Academic freedom needs to be protected


The London School of Economics doesn't care about academic freedom. This is the only conclusion that I can draw from its reaction to the LSE academic who wrote a blogpost for Psychology Today suggesting that “black women are... far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women”, and that there was an evolutionary reason for this. Satoshi Kanazawa is being “investigated” by the university authorities and the LSE students’ union has called for him to be sacked.

Kanazawa isn't being attacked for distortion or plagiarism – true academic crimes – but for being insulting. This Guardian piece criticises him for relying on surveys to “show” that black women are less attractive. Very well, but this is a criticism of academic psychology in general, not Kanazawa himself. I suspect that his methodology would have fewer critics if he had been arguing that tall men were more attractive than short men. (Though, as a short man, I strongly dispute this assertion.) 

For what it's worth, I think Kanazawa misunderstands evolutionary theory: attractiveness is shaped by the people doing the sexual selection, so it makes no sense to ask who is "more" attractive – the question is, "to whom"? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

The second most-read story on the Telegraph’s science section yesterday was “Women who lose weight more attractive than their slim counterparts”. Where was the uproar about this? There is no substantive difference between making a claim like this on the basis of weight and on the basis of race. The crime that Kanazawa committed was to talk about the "off-limits" topic.

Why is this so important? Because it shows that the LSE is intolerant of politically sensitive research topics and will “investigate” and possibly sack an academic who does academic work that is offensive or unpopular. What's the point in a university if it isn’t a place where academics and students can be controversial and say things that insult people? Evolutionary psychology, especially, is an extremely controversial and relatively new field. It is critically important that we protect it from people's feelings. 

Kanazawa may well be wrong, but that is beside the point. If academics aren't free to study and write about unpopular things, their value is greatly diminished. And for what – to spare people offence? Sometimes those unpopular things are both correct and important, and it isn't worth losing those just to avoid insulting people. Unfortunately, the LSE’s disregard for academic freedom has sent a warning to any future academic who considers talking about a controversial topic – "watch your back".