If you’ve read anything about evolutionary psychology in the popular press, you’ll know about the infamous Satoshi Kanazawa. Although he’s a reader in Management at the London School of Economics, he’s published several books and a bunch of popular articles purporting to explain the evolutionary roots of human behavior. I say “purporting” because he is probably the one person who’s given evolutionary psychology a bad name through his wild and unfounded speculation. Among the claims that he has advanced (and which haven’t been supported by subsequent work) are that poor people in sub-Saharan Africa have more illness because they have lower IQs, that black women are rated as less attractive than women of other races because black women have higher levels of testosterone, supposedly reducing their physical attractiveness (see a critique here), and that we’re losing the war on terrorism “because our enemies have a full range of human emotions [including hatred] while we don’t.“
Kanazawa is a loose cannon, speculating freely—and invidiously—in the absence of data, and tarnishing the decent work that exists in evolutionary psychology. He instantiates everything I’ve criticized about the discipline, yet he’s been very successful. Although he was fired from Psychology Today for the African-women speculations, he continues to get public audiences for his science-woo, and I understand that his books have sold well. The public, after all, does have an appetite for such speculation, for we want to understand our evolutionary roots—even if there’s no real data backing up the evo-psycho explanations.
That’s just a bit of background, for I want to highlight a new piece by Kanazawa at Big Think: “Why I am not an atheist.” After this piece, they should name the venue “Big Fail”, because there’s no thought on tap in Kanazawa’s rant. It’s all based on the fact that Americans are nicer than other nationalities, that Americans are more religious than other nationalities, and therefore religion makes people nice. It’s a correlation, of course, and hardly a causation, but even the primary data about “nice Americans” is totally unconvincing. It’s a piece as weakly supported as were Kanazawa’s speculations about human evolution.
But first, of course, he attacks the Antichrist—Richard Dawkins—on completely erroneous grounds:
Thanks to Richard Dawkins and his ilk, “atheist” now means someone who is (and acts as if he is) intellectually superior, and who mocks and derides the deeply held and personal religious beliefs of less intelligent others by pointing out how wrongheaded and stupid they are to believe what they believe.
Virtually all of Dawkins’s contemporary examples of how evil, oppressive and destructive religion is come from Islam. There is no question that Islam is an evil, oppressive and destructive force, but that does not mean all religions are. In fact, I would contend that, apart from Islam, most contemporary religions throughout the world today are for the most part forces of good most of the time.
Dawkins’s major problem is that he doesn’t know Americans and how religion works in the United States.
Each of Kanazawa’s assertions about Dawkins is dead wrong, and I hope I don’t have to tell readers why. But why does Dawkins”s supposed ignorance of America lead him to such an ill-founded atheism? Because of a). one study on civility in big cities, and b). Kanazawa’s personal experience with Americans, including The Argument from Television.
Americans are by far the most religious people in all of the western industrial world. And anyone who has lived in and traveled to as many places as I have will unanimously tell you that Americans are the kindest and most generous people on earth. Although it would be difficult to demonstrate it scientifically, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Americans are the kindest and most generous people on earth because they are deeply religious.
It is not just the opinions of those who have lived and traveled everywhere. There are actual data. In 2006 the Reader’s Digest conducted a worldwide survey of residents of 35 different countries throughout the world and reached the conclusion that New Yorkers were the most civil and courteous people in the world. Late-night comedians mercilessly lampooned the finding, because everybody knows how nasty and mean New Yorkers are. What they didn’t realize, however, is that the Reader’s Digest’s study was an international one, comparing residents of major cities throughout the world, and New York was the only American city chosen. So their study didn’t show that New Yorkers were more civil and courteous than people in Charleston or Des Moines (they almost certainly aren’t); it showed instead that Americans – even the meanest and nastiest ones in New York – were more civil and courteous than Russians and Kiwis.
What the hell? Does what holds in New York hold everywhere in America? (My own experience, by the way, is that Americans are really nice to foreign travellers, but not as nice to their fellow Americans. And that, as a traveller in foreign lands, I’ve experienced unremitting kindness as well.) Are the differences between cities statistically significant? What about those unsampled countries? Here’s a list of the countries studied, with their “courtesy indices”:
Notice any countries missing? Where are the hyper-religious countries of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa?
Further, here’s the protocol, as reported by The Reader’s Digest (RD):
RD sent reporters to major cities in 35 countries where the magazine is published — from Auckland, New Zealand, to Zagreb, Croatia. In the United States, that meant targeting New York, where looking out for No. 1 — the heck with the other guy — has always been a basic survival skill.
The routine in New York was similar to the one followed elsewhere: Two reporters — one woman and one man — fanned out across the city, homing in on neighborhoods where street life and retail shops thrive. They performed three experiments: “door tests” (would anyone hold one open for them?); “document drops” (who would help them retrieve a pile of “accidentally” dropped papers?); and “service tests” (which salesclerks would thank them for a purchase?). For consistency, the New York tests were conducted at Starbucks coffee shops, by now almost as common in the Big Apple as streetlights. In all, 60 tests (20 of each type) were done.
Well that settles the issue! Nothing about how women are treated, nothing about freedom of speech, nothing about government enforcement of morality, corruption, and so on. The supposed effect of religion can be measured by the frequency of dropped papers and opened doors?
And of course, even if you could trust those pathetic data, and even if they did hold for all the nations of the world, with a statistically significant correlation, what does it say about causality? What if you substituted average income, or income inequality, for religiosity?
Kanazawa goes on to claim that a television program like “On the Road”—an American show that features ordinary people doing nice things for others—could never survive in Germany or the UK because they’d run out of nice people!
Kanazawa adduces other anecdotal evidence:
If you want to know how incredibly good and generous deeply religious people are, I’d recommend the 2007 documentary film For the Bible Tells Me So. I wish I could be as good and kind a human being as many of the people who appear in For the Bible Tells Me So are, and I am deeply ashamed and saddened that I am not. I am just as much of an asshole as Dawkins is.
Yes, that’s right: he calls Dawkins (and himself) “assholes” at The Big Think.
Kanazawa ends with a slur and a final unsupported assertion:
Dawkins tells religious people to their faces that their beliefs are delusional because God in fact does not exist. It is a scientific fact that God does not exist, so it is not rational to believe in God. I wonder if Dawkins walks up to random people on the streets of Oxford and tells them that he is more intelligent, better looking, and wealthier than they are. That would also be scientifically true, but I would consider such behavior to be exceedingly gaudy and tasteless, as gaudy and tasteless as telling the same people that they are stupid to believe in God.
What a mischaracterization of Richard’s claims! Again, do I need to refute Kanazawa’s slurs? And, after all this, Kanazawa claims that he’s more atheistic than Dawkins. Look at this mess:
It is ironic because, according to Dawkins himself, I am actually more atheist than he is in the original meaning of the word. Fellow Big Think blogger Mark Cheney quotes Dawkins as saying “On a scale of seven, where one means I know he exists, and seven I know he doesn’t, I call myself a six. That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely confident, that I absolutely know, because I don’t.” It’s funny, because, unlike Dawkins, I absolutely know for sure that God doesn’t exist, as any scientist would. For scientists, it’s very simple; absolutely nothing exists in the universe, except for those entities for which there is credible scientific evidence for their existence. So I know for sure that God doesn’t exist for the same reason that I know Santa Claus or Superman doesn’t exist.
But I am not an atheist.
He’s not an atheist even though he is absolutely sure that God doesn’t exist? What is he, then? He quacks like a duck but calls himself a swan.
And “as any scientist would,” he absolutely knows for sure that God doesn’t exist? Well, I’m a scientist, and I don’t absolutely know anything for sure (except, perhaps, that I think). And what kind of statement is “absolutely nothing exists in the universe, except for those entities for which there is credible scientific evidence for their existence.” Has he contemplated the possibility that things may exist for which we don’t yet have credible scientific evidence? That was the case for the Higgs boson a year ago.
This whole piece is a mess, and it’s an embarrassment to whoever puts together The Big Think. Can anybody spout this kind of garbage at that place?