerum. I quote from the LSE Student Newspaper, the Beaver (this is not online):

"Such a view is dangerous firstly because it bears close resemblance to eugenic and racialist theories of the past, which have been used to legitimize racist regimes from that of the Nazis as well as to supporting and supplementing acts of genocide."

Apologies for the Beaver's grammar but I think the point is clear. It isn't about whether this work is wrong; it's dangerous. Unfortunately, the same could clearly be said about a host of important work such as the theory of evolution, the music of Wagner or the enlightenment itself. All of these were part of the intellectual facade of the Nazis.

Mr. Kanazawa has an enviable CV which is clearly based on a desire to open to scrutiny popular assumptions; to be the Steven Levitt of psychology. A desire to challenge intellectual taboos is quite different to the David Irving desire to use spurious research to substantiate his own political racism and is an attitude entirely appropriate for an LSE academic. Many of the other results of Kanazawa's research are equally controversial: This paper, the title of which begins "First, Kill all the Economists", about the importance of gender distinction for management clearly gets at the zero group differences liberal assumption but does so with intellectual coherence and good humour. This extract provides a wonderful example which is explained later in the piece:

"Perhaps no other recent event in the corporate world underscores the failure of the microeconomics and the need for evolutionary psychology more sharply than what happened to the American supermarket chain Safeway (which is unrelated to the British supermarket chain of the same name and similar logo, which has recently been acquired by the rival chain Morrisons). In January 1998, Safeway started implementing what it called the ‘superior customer service policy,’ which required all Safeway employees to look customers in the eye and smile (Liedtke, 2000; Pate, 2001; Ream, 2000). If the customer paid by check or credit card, cashiers were required quickly to scan the customer’s last name and thank them by their last name, as in ‘Thank you, Mr. so-and-so, for shopping at Safeway,’ while looking at them in the eye and smiling.

I suspect Safeway’s ‘superior customer service policy’ was invented by some management consultant with an MBA from a leading business school. True to the microeconomic model of the singular and unitary actor dominant in business schools, the Safeway’s policy makes no distinction between the sexes. In the policy, there are no men and women, only employees and customers. It requires both male and female employees to greet both male and female customers in the identical, ‘friendly’ manner.

As it turns out, the policy worked very well roughly three-quarters of the time, between a male employee and a male customer, between a male employee and a female customer, and between a female employee and a female customer. However, the policy backfired when the employee was female and the customer was male. When the female
employee gazed deeply into his eye, smiled and thanked him by his name, the male customer ‘naturally’ assumed that she was attracted to him, and started harassing her by following her around on and off work. Eventually, five female employees had to file a Federal sex discrimination charge against Safeway to force it to stop this policy, which the supermarket chain did when it reached an out-of-court settlement."

Fortunately, the LSE's position is far more enlightened than that of the Beaver and some members of the Student's Union:

"People may agree or disagree with [Kanazawa's] findings and are at liberty to voice their opinions. The School does not take an institutional view on the work of individual academics."

Academic freedom isn't dead yet.

Satoshi Kanazawa may or may not be wrong but his reseach agenda is an entirely legitimate one that should not be censored or condemned to protect the sensitivities of self appointed moral crusaders who really need to grow up.


Serf said...

"Such a view is dangerous firstly because it bears close resemblance to eugenic and racialist theories of the past, which have been used to legitimize racist regimes from that of the Nazis as well as to supporting and supplementing acts of genocide."

Funny how the battalions of academics indulge in Marxist inspired research are not subject to the same criteria. After all Marxism was responsible for the deaths of far more people than Hitler's warped philosophy.

Meg said...

I'm going to start using "Reductio ad Hitlerum" in conversation now.

David Gillies said...

Wasn't it Bernard Levin (of blessed memory) who coined 'Reductio ad Hitlerum'?

Matthew Sinclair said...

Nope. Strauss coined the term.

Anonymous said...

But what of truth -- and consequences?

The question of truth is often lost because various sides of an issue have axes to grind, leading to much unpleasantness. If the truth is, for the sake of argument, unpalatable and conflictual, isn't the job of politics to mete out compromise?

Besides, few could question that the truth of what he has allegedly claimed has hardly been established.

Are these not so?