Scientific Ignorance Abounds

May 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

Satoshi Kanazawa posted an article on the Scientific Fundamentalist that piqued my interest.  He asks, “Why are Black women rated less physically attractive than other women?”  First, the question is not a philosophical one about beauty itself.  No.  Judging from his use of the word, “rated,” this concerns the eyes of the beholders (that’d be us).

from the scientific fundamentalist

The scary thing about this article is the attempt at answering a cultural question (why is X attractive to Y group) using a positivist and supposedly objective research methodology.  Sure, science is great!  The issue is that, unless explicitly stated, most people will understand any scientific argument as truth.  For this reason, it is dangerous to allow absurd statements to pass for fact.  If you don’t agree with me at this point, google phrenology.

The research referenced by Kanazawa utilized a rating system (from 1 to 5) to quantify the physical attractiveness of research subjects over a seven year period.  These measurements were taken by three different interviewers three times over the period of the study.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about the subjects nor the interviewers, but I think that a little of this information would be helpful in understanding how ratings were decided.

To be brief, amongst female subjects, African Americans were the least attractive, though they had the highest self esteem.  Kanazawa explains the low attractiveness ratings amongst Black women may have something to do with BMI, as Black women are, on average, heavier than nonBlack women.  Another guess suggests that Black women have higher testosterone levels than other women, making them develop more masculine features (and apparently makes Black men especially attractive, according to Kanazawa).

My reaction to it all:

WTF!?  That’s our scientific explanation of beauty perceptions?  Fat = ugly. Black body = masculine.  Does this sound familiar?  Are we not resurrecting that old science that virtually equated blackness with primitivity?  The difference of the Black body is once again due to animal-like features that remove Blackness from civilization and cultural development.  This is what we tend to do when we talk about hormones taking over, right?  Lets remember that the animal-like sexual urges of Black people that are referenced in Western literature and film are easily associated with popular assumptions about testosterone (which isn’t exclusively masculine).

Besides that, it is important to point out the cultural factors involved in determining aesthetics of beauty.  Does anyone recall the flappers of the 1920s?  They had cute little boy-like figures that made men go wild, didn’t they?  That aesthetic is surely different than the one associated with mid 20th Century beauty if we talk about icons like Marilyn Monroe.  Then there’s the Botticelli’s Venus, which might not make the cover of Maxim today.  All these images of feminine beauty look nothing like the examples that we can find throughout our human past.

Ultimately, the scientific study that Kanazawa references is sorely lacking, as it does not take into account the cultural factors that value specific aesthetics of beauty.  Perhaps we can come up with a list of traits that tend to please specific individuals, but we have to remember that these people come from specific places and times.  They are influenced by specific pasts.  All these elements will help determine what we find attractive (I’m not interested in bound feet or elongated necks, but I know some people are).

I, for one, believe that the many differences that we see in a crowded street is a thing of beauty.

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