Evolutionary psychologists turn on controversial peer

An international group of more than 60 academics has accused a controversial evolutionary psychologist of refusing to engage in scientific dialogue, highlighting long-standing criticism of his work in an attempt to protect their discipline from further attack.

June 2, 2011

The group, which consists of 68 scholars of evolution and human behaviour, wrote to Times Higher Education following the furore over a recent blog by Satoshi Kanazawa, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, in which he claimed that an analysis of data showed that black women were "far less attractive" than those of other races.

The academics and journal editors from countries including the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and New Zealand claim that Dr Kanazawa - who is currently on sabbatical from his post as reader in management - has attracted a flood of criticism to the field of evolutionary psychology.

Defending the discipline, they say that "a large number of scientists who apply an evolutionary approach to human behaviour consider Dr Kanazawa's work to be poor quality and have demonstrated this via their own academic critiques".

The signatories say they have taken the "unusual step of making this statement to counteract the damage we believe he is doing to the perception of our discipline in the media and among the public".

They go on to list 24 papers that have critiqued Dr Kanazawa's work, which they say involve a total of 59 social and natural scientists. The critics have "expertise sufficient to critique his work both theoretically and methodologically, including statisticians and epidemiologists", they write.

They add that 35 psychologists, including many evolutionary psychologists, recently contributed to a critique of Dr Kanazawa's research that is shortly to be published in the peer-reviewed journal American Psychologist.

The statement, which has been posted on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology, says that Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, re-analysed data used by Dr Kanazawa in 2007 to suggest that "beautiful people have more daughters". Professor Gelman concluded that his findings were not supported by the data, it says.

The statement goes on to say that "the peer-review process is not perfect" and claims that in some instances papers by Dr Kanazawa that had been rejected by one journal on scientific grounds subsequently appeared almost unaltered in another.

Despite the strength of their criticism, the signatories say they agree with the sentiments expressed by Dr Kanazawa in an opinion piece in THE in 2006, in which he said that "academic freedom must be paramount".

The statement adds: "Academics who publish work that may be unpopular...should not be condemned on those grounds. However, we are adamant that any work in science - politically sensitive or not - should at all times adhere to the principles of rigour and good scientific method."

The LSE says in a statement that it "has informed Dr Kanazawa that in the opinion of the school's directorate, his recent article appears to lack a sound academic foundation and therefore threatens the school's reputation for research excellence".

An investigation has been launched, and Dr Kanazawa has been asked not to publish any work in non-peer-reviewed publications until it has been completed, the institution adds.

Dr Kanazawa declined to comment.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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