Sunday, May 22, 2011

Peer-review in the blogosphere

A few years ago I caught one of my favorite authors, Harlan Ellison, expounding on the virtues (or lack thereof) of the world wide web as it related to the quality of information and opinion.  This was prior to the release of the new Star Trek movie, which someone initially claimed on-line contained elements from Ellisons script of City on the Edge of Forever.  Of course, this wasn't true, and when interviewed on the picket line of the writers strike, Harlans first remark was that this is one of the reasons the Internet deserves to be bombed out of existence immediately; the fact the the Internet now gives an easy worldwide forum to any ill-informed voice where years ago they would have been limited to mimeographed handbills.

I was thinking about all of this during the latest firestorm over something ejected from the keyboard of Satoshi Kanazawa.  For those of you not in the know, Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist with the London School of Economics who has a blog at Psychology Today called the Scientific Fundamentalist.  Recently he published a post of his alleged research titled "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?    In a nutshell, Kanazawa uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which included subjective measures on the part of interviewers on the physical attractiveness of the interviewees) in order to claim that African-American women are objectively less attractive than other women (based on the subjective responses of the interviewers) due to the fact that African-American women have higher testosterone levels than other women.  Don't bother looking for the original post, since apparently Psychology Today scrubbed it right quick (although you can probably find an archived copy somewhere online).

What drew me to this subject was the fact that I do have an interest is at least the idea of evolutionary psychology (lower case), in the sense that it is important to acknowledge that our behaviors are the product of an evolutionary process and should be understood and studies as such.  This view can still make large segments of the anthropological community very uncomfortable to the point of hostility.  Thus, it pains me when something like the above "research" comes out under the banner of evolutionary psychology, since it has the oroboros-like effect of engendering the kind of justifiable anti-EP backlash and then feeding on that backlash in the pose of the heroic researcher standing up to the forces of political correctness (whatever that means these days).  Fortunately, much of the initial criticism of Kanazawa appears to be coming from evolutionary biologists and psychologists, particularly bloggers such as PZ Myers over at Pharyngula.  Daniel Hawes, who also blogs at Psychology Today, published a decent criticism of the Kanazawa piece.  And Scott Barry Kaufman conducted an independent analysis of the original data, and found no statistically significant relationship between ethnicity and attractiveness. 

Beyond anything, the fairly minor controversy (in the grand scheme of academic pseudo-science) did have at least one positive effect; it demonstrated that there is a viable peer-review process operating on the science bloggosphere.

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