Friday, March 7, 2008

Crazy Kanazawa

I mentioned a while ago that LSE evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa recently launched a blog, The Scientific Fundamentalist. I was quite excited about this - there are a dearth of evolutionary psychology blogs, so I thought it was great an up and coming researcher was taking on the blogosphere. Kanazawa, however, is worrying me a bit...

In his very first post, "If the truth offends, it’s our job to offend", he defended the laudable notion that scientists should follow the evidence wherever it may lead. He took it a bit far for my liking though, by arguing scientists should never think about the consequences of their research. Said Kanazawa, "Scientists are not responsible for the potential or actual consequences of the knowledge they create." Really? If a physicist's experiment might, say, create a black hole and destroy the earth, should she ignore this possibility? Were the Manhattan Project scientists wrong to worry about igniting the atmosphere (pdf)? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for PC-bashing, academic freedom and following the evidence where it leads, but the notion that scientists should never consider the consequences of their research is absurd. Bacon was right: knowledge is power. But it's not necessarily or always a power for good. In some cases - the extreme ones - scientists should most certainly consider this.

The above, however, is pretty minor compared to Kanazawa's latest post, "Why we are losing this war". Why is it, he asks, that WWI and WWII lasted only four years but the "war on terror" has lasted seven years, with no end in sight? (Ignore for the moment the fact that, by any reasonable definition, WWII lasted six years, not four). Why is it that the West did not quickly defeat enemies who are much poorer, less well-equipped, and comparatively technologically backward? Kanazawa answers:
It seems to me that there is one resource that our enemies have in abundance but we don’t: hate. We don’t hate our enemies nearly as much as they hate us. They are consumed in pure and intense hatred of us, while we appear to have PC’ed hatred out of our lexicon and emotional repertoire... We may be losing this war because our enemies have a full range of human emotions while we don’t.
This is an interesting theory, and it could be right, but it's not clear to me why Kanazawa highlights this single factor. Firstly, he doesn't seem to have enough evidence to argue this is the only or even most important variable. Where are his citations to rigorous academic research demonstrating his 'hate theory' is anything more than only vaguely inspired by evolutionary considerations, anything but feral speculation? Secondly, the war on terror is asymmetric and regular armies have always had trouble with enemies who employ terrorist and guerrilla tactics, no matter how much they hated them. Thirdly, it's unclear whether the war on terror really qualifies as a "war" in the traditional sense and can thus be settled by military means. Lastly, there is a much better argument for why powerful countries lose wars against less capable enemies: Andrew Mack (1975)'s application of the life-dinner principle to international politics. Mack argued that when powerful countries, like the United States, are defeated by weak ones, like Vietnam, it is not because of the 'insurgents' military victory on the ground', but because of "the progressive attrition of their opponents' political capability to wage war" (1975: 177). That is, relatively weak enemies win exactly because they are weak, because the conflict is asymmetric: weak enemies do not pose an existential risk to their opponents, but powerful ones do. Consequently, the war is necessarily "total" for the weak and "limited" for the powerful. (That's where the life-dinner principle comes in: why does the hare run faster than the hound? Because the hare is running for its life, but the hound merely for its dinner). There are, I admit, a number of wrinkles here (most importantly, terrorists may pose an existential risk if they acquire weapons of mass destruction and it could be that people only hate powerful enemies) but I'll skip over these and ask the concerned reader to look at Mack's paper (who addresses a number of potential concerns that might arise).

The real reason I'm worried about Kanazawa, however, only emerges in the second to last paragraph, when he writes:
Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that, on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, the President of the United States was not George W. Bush, but Ann Coulter. What would have happened then? On September 12, President Coulter would have ordered the US military forces to drop 35 nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East, killing all of our actual and potential enemy combatants, and their wives and children. On September 13, the war would have been over and won, without a single American life lost.
The above, to be sure, is somewhat ambiguous. It could be that what he's saying is that, were Coulter president, she would have hated her new-found enemies appropriately, nuked the Middle East and thus "won" the war on terror in a day. But it could be that Kanazawa doesn't think that would have been a good idea, it could be that he's simply arguing hypothetically without endorsing that course of action. And yet... it really doesn't read that way. The tone, the context, and the register all suggest to me that Kanazawa would have approved of a nuclear response to 9/11. And this, I submit, is a little extreme. Forget for the moment that killing millions of innocent people is a Bad Thing, forget that the Middle East contains a good proportion of the world's oil, forget that America's democratic ally Israel is in the Middle East, forget that the fall-out would do extensive damage to other parts of the world, forget that there are tens of thousands of Americans (and far more other foreigners) living in the area, forget that the environmental damage would be enormous, forget that the Middle East contains innumerable priceless cultural artifacts, forget that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims living outside the Middle East (India, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.), and forget that 9/11 was planned from Afghanistan, outside the Middle East. Have you forgotten all of these factors (and any others you came up with for yourself)? Good. Now it's a good idea to nuke the entire Middle East. Now only does it make any sense whatsoever to call the hypothetical nuclear destruction of the entire Middle East a "victory" for America.

Kanazawa ends his article with, "Yes, we need a woman in the White House, but not the one who’s running." I agree this too is somewhat ambiguous, but, wow, he really seems to be saying Ann Coulter would make a better president than Hillary Clinton. Coulter, for those of you who don't know, is a batshit crazy, deeply uninformed Creationist, extreme right-wing, fundamentalist Christian. (Have a look at her website or her page on Wikiquote). I find it hard to think of someone who would be a worse president.

Unless I have been uncharitable, unless I have misrepresented his position, and unless he was joking, Kanazawa is crazy. Frankly, he gives evolutionary psychology a bad name by associating it with this kind of extremism. Evolutionary psychologists are not the heartless right-wingers they're sometimes characterized as being (Tybur, Miller & Gangestad, 2007), but Kanazawa is hardly helping to combat that erroneous perception with posts like these.


Mack, A. (1975) "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict," World Politics, 27(2): 175-200.

Tybur, J. M., Miller, G. F., & Gangestad, S. W. (2007) "Testing the controversy: An empirical examination of adaptationists' attitudes towards politics and science," Human Nature, 18(4): 313-328.


  1. Thank you for spending *your time* answering Kanazawa. Such craziness needs a response, but there is so much of it that most of us just walk away, and it's hard to blame anyone for that.

  2. Good commentary. My only quibble would be with your last bit about how evolutionary psychologists are not hard-hearted, like Kanazawa. Not ALL are, but many take delight in that kind of damn-the-torpedoes approach. He's obviously a professional provocateur, like his heroine, Coulter. Check out our blog, also at Psychology Today, for a more balanced approach to EP (Lust in Paradise).

  3. To defend Kanazawa for a moment.
    The black hole is not a consequence of the knowledge produced, it's a physical artifact of the research process.

  4. Hi Perry... Well, knowledge qua abstract knowledge rarely has effects just on its own. The point is the direct consequences of pursuing the truth - doing experiments that might create a black hole, say - should SOMETIMES be considered. Scientists shouldn't self-censor, but if the consequences are likely to be vastly negative, they should at least CONSIDER this.

  5. That post is why Kanazawa has permanently lost me (and, I'm sure, many others) as readers.

  6. kanazawa is a bona fide scientific racist...he is now hooked up writing papers with Richard Lynn on why Africans have low IQs

    A lot of his statistical research is shoddy too. He fishes for correlations in large datasets

  7. All niceties aside, the complacent Western beliefs on show in this post 'Crazy Kanazawa', demonstrate what Dr Kanazawa describes as the major Western handicap in his article 'Why we are losing this war'.

    The long-term end-game to this dynamic is that the Muslim male inherits the earth (&, ahem, 'access' to Western women).

  8. Nice reply. I like Mack's theory, but on a strategical level, there are other explanations. My conceptual link is a bit tenuous, but think of the US as the Romans, and the Vietnamese as the Celts.

    Smaller nations are more likely to resort to the kinds of guerilla warfare tactics that a singlely large and supposedly powerful army cannot handle. It is like water dripping at a stone - it won't wear it down if it comes all at once, but it will in drips. Kind of like the terrain on which snipers and other more informal militia operate. They are the drips, the US the bucket of water.
    It might sound vague and tenuous, but I feel it would give more explanatory power when combined with Mack's theory. In certain environments, it would be highly pronounced, and likely dangerous for the bigger army who are engaging in a war that will last far longer than they think. Just an idea.

  9. how about this then, find a nuke that has a blast diameter about the size of afghanistan and drop it there. even if bin laden was hiding in some cave 5 miles underground, we would have made sure that he would never be able to come back up to the surface of the earth ever again because of the radioactive fallout. check and mate.

    as for civilian casualties, i will just call them casualties of war. yes, i'm heartless.

    it really does come down to a zero-sum situation, if one truly reduced and simplified the situation.

  10. you are not heartless mate, in fact you have more heart than most of us. and that's exactly what gets in your way; you think with your heart rather than with your brain.
    one word: ignorance.

  11. Kanazawa represents everything that opponents of evolutionary psychology believe is wrong with the field - being reductionistic, determinisic, ad hoc explanations, evidence deprived hypotheses, among other things thought to be "representative" of the field. He's unlike to listen to the viewpoints of nonevolutionary psychologists, so only a leader in evolutionary psychology - I am talking someone with the stature of Buss, Cosmides, or Tooby - can set him straight. They need to do it fast before he continues to sully the reputation of the field further.

  12. > They need to do it fast before he continues to
    > sully the reputation of the field further.

    Too late.

  13. @Anon: yeah, I tend to agree with you. I've contacted a few prominent evolutionary psychologists asking them to denounce him. Some progress is being made.

  14. What's all this crap about nuking the entire Middle East ?

    Once the nujes started dropping, and Russia and China got wind of them, the entire US would have about 15 minutes flight time before it ended up a smoking hole in the ground.

    Any major power that starts throwing nukes around willy nilly will be put down like a rabid dog in short order by the others.

    Only an American imbecile could EVER have come up with such a stupid thing to say...further reinforcing the stereotype of them as insular, naive idiots.

  15. "Only an American imbecile could EVER have come up with such a stupid thing to say...further reinforcing the stereotype of them as insular, naive idiots."

    Erm... Kanazawa isn't American.

  16. Big suprise(sarcastic tone). Racism is closely linked to the theory of evolution. Look it up. We all need to remember the theory of evolution is just that: a theory. Yet, it's being preached as if it were fact.

  17. @anon
    "Big suprise(sarcastic tone). Racism is closely linked to the theory of evolution. Look it up. We all need to remember the theory of evolution is just that: a theory. Yet, it's being preached as if it were fact."

    Misconception: “Evolution is ‘just’ a theory.”

    Scientific theories are explanations that are based on lines of evidence, enable valid predictions, and have been tested in many ways. In contrast, there is also a popular definition of theory — a “guess” or “hunch.” These conflicting definitions often cause unnecessary confusion about evolution.

    Evolution is a fact as well-proven as any other in science and has withstood nearly 200 years worth of disproof. To put it into perspective: gravity is also “just the theory.”

  18. Racism has nothing to do with evolution. Science is a tool for understanding the world, it doesn't set policy.